Regular Romp is an interactive fiction activity over on our Twitch stream where I ask a regular a series of questions before turning their answers and a corruption of their username into a short story. Stop by twitch.tv/blainearcade if you’d like to participate.
Most people chose to capture moments like that with paint or, if they could afford it, the newfangled tin plate photography. Sir Moanle was a simpler man who painted with nothing but the sparsely-haired brush of his memory. If the image had any bare patches they were filled in over time, as he observed that sunrise over the river every day for three months.
It was the sort of mingling of orange, yellow, and the slightly purple tint of magic on the water that could only be found in the greatest snaking river of the wild west. In the dignity of his aging Sir Moanle would’ve called himself the river’s guardian, but it already had one far more capable. It did sometimes need assistance, when a human space hiding human sins needed to be squeezed into and dealt with. It didn’t grace him with its presence very often, so when it did that morning he guessed there was a foul smell wafting out of one of those spaces.
The serpent’s body rose out of the river without a splash, circling the sun as if it weighed nothing, enhancing the painting in a way even his devoted memory could not capture. Sir Moanle lifted his head from his rolled-up blanket and stood to offer his respects. He wasn’t the most dignified sight standing in front of his one-man tent, scratching a chin that hadn’t seen a razor since the summer, and wearing his long filthy duster that was supposed to hide the saber at his hip. The coat did have one notable marking near his ankles: a black stitched snake with green eyes swirling all the way up to the collar. That meant he was one of the creature’s blessed warriors: a knight of the river rattler.
He bowed to the magnificent creature, the source of all things good in the new steam-powered frontier, and it responded by wrapping around him loosely and letting him sit on a few of its coils. The river rattler was a giant thing of great power, but no speech. It had a different way of telling you what it wanted. One of its many curls slowed in front of him. Its iridescent rattle of paddle-shaped scales started making that beautiful lullaby, a sound like dried beans sinking into shaking sand.
Its thousand scales reflected the sun’s rising color and then made use of it. Sir Moanle saw each scale pick up a color, saw pictures playing out across its hide, almost like a puppet show. He saw wood and iron spires that could only be the nearby city. A series of scales flashed white, but only ever one at a time. The white scale moved from the tip of one spire to another and then back. Some sort of fancy air-walking craft maybe. Sir Moanle had seen pictures of them in the newspaper, leaving black inky smoke trails.
The scales magnified the tip of a tower. Now the ‘ground’ around the serpent’s belly was white and there was a man of yellow garb walking across it and wearing a mighty tall hat. The rattling stopped and the pictures vanished. The river rattler looked into its knight’s eyes with its own big green irises. He nodded. This wouldn’t be his first mission for the beast; in fact he was worried it had let him lounge on the beach for so long. He thought it was nearly time to give up on life and become driftwood. Not yet. There was a wicked man atop the city misusing the river rattler’s gifts, and the knight would have to act as representative until the man changed his ways or no longer had the capacity to do so.
The rattler vanished under the water, the glint of its rattle scales lasting far longer than it should have. Sir Moanle packed up his belongings and washed his face in the reflected colors of the sunrise. The city meant so many people that every building had at least one of them in it. He hadn’t been around that many in years. He instinctively grabbed at his belt for his saber, but it wasn’t there. He had nothing to polish in preparation for the mission except his rugged bulbous silver cuff links. They didn’t quite fit with the rest of his healthy dirt coating, but they might come in handy in the shadows of the city.
The city was Fresh Arkana, and it, like the rest of the United States, benefited from the many gifts of the river rattler. It gave them filtered water so that they might properly hydrate their people. It gave them snakes of steam that could be corralled into machines and furnaces, furthering industry so rapidly that every few years it became unrecognizable, like a snake turning into an eel with the shedding of its skin.
The old skins of Fresh Arkana were left at the street level. It was a dingy, gray, dusty place. Its poor excuse for air got caught in Sir Moanle’s throat and nearly choked him. He’d been expecting lots of fancy fountains. At least a hose to clean off the street. He didn’t want to look at it any longer than he had to, so he craned his head up and searched the sky for whatever that white scale had represented. He saw one tower, among the tallest, with a white circilar balcony and a golden edge.
