Boots for the Gentleman
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by Augusta Li, Eon de Beaumont
Category: Erotica/Gay-Lesbian Erotica/Romance
Description: Steamcraft and Sorcery Book One Hired by a mysterious faerie gentleman to steal seemingly worthless artifacts, Querrilous Knotte is seen as a traitor by the humans of Halcyon. But as long as he's getting paid, Querry doesn't mind. When his client makes a cryptic comment about a certain house, Querry contacts his old flame Reg--a former street rat who now works in the Royal Archives--to learn if the property contains anything of value. Though Reg has no answers for him, Querry learns there is indeed something precious in the house, something Reg is convinced will bring nothing but trouble. The armed guards that attack the thief prove Reg's prediction true, and he can't leave Querry to face it all alone. Not when Reg's feelings for the man may not be as extinct as he'd thought. The trouble is, Querry's heart doesn't just belong to Reg anymore, and surprisingly, Reg's heart no longer belongs only to Querry. In the end, it may not even matter, because if Querry, Reg, and their hearts' desire can't stop Lord Thimbleroy from draining Halcyon's magic, they won't live long enough to regret their unresolved romance.
eBook Publisher: Dreamspinner Press/Dreamspinner Press, 2011 2011
eBookwise Release Date: September 2011
1 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [458 KB]
Reading time: 293-411 min.
The perfect summer evening practically insisted that a ball be thrown. Lord and Lady Merriwether found themselves unable to argue with the merry weather and organized the event. It looked like a lovely party. The many sets of doors stood open, allowing guests to float from the ballroom to the terrace overlooking the gardens. Soft music played inside, and bouquets of roses and topiaries decorated the entire space. Floral perfume and savory cooking smells rose into the night. Black-clad waiters moved among the gentlemen in top hats and fine suits and the ladies in dazzling gowns, offering champagne and hors d'oeuvres from silver trays. Polished silverware twinkled in the candlelight. Guests drifted like weather balloons, buoyant with good spirits, oblivious to strife, laughing and clinking their glasses together in the carefree manner of only the very wealthy. They greeted one another, conversed lightly, and even engaged in subtle flirtation.
Unfortunately for Querrilous Knotte, perched thirty feet above on a stone windowsill, his escape route lay at the other end of said terrace. Hours earlier, when he'd scaled the wall and made his way to the attic, only a few servants had moved within Merriwether Manor. It had taken him almost forever to secure the item his client had requested among the hundreds of trunks and crates, and, admittedly, he'd spent some time locating a few choice trinkets for himself. Holding the window frame for support, he leaned forward and swore.
There must have been a hundred people. A few times, one of the merrymakers strayed dangerously close to Querry's grapple. The forked end still stuck in the limestone next to his toe, and he could only hope none of the partygoers would notice something that resembled a complex metal crossbow hanging from the wall.
He looked back over his shoulder, into the musty dark. His stomach rumbled loudly, as if to remind him why he needed to succeed. He wound the little gear over his temple, changing the lens of his oversized goggles. Though Anglican law outlawed enchantment, one could still procure magical items, like the ensorceled glass, if one knew where to look. Blackness became grainy gray-greens as the disks clicked into place. Beyond the wardrobes, disembodied dresses, and hatboxes piled up like classical columns, Querry saw a small door, doubtfully locked. Maybe he could sneak back through the house. Likely, most everyone would be distracted by the party. He hated the idea, though. Among the city's twisting alleyways and across its rooftops, he could lose a pursuer. Inside, he could become trapped. There was nothing for it but to run. He preferred to take his chances in the open air.
Pivoting on the ledge, Querry gripped the stone and pushed with the ball of his foot. No one shouted; no one noticed his body drop down. His right hand let go of the thin rectangle of stone and groped for the rope. He pulled it to him and pinched it between his knees. Next came the scary second of releasing the ledge, swinging over, and hoping his hook held his weight. It did, and Querry inched down a few feet. A couple dozen people still milled about the terrace. Dressed for work as he was, in a reinforced leather waistcoat with four buckles up the front, matching knee-high boots and elbow-length gloves, his clunky mechanical goggles and a secondhand sea admiral's coat with long tails and rows of brass buttons, not even the nice-looking and charismatic young thief would be able to explain away his presence, not even if he stripped down to nothing but his trousers, white shirt, and striped cravat. These people would know he didn't belong. There was something about the aristocracy, Querry'd always thought. They could smell their own. He would never insinuate himself into their world; he might as well have been a different species.
Of course, there was also the presence of Querry's twin clockwork pistols, their holsters hanging from a belt, and his rapier, dangling from a thinner strip of leather. And there was the large canvas sack tied to a third belt.
Slowly Querry descended, until when the opportunity arose, he could make a safe drop and sprint for the rose trellis. From this proximity, he could hear the conversations of the partygoers. He rolled his eyes as they jabbered on and on about the latest fashions, new devices that would make their already-pampered lives even easier, and which slightly richer and more important people they counted among their friends. Men discussed hunting and the stock market while women talked of gloves and hats. On and on they prattled about the foreigners and their filthy customs, corrupting decent society. This was the latest fashionable topic. "Shouldn't they be driven out or at least sequestered to their own part of town?"
