Baroque Storm: Part One
“Be ready to write,” the Manager told him. The Manager was a Skeith, green and hulking, and he had a polite smile and a mind like a dagger, one of the very sharp, very pointy ones that could cut right through something before it had time to notice. “This next one might be difficult.”
“Why would he be difficult?” Mem asked, adjusting his notebook slightly. He’d already been ready to write, had been holding his pen in readiness for the past hour just in case, but the Manager probably already knew that. You didn’t get to be secretary to someone so important without a reputation for willingness to work. “It’s just a...” He checked his notes. He’d known already, but he would hate to be mistaken. “Routine case, an applicant.”
“This one,” said the Manager, dourly, “might be less than routine.”
The Red Bruce blinked and gave a hesitant smile. “You mean he’s sincere? That, that would be nice. I always hope—” But the Manager had already turned to beckon at the lesser banker standing ready by the door, and Mem blushed and stopped talking. He always talked too much.
The doorperson, a young Usul with too much makeup, reached out her hand for the door handle, but at that moment the door swung open dramatically and a Krawk strode through, his long coat flapping around his legs. He was walking towards the centre of the room, but partway there he turned seamlessly and strode back to the Usul. He gave her an apologetic smile and said something in a low, friendly voice that made her blush, then walked backwards to the centre of the room, apparently entirely so he could keep on smiling apologetically at the Usul as he went.
If Mem had been doing all of this, he knew he would have been clumsy, foolish; the change in direction would have probably made him stumble and would certainly have seemed awkward, as though he couldn’t make up his mind, and walking backwards would seem like childish folly. But the Krawk moved with quick elegant steps, nimble, graceful, as though this was some elaborate dance and he knew all the steps off by heart. The Usul, still blushing, stared at him admiringly.
Mem remembered suddenly that this next part was up to him, and he cleared his throat awkwardly, ready to ask the first question on the Applicant List: Your name? But before he could, the Krawk smoothly swung a heavy-looking hammer down from his shoulder. He twirled it around and thudded the tip of it onto the floor, resting his clawed hands on its head. The sound echoed resoundingly through the Business Hall, and Mem noticed a number of bankers and secretaries and note-takers looking suitably impressed, though more looked startled.
“I’m Baroque,” said the Krawk lazily. His voice wasn’t as graceful as his movements; there was a hoarseness to it, and a hint of... of sidle. It was the kind of voice that shuffled up alongside you, smiled into your face, and picked your pocket while you weren’t looking. “Baroque Storm.”
His voice, though at a conversational level, managed somehow to echo off the walls as well. Mem stared at him for a moment or two, and then remembered that he was meant to be writing that down. He did.
“Er,” Mem said, hesitantly, “what—” What plea do you come to make before the Bank? was what he was meant to say, but he somehow had a feeling that Baroque wouldn’t let him finish, and sure enough, before he’d even began the sentence the Krawk said, cutting through his voice effortlessly, “I come for aid.”
“Well,” said Mem, caught off-guard. He gave a nervous laugh. “I, obviously, yes, that’s what this, this thing, this protocol is for. What do you want exac—”
“My name is Baroque Storm,” Baroque said, standing straight and tall and proud. “And, friends, I’m here to offer aid to you.”
There was a surprised murmur at this, and he smiled casually and added, before things could quieten, “If you find me suitable, of course.”
Baroque’s tone of voice somehow made it plain that he had not the faintest doubt that this was, indeed, what would happen. He wasn’t following the usual script at all, and Mem, wrong-footed, resorted to formula. Name, yes, they’d got that, Purpose... Purpose could wait. Appearance, yes, that was an easy part. The applicant’s appearance was always written down, so the Bank could find them to give them the loan they asked for if they were honest, and find them for other reasons if they weren’t.
Eyes: wrote Mem, and he glanced up at Baroque, who was saying, “I’m not here for... precisely the normal reasons, I suppose you could say, and you’d be right, you’d certainly be right! Friends...” And here he paused and widened his eyes. “Friends, I’m here to help people.”
His eyes were warm and deep and friendly. They were kind eyes, charming eyes, the sort of eyes that said: Here is a man you can follow. Here is a man you can trust. They made you forget the harshness of his voice and sharpness of his smile. Mem considered and wrote, feeling it rather inadequate, Brown.
He had dull black scales, a crisp grey hat perched jauntily on the long purplish hair that softened the sharp lines of his face, and a Steam Jacket worn longer than they usually were, all a-strewn with buckles and brass. He was wearing clothes beneath that as well, of course, slightly shabby garments in the outdated Neovian style. Mem wrote these things down as well and sat back, feeling pleased. There. He hadn’t made a fool of himself, for once.
