Jack tipped back the chair he was lounging in and shook out his newspaper. The news was old but it was still a taste of home. He smiled reminiscently as he wondered what TJ’s niece was doing now.
His trip down memory lane was interrupted when Emilia came tripping into the lab.
"Hi, Em. Been spying on the new doc again?"
"I still think there is something strange going on. That obsequious Dr. Ngpu got a license to practice from the Governor much too easily. But we have a more immediate problem, Jack. The Daughters of the Dragoon are at it again."
"Oh, give me a break. I thought they had retired, shut up shop."
"Well, explain that." She tossed him a flyer.
"Roses are redd, Vilets are blu, we luv the Daring Dragoon, and would luv to meet him too."
He chuckled. "Could use a little work on the rhyming, and I bet they can’t spell iambic pentameter either."
Blinking a little that Jack’s vocabulary included "iambic pentameter," Emilia recovered and spoke a little more forcefully than she had intended.
"I don’t care about their education, they are putting themselves in danger. Flyers like these were up all over the marketplace. And most have something like this attached!" Emilia flourished a filmy wisp of lace and silk. Jack plucked it from her grasp.
"Well, well, very pretty." He rubbed the material gently between thumb and forefinger. "All the way from Paris, if I’m not mistaken." he wafted it past his nose. "Sold from Ali Doubar’s stall… when he had it on the left side of the marketplace… so that means…"
Emilia grabbed the analyzed undergarment back. "I had no idea you were such a connoisseur. But that is entirely beside the point. These notes and… gifts… show that the Daughters of the Dragoon have shifted their focus from freedom fighting, to obsessing about their idol."
Jack preened. Emilia frowned him down. "I mean the mythical Daring Dragoon. He seems to be casting quite a disturbing fascination over them."
Jack frowned. "But the original Daughters of the Dragoon met the Dragoon. Why would they suddenly start leaving mushy notes and come-ons all over the place?"
Emilia shrugged and was about to reply when Jean Claude flapped in. "Bonjour mes amies. And Jacques, congratulations on becoming the most sought after man on the island. I mean in l’amour."
"Aw, JC not in front of Em."
Jean Claude ignored the glare Emilia turned on both of them and carried on.
"It seems that there is considerable interest in the Dragoon, after he was alleged to have bedded the governor’s wife in the local bordello."
"But that wasn’t me," protested Jack. "In fact it wasn’t the Dragoon either, Camille just thought the Dragoon was Croquie. It was just to add a little spice to their bedtime games."
"I know that and you know that, mon ami, but as far as the rest of the island is concerned, the Dragoon has shown that he is not immune to womanly charms."
"Well I’m immune to Camille’s. Surely they realise the Dragoon would have better taste?"
"Don’t let your ego get in the way Jack," broke in Emilia. "We could use this to our advantage sometime."
"Oui Jacques, oo la la!"
"The Dragoon has a red cape not a red lantern."
"Since when have you ever shrunk from the more grubby aspects of our profession?"
"That’s not the point. The Dragoon was a myth – make him human and you lose some of the power he has over the more superstitious – like Croque and Brogard in the mausoleum, remember?"
"Hmm yes, that did save us. But what do we do about the amorous Daughters of the Dragoon?"
Jack shook his head. "The more I think about it the more I don’t think it is them. This note is definitely a Dragoon booty-call. The DOTD’s were sweet not sweaty." He sighed. "I’ll just have to go and see who’s doing the asking. It’s a dirty job…"
"And then you will what? This could be a trap you know – what if it’s Brogard or Croque?"
Jack winced. "Please Em, that’s a nightmare I don’t want to come true. Besides like I said, I prefer that the Dragoon only uses one sort of sword."
"Why, Jack Stiles. Are you developing decorum?"
"Spying 101 – don’t lift the mask. JC," he addressed the bird who had been watching in some amusement, "has anyone been seen putting these up?"
"I will find out Jacques. Vive la resistance!" Jean Claude flapped out.
Emilia twirled a beaker thoughtfully. "Jack, what possible explanation could you give for turning down an offer like that?"
"I’ll think of something Em, don’t worry."
"Let me know when you do. I’ve always wanted to be a witness to an historic event."