"But don't those girls from Xiana just make the best scullery maids?"
"My native staff absolutely refuses to work with them. It's too bad, really; they're quite cheap."
"We are truly blessed to live in such an era of peace and prosperity."
The thief scoffed at that remark before he remembered to be quiet. Querry's muscles started to tremble. He had a great deal more strength in his slender body than one might think to look at him, but he was only human, and he'd been clinging to the rope for probably an hour. If he succumbed to fatigue and fell, it would go badly indeed.
Didn't they have anything better to do than just stand around, picking at their food and throwing away more than he ate in a week? His shoulders and biceps really hurt, and a cramp threatened his left hamstring.
"Damn," he whispered. This silly job had sounded so easy. Maybe he'd been overconfident. He'd put less time into planning his excursion than he normally did. He'd been hoping for some quick money, and maybe he'd been too hasty. All he knew was that he couldn't hold on much longer. He didn't even know if he had enough stamina left to climb back to the attic window and hide until the party dispersed.
"Oh, look," said a woman. "It's Lord Thimbleroy. I think he's going to speak."
The rest of the guests looked in the direction she pointed, before trotting off like summoned dogs.
Wasting no time, Querry let go of the rope. Limestone met the thick soles of his boots. He straightened, took a small knife from a pocket on his vest, and cut free his firing mechanism from the grappling rope. He quickly pulled a release lever and folded the slender steel arms back. As he ran, he shoved it down the back of his snug black pants. He lunged for the terrace wall, vaulted over, and almost missed the rose-covered lattice. He climbed fast, ignoring the few thorns that scraped his face. His thick leather gear protected the rest of his body. He'd be damned if they'd take him in for this. If he was to be caught, it would be for something glamorous, something big. Just as his feet touched grass, Querry heard a man yelling down.
"I say! You there--"
Querry ran through the labyrinthine array of hedges, statues, and fountains until he reached the garden gate. He heard more men yelling to one another, doors opening and servants entering the darkened grounds with lanterns. Querry hid himself behind a sculpted shrub until the small team had checked around the gate. He struggled not to give himself away by panting until they'd wandered back toward the house. As soon as he thought it safe, he pushed against the iron gate, cleaving in half the large, sculpted M. It opened with a pained creak, drawing the attention of those fumbling about the grounds. The golden bubbles of their lamps moved closer, converging on the thief. With a strong oath, Querry bolted across the lane toward the back of the nearest mansion. As he ran he pulled his grapple free, extended the arms, and situated a hooked bolt. Once he made it within range, he fired and quickly climbed to the little roof over the servant's entrance.
Wasting no time, Querry freed his hook, positioned it, and shot it again. It caught about six feet above the ivy-covered balcony of the next house. Querry pushed off with his feet and swung through the thick night air, soaring over the lawn that divided the two homes. Despite the danger, he absolutely adored the feeling: free, almost like flying. He nearly laughed out loud. His feet met the carved stone as lightly as a cat's, and Querry took aim at the next residence. Gliding quietly through the dark, he soon put half a mile between himself and his pursuers. Finally he felt safe enough to descend to the ground.
He tried to look casual as he strolled onto the cobblestone streets. Still, he couldn't stay long in this part of town. It belonged to the wealthy. His presence wouldn't be tolerated (though a young woman passing by in a gilded carriage drawn by a jerky clockwork unicorn seemed to approve), and while the police might not arrest him just for breathing the same air as the privileged, they'd give him a good enough beating to send him back where he belonged. Hopefully they wouldn't check his pockets.
Luckily for Querry, the streets were relatively empty. Probably some sort of holiday, he thought. The rich got so many more holidays. A few coaches, both horse-drawn and steam-powered, passed him without incident as he made his way from the rich, residential district toward the expensive shops and eateries that lay a little ways to the south. He pushed his goggles down around his neck and walked with his eyes to the ground. The midnight-blue seamen's coat mostly hid his weaponry as he crossed Leopold's Folly Square. Halcyon's wealthy loved the massive clock tower that stood at its center, rising higher into the smoggy sky than the spire of any cathedral, or even the royal palace. At the top, an amazing clockwork menagerie of mythical creatures stood frozen. Something had gone wrong with the clock a century ago, and no one but the mad genius who'd built it held the knowledge to repair it, so the dozens of jeweled and gilded gryphons, mermaids, nymphs, and dragons, which could move as if alive when working, stood idle. Even now, Querry saw pulleys, scaffolding, and hot air balloons around the apex, as Lord Thimbleroy invested huge sums to repair the clock "as a point of patriotism and city pride." Every year some noble or another dedicated another statue, adding it to the ring surrounding the tower. A veritable army of bronze heroes and goddesses flanked the entire square.
Useless and expensive, Querry thought as he passed the empty benches. That's why they love it so much. He cut quickly through East Elysium Park and hurried past more closed shops: florists, confectioners, book sellers, and haberdashers. Stands and tables that sold meat, fish, and vegetables during the day stood covered in white cloth. The houses around Querry changed from cut stone to clay brick. They grew smaller and closer together. Soon the gaslight that spilled from behind beveled glass gave way to sputtering, smoking tallow and then darkness. Modest, middle-class homes stood vacant and untouched for three city blocks, shunned even by gypsies, beggars, and the mad. Nature slowly reclaimed them--moss spread over the roofs, and ivy infiltrated the mortar. The grass and rushes grew to Querry's knees. He smelled sewage and chemical waste, indicating his approach to the river that bisected the city of Halcyon. His client's home was not far now.
