First Act: Amidst A Cold Request

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 To stand outside of the Tavern of the Shell and gaze down is to see the literal world. Zaer. A perfect, globular heavenly body of russet trees and turquoise seas. She rotated in majesty about the star Steth, cradled in this finite, polyhedral universe of a dozen stars and the violet crescent gases of the distant Celphine Drift. But Zaer rested, untouched, its trees the breadth of castles having never been cut down, seas unspoiled. The Crown ruled it, eternal Hierarchs of the seven banded skin tones.

He heard Zaer had seasons. A cold winter. Hot summer. Tepid spring. In autumn, the mammoth trees shed their leaves the size of pull carts and families crafted them into temporary tents outside the granite castle walls to live outside as a memorial to their ancestors.

Warmth. Heat. Imaginary friends. For where Thibeaux Refalia stood outside the Tavern of the Shell, high up in orbit over Zaer, where Steth always shines but its searing hugs are deflected by the frigid fingers of the aether, he knew only the cold, the howling winds, the constant bite of Irony.

He jumped up and down in a short cut quilted green jacket. The layers of ebony woolen tights had long since lost their stored heat. Thibeaux hopped up and around at the back of a forced assembly of tavern gatherers, traders, vagabonds and click runners, while at the front of the gathering, the Sphere Guard with their shiny plate gauntlets and flowing cloaks full of color eyed these commoners with suspicion. Thibeaux tried not to think about them or what they wanted. He merely wanted to keep the orange skin from cracking on numb fingers. Originally his people were from the north of Zaer. Once. It afforded him a measure of resilience from the chill. But this announcement had gone on for too long now.

"Have I no one to step forward for this assignment?" Dominateur Twenso enunciated every word over the stiff gale. His gray tricorn hat, so sharp at the points he could very well use it as a weapon, was wedged down over the red and green stripes of his temple. His regaled emerald scarf blew backward like an endless banner flag for the Crown, revealing the four silver braids on the high collar of a magenta flowered uniform coat which denoted Twenso's rank. "This expedition pays the equivalent of five years' wages. Five! And I stand here, in the dark of space, awaiting silence?"

Five years? That got Thibeaux by the stubby golden beard. As he pushed back locks of gilded hair from blowing into his face, he actually considered the job. Five years. That would keep the Poor Reflection up and gliding for a long time. Feed me and the crew! I've a clean record now, served my time in the Towers. But the Crown? Used to rob these Scarf Boys blind!

No one stepped forward. The men of the Shell Guard placed hands on their basket-hilted blades. Blades. Force! As if standard procedure of the Guard to drag good people outside into the depths and cold, make them stand right next to the edge of this floating piece of flotsam amidst a sea of more flotsam and three scarred moons, the Shell, was not terror enough! But to imply they might be cut down for not taking on a mission running through the worst highways here above? They wouldn't dare. But, Thibeaux had heard many a horror story during his imprisonment.

"I'm yer man!" Thibeaux screeched. He wondered right afterward who said this foolish thing, before realizing his typical fast mouth had gotten ahead of a more cautious brain.

"I'm your man...?"

"I'm yer man, Dominateur. Apologies." Time in the Towers, from which Thibeaux had been evicted but two weeks prior, left him out of touch with the politics of the Realm. Six years in the bowels for highway theft, vandalism of Crown property and poor manners. The manners tacked on the final two years. Imagine. "I've a click, a big'un. Poor Reflection's her name. A double decker, behind the tavern. An inheritance from me aunt and uncle, now entombed." He moved through the beleaguered, shivering crowd to show the Guard his lean, athletic trim and brilliant orange hide and white grin. The sparkle of brown eyes revealed the soul of a scholar in the body of a thief.

