Darby sucked fermented nectar through a glass straw and clacked his glistening mouthparts contently, then daubed stray droplets of the iridescent liqueur from his mandibles with a handkerchief of spotted silk. Sprawled in a leather armchair beside him, scales glinting in the sallow lamplight of the Purpureus Room, Pescal struck a match to light the cigar clenched between his icthic lips and rolled bulbous yellow eyes towards the door, at which had appeared the svelte form of Mr. Conrad, resplendent in a suit of tweed and toad-skin. The squamous gentleman began masticating his cigar with his innumerable white teeth and puffed in distaste, sending a tendril of vapour to join the bluish haze that clung to the ceiling of the Purpureus Room in pungent perpetuity. Pescal’s unblinking gaze followed Mr. Conrad across the club, the cigar growing increasingly tattered.
“You seem somewhat vexed, dear Pescal,” Darby observed, setting down his nectar-flute and gesturing for one of the club’s delicately tattooed servers to refill the elegant glass, blown into the semblance of a pitcher-plant in vitreous mimicry of the arabesque designs that flowed in baroque profusion across the painted wooden walls. He reached out with one chitinous claw and scooped out a handful of candied chrysalises from a bowl on the table before him, crunching the glazed pupae. “What ails you? Another canker of the gills, perhaps? Or does the taste of your cigar disappoint you?”
“Neither,” Pescal answered after another rancorous puff. He said nothing further, but crossed and uncrossed his long, thin legs. Above the two of them stretched a painting of the famed Battle of Fenwrae, Admiral Illex standing triumphantly at the prow of the HMS Architeuthis amidst a confusion of cannon-smoke and splintered wood, the ships of the Town’s enemies burning and breaking on every side.
“Come, come,” Darby continued, sipping from his refreshed flute of nectar. “You are too stoic, my toothy chum – far too stoic indeed! Have we not known one another since I was a pale-bellied grub and you a plump young guppy? You can trust me with your woes.” By the hearth, Guillaume guffawed at one of Bertram’s jests, brandy sloshing in his glass. Darby rasped his mouthparts irritably at the sound.
“I do not wish to tire you,” Pescal persisted. “And besides, it would unbecoming for a gentleman to give voice to the matter.”
“Ah – I take it that the issue is pecuniary. We shall speak no more of it.”
“Your guess is mistaken – at least, the issue is not principally pecuniary.”
“Then I am perplexed! Now you have piqued my curiosity. Was not the Purpureus Room designed for Founders and other men of distinction to socialize in confidence, away from the gossip-hungry ears and other listening-orifices of ill-bred folk? You say it would be ungentlemanly to name whatever preys on your mind – but would it not also be ungentlemanly to deny your good and loyal friend Darby the chance to remedy whatever wound has so irked you?”
“Your logic would seem irrefutable,” Pescal sighed, smoke issuing from his gills. “I relent before this onslaught of rationality. You are aware that there was once an ancient enmity between my family and that of Mr. Conrad?” He nodded his head vaguely in the direction of the avian man, who had now settled near to Bertram and Guillaume.
Darby nodded his black, horned head. “Who could forget that legendary feud? I cannot claim to be conversant in every particular – but none in this town will soon forget the day when Mr. Conrad’s sire threw down his glove – nor could any claiming knowledge of matters historical fail to recall your own father’s most stalwart and dignified answer to that challenge. But I thought the whole affaire d’honneur quite settled!”
“So did I,” Pescal confessed. “But recent events have decidedly unsettled it once more. The old grudge is very much alive.”
“Good heavens!” Darby answered. “What manner of slight could be sufficiently repugnant to revivify such a vendetta?”
“Darby, you know me passably well. What would you say is my greatest joy?”
Darby thought for a moment. “Well,” he said, swirling the nectar in his glass. “I know you to cultivate a garden of surpassing beauty. Your Venus flytraps have won first prize seven years running at the local shows…”
“Indeed they have, but the insult was not horticultural in nature.”
“Hmm. You also possess a remarkable library, full of rare tomes and beautiful illuminated books, the envy of many a collector…”
“Indeed I do, but the insult was not antiquarian in nature.”
“There is also the matter of your cellar, three levels deep and well-stocked with wines of exquisite quality…”
“Indeed there is, but the insult was not vineal or oenelogical in nature.”
“These possibilities eliminated, I would have to say that your greatest joy is undoubtedly your champion hairless show-cats, creatures with skin softer than any silk, eyes more enigmatic than the most alluring of women, and meows more sonorous than any songbird’s – cats of such meticulous breeding, of such rarefied bloodline, of such refined pedigree, that they have conquered every cat-show in the Town and beyond for generations.”
“Your guess is correct.” Pescal fumed, his cigar now a sizzling butt, its red smoulder giving his face a hellish glow. “I treasure my cats as others treasure their own offspring. They are my passion. They are my joy. They are allowed nothing but the finest meat, they are exercised rigorously, are they kept alert and stimulated through a carefully designed training regimen. And, of course, I take the utmost care in mating them, selecting only those cats of sound hereditary stock, sometimes travelling many miles for the occasion.”
“Yes, of course. One cannot be too precise in such matters!”