* * * *
While the entrance to Neroche fluctuated, Querry always found it somewhere beyond the modest homes of the city's merchants and craftsmen, right before the shabby neighborhoods that hunched along the riverbank, home mostly to Rajallah and Xianese. He knew he was close, not only because the residents of the area had fled their homes, but because his teeth felt like they vibrated in his mouth, like he chewed on a thin sheet of aluminum. A dizzying perfume of rose and lavender replaced the industrial fumes and the reek of rotting garbage. Sure enough, Querry saw the gateway up ahead, two trees whose branches had twisted together to form an arch more elaborate and beautiful than the most skilled artisan could produce with iron. Golden leaves drifted down and piled around the trunks. A soft glow emanated from the silvery bark. As he passed beneath their boughs, Querry's hand went instinctively to the hilt of his sword. No guards would bother him in this part of town, but Neroche held plenty of dangers all its own.
Neroche resembled any other upper-class neighborhood. Elegant stone houses, surrounded by vast lawns and gardens, lined the cobblestone streets. But the stone here, instead of being gray, was ivory flecked with gold. Like the trees, it pulsed with its own subtle luminescence. Something other than gas, something bluish and flickering, glowed from the streetlights. Once in a while the lights fluttered from one lamp to another. Close inspection of the buildings revealed things that just couldn't be: towers jutting at impossible angles and whole upper stories stretching out, supported by nothing underneath. Also, the structures changed. Querry would never get used to the way they rearranged themselves the second he wasn't looking. Whole streets inexplicably switched direction, or simply disappeared. It didn't matter how hard he tried to concentrate, he could never keep track of his location. But that was another aspect of Neroche, the faerie quarter. Just entering made one feel fuzzy and giddy, almost intoxicated. Querry had learned to suppress the sensation, but he'd still be glad to conclude his business and be off.
Night in Neroche was never quiet. Querry pushed his way past residents in clothing so fine that the partygoers he'd left earlier would drool with envy. For the most part they looked human. But, as with their homes, there was always something amiss: indigo hair, crimson irises, skin and features too smooth, pointed ears, or gracefully curling horns. Groups of musicians picked lutes and blew strange pipes and horns, the music adding to Querry's distraction. More unsightly goblins scuttled down alleyways or peered out of dark recesses.
Querry heard commotion from the branches of the many trees. He passed humans too. Some came to Neroche to peddle their wares. The faeries adored jewelry and glass baubles. One never knew what they might fancy. Merchants had made their fortunes selling the twist-off caps from ale bottles. Others, wan and staring, had fallen under the thrall of the place or one of its denizens, and had simply forgotten every other aspect of their lives. An alarming number of them languished along the walkways or swayed in the streets. They were why Lord Thimbleroy railed against the faeries every day in the Hall of Ancient Nobility. They, like the foreigners who'd come to the city as Her Majesty's Empire expanded, corrupted good citizens with their loose morals and bizarre practices. Worse yet, if a fey took a liking to a human man, woman, or child, he'd see nothing wrong in plucking it like a wildflower. The papers reported strange disappearances daily.
Most of the other nobles agreed the faeries should be driven out. They just ignored the fact that they had no means of accomplishing it. Unlike the foreign humans, the fey had the power to fight back.
Finally Querrilous saw the home of his employer. It stood on top of a hillock, a classical-style mansion surrounded by so many sapphire roses that it appeared to float on a cloud of blossoms. The flowers also lined the stone walkway that led to the temple-like abode. As Querry passed the abundant foliage, a swarm of thumb-length sprites, naked and glowing every color, rose from the leaves. He swatted them away with his gloved hand. They bit.
Querry ascended the many white steps and walked beneath columns practically covered in vines. He could have sworn the porch they supported had curved the last time he'd been here. Now it was straight and square. It was hard to say, though. Whenever he left Neroche, Querry always felt like he'd just woken from a dream. The details departed just as quickly too. Sometimes, from the corner of his eye, Querry swore the grand house resembled nothing so much as a white mound perforated by irregular holes, like those dug by badgers or rabbits.
Querry knocked on the door, and a hunched man reaching only to the thief's belt buckle opened it. He had greenish skin, a bald head, huge, bat-like ears, and a long, hooked nose. He wore a butler's suit and white gloves.
"Good evening, sir," the servant said. "The gentleman is expecting you. You'll find him in his study."
"And what floor?" Querry asked. Like everything here, it fluctuated.
"The third floor, sir. At the end of the hall."
"Thank you," Querry said, heading through the eerie gloom for the staircase. The dusky light that let him find his way came from the walls themselves. Still, he managed to get to the study. Inside, he found his client sitting behind a desk of pale wood. Books lined the walls, reaching dozens of feet high. Between the shelves, silk curtains hung open, revealing windows of beveled glass. A lightning-blue fire crackled in the hearth. Perched on the end of a brocade chaise, a nude young man plucked a silver harp. His skin and hair were white and his eyes deep violet. Shimmering wings flickered in and out of existence behind him. Though he should have been shocked by such a scandalous display, Querry had learned to ignore his employer's eccentricities.