"Oh, ha ha. I’ll have you know I’ve turned down plenty of offers in my time…"
"Well, um, there was… er… Who cares. I have that’s all."
A few hours later Jack and Emilia were ascending the steps to the Governor's house. Both were dressed for a formal evening. Governor Croque had promised his dinner guests something special and naturally had invited his favorite exporter and perforce her attaché. When they arrived they were ushered into the ballroom which had been laid out in theatre style seating with a harpsichord on a low stage in front. Croque surged forward when he saw them arrive.
"My dear Madame Rothschild, you look ravishing. Monsieur Stiles… er, do be seated."
"What have you got lined up for us tonight, Croquie?" Asked Jack, ignoring his less than enthusiastic welcome.
Croque smiled, swelling with pride. "Ah, Jacques, tonight I have only the most celebrated opera star in all France!"
Emilia tripped Jack as he was heading for the door, he recovered but sat down hard in a chair. She glared at him. Croque carried on oblivious. "She will be singing many excerpts from the more modern operas."
This time Emilia caught Jack’s arm firmly before he could get more than three feet away. "That sounds wonderful Governor, we can’t wait for it to start."
We are about to Madame, I will go and announce her now."
Jack made another half-hearted attempt to breakaway – but found Emilia’s grip surprisingly strong. "Don’t make me tie you to the chair Jack Stiles." she hissed.
"Aw Em. It’s opera. I hate opera. Everyone hates opera. They just pretend to like it."
"Sit still and behave."
"Ok, but you owe me."
Croque took his seat next to them and pulled out a slim printed pamphlet from his coat pocket. "Would you care to see my libretto, Emilia?"
"Hey!" began Jack.
Emilia kicked him on the ankle. "Thank you Governor, which opera is the first aria from?"
"Ah Emilia, it is from a very beautiful story. The hero loves a widow who has sworn to never marry again, to be true to her late husband’s memory. For years he must live with this unrequited love until he finally wins her respect and heart. Of course everyone dies at the end. But the aria is beautiful, beautiful…" he dabbed at his eyes.
Jack rolled his eyes. "I’ll never know why they insist on making up such malarky. That would never happen in real life."
"It’s not real life, Jack. It’s opera," snapped Emilia in an aside. She turned back to the governor. "So, do you have many of these librettos?"
"Alas, I only have this well thumbed handful, I keep them for bedtime reading."
Jack groaned. "Oh brother, how wet can you get?"
"Er, I said, "You’re the most sensitive man I ever met."
Two hours later Emilia stamped forcefully on Jack’s foot and he woke with a start, to join in the hearty clapping. The Soloist made a bow and offered an encore. Jack settled back down, but Emilia leaned close and hissed, "Stay awake for at least one song Jack. I need you to talk to Croque about this later."
Jack muttered under his breath, but suffered through the performance.
Emilia dragged him aside as the audience were milling and chatting before proceeding slowly to the dining room.
"Jack, you need to talk to Croque about the opera."
You are joking, right?"
"No, my idea is that you get him to loan you a couple of those librettos."
"Why on earth would I need that mawkish trash."
"Because that is exactly the sort of thing you need to tell those deluded women."
"Look, Jack, these women are obviously steeped in the most sentimental attitudes as regards the Dragoon. Now if the Dragoon gives them a good excuse for resisting their favors, in language they understand…"
Jack broke in, "Like a sloppy, drippy, unrequited love story!"
"Exactly. The Dragoon is not available, because he is already taken!"
"Not a chance sister."
"What? But it’s perfect."
"And wimpy. Not to mention sissy. No way."
"Jack, the Dragoon would appear noble and… and… look it would work. Trust me."
"Em, you don’t know how the Dragoon is perceived out there. He’s a man’s man. If there was a woman he wanted, the islanders would expect a man of action not a mooncalf. The Dragoon wouldn’t wait for her to come around, he’d be in there making his pitch," Jack gestured with both arms. "And let me tell you, there’s no woman on the island who could turn that down."
"Oh, get over yourself!"
Jack smiled innocently. "I was speaking as the Dragoon. But it would equally apply to the old Stiles charm."
"Yes, well, there was one woman who turned you down about five minutes after you landed!"
"Oh, I had barely hit my stride, lady."
"It would be completely wasted on any but the most feeble minded, or desperate…"
"Oh, don’t flatter yourself that you would get the old Stiles one-two now, sister. You had your chance..."
