Sampler: The Violins Played Before Junstan by Lou Kemp
December 20, 2022
Review: “Celwyn is a loveable scamp with just a hint of melancholy due to his immortal nature and a rather dark backstory.”
Celwyn has avoided caring about anyone for hundreds of years, but he’s about to learn the advantage, and cost, of true friendship.
While on a mission to avenge the death of his lover, the immortal peyote-eating magician Celwyn is hired to deliver an automat, Professor Kang, to a priest.
But Celwyn quickly learns that everything the priest told him was a lie. Now his ship, the Zelda, is stuck in a horrific storm and Celwyn knows he must reconsider his allegiance if he is to steer his vessel in the right direction and continue his quest.
Choosing Professor Kang, the pair journey west, hunting for revenge. To deflect the attention of the city’s police, they allow an American heiress to join their party as she escapes matrimony in search of adventure.
When the trio encounters an intelligent but superstitious widower––their misfit group is complete. Through battles against malevolent forces and dangerous rescues, the companions start to feel like family to Celwyn, but he has lost someone he loves before and is in no hurry to watch it happen again.
Sampler: The Violins Played Before Junstan
And now there came both mist and snow,
And it grew wondrous cold:
And ice, mast-high, came floating by,
― Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
San Francisco, 1865
Late in the evening, thick ribbons of fog moved like a living animal, breathing, then thinning to vapor before revealing the shadows between the wooden barrels that lined the docks. Beyond the Opera House’s silhouette, oily glimmers of the bay cut through the darkness, only to be obscured by the fog again.
As Celwyn neared the docks, he heard virulent cursing above the commotion from a carriage as it charged down the cobblestones toward him. When the coach drew level, the driver raised a whip above his horse. On its descent to the horse’s back, the tip suspended mid-air and snake-like, the whip shimmied out of the coachman’s hand.
The man steered the hackney to a stop. As he slithered out of the high cab, the whip followed him, wrapping around his ankles, lifting him feetfirst into the air. His cursing echoed to screams as he disappeared into the night sky. A moment later, a splash could be heard, and a satisfied smile crossed Celwyn’s lips; he couldn’t stand to see anyone mistreating an animal. The horse trotted down the street, rather jauntily, back toward the stable yard as the magician stepped around a snoring drunk and into Salty’s tattered and dingy atmosphere. Celwyn could have sworn it was the same drunk he stepped over last night .
The place was half full, the gas lights dim, and as quiet as it would get . Just inside the door sat a priest who boldly regarded Celwyn with boldness, as if he knew him, yet Celwyn would have remembered the little elfin ears, long black hair, and vaguely Asian eyes. The eyes glittered an invitation.
Oh, really? The magician thought it odd to discover a priest in a saloon—in his experience they were more likely to drink their whiskey by candlelight in the church vestry, elbow-to-elbow with the spiritual mice. Curious, he placed his top hat on the table and settled into the chair opposite the priest.
Beads of sweat decorated the bald head of the bartender as he rushed forward with a shot of whiskey on a tray. He deposited it in front of Celwyn and whirled to run back behind the bar.
The priest aimed a thumb at the publican. “Well-trained. Just like a seal at a waterfront show.”
Celwyn paused and then picked up his glass. He recognized that voice. A fortuitous coincidence? A few blocks away, St. Marks provided excellent places to eavesdrop, such as a false wall behind the altar. This morning the Monsignor of St. Marks and this same priest had discussed some unusual incidents occurring during Mass. It was not a coincidence that the same man should be sitting here.
“I do not need to know how you caused the bellowing of bulls during services.” The priest made a distasteful face, like the air around them suddenly smelled of rancid cabbage. “I only need to know that it was you who did the deed. The flute music you added probably had meaning for you, but it was in poor taste.”
The magician tensed and sat back. He has no idea of what I can do if provoked. Celwyn eyed him as he finished his drink and speculated how much effort it would take to lure the priest outside and snap his neck. The man obviously couldn’t appreciate the purpose of music. He also reeked of cloves.
“Your ensuing act was more violent.” The bugger smiled. “The Monsignor has suggested I take the matter to the police.”
Celwyn stood, throwing some coins on the table as he turned to go. Perhaps it was time to return to the Continent. He could almost taste the oranges in Seville. He could take one of the new excursions to the Pyramids, and a smile went with that as he imagined how entertaining it would be if one of the depictions became animated. His enjoyment was interrupted as the priest got to his feet, and Celwyn noticed he did so in a somewhat stiff manner. Perhaps his joints needed oiling. But there was nothing slow about him as he trailed the magician out the door and into the fog’s moist embrace.
Rehearsed peals of well-paid feminine laughter emanated from the brothels lining the street. The priest did his best to keep up as Celwyn strode along. They detoured around a dapper gentleman who’d just been tossed out of one of the betting parlors and rolled across the boards. He tried to stand, but a pair of roughs poured out of the parlor doors and set about beating him.
“Shouldn’t you do something about that?” Celwyn asked, hooking a thumb at the attackers as they started to kick their victim. “It’s a priestly duty, I believe.”
“No.” The priest started walking again. “I am not a priest.”
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