ROBIN didn’t imagine starving ever felt pleasant, but he bet being surrounded by so much food made it worse. Surely starving in a desert surrounded by other starving people, starving because there was nothing to be had, went a bit easier than starving while everyone else packed their faces. As Robin walked through the massive Enline Train Station he passed a café where a few people sat enjoying coffee, tea, a variety of miniature sandwiches, scones, fresh fruit with cream, and trifle. His stomach loudly acknowledged the scent of lemon bars, his favorite dessert. One cart sold fragrant meat pies, while another offered fried fish and battered oysters. A little further up the tracks stood a produce stand. Taverns and eateries lined the rails on both sides, tempting Robin with their rich aromas. He couldn’t go inside, though, because he’d promptly be thrown out. Starving with all of that an arm’s length away hurt doubly bad. Robin kept his eyes on the plank walk as he passed the windows and doors. The shops stretched for a quarter mile, their walls flush and all of them sheltered by the oxidizing expanse of the station’s metal roof.
The station stood relatively empty aside from porters and vendors. An old man in a traditional kilt sat on an iron bench, gnawing the end of his pipe. A gangly girl in a bonnet and apron swept in front of the apothecary. Several men with brushes and buckets scrubbed the shop walls, even though they’d be black again by tomorrow. The soot and smoke the locomotives spewed coated everything in an ebony crust. After a day of work, Robin felt it on his skin and smelled it in his hair. Within the hour the train yard would fill with people traveling home from Enline’s factories and offices. Armies of laborers, architects, and machinists, as well as the bureaucrats who kept track of them, made the commute twice a day. Only the most destitute actually lived in Enline, because it was so close to the damned wall. Among those pressing and shoving bodies, Robin could earn enough for a meal and hopefully a bed for the night. Plenty of young men and women his age sold their bodies in and around the station. They turned a good profit from the businessmen who could spare half an hour before returning to their families. With his fine looks, Robin sometimes just asked for money, and it usually worked. Mostly, though, he took it.
He knew he was beautiful. His father, a Thalacean sailor, had given him smooth olive skin, high cheekbones, full lips, and a lithe, graceful build. His Tartan mother gave him light brown eyes that looked almost amber in some light. He had dark red hair like polished cherry wood streaked with scarlet and gold. It tumbled over his shoulders in loose curls. If he had a mind to, he could put every boy-whore around the station out of business, but with his nimble fingers, he seldom saw the need to resort to it.
“Paper, sir?” called a young boy in blue suspenders and an oversized, patched-up cap.
Robin stopped and asked, “Any news?” He set his battered, leather case beside his boot to look. The words “Wanted. Still at Large!” and large photographs of two extremely appealing young men caught his eye. Before he could read the nature of their crimes, the newsboy interrupted him.
“Same, sir. The capital city of Halcyon’s still having trouble with that faerie district. Thought they were rid of them, but just like that, they’re back. And somebody finally built an airship that didn’t explode! There’s a woman trying to run for Grande Chancellor.”
“I don’t need to read about that,” Robin said as he walked on. He had no pity for the pampered dandies in Halcyon. They may have had a little section of their city occupied by the fey, but Enline and the rest of the north had been positively crawling with the damned things since before Robin was born. The citizens had pleaded with the House of Nobility for help, and they’d finally sent the money to construct the high metal wall. It would follow the path of a stone structure built by an ancient army of conquerors some 1,700 years before. Those archaic warriors had constructed their simple barrier to protect themselves from northern barbarians, and now modern Anglicans hoped to protect themselves from the fey. When complete, the wall would stretch from the eastern shore to the west, so sturdy that only hydraulic gears and pulleys could lift its gates. Power stations and guard towers would be built at regular intervals. Special codes would be needed to operate massive doors. The engineers hoped to completely seal off the Tartan Highlands, as they were hopelessly overrun. The huge project would take decades to complete. In seven years, only a fraction of the barrier had been built. For now, people did as best they could. Hawkers in the station offered oils, amulets, trinkets, and charms to repel the faeries. Almost everyone owned a pair of spectacles or a glass to see past glamour. A few of the most expensive ones even worked.