He found the building’s entrance. It was some sort of bank, but they were closed. There was another way up to the other businesses and homes that occupied its height, but the sight of it made the old river knight grimace. It was a spiraling staircase all around the exterior of the structure, held up with metal wires that didn’t look like they could hold up a chickadee let alone a man, his sixshooter, and his ammo bag.
Sir Moanle started the climb anyway. He didn’t know what he was going to say to this man in yellow when he found him, but the rattler had a sense for these things. He knew he would learn what the problem was before they ever locked eyes. If not, well then the rattler would have put on his little show for a different knight that would know.
Progress up the floors was slow since he circled the whole building, but he at least had a decent look at those populating each level. Most didn’t have windows; they were just open to the air to give all the laborers a nice breeze. It looked to be about the only thing they had. One of the lower levels was full of carpenters, moving around and buzzing with handheld saws like they were wood-boring bees. He noticed that a large percentage were children with overalls but no shirts and no shoes. Their floor was covered in sawdust with nails hiding in it like scorpions.
That was injustice enough if they worked for the man in yellow. Children should be swimming in the mighty river depopulated of leeches by the rattler just for them. Work was for men and women, and only those who suffer vice if left idle. Just looking at them and their chapped little lips made him thirsty, so held his hand out over the open air.
Moisture condensed from nowhere and created a globe of crystal clear water at his fingertips. He brought the cold orb to his mouth and sipped at it until it was the size of a marble. The magic canteen was another gift of the river rattler, but only for its loyal servants. All he had to was pretend to grip the sun, and when he pulled the hand back it would have a portion of water in the exact shape and size of the bright disk above.
Moanle flicked the marble out onto the work floor; it made a sound like glass as it bounced and rolled away. A little lady dove for it and shoved it in her mouth, but the knight knew it wouldn’t satisfy her. That water was only meant for him; it likely vanished from her mouth before it even touched her tongue.
He was so distracted by her desperate thirst that he ran right into a strange pole in the middle of the stairs. It was iron, so it took most of the wind out of him. The knight examined its bulky head, which had some kind of meter and coin slot on it. He read the phrase ‘escalation for a small fee’ just above its glass dial.
“What in the name of the horniest toads is ‘escalation’?” he muttered.
“It makes the stairs walk themselves,” the little girl who had snatched his marble said. Moanle turned and saw she was right there, staring at him. She had sawdust in the ends of her pigtails and eyes that looked like they’d cried for a year straight, but that had been last year and there were simply no tears left. The knight blinked but she just stared back, eyes even wider.
“You’re telling me,” he said, wagging a suspicious finger in the direction of the machine post, “that if I put a coin in there the stairs will walk themselves? It’ll take me all the way to the top?”
“Why does the machine want me to do that? Does it think I’m somebody else who needs help? Do I look like a woman pregnant with all nine months? I’m an adult man with two working legs that can work all the way up there.”
“You won’t make it,” the girl said. “You’ll pass out from the heat way up there. They put some vents right next to the stairs to make it worse. Either you put money in or you’re not making it to the top.” She coughed, her voice crumbling like a cracker. Sir Moanle dug around in his pocket. He had a little money left from his last mission. Out came a silver dollar that he tried to stick in the slot, but it was too big. None of the coins he had would fit.
“It only takes company money,” the girl said with a roll of her dry eyes. She reached into her own pocket and pulled out a coin that Moanle could only describe as sleazy, though he’d never had such a thought about a coin before. It was only metal in the middle, with a wooden ridged edge. It had a winking face on it, a face that wore a tall hat.
“What do you mean ‘company money’? Money’s money. Don’t tell me that’s changed since I been gone.”
“It works a little different everywhere. We work here, so we get this tower’s coins. Buy everything with them from the company store. They sell us our clothes, our food, our water…”
“Your water!” Moanle exclaimed, nearly reeling back and falling off the side of the tower. “Nobody pays for water. The river rattler cleans it and gives it out. A child paying money for water. All this techno-mology is going to people’s heads. Luckily I’m a knight and can cut those heads back down to size.” He again grabbed for his saber but it was still far away, on loan.
