Chapter 2
The Grand Dux Wants You

24th of Thirdmoon, Saintclair 12
Bernecita, Constans Province, Kingdom of Byrandia

The light cruiser Junker Jorg was reported to have a mere 48 crewmembers onboard, the bare minimum to keep her in the air. The full complement for a cruiser of her class would be closer to 300, but managing that wasn't terribly likely. The Blackamoors had brought 42 men, an entire maniple as they reckon their units, and they wanted a hundred more from Berenice. Between the military and the civilian populations, that would be cutting uncomfortably deep, but that was the task that fell to Root.
He had already secured the promises of Second Section of the 2-4/18 Motorized as well as about a dozen others from here and there on post. Including himself and Margie, that would be enough to cover the one-third requirement set by the Blackamoor Centurion provided they didn't go over the hundred-man minimum. In a town of about 400, give or take a hundred depending on the season, recruiting 70 men would be challenge enough. No need to worry about going beyond the minimum.
Bernecita was the 'daughter' of Old Berenice. In 18 years of building, only the main road going in and out of town was consistently paved. Most of the buildings were ugly, stunted blocks of concrete that were hastily thrown up by Army engineers to provide shelter during the reconstruction of the airbase, but there were also some more recent constructions made of wood and brick that looked a little more like they belonged in an ordinary town.
There were five of them going into town. Root brought along Trish and Margie so they wouldn't have to deal with the Centurion. He also brought Sergeant Garrulus Hight from Second Section to offset the young goon sent to spy on them, Blackamoor First Class Nido Limpe.
Sergeant Hight was a burly veteran of the last war with a big curly mustache. He had a good three-day growth of whiskers, something Blackamoor Limpe criticized him for. Hight simply roared in laughter at the young pup trying to tell him right from wrong.
Limpe was a young athletic blond who might actually be considered handsome if it weren't for his Blackamoor face paint. Though he was inflexible as a rock, he lacked the power of intimidation of the Centurion or his squad chief. Of course, all it would take was a word from Limpe and the Centurion would bring a world of pain to the doorstep of Root and his companions.
Speaking of Root's companions, they were standing outside the town hall waiting on Root to finish talking with the mayor. The town hall was one of those squat concrete blocks, originally the headquarters of the forward base that became Bernecita. Not being an official township, the mayor was elected by the townspeople rather than appointed by the provincial governor. He only had as much authority as the locals were willing to recognize, but people generally didn't give him too much trouble because no one else really wanted the job.
As Root was walking out of town, the chime of the town's PA system sounded.
"This is your mayor with an announcement," the voice of a middle-aged man crackled and popped from the speakers. "Our good friend Lieutenant Maartens from post is in town with a number of job opportunities for an expedition up north starting tomorrow. All able-bodied men and women are encouraged to apply. Remuneration will be based on skills and experience. To hear more details or to apply, the Lieutenant will be at Gracie's Tavern from eight to twelve tonight. Don't let this opportunity pass you by. I will be repeating this message each hour on the hour until the Lieutenant leaves town. Thank you."
A different chime sounded to indicate the end of the announcement.
"Let's go, people," Root told the others. "We don't want to be late."
"You're going to a tavern to recruit?" an aghast Limpe asked. "It's inappropriate! Why not go to the community center?"
"The tavern is the community center in this town, Blackamoor," Root replied. "Besides, if you want to catch people, you go where the people are. The tavern is where they're at."
Sergeant Hight playfully jabbed the young Blackamoor in the ribs.
"What's wron', Blondie?" he asked with a chuckle. "Not a minor, is ye?"
"I'm 21, Sergeant," Limpe replied. "Surely you aren't thinking about drinking while on duty."
"Ye go ta a tavern, Blondie, an' yer duty's ta drink! Haw haw haw!"
Limpe could only stare slack-jawed at the Sergeant until he was able to overcome his astonishment at Hight's shamelessness.
"I will have you reported!"
Playing tattle-tale was precisely the reason Limpe was assigned to join them, but Root wasn't going to make it easy for him.
"You need to check your regulations, Blackamoor," Root said. "Troops in garrison are permitted one standard unit of alcohol per hour for up to three hours per day unless otherwise restricted."
"W-well, I restrict it!" Limpe sputtered. "I forbid it!"
Root gave him a critical look and said, "Last time I checked, your little buddies didn't take the stripes off my shoulders. If you have a problem with it, you can take it up with the Commandant."