"Ah, Mr. Knotte," said the man behind the desk as Querry entered the room. On cue, the pale harpist stood, bowed, and left the room. Querry watched his willowy, white body as he departed. The door shut softly behind him. "Please sit down."
Querry took one of the chairs facing his client. The gentleman rested his elbows on the desk and stretched his long fingers into an arch, tapping the tips together. "A successful evening as always, I presume?"
"Um, of course," Querry answered, reaching to untie the sack from his belt. The gentleman made it hard for him to think. He was stunning--waves of golden hair spilling over the shoulders of his mint, velvet blazer, sparkling emerald eyes, and an angular face that looked both soft and devastatingly masculine--handsome, even by fey standards. Querry could see the svelte line of the gentleman's long neck stretching toward prominent collarbones and a smooth chest that finally disappeared behind a thin silk shirt and paisley waistcoat with pearl buttons. Trying not to make eye contact, Querry passed him the bag.
"Excellent!" the gentleman said, clapping twice. Why he was so excited with another gentleman's old boots, or why he'd pay Querry twenty pounds to steal them when he could buy them for a few shillings, the thief had stopped trying to figure out. A growing pile of things the gentleman had commissioned Querry to burgle sat in the corner: a broken phonograph, a wooden box of old pencils, a cart wheel missing a few spokes, a porcelain doll with only one eye, a matching ladle and fork, a tangled wig, and a set of lace curtains. While the thief suspected himself to be a piece in some unfathomable game, twenty pounds was still twenty pounds.
"My payment," Querry said, feeling vulnerable. He'd started not to trust himself--his reactions and responses--and needed to leave. The helpless sensation came quicker each time he visited this house.
"Indeed, indeed," the gentleman said, opening a drawer and sliding a bag of coins across the desk.
Querry snatched them greedily, and found himself embarrassed by his desperation. "Nice doing business," he said, standing and extending his hand.
The gentleman just stared at his proffered palm. Then, slowly, he got to his feet and came around the front of the desk. His steps, the twist of his waist, and the movement of his hair mesmerized Querry. Querry wondered at how such simple gestures could contain such perfection. How could something as simple as a fingernail be so sublime? The two stood very close now. The gentleman's chest grazed Querry's shoulder. He smelled like crushed grass.
"What a fascinating creature you are," he said in a whisper. He reached up and traced the line of Querry's brow. The thief felt powerless to resist leaning into the touch. Querry's eyes fluttered shut. His breath faltered.
Get a hold of yourself--
"You're far too beautiful for a common thief." He stretched his neck, so that his floral breath washed Querry's cheek and his lips rustled Querry's hair, turning Querry's muscles to quivering porridge.
"I'm an exceptional thief," Querry said, fighting for lucidity. He should step away.
A musical giggle escaped the other man. Querry felt it reverberate up his spine. His pores contracted and his cock skipped. "Exceptional, certainly. Even more so, I'm certain, beneath this cumbersome gear and all of these silly machines. What are you like under there?" His fingers moved down Querry's face and neck, over his heart and to the buckles of his padded vest. He tapped them one by one, as if he tickled the keys of a piano. Querry felt the faerie's erection against the side of his thigh, next to his pistol. He felt himself turning to face the other against his will.
"You deserve fine, soft clothing. The best food and wines. Nights of revelry and dance. A life free from toil of any kind." The gentleman's hands went to Querry's hips, pulling their bodies together. Querry curved against him and let his head fall backward so that the gentleman could pull his cravat aside and kiss up his neck. Fire bloomed in his cheeks, and a tingle spread across his pelvis. "You could stay here with me. Would you like that?"
Yes! In that moment, it was all Querry wanted. Nothing else mattered beyond the gentleman's lips, his hair, and his body. Those sparkling eyes that, in spite of the acceptable clothing, the outward trappings of civility, betrayed something wild. Querry wanted to strip slowly and stretch out naked across the desk. He wanted to lie complacent while the gentleman used his body any way he chose. But he also knew that the desire would fade when he left this place. He knew it just as he knew that if he gave in to this lust, in time he'd stop dressing at all. He'd wander the halls nude. He'd stare out the window at the flowers for days on end. He'd forget his name, stop eating--
"No, I can't." He pulled away. Predictably, the gentleman looked at him with even greater awe. "I'm afraid I've got to be going."
The fey lifted his chin and feigned indifference. "If you must, then you must. My offer stands. And if you find yourself short on money, there's a house on the corner of Tinkerton Street that you may want to visit. Tinkerton Street and Grace Lane."
"You have another job for me?"
"No," the gentleman said, turning his back to the thief and resting his hand on the surface of the desk. "I have all that I require, for now."
"I said, I have what I require."
Querry stood staring at the golden sheet of hair flowing over the gentleman's back, fighting down the urge to touch it. He knew better than to ask why his client suggested the address. He could tell when he was being toyed with. Later, free from the dizzying effects of Neroche and the gentleman, he could try to work it out. Now, though, he needed to leave or he never would.