“I’ve never had free water,” the girl said. “I bet it tastes real good.”
“You poor industrious little creature,” Moanle muttered. He held out his silver dollar. “Here. You take this and I’ll take that company coin. You can go down in the street and buy anything with this. Two or three anythings if you’re careful. Deal?” The little girl nodded and extended her hand. They shook and exchanged coins before she went back to work, picking up a saw bigger than her head. Sir Moanle inserted the coin, sending the needle in the dial flying to the other side. The stairs clacked to life and moved. The knight would’ve been amazed and repulsed by the laziness of it all if he wasn’t distracted. He had the details now. This man was going to prostrate himself before the glory of the rattler or he was going to die from a knight’s bullet. “I’ll bleed him to death with a fork,” he assured the clouds in the sky. “Paying for water…”
He looked up near the top and was flabbergasted to find that the white balcony was gone. For one moment he thought his aging brain had actually gotten so rough that he’d climbed the wrong building. He spotted it a few seconds later, only it wasn’t attached to any building. It flew on its own, like a thrown saucer, finally making sense of the white moving scale he’d seen on the rattler. He watched it land on top of another tower. Dots moved back and forth, leading him to guess that it was exchanging people. All he had to do was get up there and wait for it to come back.
The roof was a flat expanse of metal and hidden mechanisms. The self-walking stairs bucked him off on the last one; he stumbled into a young man in a fancy white uniform with golden buttons. He wore a little thimble of a hat that looked like something you’d see on a trained monkey.
“When is that… balcony… making another stop here?” Sir Moanle asked him.
“Just a few minutes sir. The luncheon is ongoing. The saucer will stop on each tower three times to make sure all the guests get an excellent view of the city. Shall I take your coat?”
“My coat?” He grabbed its lapels defensively when the young man reached out. “This old thing is lucky. I’ll be keeping it on me, thanks.”
“I must insist,” he said. “There is a dress code for Sir Yello’s luncheon, and I’m afraid your coat is too… lucky for the affair. I hope the shirt underneath is much nicer, otherwise you won’t be getting aboard at all.”
“I’ll show you nicer,” Moanle grumbled. He pulled off his duster and turned it inside-out, revealing a much fancier pattern. It was perfectly acceptable for sophisticated company if you ignored the massive yellow sweat stains around the armpits that made it look almost like sandstone. He pulled it back on and held out his arms to see if the attendant was satisfied. He pointed at the sixshooter on the knight’s hip.
“Isn’t that supposed to be a sword? The snake means you’re a knight and all knights carry swords.”
“I mispla… someone borrowed… Someone misplaced it for me. Does that make sense?”
“No, it does not,” he answered, not amused. “Either way I need to take your gun. Every weapon gets checked unless it belongs to Sir Yello.” Sir Moanle handed over the ammunition bag. Then he emptied the chambers of the sixshooter and handed those bullets over as well. “Now the gun, if you please.”
“You don’t need the gun if it doesn’t have any bullets,” Sir Moanle insisted. “I need some piece of polished metal to indicate my knightly status, especially now that you made me hide my nice rattler stitching on the inside of my coat.”
“I suppose it’s fine,” he sighed. “Step back. The saucer’s arriving. You should be just in time for the third course: smoked salmon and capers.” The knight did as he was told. A shadow hovered over them, making an elegant hum like a wine glass struck with the tiniest and most useless of forks that normally come in the fine dining set. Moanle was too distracted to admire the engineering, because his brain was filling up with anger. This fellow was calling himself ‘Sir’. Moanle knew all the knights, was even related to one, and none of them were called Yello.
The saucer locked onto the tower and opened its golten gate. The knight walked in with the attendant. He watched the young man pull a lever. Part of the ground sprang up into a rack full of hooks and coats. The attendant put his ammo bag on one hook and then pushed it back down. That was where they were holding everybody’s coats and weapons it seemed. He lost track of that particular tile as it spun around to the far lip of the circular saucer.
The knight walked slowly, letting his gaze linger on every face. The tables were made of thin curves of metal with glass tops. He thought their particular kind of flimsiness looked French. Rich folks laughed and toyed with their tiny portions. All that work, all that steam borrowed from the rattler, and they used it to make a restaurant fly. They did that instead of putting it in cups and letting the children take a drink.