"I am a Blackamoor!" Limpe declared. "I have the Grand Dux's authority!"
"Brin' that Gran' Dux a' yers 'ere an' let 'im tell me Ah kin't 'ave me reggalation-guar'nteed drink," Sergeant Hight said, thumping his chest. "Ah'll wallop 'im good if 'e does! Haw!"
It didn't seem possible for Limpe to be any more aghast, but he had a surprising talent for it, Root had to admit.
"This is lèse majesté! You will be shot!"
"The Grand Dux isn't king yet," Root countered, "even if he acts like it."
"You will be shot too, officer or not!"
"I have a feeling your boss will want me to finish this job first, at least," Root said. He shook his head and sighed. "You know, people wouldn't hate you Blackamoors so much if you'd all stop being such massive assholes all the time."
"This sedition! Treason!"
Root could only laugh.
"What a world, eh, Trish? Helluva time to be alive."
They continued to walk, leaving the fuming Limpe behind.
"Don't just ignore me, Lieutenant!" the Blackamoor howled in his pitiful impotent rage.
Root had finally had enough. Turning on the ball of his foot, he got right up in Limpe's face and showed him that the Blackamoors were not the only ones capable of turning up the intimidation factor.
"Listen up, Blackamoor," he growled. "Your boss wants me to recruit people for this harebrained expedition of his. Now I'm not going to be able to do much of that if you're squawking and screeching about treason and firing squads. You're gonna scare people off with your bullshit and your boss ain't gonna be too happy if I come back empty-handed." He jabbed Limpe's chest with his finger, saying, "Now, when we go in there, you're gonna be quiet. You won't speak unless you're spoken to and if you are spoken to, you're gonna be nice and polite. Got it?"
Root had faced down people a hundred times tougher than Limpe during his time in the Legion and the petty little bully didn't stand a chance.
"You, you--"
Root jabbed Limpe's chest again and repeated more pointedly, "Got it?"
Glowering, Limpe grumbled, "I won't forget this, Lieutenant."
"I'm sure," Root replied scornfully. "You can be watching and listening to your heart's bloody content and then tell your boss all about it, but you will do as I say."
Limpe continued to glare at Root, but he didn't say anything more. Root didn't need to hear a "Yes, sir" to know he had compliance.
Instantly brightening up, he smiled broadly, clapped his hands and asked the others, "Alright, who's ready to do some recruiting?"
Gracie's Tavern was the largest and most popular tavern in town, not far from town hall. It was one of the main storehouses of the old garrison which had been heavily renovated to make it more welcoming. As soon as Root walked in, the patrons all came together in a loud roar.
"ROOT!"
Root smiled and waved. He was well known and well liked at Gracie's as a frequent customer who was known to be generous when it came to free drinks. He didn't have much else to spend his pay on, and good will was a worthy investment, especially at a time like this.
The proprietor, Gracie Granat, looked like just about anyone's mother. A former cabaret dancer, she was quite a looker back in the day and still looked pretty good for her age.
Looking up from the tap, she waved and said, "Hello, Root dear, what can I get ya?"
"A table that's facing the door and a round for my friends here," Root said, gesturing to his companions. "Just remember we're on duty, so don't let Hight here go too crazy."
"Aw, yer no fun, LT," Sergeant Hight mock-whined.
Gracie's daughter Maribel was one of the waitresses. A pretty girl of 19 years, she didn't have quite the same elegance of her mother from the pictures on the wall, but she had a girl next door charm that made her a favorite of the tavern's patrons. She guided Root's party to a table that met his specifications. It was also right next to a support post for the roof, which would be convenient for posting the notice.
Playing the gentleman, Root, pulled out the chairs for Trish and Margie before taking his own seat. Maribel covered her mouth as she giggled at the display of old-fashioned gallantry.
"What can I get you, Mr. Root?" Maribel asked.
"A pint of lager for me," Root said.
"Ah guess Ah'll 'ave me a point a' bittah," Sergeant Hight said.
"Do you have any cabernet?" Trish asked.
Maribel nodded. "Yes'm."
"Then I'll have a glass of that."
Maribel leaned forward, like you would when addressing a child, and asked Margie, "What about you, honey?"
Not meeting Maribel's eyes, Margie mumbled, "Some frizzy, I guess."