"I’ll consider myself delivered from a dreadful ordeal."
"Hey, you’re not the only cookie in the jar, you know. There’s a long list of names ahead of yours. In fact you’re not even on the page."
"Fine, that’s makes me very happy to know I’ll have nothing to fear. That particular Sword of Damocles was starting to keep me up at nights."
"Oh, you’re safe. The very idea, ewwww!"
It was noted by the island gossips that Madame Rothschild and Monsieur Stiles did not sit next to each other at dinner or talk to each other for the remainder of the evening and that Monsieur Stiles left the function considerably in advance of his employer.
Jack raised his hand and signaled the barkeep for another ale. He had been drinking for the last two hours but somehow his mind refused to reach the desired state of oblivion. The barkeep thrust another tankard his way. Jack grabbed for it and the ale slopped over his hand. "Damnit," he cursed, slamming his fist onto the counter. "I wanted a drink not a bath." He reached out and grabbed the barkeep by the front of his none to clean shirt "Bring me another and this time keep it in the mug!"
Jack turned, Brogard was standing in the doorway. "Well, hi there Brogie. Fancy seeing you here."
Brogard ignored him. "Barkeep, is this man causing a disturbance?"
"Volunteering Brogie? I’ll cause a disturbance with you."
"No Captain, Monsieur Jack is a little drunk, that is all."
"Then I suggest Monsieur Stiles," said Brogard, disappointed that he could not arrest Jack, "you depart before you do."
Jack opened his mouth to deliver a smartass remark that undoubtedly would have started a fistfight, when his stomach gave a warning lurch, reminding him that local ale on top of a rich repast could have unfortunate consequences. Figuring that throwing up on Brogard’s shiny buckled shoes would not be the most debonair way of engaging in the fight he felt like having, Jack flung some coins on the scratched and beaten-up countertop. Heaving himself off the barstool, he pushed past Brogard and his men and staggered outside. The night air made his head swim for a moment, then the tang of the spice trees planted near the Village Square, served to clear his head and settle his gut.
"Great," he thought. "Can’t even stay drunk on this lousy island." Slowly he started to trudge home. Suddenly he heard shouting behind him coming from the Drunken Pig. He turned round, perplexed that Brogard and the barkeep were getting louder with every passing minute. His spy’s instincts, never far buried, cut in and he ducked around the side of the building to the shuttered window.
"I tell you Captain, I do not know where he is!"
"He is your nephew…"
"And a curse to our family. He brought his Mother to the grave and beggared his Father through his debts and reckless ways. I have nothing to do with him!"
"His crimes go beyond mere gambling and wenching. He has been seen in the company of types we believe to be plotting against the Emperor." Brogard leaned till he was nose to nose with the plainly frightened barkeep. "We believe that his wild ways are nothing more than a front and his family’s disgust, a blind, to protect them from being named as co-conspirators in this plot."
"I know nothing of treason!"
"I think you know the whereabouts of a traitor! Your bar is forfeit until this wretch is in our hands. And you will languish in jail until he takes your place!"
"Ha ha!" the lilting laugh spun Brogard round like a top.
"You!" he snarled and lunged with his sword at the caped and masked figure that stood in the doorway.
Jack laughed. The exhilaration of finally being able take out his frustrations on someone made the blood sing through his veins and he beat off Brogard in effortless style. But the wily Captain sprang back before Jack’s blade and shouted for his men to take on the Dragoon. While they kept Jack busy, Brogard leapt onto the bar, ran along the top and jumped off to dive through the window. Springing to his feet, he sprinted to cut off Jack’s retreat. The first Jack knew was when he heard Brogard’s voice behind him raised in challenge. Brogard’s men shouted with glee. Caught between two forces, Jack ducked desperately and dived under the bars’ tables. Throwing them back at his pursuers, he managed to more fall than jump out of the window that Brogard had left shattered. More by luck than good management he also managed to knock the Captain, who had run back to catch him, sprawling.
"We hardly know each other well enough for this," Jack panted. Scrambling up, he left the winded Captain gasping hoarsely for his men.
From the corner of his eye Jack saw the barkeep disappearing on horseback. "Work done, time to go!" he thought.