“I am here,” Baroque continued, “so you can help me with that goal. The one involving helping people. Because it motivates my every movement.” He moved quite a lot, so obviously, Mem reasoned, it must have been quite a powerful motivation.
The Manager spoke for the first time in the interview. “I find that,” he said, politely, “distinctly unlikely.”
“And well you might!” Baroque declared, looking not even slightly thrown by this. “And well you might, for our world is fierce and fearsome and fraught with peril. There’s all sorts of unkind folk in the world, and then there’s the weak ones, the ones who’ll stand by and do nothing.” He tightened his claws around the head of the hammer and said, his grin huge, “And then there’s me.”
Lightning sparked from his claws, jolted and jerked through the air. The magic was bright enough to make Mem’s eyes water, and he blinked, staring wide-eyed and awed as flickering light danced over Baroque’s arms to dance from his shoulders and cascade down his back. There were several pained exclamations at the brightness of it, and Baroque said, his eyes wide and serious, “At my birth I was chosen for great things. Wind and water bow to my whims; the elements themselves are at my command. I’m Baroque Storm! Lord of Lightning! Light in the Darkness!” At that the lightning spluttered and died abruptly, and the room seemed, for a moment or two, much darker. “And my purpose,” he said, and then gave an annoyed sort of frown and corrected, “mission, my mission – my mission is to protect.”
In the silence that followed this pronouncement, Baroque tilted his head back so he could stare grimly and heroically at the wall. The silence stretched longer and longer, until finally the Manager prompted, none too kindly, “Mem?”
“Oh,” said Mem, startled, and he fumbled at his notes – “oh,” he said in dismay, as his notebook fell from his desk and to the ground. “I, um.” He wracked his brain, trying to think of what he was meant to say next, while his colleagues and acquaintances gave him disgruntled disapproving looks. “You were, um, chosen at birth for great things, you say,” he said eventually, desperation making his voice squeak. “By, er, was it by a... a duly designated authority?”
Baroque gave him a thoughtful look and nodded once or twice, slowly, importantly. Then said, “I was chosen...” He paused, letting the words ring out. “I was chosen,” he repeated, “by the faeries. Yes, the faeries themselves. I was gifted with magic knowledge of the dance of lightning, the thrumming boom of – the drumming, no, the thrumming boom of thunder. The strange, ah, strange silver secrets of rain. I was chosen by the faeries themselves, and, honestly,” he flashed a sudden smile that made some of the female bankers come over all flustered, “considering that whole faerie mess recently, I think Neopia could use a little more magic. Don’t you? Any magic it can get.”
“Mem,” said the Manager.
Mem turned even redder than he already was. Considering the size of his plump, friendly face, it really shouldn’t have been possible for a blush to spread so quickly across it, but it was. Oh, it was. He wished this wasn’t his job. Someone else could do it so much better. “I, um,” he said, and stuttered to a stop. “What. What are you here for? Exactly?”
“To offer,” Baroque said seriously, “my aid.”
“This is the Applicants’ Time,” Mem said, “people come to, to ask for special loans, allowances. You can’t come offering us something, it, protocol, I don’t...”
He met Baroque’s eyes, pleadingly. The Krawk said kindly, “Well, you could give me something if you want. I wouldn’t have any objection. Anything for Neopia.”
The Manager said, “What kind of something are we talking about, here?”
Baroque smiled up at him and said, cheerfully, “Perhaps a Storm Amulet? Y’know, perhaps. If it wouldn’t be any inconvenience.”
There was another rustling murmur at that. Storm Amulets were worth at least a million neopoints, and the assembled bankers and clerks, charmed as they were by Baroque, did not look very pleased by that.
“To do,” the Krawk assured them happily, “my good work.”
There was another silence, a blank, forbidding silence. Baroque didn’t seem to be unnerved by it, did not, in fact, seem even slightly intimidated; the blank forbidding silence of a Hall full of Bank officials was sometimes enough to make important personages break down and grovel for forgiveness, but Baroque? He was fidgeting, tapping his claws against the hammer (...why did he even have a hammer?) and twitching from side to side and looking around at things, but he did these things with such casual grace that they seemed planned, smooth, at ease: all part of some dance he alone knew, and the only thing the Mems of the world could do was stumble along and try to keep in time and not mess things up for everyone else.
“Well?” Baroque coaxed, giving a wheedling sort of smile.