Showing a surprising lack of fear or surprise at the sight of Limpe, Maribel treated him like any other customer and asked, "And you, sir?"
"Nothing for me," Limpe said, folding his arms.
"Come on, Blackamoor," Root said. "It'd be rude not to order something."
"I don't drink," Limpe said stubbornly.
"Well, what about something non-alcoholic?" Root offered. "You're too old to settle for a frizzy. Maribel, give him the Teetotaler's Special."
"What's that?" Limpe asked.
"You'll like it," Root assured him. "Sweet but not too sweet. Just perfect for a guy like you. You won't find a hint of alcohol to it."
Somewhat warily, Limpe said, "Very well then. The Teetotaler's Special."
"Right away," Maribel said, promptly leaving to fill their order.
Once Maribel came back with their drinks, Root took his mug and stood up, addressing the patrons of the tavern in a loud voice.
"Ladies and gents, if you don't know me, I'm Lieutenant Rutger Maartens of Her Majesty's Royal Army and I've got a whale of a deal for all you here tonight. We're mounting a little expedition up to Neveland tomorrow and we're a bit short-handed, so I've been authorized to recruit civilian contractors. You'll be paid at a per diem rate commensurate with your skills and experience. You can't make less than ten croners a day and that kinda money's hard to beat around here. Native and honorary Byrandians get a three-croner a day bonus and honorably discharged veterans get a five-croner a day bonus. All bonuses require documentary evidence, so I hope you have your papers."
He then pointed to the support beam and said, "I'll be posting a list of what we're looking for right here." He looked to Gracie and asked, "Is that okay, Gracie?"
"Go right ahead, Root dear," Gracie replied.
"Thanks," Root said. "You're a real peach, Gracie. Sergeant, if you would."
Sergeant Hight finished his draught of bitter and put down his mug, saying, "Ah'm on it, sah."
While Hight was busy nailing a copy of the list the Blackamoor Centurion gave them, Root delivered the clincher for the deal.
"And as a special added bonus, all eligible applicants get a free round courtesy of Her Majesty Queen Saintclair."
"Long live the Queen!" one of the patrons shouted.
"Gaw save 'er!" another one chimed in.
"Gaw save us frum 'er! Haw!"
Hight's remark prompted everyone to point and give a mock-chiding "Awww." Here in Bernecita, the only one who really cared about lèse majesté was the lone out-of-his-depth Blackamoor. Said Blackamoor was wisely keeping his mouth shut, for the time being, at least.
"And don't none of you think you can sign up for the free drink and bail on me tomorrow morning," Root warned, "because I will take it outta your ass when I get back. Cheers!"
"CHEERS!" just about everyone in the tavern roared in reply.
Root downed a long draught from his mug and sat down.
"You're surprisingly good at this, Root," Trish said. "Did you ever work in the recruitment office by any chance?"
"No," Root replied. "Hell no. My dad was a traveling salesman and he'd take me on his trips every now an then. Saw half the kingdom that way. Huckster's in my blood. Besides, this is pretty good money and these people could use it."
It didn't take long for people to start filtering over to Root's table. The first ones to stand in front of them were quite the odd couple. One was this big dark-skinned hulk of a man, the kind you would expect to see in the construction yard bending steel girders with his bare hands. His partner was a young woman a few shades lighter than him with a fairly athletic build, definitely more muscley than the average woman but not obscenely so. Her wiry hair was dyed a not quite naturalistic orange and left to puff out over a twisted bandanna tied around her head. Judging from their grease-stained blue coveralls and tank tops that had to have once been white, these two weren't afraid of dirty jobs, which bode well for their candidacy.
"Hey, our first customers," Root said genially. "Name and trade."
"Lerner Rockhart," the big guy said. "Mechanic." He gestured to his female companion. "This here's Dakota Oster. The same."
Mechanics were certainly high priority. It was quite the stroke of luck. The only question was what kind of mechanic they were.
"Land, sea or air?" Root asked.
"Groun' vickles," Rockhart replied. "Trucks mos'ly."
"Byrandians?"
Rockhart shook his head.
"Nope. Jus' passin' through."
"Military service?"
"I did my four years a' compuls'ry service in Verness. That count?"
"It'll help, I'm sure, but you only get the bonus if you were in the service here in Byrandia."
"All 'bout bein' B'randian, ain't it?"
Root shrugged.