* * * *
Querry took a taxi across the bridge and to the easternmost outskirts of the city. The chill in the air and the acrid stink of coal cleared Querry's head as he made his way past the huge, dark factories. Day and night, their great pistons hammered up and down, and their smokestacks spewed soot and steam. Hordes of filthy men, women, and children trudged to and from their eighteen-hour shifts, between the foundries and mills and the row houses the companies provided. This part of town was like a city unto itself, and Querry hated it, hated it even more than Neroche. Each district within bore the name of the product it turned out: Loomston made textiles, Sparksfield munitions, Seagrave parts for ships, and so on. Querry hurried away from the resentful stares of the workers, toward home.
Between the massive manufacturing district and the river, on the very edge of Halcyon, almost to the docks, a little piece of heaven called Rushport stood in the perpetual shadow of the factories. At one time a port and some innocuous rushes occupied this space, and they'd left their names, though they'd long ago been replaced by shoddy houses, cheap motels patronized only by the poorest of sailors, unlicensed dance halls, brothels, and taverns. Querry passed several buildings hung with red paper lanterns. Perfumed smoke drifted from behind their curtained doors. A young Auriental man, his head shaved except for a long braid, wearing only loose, silk pants and slippers, motioned Querry over. He was attractive, smooth, and svelte, with a sensual droop to his eyelids. The flower resin his people introduced to the city promised an escape from hunger, fear, pain, and desperation. Some compared it to a religious experience. Many in this part of town had given up everything to seek its solace. Quite a few of the well-off had done the same. The smoking dens on the west side of the river resembled exotic palaces in some cases. Querry stopped walking long enough to admire the man. Most found coupling with foreigners distasteful and improper; though nearly all of them considered Querry's choice of companionship unnatural. Their opinions wouldn't stop him from having a smoke against the chest of the lovely young man. But it was an illusion of happiness, a glamour the same as that offered by the gentleman. Querry shook his head and kept walking. He waved away some men passing out handbills.
Most everyone knew Querry here. Few of the many whores propositioned him, and most of the beggars left him alone. He walked in silence, stepping over drunks and the homeless, his hands in his pockets and his fists clutching the jewels from the attic and the twenty pound coins. Gangs of thugs wouldn't hesitate to outnumber and mug the thief, especially if they thought he'd been at work. Along the way, he stopped in one of the better pubs and bought a kidney pie, a piece of fried fish, and a pint of ale, carefully bringing out only a few pence as payment, and making sure the others didn't jingle.
"Home sweet home," Querry muttered as he entered his building and made his way to his room on the third floor. Just like he did outside, he stepped over the prone bodies that littered the hall, and looked away from the prostitutes conducting business in the stairwells. He unlocked the intricate series of clockwork locks he'd attached to his door and lit the single candle on the table. Loud yowling greeted him, and he unwrapped the fish filet and broke it in half for Tosser and Toerag, two foreign cats he'd rescued from being stoned to death by kids. Sometimes he cursed himself for bringing them home when he could barely feed himself, but they had lovely, dark brown ears and feet, smooth, fawn-colored coats, and deep blue eyes that resembled Querry's own. Plus, they guarded his closet-sized room as well as any bulldog, and they were just as mean.
When Querry sat on the edge of his narrow mattress, his knee touched the table with the broken leg. Various tools and gears covered the surface, as Querry continuously experimented with tinkering and worked to repair and improve his weapons, so the thief ate his meal from his lap. Then he unbuckled his gloves and wriggled them off. He'd been too hungry to bother before. Carefully he placed his weapons, gear, and plunder in a wooden chest, the only other piece of furniture he owned. He draped his shirt and trousers over the headboard. He'd need to wash them, and his body, in the copper basin. But it could wait for morning. Going into Neroche always exhausted Querry. He stretched out on his back and folded his arms beneath his dark hair.
Tomorrow, he could pay his rent. He could sell the jewelry he'd taken and probably earn enough to buy food for the next few weeks. He needed another candle, bullets for his pistols, and some steel tubing. He sighed and listened to the contented purr of the cats.
It could be worse, he told himself. He didn't have much, but he had a roof over his head and enough to eat. He had his freedom. At least he could say that nobody owned him, not gin nor a drug, nor the factories, nor the gentleman. To be able to say that was priceless.
* * * *
Gaining access to the royal archives proved much simpler than one would think. Even though Royal Guards stood at the entrance in their archaic breeches, hose, and lacy ruffs, all Querry had needed was an open window. He found one, and in no time stood among the musty books, documents, and scrolls.
Head down, he slinked among the stacks. The monarchy required permits of those who wished to study here. Querry supposed there were plenty of secrets they'd prefer to leave buried among the mountains of paper. He found the stairs and descended all the way to the lowest level, home of the oldest and rarest documents. No sun reached here. Fancy gas lamps affixed to the walls provided light and their familiar scent. The place reminded Querry of a tomb, silent and still. He searched about and soon realized the floor was arranged like a wheel. Long hallways formed by tall, wooden shelves met in the center. There, beneath a chandelier hanging from a chain, a young man worked at a desk.
Smiling, Querry watched for a few minutes as the man, with thick, dirty blond hair and oval spectacles, wrote with a quill pen. His right hand reached for the ink well as his left thumb made its way to his mouth.
"Still biting your nails?"