“Well,” said Mem miserably. “I. Um. I... don’t see why we shouldn’t, I mean, we. Um—”
“What my dithering assistant doubtless means to say,” the Manager said coldly, “is that now is the time when the applicant leaves the Hall for a duration of five minutes while the staff discusses his case.”
“Right,” said Baroque, brightly. “Right. Guess that’s me, then. Much obliged.” He lifted the heavy hammer easily onto his shoulder and strode towards the door. Partway there he turned elegantly, picked up Mem’s notebook and offered it to him with a grave little half-bow.
“I, um,” said Mem, and then said, “Thank you?” but Baroque was already dancing out the door, which the Usul rushed to close behind him, giving him a shy little smile as she did so.
The Manager was the first to speak. “What did you think of him?”
Mem looked around for who he was talking to, then realised and blushed. “I. Me, sir? I...” He hesitated. “He seems... nice. A little rough around the edges, but.” He smiled, more confidently. His opinion had never been asked before. This was brilliant! “I think we should trust him,” he said happily. “He seems... honest. And if he really wants to help, then I thi—”
The Manager waved a hand sharply to cut him off. “Mem thinks he’s honest,” he said to the room at large. “Which means what?”
There was a ragged chorus of, “He’s as crooked as a corkscrew, sir!”
“Very good.” The Manager steepled his hands. His desk was the biggest, most impressive desk, elevated above all the other desks, so he loomed menacingly above all the lesser bankers. “So. Our man Baroque is trying to con us. The question is, what do we do about it?”
“Do?” said the Usul, in a dazed, happy sort of way, glancing at the door and smiling vaguely.
The Manager cleared his throat sternly. “He’s a conman,” he said, pointedly looking away from the Usul, who looked abashed. “What does he want from this? Money. What does he not want? Publicity. Any good thief wants to stay in the shadows. How can he steal if people know his name? If people know who he is and what he is, he can’t stay in the shadows any more. He is dragged into the light.” They were dramatic words. Baroque could probably have said them properly, but the Manager had the kind of dry matter-of-fact voice that made daring midnight escapades sound like inventories listing the many delightful and fascinating varieties of turnip. “So. This is a fairly simple problem. No need to be so flustered.” This was said with a significant look at the Usul, who stared sheepishly at the ground.
“Sir?” said a Chia on the other side of the room, one of two standing imposingly by the other door. They were errand-runners, more or less. “What do you want us to do?”
The Manager gave a dry, cold smile. “I think,” he said, “that it’s time to call in a few favours.”
The door opened again, and the Usul peeped out at Baroque shyly. He leaned his hammer against the wall and flashed her his charming smile, and she blushed and looked pleased. As he passed her, she whispered, “I’m sorry about this. Good luck!”
He tilted his hat to her, wondering idly what she was sorry about. As soon as he entered the room he saw. A group of people who hadn’t been there ten minutes ago were standing around looking eager, and when they saw him they looked more eager still. Hands were raised, names shouted, notebooks waved in the air.
Reporters. The Bank had gone and got some reporters. Everyone knew the newspapers were in their pocket, that a lot of bribery was going on – sorry, ‘carefully allocated funding’ was probably what they’d call it – and so it made sense that they’d call them in for things like this. Perhaps they thought he’d be frightened off by the thought of his name being known. Or just by reporters. Reporters had a habit of finding out things that they shouldn’t and then letting everyone else know about it, very loudly and often erroneously. Nothing would make you more well-known than reporters.
Which, of course, was exactly what Baroque wanted.
He grinned hugely at them and took off his hat to give a sweeping bow. He was very proud of that bow. Depending on the context he used it in, it could seem mocking, genteel or just dashing, and he’d practiced until his coat swirled just right. He straightened, swept his hat back on to his head and said, “Baroque Storm. Delighted to be here. Simply delighted. You folk have some questions for me, I imagine?”
A Flotsam waved its flipper in the air and called, “Neopian Times! Neopian Times!” Baroque turned to look at him, and the Flotsam said, “You say you’re here to help people. How, exactly?”
Baroque waved a hand dismissively. “I’m sure something will come to me,” he said. “Perhaps I’ll fend off the forces of evil and then make sure that everyone has a subscription to the Times, eh? How’d that be for a good deed?”
That got some laughter, though those reporters who weren’t from the Times were careful to make sure that on their part it was mocking, scornful laughter. The Flotsam grinned and wrote that down (somehow; flippers weren’t so well suited to writing, generally), and before there could be silence enough for them to figure out that that was not, in fact, an answer, Baroque nodded towards a Mutant Kacheek, who said, “Haunted Woods Reader! How do you define evil, exactly?”