His target was no too difficult to find, given the absurd size of his bright yellow hat. He had an extra large table with plenty of seats, but they were all full of babbling guests. One of them stood up to go ask for a refill on their fancy orange juice, so the knight slipped in and took his seat. When the man protested Moanle simply flashed the stitched snake on the inside of his coat and claimed it was knightly business.
“I’m Sir Yello,” the man with the hat insisted as he leaned back in his squeaking French chair. “I handle all my own knightly business, so what do you think you’re doing butting in on my luncheon? We’re celebrating.” He slapped his hand down on the thigh of the woman seated next to him; she flinched.
Sir Moanle hated the look of the man, with his thick beard and mustache oiled up more than any pair of shoes the true knight had ever seen. He had no sword on his hip, so even his attendant getting paid in wood-rounded company money knew more about river rattler knights than he did. Moanle was about to launch into his lecture when he noticed the face of the young woman at Yello’s side.
She looked uncomfortable in her floral green dress, almost like she was afraid her legs had disappeared under it. Her hair was arranged into an awkward tower that leaned to one side, but even it leaned away from the false knight. Her eyes were wide, telling Sir Moanle to back off. He cleared his throat, but didn’t dare lean in the chair.
“Well, I, Uhh… I just wanted to hear all about the knight who made a name for himself completely separate from the river rattler. This business sure wasn’t the snake’s idea.” He propped up a fake smile and stole glances at the young lady. Her appearance had thrown him off the saddle in a sense, but he still had the presence of mind to load his weapon.
His bullets had been taken, but not his oddly-shaped cuff links, which he removed under the table and inserted into the cylinder. Two shots. He wondered how many she had.
“Now that’s a story,” Sir Yellow declared, getting up from his seat and walking around. “A story of me seeing resources that nobody else saw, all of it culminating in this beautiful golden dish skipping across the sky, serving up food that would taste so much worse if it was grown out there on the range. Alas, I am enjoying my food, and I’m going to have to ask you to leave, Sir whoever-you-are.”
“Sir Moanle,” the knight corrected, but then the lady smacked her forehead in disbelief.
“Moanle?” Sir Yello questioned. “That’s the same name as…” He pointed to her. She leapt out of her chair, picked it up, and tossed it at Sir Yello. He pulled a long black pistol and fired immediately. The knight bumped the man with his back, throwing him to the gilded floor, and then pulled the table onto its side. He hid behind it with the young lady and held his own gun. Shots bounced off the table as Sir Yellow emptied his sixshooter.
“You used your real name for this cloak and dagger?” the knight asked her. Before answering she pulled a lock of his hair painfully. She had nothing to wield but a pair of lemon forks.
“Of course!” she shouted. “Being a knight’s daughter is plenty prestigious, so I used what I had. I did not think my father was going to burst in, horning in on my mission to castrate some evil, ruining my little seduction illusion!”
“What do you need seduction for! You took my sword! Where is it by the way? If you lost it, so help me Kassdy Moanle I’ll dig up your mother and tell her…”
“It’s not lost!” she shouted back. “If I’m going to prove myself to the rattler I know I need to keep track of my weapon. It got checked. Its under the floor here somewhere.”
“We’ll talk about your choice in missions later little missy. For now, let’s get him.” Moanle took aim at one of the spinning tiles near the border of the saucer. He fired twice, popping the panel open and launching the spring-loaded rack.
It shot up with such force that it knocked all the other storage racks loose. A series of tiles popped out into their full shape, overturning all the tables and turning the saucer into a labyrinth of checked coats and weapons. Kassdy took a sword and tried to throw one to her father, but he let it slide off the side and fall to the streets below. Apparently he would only be using his own sword, once he found it.
Despite his concern he had complete faith in her combat abilities. He was the one who trained her to catch pike with her bare hands without getting bitten. She could handle a mustached weasel like Sir Yello, so they split up, each taking a different path among the spiraling racks. At some point the saucer took off again, hopping to another building. The motion sent the knight to the floor, and he saw a couple poor rich folk roll off the side. It didn’t bother him too much; they put their faith in a man who charged for water.