The young man dropped his hand like it had been slapped. He scanned the darkened corridors around him. After letting him go for a bit, Querry stepped into the light and approached the desk. A little brass plaque read "Reginald Whitney, Chief Royal Archivist."
"You can't be here, Querry," said the young man.
"And yet here I am."
"How did you get past the guards?"
"And what do you want?" the archivist asked, sounding both exasperated and exhausted.
"It's nice to see you, too, Reg."
"So, you just dropped in for a visit?" Reg asked, raising one shapely eyebrow.
Querry bit his lower lip and looked guiltily at his shoe.
"As I suspected," Reg said.
"I just need the tiniest favor," Querry replied. "Do you think you can help me?"
Reg sighed. "I know I owe you, Querry. All those years that you looked out for me in that hell hole they called an orphanage, and later when they shipped us off to that factory."
Damn, that hurt. It hurt so much, and so unexpectedly, that Querry's words fell unplanned from his lips. "You think I did that so you'd owe me later, Reg? I came here because I thought we were friends. Back then, in the workhouse and in the factory, I looked out for you because you were the only thing I had to live for. I--"
Now Reg looked away, ashamed. His skin shone pale in the gaslight, the dark under his hazel eyes accentuated.
"Have you been sleeping?" Querry asked.
Reg brightened a little, even forcing a smile. He slid his glasses down his nose, folded them, and slipped them into the breast pocket of his coat. "Mother hen, just like when we were boys."
"Are they keeping you here late?" Querry persisted.
"No, it's Mum and Dad. They're on me night and day about marrying. Apparently a royal archivist is good enough to wed an ugly daughter of the aristocracy. They finally see their chance to make it into the nobility. They've been setting me up with a different lady, and I use that term in the loosest possible sense, Querry, every night."
The idea of Reg marrying stirred long-dormant feelings in Querry. To his surprise, he was jealous. "Can't you just tell them you're not ready?"
Reg's shoulders curled forward. He met Querry's eyes and shook his head. "Querry, the Whitneys adopted me. They took me away from that hellish factory, sent me to University. They gave me a future. All Mum has ever wanted is to be among the nobility, to go to their parties and have tea with them. It's the one thing she can't buy, no matter how many cans of fish their factory cranks out. I have to do this."
"It's life for most of us. Work, marry, raise a family."
"You're really willing to be the trophy husband of some inbred hag?"
"Why are you so upset?" Reg asked. "This is what people do. What other alternative do I have? A man lives alone too long, and people start to talk."
"What about our plan?" Querry asked. He remembered finishing a dinner of stale bread after a day of shoveling coal into a furnace, and going with Reg to their straw-stuffed mats. Looking at Reg now, he saw the soot streaks clearly. He remembered whispering, staying up late even though they'd both been exhausted, planning. Probably because they rarely saw the sky, they'd decided to become traders. They'd get a ship and sail to the remote corners of the Empire, procuring all manner of exotic goods. Night after night they had lain in each other's arms and fantasized about the places they'd visit. Freedom and fresh air were all they'd wanted, and to be together.
"It was a child's dream," Reg said sadly. "I'm sorry, Querry. Not all of us can live by our own rules."
Watching Reg, Querry remembered the texture of his skin, the way he tasted. He remembered how they'd had to be quiet as they touched and fondled and explored, lest the other factory workers hear. During that horrible time, they'd been each other's only comfort. Now, maybe irrationally, Querry felt betrayed.
"What is it that you wanted?" Reg asked. Querry thought he heard regret in his friend's voice.
"Just some records. Anything you have on the house on the corner of Tinkerton and Grace Lane. A floor plan would be perfect."
"Why that house?" Reg said, shocked.
"What? Why do you ask?"
"Because! The Grande Chancellor requested records on that property this morning. I don't care for him, so I told him they'd take a few days to locate. And then a few hours ago, the Duchess of Lisine asked for the same records. I have them right here. What's so special about that house?"
"I have no idea," Querry said. "I walked by it on my way here today. It's not in a nice part of town, but it may have been a decent house at one time. It has one of those old stone chimneys in the front, and a big stained glass window. Broken now, though. The roof's caved in, and the thatch is gone, too, and the garden's completely overgrown with weeds. It's falling apart."
"What do you want with it?"
"Curiosity. One of my clients mentioned it. It was just so random of a thing for him to say." Querry didn't expound upon how he felt like a dog following a man with a bucket of innards. He didn't like being manipulated, but he'd reached the point where he had to know. What did those uppity aristocrats want with it? It could be a cute little place, if somebody fixed it up, but certainly not worthy of a duchess.
"What client?" Reg asked. "Not the faeries again?"
Querry said nothing, but Reg knew his expressions too well.
"Querry, how could you? They're dangerous! They aren't like us. They don't care who they hurt."
"They care," Querry said. "They just change their minds a lot. But don't worry. I know how to handle them. So, a faerie gentleman, the Duchess of Lisine, and Lord Thimbleroy. This just gets more intriguing."
"Well, if the Grande Chancellor wants the house, the duchess will try to stop him. She just doesn't like him. They argue in the Hall of Nobility every day about spending city taxes on the clock tower, and about foreigner's rights. I've heard that it gets pretty heated. Raised voices and personal insults."