No, Robin thought as he looked at the deepening pink strip at the western end of the tracks, those people in Halcyon have no idea what it means to be afraid. He did, and he needed money for a bed, so he wouldn’t be taken. Leaning against a lamppost with practiced nonchalance, Robin scanned the increasing crowd, looking for a mark. Before long he found one: an older gentleman in striped trousers and an expensive frock coat. He carried a shiny black case similar in shape to Robin’s: perfect for the Bump and Switch. Robin insinuated himself into the throng, keeping his sights on his target’s silk top hat, but careful not to get too close yet. He followed about three feet behind the man and kept a few travelers between them. The best time to swap the cases would be when the passengers had packed into the turnstiles to wait for the engines that began to approach. Robin tasted the familiar tang of coal on the air. The ground vibrated, and the shop windows shook in their frames as the trains entered the yard, spewing smoke and steam from their stacks. The young thief wriggled around a worker who hadn’t bothered to remove his goggles or dirty leather apron. His heart beat a little faster as his mark neared the platform. Robin was good at his work, but there was always a risk. In the north, criminals didn’t get thrown in prison; they got thrown on the other side of the wall.
He wouldn’t allow himself to consider it. People began to gather near the metal railings that led to the turnstiles, Robin’s gentleman included. The older man even set his case on the ground to dab at his thick neck with a handkerchief. Robin needed only step in front of a pair of old women and switch the cases. The massive, metal cylinder came to a stop with a screech. The wheels reached almost to Robin’s chest, and its headlight sliced through the blanket of darkness and smog that rapidly settled over the station. A porter slid the door open, and the waiting passengers brought out their tickets. Robin’s mark fished in his pocket as the young thief pushed his way gently past the elderly ladies. But then someone behind him yelled his name.
“Robin! Robin Pastorius!” Everyone in the crowd turned toward the voice, and then toward Robin.
Cursing to himself, Robin looked over his shoulder and saw Lila Walker leaning on a tree branch and waving at him with a bright red scarf. He wound his way back through the crowd as his target boarded his car.
“What happened to you?” Robin asked the young whore, whose bare foot was wrapped in dirty rags. She leaned on her stick for a crutch. The two of them had been something like friends for years, possibly because Robin’s skin was a little too brown to be trusted, and Lila’s was browner still: rich coffee with a splash of cream, cappuccino color. Though both were attractive young people, both knew it was far more fashionable to be blond and fair. In the north more than anywhere, people didn’t trust a man or woman that looked too foreign.
“A bleedin’ carriage ran over me foot!” Lila said, planting her hand on her hip. She wore the same cheap, purple dress as always. The hem that dragged on the ground was filthy and worn to shreds. She’d pinned a little pink hat and a scrap of netting to the front of her bushy, black hair. “Didn’t even stop!”
“You’d better get to the church shelter before it fills up,” he told her.
She shook her head. “I’m working tonight, ain’t I?”
“On that leg?”
“If I don’t work, I don’t eat. Listen, Robin. Could you spare me anything?”
“I’m afraid I don’t have a penny.”
Lila took a teetering step toward him and clutched the collar of his coarse, brown coat. “Please, Robin! I just need a shilling or two. I know you must have something. See, I need to get some tonic before the chemist closes. For me foot. It hurts like the devil.”
He pulled away and said, “That stuff is poison, and you take it too often.”
“Come on, Robin! I’ll trade you for it.”
“You know I’m not interested in that.”
“Right,” she said, winking. “In that case, I can pay you back.”
Robin put his arm around her waist and helped her limp to a bench. “Stay here. I’ll try to get us something to eat. But if it starts getting too dark, and I’m not back, you have to get to the church. I don’t have to tell you it ain’t safe.”