“Someone who is harmful, immoral and acts with intent to injure or harm,” Baroque said cheerfully. “Or happens to be in front of me in a queue. Next question!”
There was more amusement at that, and a woman called, “Maraquan Messenger!”
“How do you spell your name?” the reporter asked, and then looked sheepish.
Baroque laughed. “I get that a lot!” he assured her. “B-A-R-O-Q-U-E. U E, to rhyme with you and me, see?” He winked at her. “And then just plain old Storm.”
She blushed and giggled and wrote that down, and Baroque grinned jauntily. He was glad someone had asked. Now they’d all know his name, if they didn’t already, and that made him happy. This was going just as well as he’d expected it to. Things generally did.
“The Chronicler,” someone said, but a louder reporter had already yelled, “Krawk Island Chronicles! Do you think yer actions reflect positively on Krawks as a species?”
“Absolutely!” said Baroque. “And I’m delighted to be a good example to my Krawkish brethren. The idea the world has of us as dodgy scheming pirates is so tragically erroneous.”
“Aye!” said the Krawk hotly, nodding his eyepatch’d bandana’d head in agreement.
“The Chronicler,” someone said, more insistently, but Baroque had already tilted his head towards the Mystery Island News reporter and answered thoughtfully, “Yes, juppies are excellent. Must admit I’ve always had a soft spot for tobbie fruit, myself. Packed full of squishy sour...” He trailed off distractedly, then said, “Ah, sorry, but could whoever the Alien Aisha is maybe lower his earstalks a little or something? They’re bobbing around and you’re the tallest person in the room; it keeps on distracting me.”
The reporters parted a little, giving Baroque a better view of the Aisha. Typical Alien Aisha, really, complete with soft green fur, many earstalks and even a ray gun of some sort at his belt, though he seemed to be trying to appear more normal – he was wearing a neatly pressed shirt and jeans, spotlessly clean and free of creases. Perhaps he was trying to seem casual. He didn’t. “Me?” he said, flushing. “I am not an alien! Why would I be an alien. I am not an alien. It is absurd to think that I am an alien. It is laughable. Ha!” He gave a forced laugh. “Ha! Ha! See how I laugh at this laughable thing!”
Baroque rolled his eyes, amused. “But you have the, ah, the...” He waved his hands above his head vaguely. “Stalks and stuff.”
The Aisha looked alarmed, and then lowered two of his earstalks so they were hidden behind his head. He seemed pleased with himself for thinking of this.
“And a ray gun,” Baroque continued.
The Aisha looked even more alarmed. “This?” he said, touching the ray gun at his belt. “This is a device constructed for the purpose of holding down papers, and is not a ray gun that can incinerate matter in under three seconds if skilfully wielded and equipped with a proper power source.”
Baroque raised an eyebrow. “That’s...” he said. “That’s a little specific, don’t you think? Might want to work on that.” Something else occurred to him. “And there isn’t a newspaper called the Chronicler.”
“I am the Chronicler,” said the Aisha, looking insulted. “It is my title and purpose.”
Baroque had let this drag on for too long already; it wouldn’t do to forget his reasons for being here, to get too distracted. However odd the alien was. “Alright,” he said, letting it drop. “You had a question?”
The Chronicler nodded, making his earstalks bob up and down. “Yes. I was wondering why you wish to obtain the Storm Amulet to ‘help people’ considering that you have been seen in the company of a man called Shine and he is—”
Baroque gave him a glare to cut him off. Then he switched to a smile, went over to the Aisha and tugged at his arm, drawing him a little way away from the rest of the group. Who had seen him with Shine? Baroque wanted glory, wanted everyone to know his name, but Shine’s crew valued anonymity. This wouldn’t be good for them.
“—a thief,” the Chronicler continued, looking puzzled, “so if you wish to help people why would you steal from them? And if you wish for the Storm Amulet, why do you not simply steal it? This causes confusion in me.”
“Right, right. Well, of course I’d hate to cause confusion.” Baroque slung his arm companionably around the Aisha’s shoulder, which required stretching upwards a bit, as the Chronicler seemed to be one of the few people who were taller than Baroque was. “You see,” he said, in a conspiratorial voice, “I, Nick – can I call you Nick? Or Nickel, maybe? You seem like a Nickel, and Chronicler is such a mouthful – I, friend Nickel, am broke.”
The Aisha looked down at him, troubled. His eyes were far too green, and they looked strange in that handsome face, like holes in a mask. “I do not see the relevance of this,” he said.