"So she just wants to thwart Lord Thimbleroy," Querry mused. "But what about my gentleman?"
"Your gentleman might just want to thwart him too. Lord Thimbleroy is the leading voice in favor of faerie eradication."
"No," Querry said. "It isn't like that. They really don't care. If they did, they'd just kill him."
They sat thinking for a long time, until finally Querry said, "So tell me what you know about the place."
"That's just the thing," Reg said. "The place is nothing special, just like you said. It was built a little over a hundred years ago and belonged to a doll maker and his family. His wife and daughter died during the plague, and he died fifty years later. He bequeathed the property to an illegitimate son, who never showed up to claim it. It's been empty ever since."
"So it's been abandoned for half a century or so, and all of the sudden everyone's interested? Why?"
Reg shrugged. "It doesn't make any sense. The man made toys. Elaborate ones, with some of the first clockwork parts, but still just playthings for spoiled children."
"Floor plan?" Querry asked.
"Sorry," Reg said. "I guess nobody thought it was that important."
"But it must be," Querry said. "There must be something there. Something valuable."
"I don't see how there could be," Reg answered. "It would have been looted a long time ago."
"Something's going on."
"I have to admit, I'm curious now too," Reg said, brushing his fringe away from his forehead. "I'm sure you'll break in?"
"I don't know if you can call it breaking in," Querry said, feigning innocence. "But I'll have a look."
"I'll keep my ears open here." Reg looked up. When their eyes met, Querry noticed the old conspiratorial gleam. Reg hoped something would happen, an adventure like they'd fantasized about as boys, something that might save him from his predetermined future and dull occupation. Maybe he still carried hope for the two of them, but Querry didn't know for sure.
"We should get together," Querry said. He couldn't help it. For a minute, he'd seen his old Reg again, and that glimpse towed behind it a host of other images. Watching Reg's face in the low light, Querry could picture his cheeks darkening, his full lips falling open, and the little crease forming between his brows. He saw Reg throw his head back and bite his lower lip to stay quiet.
"Why are you looking at me like that?"
"I miss you," Querry admitted. "Could we go somewhere? I have a little money."
"Querry, we've talked about this. We can't."
"It just isn't done. I know that never stops you from anything, but if anyone found out the Whitneys would be ruined. Those few times we met in secret were dangerous enough. Consorting in public is out of the question."
"Don't want any of your rich friends to see you slumming?"
"You know that's not what I mean. I don't feel that way and never have!"
"In private then," Querry said. "Tell me where."
"I have an engagement tonight. The fair daughter of Baron Cackleberry."
Querry strode to the desk and grabbed Reg by the back of the neck, remembering all too well that his friend enjoyed a little force. He leaned in until their noses touched tip to tip. Sure enough, he saw a line of sweat sparkling above Reg's lip, heard the urgency of his breath. "You still want me, don't say you don't."
"I know you're grateful to your family, but it's still your life, Reg."
"We can't. Please let me go, Querry. You're just making it worse."
Dejected, Querry let go. How amazing Reg's hair had felt against his knuckles. More than anything, he wanted to grab a handful of those wheat-colored locks and pull their faces together. He wanted to feel Reggie's bee-stung lips slide against his, then open slowly to his advances. He wanted to hold him by the back of the head and kiss him until his mouth swelled and he choked for air. And, looking across the desk, he saw that Reg wanted it too. Querry cursed at the world, the rigid social order that had stolen away the only thing he'd ever loved. They'd planned a future, no matter how fantastical, but life shattered it all.
"I can't accept this," Querry said.
Reg smiled a smile so full of understanding and lament that Querry had to turn away. "Of course you can't," he said, in the soft, slow voice he used after love. "It's your nature not to accept. You've never been any different. If you decide you want a sunny afternoon, you'll rail against the rain clouds."
"You make it sound so hopeless."
"After a while it's just too exhausting to fight against everything. We've got to take what we're given. If it rains, it's easier to put your umbrella up than to curse at the sky."
"We never believed that! We said we'd make our own way!"
"We were just boys. We didn't know any better."
The defeat in Reg's voice halted Querry's argument. He sounded like an old man, his life done and over. What had happened to the hope they'd been able to muster, even in the worst of times? Was this what they called good fortune?
"But you'll let me know if you hear anything about that house?" Querry said, trying to salvage the conversation.
"Sure, Querry," Reg said, without meeting his gaze. "But I don't think you should come back here anymore."
* * * *
A mix of light rain and mist blanketed Rushport, rising from the river and mingling with the industrial fumes. It stung Querry's eyes and bit his lungs when he inhaled. People only a block away looked ghostly, their feet lost to the fog. Querry's unruly, black hair glistened with acidic droplets. He'd been thinking too much: about Reg, society and class, luck and destiny. Why should it be that one person was born to wealth and comfort, while he and Reg had drawn a place in a workhouse that many never survived to leave? Some of the Rajallah in town believed that each person was reborn again and again, and that the deeds of his past life affected his lot in the next. Querry wished he could subscribe to it. If he thought he deserved this hardship, maybe he could accept it. But in his heart, he knew it came down to dumb luck.