He spotted yellow pant legs and crawled silently under the coats. When he was in reach his arm struck like a snake, grabbing his ankle. He looked up to see that Kassdy already had him by the shoulders, and with the borrowed sword to his throat as well.
“I see you found it,” Sir Moanle said, rising to his feet. The saucer touched down on the next tower over.
“Now I’m going to use it and earn my title in the river rattler’s eye. I’ll be Dame Kassdy Moanle, and it’ll be written in your blood you scoundrel.” She moved to draw the saber across his neck as he squirmed, but her father put one rugged hand over hers and stalled it. “Daddy I’m ready. I will vanquish evil for our stolen country and…”
“Stolen?” Sir Yello grunted. “This country isn’t stolen. It’s bought and paid for.”
“That’s where you’re wrong Mister who-isn’t-a-sir,” Sir Moanle lectured. “There are some things you can never buy, and when you insist on doing it anyway you draw the ire of the river rattler. You can’t buy knighthood. You can’t buy a country by insisting its native peoples use your money. We stole this land from the Indians, and they only live far in the west because the rattler cut a new river for them to escape on. That great snake showed us mercy by not cutting us down for the offense.”
“We used to be good Christian people,” Sir Yello said, clearly generalizing because he’d never attended church himself. “We should know not to trust no snake, just like the tempter from the garden. Lousy heathen god of scales and charity!”
“The snake’s steam runs this saucer. His water is free for all. You put yourself in the middle and started handing out coins. Complicating something good is an act of evil. Let’s see whether or not you can still drink the river rattler’s water.”
Sir Moanle held his hand up to the sun, pretending to grip it like an apple. It came back with a sphere of water that only rippled under their breath. He forced Sir Yello’s growling mouth open and dropped the sphere onto his lying tongue. Kassdy released him. The man stayed on his feet, grabbing at random fur coats, for only a moment. The knightly family followed him around one spiral in the labyrinth of finery before he collapsed. It seemed that water stayed in his throat and he just couldn’t manage to swallow. Perhaps it was because he hadn’t paid for it.
When he fell he took a rack down with him, opening a path to the edge. Sir Moanle and his daughter walked out and found another descending staircase. They had no company money, so they just started down the old fashioned way.
“I had him Daddy,” his daughter insisted when they hit the two hundredth step. “I took your sword because you wouldn’t let me get one of my own. Don’t you want me to be a knight? Because either I am one or I wind up some dainty doily under the fork of a man like that.” She looked over to see her father with a finger over his lips. “I’m too old for you to shush me Daddy!” The gesture turned into a point. She looked out over the stairs.
There was the massive head of the river rattler. She looked down to see its body encircling the whole building dozens of times. It couldn’t quite reach the top and still keep its tail on the ground though, hence the need for one of its knights to go spill some water on the saucer. The snake turned its head and stared with a deep green iris, deep as all the rivers of the partly-ravaged west. It opened its mouth and extended its fangs, but it was not an aggressive gesture. Sir Moanle grabbed one fearlessly and used it as a handle to step onto the creature’s jaw. He sat on the edge of its open lip and patted the spot next to him. His daughter stepped over cautiously and sat there.
“I’m glad you’re a knight,” he told her. She tried to look up at the snake, but she couldn’t see its eye from that angle. The beast slowly recoiled, taking them down the building, showing them every layer full of thirsty workers. “That’s right. The rive rattler’s calling you a dame. I’m so proud, but you must know what we’re up against. We had to go up there because the river couldn’t reach. Those buildings are only going to get higher.
We need to stand tall, like a snake on the very tip of its tail, because nature can’t. We’ve got to be there for the freedom of air, and water, and land, or we’re all doomed to be slaves of the coin. We must stand tall…”
Sir Moanle tapped his daughter’s shoulders with his fang of a saber. They had stolen the river from the natives, but the knights were redeemed because they acknowledged their mistake. There was nothing worse than stealing something that wasn’t even property.
Sir and Dame Moanle snaked their way back to clear free waters and the magical colors of the sunset.