"It's hell, I know. Protectionist bullshit like this doesn't win us any friends."
"Lieutenant!" Limpe exclaimed. "Your statements border on sedition!"
"Now what'd I tell you, Blackamoor?" Root asked, thoroughly annoyed. "Sit there, shut up and enjoy your drink. No, you know what? You're makin' people nervous. Go over to the bar, back in the corner."
Limpe looked over to the bar and then back to Root.
"You can't do this!"
Taking a different tack, Root leaned in and said, "Think about it. You get the best view from over there. Nothin'll get past you from there."
Limpe looked back to the bar and back to Root and asked with unexpected sincerity, "Really?"
"Yeah, really. Now go on."
Limpe actually got up an took a seat over in the corner. Everyone else at the table looked surprised, but Root allowed himself a private grin. All according to plan.
"Sorry 'bout that, folks," he told Rockhart and Dakota. "Any arctic experience?"
"We was lookin' ta join up with a minin' 'spedition coupla months back," Rockhart said, "but they bailed on us an' we've been stuck here for a good six weeks now."
"Well, you two should make enough on this gig to get a ticket outta here," Root replied. Glancing around at the other patrons, he added, "Not that Bernecita ain't a little slice a' heaven."
"Don't patronize us, Root," one of them said. "We know this is a shithole, but it's our shithole."
"Hey, I've been here three years, ain't I? It's pretty well my shithole too."
"Whatcha think, Kota?" Rockhart asked his companion.
Dakota shrugged.
"Why the hell not? I'm in."
"Alrighty then," Root said. He motioned to Trish. "My lovely assistant here will handle your paperwork."
Trish took care of Rockhart and Dakota's contracts and Root interviewed several other potential recruits when the proverbial woman in red showed up. Scarlet Fiebre and her 'sister' Ella were two of the premiere working girls in town. They weren't blood relatives, but they played the part and for a nominal fee, you could get a package deal, the fabled Double Fiebre Special.
Scarlet and Ella's dresses were of the same design, satin with black lacy trim, in their signature colors of red and yellow respectively. Gracie kept her whores color coded for convenience and had the whole rainbow, minus indigo because Gracie didn't consider it to be a real color. Also, she only had six whores in her employ.
"Hey there, Rootie," Scarlet cooed. "Care fer a tumble?"
"Hey, Scarlet," Root said. "I appreciate the offer, but no thanks. I'm on duty."
"That didn't yusta stop ye, hon," Scarlet replied. She made a pouty face and said, "I've missed ye."
"You've only missed my twenty croners."
"Twenny-fahv," Scarlet corrected with a wink. "Ye always was a good tipper. Speakin' a' which, I could use a lil' chile s'pport fer yer bastid."
"Wilde's seven months old, Scarlet," Root said pointedly. "It's been eighteen months since the last time I contracted your services."
"Been countin' the days, have ye? I always knew ye was smitten wi' me."
"You wish, babe," Root replied breezily. He held up two bills and said, "I was gonna give you a ten gratis for old time's sake, but lying's a five-croner penalty."
He took away the ten-croner bill and handed Scarlet the five. She frowned and muttered, "Wilde's not the only bastid in me life, Rootie."
She took the five anyway. A whore can't afford to have too much pride, after all.
The momentary lull in their banter left Root exceedingly conscious of Trish's presence right next to him.
"What?" he asked defensively. "Oh, come on. Our last time was six months before I even met you, Trish."
"I didn't say anything," Trish replied neutrally.
"Ye mustn't be too 'ard on 'im, mum," Sergeant Hight said. "Th' LT's a man jus' loike any uvvah."
"Men always use that excuse, Sergeant," Trish said. "'It's just an itch we have to scratch,' they all say. 'We're men. We can't help it.' But if a woman wants to scratch that same itch, she's gets branded a whore." She glanced at the Fiebres and added, "No offense."
Scarlet puffed out her fairly generous chest and replied, "Ain't no shame in ah bidness, dollface."
From his place in the corner, Limpe could be heard saying, "Men have needs. Women have function."
His insertion into the conversation was hardly welcome, but Scarlet called out to him and asked, "How 'bout it, Blackie? Care ta have me function meet yer needs?"
"Blackamoors do not consort with whores," Limpe said.
Scarlet shrugged off his rejection and said, "I wouldn't want that black paint rubbin' off in me privy parts anyway."