She shuddered, pulled her fraying shawl up over her shoulders, and nodded. Robin retrieved his case and headed back to the wooden walkway that ran parallel to the tracks. Over half of the trains had already departed. The throng had thinned, and the gas-powered streetlights glowed softly against the darkening sky. Robin would find his work a little more difficult now; crowds and confusion made his best allies. He strolled casually past the shops, carts, and kiosks, sizing up the passengers that waited to board the remaining trains. Half an hour passed, and Robin feared he’d be sleeping with Lila in the shelter on an empty stomach. He managed to pinch a few shillings from a governess distracted by her three charges, but he decided to cross the promenade to the other side of the station and try his luck there.
It was getting darker and people congregated nervously in the pools of light cast by the gas lamps. They regarded one another suspiciously. More than a few donned their special glasses. Robin noticed a group of construction workers who’d already had a few pints and enthusiastically discussed obtaining a few more. He saw crates being readied for the next freight car. A pinprick approached from the east: the headlight of the final locomotive of the evening. Its whistle made a lonely, eerie howl. Laborers who’d stayed late in the taverns or spent time with Enline’s young professionals waited for the last train. Few others dared the northern night. Robin was just about to give up when he noticed a balding, portly fellow with a case sitting next to him. Judging from his fur-collared overcoat and gold pocket watch, Robin thought he’d find something worthwhile within. When the workers moved forward in a pack, Robin joined them. He easily made his way to his mark and stood just behind the man, who scowled and checked the time every minute or so.
In a few minutes the train arrived, the steam bright white against the wine-colored sky. The brakes hissed, and the metal whined as the great locomotive came to a stop. Workers pushed their way toward the turnstile, jostling Robin and making his shoulder bump into the back of the chubby fellow he hoped to rob. The man turned to him with a murderous look on his face, but it dropped away as he studied Robin’s features, quickly replaced by appreciation. His eyes widened, and he tried to smile, though Robin found the expression grotesque and somehow cruel. He mumbled an apology and used the man’s distraction to swap the cases. At the last minute his hand darted into the man’s coat pocket and closed around a full coin purse. Robin held it tightly in his fist as the sea of workmen surged toward the platform, pushing Robin’s target forward and away. Robin took a few steps back, clutching the brass handle of the case tightly. Soon, he’d disappeared into the shadows cast by the buildings, and his victim disappeared behind the metal door of the car. It rumbled off to the south and wouldn’t stop until it reached Dunvegan, an hour away. All of the trains departed Enline in that direction. The tracks stretched all the way to Halcyon in the south and to the wild, western coast of Caer Vale. Soon they would span the channel to Belvais.
Officially the station bore the name N-Line, after Norrington Industries, the designers and manufacturers of the steam engines. But everyone, especially everyone unfortunate to call it home, knew what Enline-On-The-Moor really meant. Enline was the end of the line, where the rails ended with the wall.
At least he would eat. Since the purse held four pound-coins and twelve shillings, more than Robin could have hoped, he didn’t take the time to check inside the case. Doing so could rouse suspicion. Robin hurried to a cart where an old Rajallan man in an orange turban cooked a spicy concoction called curry in a metal pan. The food was fresher than some and cheaper than most, and Robin had developed a fondness for the exotic flavor. He ordered two platters. Each included a piece of strange, puffy bread and some oddly spiced, milky tea. His belly aching for nourishment, Robin paid the man and hurried back to the bench where he’d left Lila.
She was gone, probably to the church. Night had nearly fallen. Robin felt a tingle of guilt, but it dispersed when he realized he’d be able to eat both plates of curry himself. He and Lila were friends, but each of them understood that the other looked out for him or herself first. Robin helped Lila when he could, and she’d fed him a few times when he’d had bad luck. They enjoyed each other’s company. She wouldn’t expect him to come looking for her, though, especially not after dark.