Jack ran until he doubled over with a pain in his side. "Phew, what’s with me, I thought I was in good shape," he gasped, pressing a hand to his ribs – the sudden flare of agony made him yelp and fall to his knees, his hand came away wet – one of the soldiers or Brogard had connected. "Oh boy." Jack leant forward, supporting himself on one hand while he tried to assess how bad he was hurt. His side was gashed, but not too deep and it seemed to have missed anything vital. He was dizzy from the blood loss and other aches where he had hit the furniture were starting to hurt. Moving carefully, he used his sword to cut a piece of his cloak away, noticing with a rueful smile that it was already ripped in several places. Hissing at the pain, he wrapped it round his waist to close the wound and hopefully stop the now sluggish blood flow completely.
Looking around he realized that he was in one of the shanty areas that had grown up on the outskirts of the main town. Carefully wending his way between the houses he started to head for home.
"Monsieur!" came a sudden whisper.
Jack flourished his sword. "Who’s there?"
"A friend. The Captain’s men are close. You are leaving a trail of blood. Quickly this way."
On the breeze Jack heard the shouts of the soldiers, but he hesitated, wary of a trap.
A figure stepped into the moonlight from the shadows of a hut. It was the barkeep. Jack relaxed and gestured. "Lead on, friend."
The barkeep, who said his name was Samna, led him by a complex route to a small cave. As far as Jack could see it was just an opening in the rock, but once he got inside a narrow cleft at the back gave onto a large cavern. Several men and one woman were crouched around the remains of a campfire. Samna made brief introductions. The men regarded the Dragoon in some awe. The woman giggled and blushed when sent for water and cloth to bind Jack’s wound.
"Stay as long as you like, monsieur." said Samna. "We are honored to help the friend of freedom!"
"Yeah, well, that’s swell guys but I gotta be running along. If I was found with you, you would be hanged, no question."
Samna shrugged. "We are all under sentence of death here Monsieur."
Jack shrugged back into his shirt, one of the men gave him a scarf to use as a cummerbund to hide the tear. The cloak he discarded – it was ripped beyond repair. "Yeah, well I don’t want to make it worse, come first light, I’m out of here."
"D’accord. But please, share our food."
Jack took some out of politeness, though he wasn’t hungry. Then he settled down with the others to doze until dawn.
It seemed he had only just closed his eyes when a gentle touch on his shoulder brought him fully awake.
"Monsieur? I will show you the way now."
"Ok, let’s go."
They were approaching the cavern entrance when they heard sounds of a scuffle in the front part of the cave. Jack peered through the cleft. A group of women had lined up outside, most were primping and preening, but a scuffle had broken out over something one of the woman was holding. Jack recognized her as the same one who had helped clean his wound the night before. Jack stared in astonishment as the remains of his cloak were ripped out of the woman’s hands and before his eyes all the women fell on it and ripped it to shreds. He backed away hastily. "Hey Samna, you gotta back way outta this place?"
"Oui Monsieur. Quickly." Jack and Samna ran back down the cavern.
"What’s got into those ladies?" Jack wondered aloud.
"Beetlenut juice, they chew the beetlenut leaves and it loosens all inhibitions."
"Really? Well there’s a time and a place for that."
"I agree but right now you need to be fighting off the Emperor’s soldiers not the fairer sex."
"From your mouth to God’s ears, brother."
"Here – this passage will bring you out at the top of the cliff, make your way to the river and you can get back to the town easily from there."
"Thanks Samna." Jack shook hands and ducked into the passage . Emerging, he made a break for the river. The ladies let out a collective squeal when they spotted the masked figure and gave chase, but even wounded, Jack was able to keep ahead of the mob and moments later came to the river. Grabbing the twisted rope that the Palausian children used when playing, he swung himself out over the water. He almost made the far bank, dropping just two yards short. Cursing he waded to the bank and got out of sight under the trees, just as the pack reached the other side. Wails and protestations of love followed him as he double-timed through the trees – "I wonder if there are any monasteries on Pulau Pulau," he thought.
Emilia had deliberately not gone near the lab since returning from the party, but by mid-morning she thought justified in giving Jack a wakeup call he would never forget. Marching determinedly into his alcove she was nonplussed to find the bed empty.
"Looking for something, Em?"