“No one cannot! And once one of my precious cats becomes pregnant, I spare no effort or expense in her care. I purchase nutritional supplements, vitamins, and nourishing tinctures to encourage the growth of a healthy litter. I bring in the finest veterinary specialists money can buy. I spend hours by the fireside, petting those of my dears in the family way and reciting poetry to their unborn kittens. Fine oils imported at no little cost are rubbed on the skin of the mother-to-be, soothing aromatics to ensure relaxation and contentment. The birthing itself is a time of joy, a miracle to be celebrated. I await the arrival of each new litter with the utmost eagerness.”
“You can imagine, then, how excited I was when my dear Beatrice – herself the champion of many a tournament – showed the familiar signs indicating that her latest rendezvous had been fruitful. Her paramour had been a prince among felines, a creature of magnificent beauty and unsurpassed sophistication, as perfectly hairless as Beatrice. It was to be her first litter.”
“I fear some dreadful calamity is imminent. Did the birthing go poorly? Was there a miscarriage or some similarly morbid disaster?”
“Nothing like that. The birthing was painless, and all the kittens were perfectly healthy – and perfectly hairy. Each and every one of them was covered from tip to tail in hideous dappled fuzz!”
“The horror!” Darby exclaimed, clutching at his chest with a black claw. “How could this come to be?!”
“Obviously, Beatrice had been ravished by some brutish common malkin. But it was only later that I learned the full and terrible extent of the truth.”
“Ladies preserve me! I must steady my nerves.” Darby drained his glass once more, and again gestured to the server for more nectar.
“Some time after the birth, I discovered the bestial father grooming his misbegotten brood, Beatrice twining herself around his wild and hideously hairy form, purring like a harlot! There was no doubting that he was the litter’s foul progenitor, for he too was monstrously mottled with a pattern much the same as his grotesque spawn. In a rage I flew at him, but the beast hissed and fled. I followed the demon-cat through the house and out through an open window in the servant’s quarters, doubtless the very aperture the evil thing had used to violate my home. Launching myself after the abomination, I chased it through my estate – and onto that of Mr. Conrad!”
“Yes! The vile creature was no stray, no vagabond beast! The nightmare-feline belongs to none other than Mr. Conrad himself!”
“He denies having set that infernal tom loose, of course, but I see through his lies! He contrived the whole incident to embarrass me, and to defile what has been a proud and unbroken lineage with the bastard offspring of that unholy, mottle-furred devil!” Pescal flung the ragged butt of his cigar into a porcelain tray with a shudder of disgust.
“I now understand your reluctance to divulge this tale of sorrow!” Darby said. “Has Mr. Conrad made any attempt to make amends? Any effort at recompense?”
“None.” Pescal fumed, extracting a second cigar from a lacquer box and wedging it between his glinting teeth. “He would not even accept the tainted kittens.”
“Then there is only one course of action you may take, Pescal! As a gentleman, you must challenge him to a duel!”
“Do you believe so?” Pescal asked, lighting the second cigar, his scaled hands shaking with rage. “I nearly challenged him on the spot, I admit. But you know that I am a peaceable fellow.” He seemed to shrink in his clothes. “I am not given to brutish exertions.”
“Nor am I,” Darby said. “But there are some occasions that require us to do unpleasant things in the name of honour. You must live up to your father’s legacy, Pescal!”
“Yes!” He puffed, sending up another plume of smoke.
“You must defend the name of your family!”
“Yes!” He puffed again, wreathing his face in smoke.
“You must repay this disgrace with blood!”
“Yes! And you, Darby, must be my second!”
Darby accepted another glass of nectar from the server only to drain it in a single gulp. “I accept the duty gladly!”
Flinging down his half-smoked second cigar, Pescal rose from his chair, Darby close behind. The two crossed the Purpureus Room with bravado towards Conrad, who eyed the pair from behind a polished monocle. At the bar, Monsieur Aigle twittered in anticipation of the impending confrontation, his own feathers bristling. Professor Wellington Walrus, hunched over his latest manuscript, looked up from his furtive scribblings at the incipient commotion and tapped his tusks.
“Sir!” Pescal spat at Conrad, eyes bulging hugely. “Your actions are an affront to all standards of decency and moral conduct. The furred blasphemy you have visited upon me will not stand. I demand satisfaction!”
Conrad clucked. He swelled. His wattle engorged hugely with blood, so that he peered out from an excrescence of incarnadine carnosities with black and terrible eyes. There was a moment of pregnant silence.
“I accept,” he said at last, his beak clicking. “As the challenged party, I believe it is my right to choose the field of honour and the weapon of the duel.”
Pescal looked to Darby, who clicked his mandibles in concession. “He is correct.”
“Very well,” Conrad declared. “We shall settle our dispute one thousand feet above the town, using hot air balloons. I can lend you one if you lack a balloon yourself.”
“You insult me once again, sir,” Pescal retorted. “As a man of fashion, of course I possess a balloon. Name your weapon.”
Conrad eyed Pescal’s fluttering gills. “Harpoons,” he declared. “The first to parachute from their balloon forfeits the duel. Agreed?”
“Agreed! Will dawn tomorrow suit you?”
“Perfectly. Meet me at Coaltree Common – we shall take off from there, and settle this absurdity once and for all!”
by Jonathan Newell