"I'd be game, if'n yer int'rested," Ella replied with a shrill giggle.
Annoyed, Limpe slammed his hand on the bar and rose up with a start. As soon as he did, he started to go wobbly, but he didn't seem to realized it right away.
"I said... Blackamoors don't... consort... with..."
Limpe had to steady himself by gripping the bar with both hands.
"Ye alroit there, Blackie?" Scarlet asked.
Limpe looked at his now empty glass and then to Root.
"The drink... What did you...?"
With a wave and a grin, Root replied, "Nighty-night."
As if on cue, Limpe's eyes rolled back in his head and he slumped face-first into the bar with a dull wooden thud.
"What did you do to him?" a nervous Trish asked.
"The Teetotaler's Special," Root replied, still grinning. "You can't even taste the alcohol. And because most non-drinkers can't hold their liquor, they tend to go down in an hour or two. Of course, I didn't expect him to pack so many away so quickly. Damn."
Satisfied that Limpe would no longer be a thorn in his side, Root stood up and addressed all the patrons again.
"Okay, now that this asshole's out of action, we can get down to business. Who else is game?"
Not everyone there knew who the Blackamoors were and why you needed to be afraid of them, but with Limpe out of commission, people approached Root's table much more readily and a line of potential recruits began to form. They had already added over twenty new contracts to the pile when a petite, exotic-looking woman's turn came up.
Root asked the woman, "And what can I do for you, Miss...?"
"Anju," she replied curtly. "Anju Azuki. I can hunt, track, scout."
Though she was a grown woman, Azuki was smaller than even Margie. She was pale with her jet black hair meticulously styled. She wore a short robe with delicate embroidery over sheer leggings. Even in the warmth of the tavern, she kept a scarf wrapped around her. Root didn't know what to make of her.
"You don't look like much of a scout," Root said.
"I am trained in Ryohga-Ryuu Shuudoh," Azuki said. "I hunt man, beast and monster."
"I kin vouch fer 'er, Root," the town marshal said after setting down his beer. "She's turned in twenny 'ides outta Ol' Berenice in d' pass tree munts."
Much like the mayor, the town marshal was elected by the people because no gendarmes were assigned to Bernecita. He generally did a good job of keeping the peace and coordinating the town's defense with the troops on post. He too had a job nobody else wanted, so no one but the occasional drunken transient was likely to give him any trouble. Perhaps not as sober as one might hope a lawman to be, but Root trusted his word.
"That's good enough for me," Root said. "Any other special talents?"
Azuki looked back and forth before untying the knot of the cord around her waist and loosening the sash wound about underneath. As she started to pull open her robe, Root wondered exactly what manner of special talent she intended to show him. In an instant, too quickly to truly see and comprehend the transformation, Azuki disappeared and a large eagle with mottled feathers flapped its heavy wings before alighting on a nearby table. Root noted that the eagle shared Azuki's distinctive golden eyes.
Naturally, many of the people in the tavern were stunned, gasping and murmuring, but Root had seen a number of the wonders of the world in his day, so he didn't share their astonishment.
"A skinchanger, huh?" he said as if she had done nothing but demonstrate double-jointedness in her thumbs. "Could come in handy. I think that's worth a bonus."
The eagle then looked to Trish and called to her, something between a squawk and a chirp, looking back and forth between her and the pile of empty clothes on the ground.
"What?" Trish asked.
"I think she wants you to get her clothes for her," Root said. "Go with her to the WC so she can change back and get dressed."
Any other day she might have protested the peculiarity of the situation, but Trish simply rose from her seat, gathered up the clothes on the floor and carried them to the ladies' room with the eagle flying unsteadily behind her, clearly not built for maneuvering indoors.
Sergeant Hight leaned in to Root and asked, "'Ow's that lil' trick gonna work in th' field, sah?"
"Your guess is as good as mine, Sergeant."
In a few minutes, Trish and a fully dressed Azuki emerged from the ladies' room. Azuki went back to Root's table and began to fill out her application paperwork. As she was signing off, there was a loud crash of glass on the floor.
"No!" Dakota shouted angrily. "Bullshit! I ain't workin' wit' no damn Ganny!"
No less wroth, Gracie screeched back, "You'll be payin' for that glass, I hope ya know!"
With some 337 states and statelets, current and former, in the world, it wasn't too surprising to find two that didn't get along. It was times like these that the government's policy of favoring native Byrandians for contracts made some sense. Nevertheless, Root made a stab at defusing tensions.