Emilia whirled, but the scornful words died on her lips as she took in Jack’s disheveled state. "Jack, what happened? You look like you’ve been dragged through a hedge backwards!"
Jack threw the Dragoon mask and hat into a corner. "Oh, same old same old. Fighting Brogie and his men, having my cloak ripped to shreds by drug-crazy women, hobnobbing with the hunted. SSDD. You know how it is." He eased himself down onto his cot and lay back. "I gotta rest. Can you look up Beetlenut and get back to me when I…" he snored.
Emilia stood with her mouth open for a full minute, before dazedly placing a blanket over him and tiptoeing out of the lab.
It was evening by the time Jack awoke. Levering himself up he was surprised and pleased to see Emilia sitting reading, with a full tray of food beside her. Emilia looked up as he came over and helped himself liberally.
"I found Beetlenut, Jack. Chewing the leaves lowers inhibitions but it can be taken in small doses, medicinally, quite safely."
"Yeah, I guess that’s why the ladies first got hold of it."
"Also Jean-Claude reported back, he said it was the more middle-class Palausian and European ladies putting up the notices. And guess what, they all have been patients of Dr. Ngpu."
"Dr. Suspicious? Friend of the frenchies?"
"The very same. Which may point to a plot. If Brogard could stop the Daring Dragoon by drugging, then inciting women to mob him…."
"That sounds like one of your far-fetched operas. But it ties in with what I saw." Jack shuddered.
"Well, what did you see!" Emilia spoke tartly.
Jack gave her a brief run down on all that had occurred since he had left the Governor’s party. He prudently didn’t mention how long he had been at the Drunken Pig before Brogard had arrived.
"How’s your side?"
"It’s just a scratch. Samna’s people doctored it. I can ignore it."
Emilia nodded sharply. "Good, because you need to get into Croque’s bedroom."
"Bedroom? On second thoughts I think it hit something vital, in fact I’m sure it did."
"Jack, you need to get hold of those librettos. Those women won’t listen to anything else when they are under the influence."
"What makes you think they will listen to me anyway? They are animals Em. I’ll be ripped to pieces, just like my cloak if I get within spitting distance!"
"Hmmmm. Attractive as that sounds, I do need you later. How about if you lead them to the old ruins south of the village? You can be out of reach on the wall above the cloister."
"That’s an old monastery?"
It was two hours later when the Dragoon slipped gracefully through the wide-open window of Croque’s second floor private quarters. The governor was asleep and snoring softly. Jack mentally hummed a lullaby as he crept over to the bed. Croque snorted and turned over, Jack froze, then when the governor's breathing had deepened again, he sank to one knee and started to carefully rifle through Croque’s bedside cabinet. Pulling out a bag of boiled sweets, Jack helped himself to a few. Contentedly sucking, he continued. There were notes which he thought would have made highly interesting reading had he the time, and what looked like charcoal sketches. Jack held one up to the meager moonlight. "Oh, naughty boy, govie," he thought, appreciatively surveying the ample charms of the model. He had to admit Croque was a fair artist. He tucked it away to study later. A flat box proved tempting enough to investigate. Jack pried open the lid which was surprisingly stiff. Finally it gave with a crack and before he could stop them a half dozen chocolates flew out and landed on the counterpane.
Croque stirred and mumbled, half waking.
"Meow," warbled Jack, wishing he could remember whether Croque had a cat.
"Good kitty. Be a good Mr. Mittens and chase away the mice for Papa." Croque settled down again.
Jack relaxed and heaping the chocolates back in the box, tucked that away too.
He soon spotted the librettos and helped himself to a handful. Then tiptoeing back to the window he swung himself up onto the roof and lightly made his way back home.
"This stuff is terrible!" Jack stirred the librettos on the table in front of him with a disgusted forefinger. "How can the Daring Dragoon spout such trash?"
"Jack," sighed Emilia, "for the fifth time, just think of it as another ploy. Once these women are off your back, so to speak, things will return to normal. At the moment we can’t take the risk of working because they could ruin a mission."
"Yeah, yeah, I agreed already. But I don’t have to like it."
"Go out there and play to your audience Jack."
"Well they are my adoring public."
"That’s the spirit."
"Say "Break a leg" and you’ll be pushing it."