“I need,” Baroque explained, rubbing his thumb and forefinger together, “the money.”
“But as you are a thief,” the Aisha pointed out, “you could simply steal whatever money you need, and not go to all this trouble.”
Baroque cast a hunted glance over his shoulder and shot a smile at the other reporters. A few of them had been edging closer, sneakily; when they realised that he saw them doing this they stopped and tried to look innocent. He pulled Nickel a few steps further away from them, pointedly. “Yeah,” he said in a voice pitched low so only the Aisha could hear it, “that, ah, that whole thief thing, could we maybe keep that on the down-low?” He patted Nickel’s chest with his free hand. “Our little secret?”
Baroque sighed. “These people,” he said, “these are cruel people. You know that, surely? Don’t you, Nickel? Odd duck like you, you’ll have gotten mocked plenty, yeah?” The Chronicler looked away, and Baroque grinned in relief and said, “I, ah... I’m reformed. Yes. So, y’see, if these folk knew who I had been—” (He wished they did. He’d pulled plenty of grand glorious jobs, but word mustn’t have spread yet. Oh well. Plenty of time.) “—they’d judge me based on that. Based on one little fact about me instead of the whole. I want to have a, a,” he waved vaguely again, “a clean slate. Y’know?”
Nickel sighed. “I was thinking of chronicling you,” he said, “but if you are reformed your story will not be anywhere near as interesting. Oh well. It is for the Greater Good, I am sure.” He brightened. “And there is no reason why I cannot keep track of you anyway!”
Normally nothing would delight Baroque more than the news that someone wanted to ‘chronicle’ him, as that seemed to imply that this chronicle would be published and, perhaps, read, read by many people who would then know of him. And people knowing of him was his very dearest goal, far more important than silly things like money; he mostly only cared about money when it led to more people knowing of him. But being followed around by a strange awkward Aisha with very few skills in the way of ‘talking to people’ seemed to be very much the kind of thing that was likely to interfere with any number of otherwise cunning plans, and that wouldn’t do at all. Wouldn’t get glory or money then. “No, no,” he said hastily, “I’ll be... I’ll be terribly boring, I’ll go to charities.”
Nickel nodded. “There is something I do not understand.”
“Just one thing?” said Baroque, and then felt slightly guilty. “Go ahead.”
“If you’re broken,’ said the Aisha unhappily, “I don’t see how a Storm Amulet would be of use. They are weapons of offence. How would that heal—”
Baroque lifted his hat a little so he could rub at his forehead, then settled it back down and said, trying to be patient, “Broke means ‘lacking money’.”
Nickel looked pleased. “Ah, so you realised that thieving is a wanton and useless occupation,” he said. “Or were you just bad at it?”
“... Aaaand I think I’ve had about as much of this conversation as I can stand without my brains leaking out my ears, so if you don’t mind I would like to talk to people who aren’t crazy?... Good. Thank you. Glad we understand things.” He started to walk back to the gaggle of reporters.
From behind him, Nickel said loudly, “I do not think you are telling the truth. I think you are a thief and that you are trying in some convoluted way to steal something and I think you are a terrible cruel person and I do not think that you are blessed by faeries at all!”
There was a pause, in which the reporters stared at him and then at Baroque and then at him again. Baroque gave him a ferocious glare, and the Aisha added, in a smaller voice, “Although you have a very fine hat?”
Baroque, with an effort, turned his glare back into a smile. He turned back to the reporters, flashed a smile and said, “And these entertaining allegations come from... The Chronicler. Ladies and gentlemen, that isn’t even a real paper.” He gave Nickel his courtly bow, making it mocking this time. “Sir, I owe you thanks. Nothing can prove my authenticity more surely than someone such as you questioning it.”
There was another round of laughter at that, and Baroque laughed cheerfully and went back to answering questions for a few minutes, until the Bank Manager said, “That will suffice, I think.” He looked disgruntled.
The reporters left, and Baroque smiled charmingly at some of the pretty ones as they did. Then he turned the smile to the Manager, and widened it. “Well?” he said.
The Manager shrugged. “You are... suspicious,” he said, “but no good thief would be stupid enough to let his name get known like this, and it would be difficult to back out from this deal now that the media has documented it. We’ll give you what you want.”
Baroque grinned and breathed, “Excellent.”
To be continued...
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Occasionally a passing guard or security drone would stroll by and break the silence, but nothing else did – nothing, that is, save for three dark-cloaked figures darting through the bright halls.