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.