"And what do you have against the Gandohese, Ms. Oster?"
"My ma's from Kwailung," Dakota said. "That's what."
That was certainly reason enough. Kwailung was one of the main ports in Soochain carved up by several of the major powers, but before the other nations moved in, Gandoh was there first. Many people called their occupation 'the Rape of Kwailung' and though it had been some forty years ago, the people never forgot and never forgave. It certainly didn't help that the Gandohese did nothing but deny the whole thing.
Root's reply, however, was decidedly less than thoughtful.
"You sure don't look Kwailungese."
"Nobody ast'd ya, Sparky!" Dakota snapped.
Root cocked his head curiously.
"Sparky?"
Rockhart stepped in, taking hold of Dakota by the shoulders, telling her, "Ease up there, Kota. We could use the work."
"No!" Dakota shouted. "No goddamn way!"
Still looking to lower the heat on the situation, Root said calmly, "Ms. Oster, if it's any comfort, you'll be working on the repair deck pretty much your every waking hour. You'll almost never cross paths with her. I'll even see that you're bunked as far apart as I can manage. How does that sound?"
Encouraged by the offer, Rockhart urged more strongly, "C'mon, Kota. It ain't ever' day these soldier-types're willin' ta be so accommodatin'."
Looking around Rockhart to Root, Dakota asked suspiciously, "I ain't gotta do nuttin' wit' her, right?"
"She's signing up to be a scout," Root said in a level voice. "You're a mechanic." He then cracked a grin and added, "You'll be up to your neck in grease while she'll be freezin' her tits off with us poor infantry sods."
Dakota snorted a half-suppressed laugh, eyeing Azuki--specifically Azuki's chest--disdainfully.
"Heh. She could stand ta have a few senches frozed off."
That took care of that. Trish actually looked a little annoyed that Root was able to sort it out so adroitly.
"Now I suppose you're going to say your mother was a diplomat," she said.
"Schoolteacher," Root replied.
Scarlet and Ella were next to approach the table.
"Rootie," Scarlet said, "me an' Ella wanna sign up."
Root laughed.
"Sorry, ladies, but I don't see any openings for two whores on this list."
"Wha' 'bout m'rale, welfare an' recr'ation?" Scarlet asked.
While morale, welfare and recreation was a legitimate staff assignment, it had been abused in the past as a way to lend cover for prostitution, especially back during the war when it was important to give the troops an outlet besides the local daughters. Regardless, there were no MWR openings and they should have known it.
"I'm pretty sure you two can read," Root said.
"We can be medics," Scarlet suggested.
"Medics?" Root asked incredulously. "Really?"
Ella grinned slyly.
"We play doctor."
"Seriously," Scarlet said, "we know a thin' or two 'bout patchin' folks up."
"Can your employer vouch for you?" Root asked and glanced over to Gracie.
"Yeah, they can't do much worse than your milit'ry sawbones," Gracie said. She then told the Fiebres, "Girls, I'll still be gettin' my twenty percent an' add on another five for leavin' me without my two best workin' girls. Root dear, you be sure to give me a copy a' their paystubs now. I won't have any a' my girls cheatin' me. And, Scarlet, the cost a' babysittin's five croners a day."
"Alright, alright," Scarlet said, "ye'll git yer money, Maws."
Once the Fiebres had signed off, a few more went through and then there was a bit of a lull. During this time, Maribel stepped forward. Holding her tray almost like a shield, she look at Root and his companions uncertainly and said in a low voice, "Um, Mr. Root, I want to go too."
"Your mom know about this?" Root asked. He turned and shouted over at the bar, "Gracie, you know about this?"
"I'm a grown woman, Mr. Root!" Maribel insisted.
"Not yet, you ain't!" Gracie countered. "Not till Seventhmoon!"
"Mama, please!" Maribel pleaded. "This is good money and you know we need it."
Gracie frowned and was quiet for a bit. Finally, she broke her silence.
"Is it safe, Root?"
"Well, what do you intend to do, Maribel?" Root asked.
Holding up her fingers to tally her skills, Maribel said, "I can cook, I can clean, I can mend clothes."
"Ha!" Gracie scoffed. "I've seen your crooked seams, little lady."
"Mama!"