If he'd wanted companionship, Querry knew of plenty of places to buy it. He could also find it for free not far from his neighborhood, in the public houses along the little cul-de-sac called Lickwhistle Circle. Men who shared his tastes frequented those taverns, and with his youth, looks, and charm, Querry could have his choice. Tonight, though, an accommodating body would not be enough.
He wanted a bottle of absinthe, and figured he could sell enough of the jewelry he'd stolen to afford one. An old, Gypsy woman at the Iron Vine Tavern would likely take it off his hands at a decent price.
Maybe it was because Reg, smaller and more timid, had it tougher in the workhouse and the factory than Querry. Or maybe tasting wealth and security made it more frightening to give up. Querry had nothing, and nothing to lose. But why the change? When he'd first gone to live at Whitney Manor, Reg sneaked away to see Querry every chance he got. They met in cheap inns, or on the street when Querry couldn't pickpocket enough for a room. Years in the factory, with the other workers slumbering drunkenly a few feet off, had taught them to touch discreetly. Did Reggie really believe in the course chosen for him, or had he just given up? Either way, Querry didn't want to think about it anymore, couldn't stand to think about it anymore. He wanted to seek the company of the Green Faerie and succumb to the pleasant apathy she would provide. Even Querry needed one night empty of struggle. He'd nearly made it to the pub; he could hear the raucous voices within and smell the greasy odor of questionable meat.
"You there. Pretty boy."
The fine hair stood up on the back of Querry's neck, and he turned slowly toward the alley and the voice.
"You'll be wanting to take your hand away from that sword."
There were five of them, all built like bulls and smelling just as pleasant. The speaker wore a much-mended top hat and an eye patch, and held one of the big, curved knives popular in the colonies. His tongue flicked out between his misaligned teeth and touched the tip of the blade. "What have we here?" he said.
"Looks to me like a cat burglar who ain't paid his monthly dues to the Cat Burglar's Union," said a big man in a leather helmet with spiked goggles over top.
"What?" Querry spat. They moved closer, circling him like vultures. He wished he'd had his guns, but until he sold the jewelry he didn't have the money to spare on bullets. He hadn't been expecting trouble.
"Ain't you heard?" said the man in the top hat, his dagger glinting. "To ensure safe and fair working conditions. Just like the Lady Duchess wants in them mills."
Querry's eyes darted everywhere, seeking escape. Grinning and chuckling, the thugs closed in on him. Running would be impossible.
"Ten pounds," snarled a bald man. His rancid breath struck Querry in the face like a fist, making him gag and turn away.
"How am I supposed to get that?" he asked through gritted teeth.
"Go and ask the faeries." All of them shared a laugh. Then the one in the top hat said, "We'll be needing a down payment. A show of good faith."
"I haven't got anything!"
"Ain't that too bad?"
"Terrible, ain't it?" They laughed again.
Querry cursed himself for letting Reg distract him to this degree. It wasn't like him to stumble into dark pockets. Normally his sharpened senses detected any hint of danger. But he'd been so wrapped up in his thoughts that he'd walked right into this. Now he had to figure a way out, and quickly.
"Let this serve as a reminder." The thug swung his knife at Querry's cheek, but the more agile thief stepped to the side and dodged. The man reeled forward, off balance, and his hat fell off. Seeing his chance, Querry shoved his doubled body to the side and bolted for the opening.
He only gained a few steps before a set of big, hairy arms caught each of his elbows, snapping him back. The two men held him as their leader pushed himself up from where he'd landed. Slowly and carefully, he replaced his headwear and picked up his weapon. Querry struggled, and his captors yanked his arms back hard, straining his shoulder sockets.
The man in the top hat grinned as he approached Querry. He drew back and punched Querry hard in the stomach, making the thief glad he hadn't yet eaten. Only a mouthful of bile splattered the cobblestone. Then his fist struck Querry's diaphragm, stopping his breath. The thug hit him again and again as he choked and sputtered, fighting through dizziness to stay on his feet.
Blows rained down on Querry's waist and torso. He couldn't protect himself or fight back, couldn't even crumple in half like his body told him he should. One after another, agonizing hits landed on his already screaming sides. He felt the sharp stab of a rib cracking, and he cried out. The stinking men who held him chortled.
Finally the assault ended. Elbows released, Querry fell to his knees, then on to his side. As he panted, trying to recover his wind, the dirty hands of the thugs searched his pockets.
"The little bugger was holding out," said one of them, his fingers digging into Querry's coat pocket and closing around the pound coins and jewelry within. Weakly Querry tried to grab his wrist. He needed that money. But the man struck him in the shoulder, flipping him to his back and making his head smack against the hard street. White fuzz erupted in his skull.
"Take that sword," instructed a garbled, far-off voice.
"No," he tried to whimper, but no sound came out. A knife severed the leather strap over his hip.
Blurry, dark masses looked down at him now. Querry couldn't even try to move, couldn't even focus his eyes.
"Ten pounds next time," said the leader. "Or I cut that pretty face. Filthy faerie-lover."
They ran off, laughing. A few minutes later a whore, reeking of sex and cheap perfume, knelt to scavenge Querry's pockets again. Finding nothing, she cursed him and staggered away, holding the hem of her skirts up from the rubbish on the street.
Querry lay on the wet ground among the garbage until he could muster enough concentration and breath to haul himself up and limp back to his room.