"A Bulao. Wonderful." Dominateur Twenso's tone revealed an obvious distaste for the orange Ailed, so Thibeaux could but guess how sour the man's scarf covered face must have been. He glimpsed only the beadiness of pink-aquamarine eyes. The Bulao were one of the eleven monotone races flung, literally, off of Zaer three centuries and a score ago to free those of a multispectral hue from the Seven Ways Blight they assured the Ailed held in them. White Herrizati, yellow Daym and eight others, scattered about these fragmented planes, asteroids and moons. They scraped. They begged. They stole. And in this orbit where the atmosphere is extant but at the edge of deadly space, everyone can hear their screams.

But who would help them?

Way down below, past his folded down leather boots and through the fissures in this twenty meter thick mass upon which he stood, Thibeaux saw Zaer and the glint of golden sparks from the passing Oani Mountains. Those twinkles were reflections of clockwork catapults. Monstrous beasts, fifty meters long if not more, lined across the mountaintops. Those were the tools used then, as now, to launch men into orbit, up to this northern pole where Zaer's atmosphere extends high up due to its spiralling path around Steth. Zaer pulled in matter, but the moons kept them in stasis. The pole collected space fragments, formed the Shell. The Crown, in its wisdom, felt it needed added decoration.

"Aye, Dominateur. Bulao to the bones, you see. Can't be helped." He smirked. "I'm Captain Refal--"

"The Crown rejects offers from rogues, Captain. I should say, however, that your arrogant initiative is, shall we say, amusing." A simple glance at riding boots rolled down, uncivilized, the cut of the man, told Twenso all he needed to know.

The crowd, in their frilled shirts and layered dresses, might have laughed had they not been too occupied by their chattering teeth and knocking knees.

"Antiquated rogue. I've done me time in the shackles." Thibeaux reached into his short cut jacket and produced a thin scroll, concealed inside of a metal cylinder.

Dominateur Twenso did not extend a hand. Without hesitation, the guard to his immediate left, a dirigeant by the dual silver braided ropes around the collar, snatched the cylinder out of Thibeaux's quivering hand, opened it, and read aloud:

"'In this the year three hundred and eighty nine Beyond the Blight, this court finds one Ailed Thibeaux Refalia of the Dark Shell to have made full recompense for his multitudinous crimes against the Crown of Zaer. As such, he is to be considered, henceforth, a free man, though Ailed, and is free within his ability to roam the Shell'. It's signed by the clockmeister of Tapestry World, Dominateur, sealed and all."

Thibeaux tried not to clench his fists. 'Ailed' was placed before one's name, after it, and whenever one of these rainbow hued ninnies thought to use it. But he took comfort in the fact that the Guard were two-toned, and everyone knew the Crown only really respected those with seven bands of skin color, they of the soft hands and features. The rest, as they say, do the scrubbing. One took their joys when one could.

"Very well, Captain Refalia of the Poor Reflection. The rest of you may return to the warmth of the fire, so allowed by the grace of Our Epic Hope Sallin Sullen Sym, Majestrix of Zaer." The Shell Guards pointed to the Tavern of the Shell, and the crowd moved toward it, none too slow, but none too fast for fear the Guard might find them ungrateful for participation in the calling out, and get the shackles. Twenso straightened the elaborately ornamented scabbard on his thick belt, sucked in a heap of icy air. "Now then. You. Bulao! Follow me!"

Thibeaux did, and hated every step. He imagined the olden days, when he, Shipprie and Quollen the Fifth would stretch a silken cord across the narrow gap along the Sustan Highway. Boy, how the neck of the Guard at the reins of the open click would snap back! They stole into the click, emptied its hold of silvery stellium and shining, impervious strips of gebor and flew off into the dark on fragile gliders. Ha! The days of drink and song and buffoonery.

Shipprie took three blades from three Guards into his torso, and fell off the Shell into oblivion. The worst of fates.

Quollen the Fifth turned tail, traded Thibeaux for a bag of loot, right before a massive Phryaa bird ate him. Fitting, but sad. He was like a brother.

The end of the story robbed Thibeaux of his gleeful memory. He followed as a servant, head down, a badge of shame on his heart, to the rear of the Tavern of the Shell. His click vessel, and a dangerous task, were awaiting him.

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