Root looked over the checklist and said, "Well, we still have a couple slots open in the mess. Wouldn't be that much different than workin' here, 'cept the tips might not be as good."
"The tips aren't that great here either, Mr. Root," Maribel said.
"'Ey!" one of the patrons shouted drunkenly, waving a silvery coin. "Ye kin kiss this shiny quarter goodbye, missy!"
Maribel rolled her eyes and sighed. Perhaps she could use a little time out of the tavern. Root just had to convince Gracie it was a good idea. That could well prove easier said than done.
"She'll be on the ship the whole time, Gracie," Root said. "About as safe a place as you could hope for. Contrary to what the name might have you think, the Junkers are solid ships from what I hear. Nothin' like those cheap clunkers they were throwin' at the League twenty years ago."
Gracie had her arms folded and appeared to be deep in thought. Not being a parent himself, Root knew that he couldn't truly understand what she was going through. Still, he considered her a friend and had to do what he could to show his good faith.
"I won't let her sign without your okay, Gracie," he said.
"Mr. Root!"
Deferring to Gracie proved to be the right move.
"Alright, you can go," she said. "But it'll come outta your vacation days."
"What vacation days, Mama?" Maribel scoffed.
Rather than answer the question, Gracie put the back of her hand to her forehead and feigned a swoon.
"Oh! Leavin' a poor old woman ta fend for herself while her daughter an' her workin' girls run out on her."
Not swayed by Gracie's display of melodrama, Root asked the other waitress, "You're stayin' here, ain't you, Hilda?"
"Yessir," Hilda replied. "Don't want me no place on no boat, not by sea an' not by air."
"See. Gracie?" Root said. "You ain't all alone."
Gracie rolled her eyes and went back to work, as did Maribel and Root. There was still a lot of recruiting left to do.
The hours passed until the town clock rang twelve. The flow of prospective recruits had started to taper off over an hour ago and now it was finally time to wrap things up. Trish had already checked and double-checked the contracts and Root was triple-checking them for good measure.
Once he was done counting them, he handed them back to Trish, saying, "Well, that makes 62. I guess that'll have to do."
"You got 'bout a fifth of the town, Root," Gracie said. "Ain't that enough?"
Gracie's math was a bit off, but it made for a convenient segue.
"Sure, it should be fine," Root replied. "And with that, I think I'll have a fifth a' Victory Gin to celebrate."
"You don't hafta drink that swill, Root," Gracie said. "I've got real liquor here. I'll even give you a discount 'cause you're my favorite customer."
"I don't drink it 'cause it's good," Root said. "I drink it for the memories. A shitty drink for shitty memories."
"Why do you drink it?" Trish asked.
"Victory Gin was all we could get in the Legion," Root explained. "The only thing worse was everything else." When Maribel came to pour the Victory Gin, he told her, "Thank you, dear."
Trish let Root drink his Victory Gin in silence. People would say that methyl alcohol made for the smoother drink and that the risk of blindness was worth sparing your tongue the flavor that made wormwood and gall seem like peaches and cream. That being said, out in the Legion, even something as terrible as Victory Gin seemed like a treat. You would drink it to grasp at the mirage of happiness, however bittersweet.
Once he was finished drinking the fifth, Root rose from his seat and said, "Well, I guess we should get going."
Trish lightly shook Margie's shoulder to wake her up. She had fallen asleep back around ten. Root might have had someone take her up to one of the rooms upstairs to sleep in peace, but Root knew what those rooms were used for and Margie was better off sleeping at the table.
"What we gonna do with 'im, sah?" Sergeant Hight asked, pointing to the still unconscious Limpe.
The rooms upstairs came back into play as Root remembered his plan for the Blackamoor.
"Oh, right," he said. "I've got an idea. Gracie, you still have that Instacam?"
"I do," Gracie replied. "Why?"
"Mind if I borrow it?"
"For you, Root dear, a' course."
Scarlet and Ella were still sitting at the bar, which was convenient. Everyone was so preoccupied with the recruiting that the two whores had barely any customers all evening.
"Scarlet, you have any baby oil?" Root asked.
"Oh, honey, if yer that hard up, I'll give ye a discount fer ol' time's sake."
"What? No! Not for that! I've got something else in mind."
Scarlet went to her room and came back with the bottle of baby oil. Root dabbed some on his fingertips to test it out.
"What are you doing?" Trish asked.