The Daring Dragoon waited quietly behind a fruit stall in the market place. The women of the town were congregating in groups around the well as they did their shopping and gossiping for the day.
Emilia appeared, swinging her shopping basket. She passed Jack without a glance and headed for Dr. Ngpu’s booth. A minute later she passed him again and winked. That was his cue. He slipped over to the "doctor’s" booth and tore away the flimsy covering at the back, exposing Dr. Ngpu and a French lieutenant trading distinctively colored Beetlenut leaves. Emilia started loudly questioning Dr. Ngpu on the source and use of his cures. Dr. Ngpu tried to remonstrate with her as the soldier tried to distance himself from the fracas and dodge the Daring Dragoon whose flashing sword was not allowing him to beat a retreat. Four more soldiers arrived. The Dragoon disarmed the lieutenant with a flick of his wrist and whirled to meet them. Emilia immediately cast herself onto the lieutenant’s chest, crying that she had been insulted and that he had to protect her. The officer glanced at the flashing sword of the Dragoon as he disposed of two of the guards and decided that guarding the lovely exporter and making a show of arresting a drug dealer, was far more important than pursuing the masked bedeviler. He called his men off.
The women around the well had watched all this with open mouths and uneasiness as they heard the accusations of Dr. Ngpu’s plotting with the French, but as Jack finished off the guards and sprinted for the old monastery, they shouted and followed. Fortunately Jack had scouted out the route in advance and was able to get there well ahead of his pursuers. It made him shiver to hear their yells and whoops as they chased him.
Finally they were milling in what had been the courtyard of the monastery.
"Oh, ladies," Jack called.
The women looked up and gasped to see the object of their desire balanced easily on the wall above their heads, casually leaning with one hand on an old roof support. They fell silent.
"Huh," Jack tried to think of where to start.
One woman, bolder than the rest, pushed to the front "Oh, Daring Dragoon, won’t you take your pick of these flowers." she indicated herself and the other women.
Jack cursed inwardly, ‘Talk about lousy timing!’
"Ladies, the Daring Dragoon is honored by your offer but cannot take you up on it." He raised his hands to still the chorus of ‘why’s’. "I…" he stopped and gritted his teeth. "I love another." This time the shouts of ‘who’ took longer to die away. Jack sighed theatrically and smiled sadly, "The lady I wish to woo, does not know me for who I am. She does not look upon my suit with favour." Cries of shame. Jack started to enjoy himself. He struck a tragic pose. "I have yet to win her respect and heart. But The Daring Dragoon will stop at nothing! One day I will win my lady and we shall join together in a Pulau Pulau free from oppression!"
There was a shout of "Yes!"
"Where hearts can join and new loves will be given the chance they deserve!"
The women cheered.
"And men and women will be free to throw off stuffy convention and enjoy life unencumbered by outdated institutions!"
The women looked at each other puzzled. Jack continued hastily.
"Ladies, I appreciate your support, even though I cannot return your regard. Please give me a chance to woo my love and fight for freedom unhindered by your siren songs. Will you do that for me and my lady?"
The women sighed, touched by his soulful plea. Then reluctantly and with many a backward glance they departed, heading back to the marketplace and their interrupted shopping.
Jack sighed in relief, it had proved easier than he had expected. "Count your blessings and a devious partner, Jack," he muttered, and quickly made his way back home.
Jack was brushing out his cloak in the lab when Emilia arrived.
"I am happy to report that Dr. Ngpu’s stock got completely flattened in the fight and there will be a rumor going round that he and his wares are not to be trusted. I think that will take care of your amorous ladies."
"I think they liked my style."
"It would never run at Covent Garden."
"You were listening?"
"I caught most of it. It’s a good thing they were under the influence, there were holes in the plot you could float a barge through!"
"Well, as you said, it’s not real life," Jack flourished his cloak. "It’s opera!"
"It was so sweet it almost gave me tooth decay."
"Oh, speaking of sweet. Here you go. Complements of Croquie’s bedside snack bar."
"Heavens! These must be Croque's private stock! Look they’re in his likeness."
"Well they should still taste good."
Emilia chuckled. "I’ve often wanted to bite off Croque’s head."
"Be my guest. Hey, don’t hog the hard centers!"
Copyright 2001 Conan the Librarian
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