"I figure their paint is the same stuff we use for camo," Root said, streaking his fingers across Limpe's forehead. "Baby oil takes it right off."
With a little rubbing, the paint came off just like Root was expecting.
"I never knew," an astonished Trish said.
"Does the RAF even know what camouflage is?" Root asked.
Trish narrowed her eyes at him, unamused.
"Ha ha."
Root had already exposed a decent-sized patch of Limpe's forehead, which was more than enough to let him know his plan was going to work. He wiped his hand on the Blackamoor's tunic and reached under his arms to get ahold of him.
"Alright, Sergeant," Root said, "grab his legs. Let's go up to one of the rooms." To Scarlet and Ella, he said, "Ladies, follow us."
Root and Sergeant Hight carried the unconscious Limpe upstairs into the first open room they could get. Scarlet and Ella followed behind and Trish as well. It was probably just as well that Margie remained downstairs.
The rooms at Gracie's Tavern were small and simple with few furnishings. They could be rented for the night, but most people only needed to rent them for about an hour or so.
"Lay him down on the bed," Root told Hight as he moved toward the well-worn bed near the room's west wall.
Limpe was dumped unceremoniously on the bed. It did not disturb him in the slightest. He wasn't going to come to anytime soon. That made their work all the easier.
Unbuckling Limpe's belt, Root said, "Alright, let's open him up."
With the aid of Sergeant Hight and the Fiebre Sisters, it took no time at all to strip Limpe naked as a jaybird.
"Gaw, he really is black all over," Ella remarked.
Root poured out some of the baby oil on Limpe's chest.
"Let's get some of this off."
He started to rub away the black paint when he managed to catch himself.
"Wait, why am I doing this?" he asked. He held up the bottle of baby oil and a couple ten-croner bills and offered them to the Fiebre Sisters. "Ladies, twenty croners to get all this black shit off him."
"We usually charge more fer a good rubdown," Scarlet said.
"Well, I'll carry up the water so you can wash your hands afterward."
"Fair enough," Scarlet conceded.
The two of them went to work. Scarlet looked over her shoulder at Trish and asked, "Ye want in on this, dollface?"
"I'll pass," Trish said.
Frankly, Root was surprised Trish stuck around as long as she did. He didn't expect her to follow them upstairs and half-expected her to run away screaming the moment they opened up Limpe's tunic. Perhaps she wasn't quite as innocent as he thought. He wasn't entirely sure if that made her more or less attractive. If he was being honest with himself, he did prefer a woman who knew what she was doing.
The only plumbing in the upstairs rooms were drain pipes for the tubs. If you wanted water, you had to carry it from the well. Fortunately, the pump was in the back room past the bar, so it wasn't too much of a task to fill a bucket and lug it back upstairs.
Back in the room, Root poured some of the water into the wash basin so the Fiebre Sisters could wash their hands. It was important not to wet some washcloths to speed things up lest the cold water wake up Limpe.
It took nearly half an hour and the entire bottle of baby oil, but Limpe was finally free of his head-to-toe black paint. The fact that they covered every inch of their bodies in that ridiculous paint was one of the many pieces of evidence indicating that the Blackamoors were all completely insane and that Her Majesty the Queen was little better because she allowed these loonies to become such major players in the kingdom.
It was a good thing the sheets were often stained, or Gracie probably would have killed Root for making such a mess. Anyway, the job was done and it was time to move on to the next phase of the plan.
"Okay, good work," Root said. "And now, ladies, you up for the Double Fiebre Special?"
Scarlet looked around the room to Ella, Trish, Sergeant Hight, and back to Root.
"Ever'one gettin' in on this?" she asked. "It'll cost ye extra."
Trish shot Root a mean glare, so he quickly had to explain himself.
"We're just gonna take some incriminating photos," he said. "Easy money."
"Oh, well, in that case..."
With the speed and efficiency that comes from plenty of practice, the Fiebre Sisters shed their clothes in no time flat. Trish promptly excused herself from the room, but Sergeant Hight didn't seem to have any such reservations.
Even though Limpe was mostly harmless as Blackamoors went, Root took cruel pleasure in his little game. It was almost as if he was doing this to every Blackamoor from the Grand Dux down. He picked up Limpe's cap from the pile of clothes on the floor and placed it on the Blackamoor's head for effect. He took out Gracie's Instacam and lined up the perfect shot.
"Smile for the birdie."