Robin now had money for a decent room, but he needed to make it to the shabby little village down the hill from the station before the fey overran the hills, taking as slaves anyone they wanted, killing some, disfiguring others, driving them mad, or stealing their memories. For all the taxes they paid, many in the north didn’t think the miraculous wall kept them out. Wooden doors didn’t keep them out, either, but Robin would still feel better when he got behind one. He jogged down the dirt path that carried cargo between the station and the village during the day. Not a soul traveled it now. The moorland beyond undulated under the crescent moon that had just risen, heather, bracken, crowberry, and shrubs swaying in spite of the still air. The vegetation brushed together, sounding like whispered words. Though almost summer, Robin shivered. He smelled the mountain thyme and lavender and wondered what it had been like to be able to walk beneath the moon without fear. While wild and barren, the northern moors held a harsh beauty that fascinated the young thief. The rolling land looked fuzzy and purplish-gray. Earthy mist rolled down from the hills beyond the wall, and fireflies blinked their green lights.
Robin had no time to contemplate the poetry of the scene. He felt inside the leather pouches of his tool belt for the handle of his plain but sturdy dagger before he hurried along, his eyes darting from side to side in search of pale forms on horseback or on foot. His ears strained to discern the first bars of faerie music. He heard only the sounds of the settlement ahead and the sea in the distance. Before long he reached the wooden arch crudely marked “End of the Line” in drippy, red letters. The citizens had done their best to enclose their humble town with logs and wooden ties leftover from the railroad and some metal scraps left from building the wall. At the northern gate, they’d pounded in hundreds of tenpenny nails. Red threads and ribbon, rowan sprigs and religious artifacts hung from them. Horseshoes lined the opening. Some people left offerings of blue glass bottles, marbles, shiny spoons, beaded necklaces, fancy combs, and jewelry in the clumps of curly grass. To one of these altars Robin added a hatpin with a faux-pearl at the end. He looked over his shoulder, into the gloomy night, and hurried toward the gaslight of the town.
Most of the buildings were made from daub and wattle, with a few older, stone structures here and there. The grime from the trains covered everything, and no one bothered to wash it away. Every night saw Enline filled to the brim. Those who couldn’t rent a room settled for a stable or just for the shelter of the walls. Many families recently had moved from their ancestral fields and farms to the shabby settlement, as the scant protection it offered was better than none. Goats, sheep, and chickens wandered the muddy lanes, leaving their stink. Robin passed the stables with their familiar smell and turned down an alley toward the taverns and boardinghouses. Drunks, hustlers, whores, and pickpockets like himself surrounded the brightly lit row of buildings. Holding tight to his purse and pilfered case, his dinner tucked under his elbow, Robin pushed past them and went inside the Blackthorn Inn.
Though early, the common room exploded with movement and noise when Robin opened the door. A trio of musicians in traditional dress played a bagpipe, a fiddle, and a hand drum in a corner. Robin hardly heard the tune over the drunken shouts of the patrons. Dancing couples twirled past and knocked into him. Men argued, shoved, and wrestled. He barely managed to squeeze through it all and reach the bar.
“How much for a bed?” he shouted to the plump old woman polishing glasses.
She turned and squinted at Robin’s startling appearance. “Depends. Not another whore, are you? We don’t need no more whores ’round here, lad.”
“No,” he said with his most disarming smile. “A thief, actually.”
She laughed as if it had been a joke and told him, “Three shillings.”
He pulled out four and ordered a whiskey with heather honey as she unfastened an iron key from her ring. Robin took it and his drink, turned, and rested his elbows and back against the bar as he looked around the room. It might be nice to share his rented bed, at least for an hour or so. Plenty of buxom border lasses sought his attention. A few men noticed him, but not of the type he usually preferred. Robin enjoyed strong, older men, and he didn’t mind them a little coarse, but he did mind them stinking. He didn’t care for tangled beards and kept only some well-trimmed sideburns on his own face. Occasionally he liked a little rough play, but he didn’t want a partner so sloppy with drink that he might actually hurt him. He’d been reckless before and regretted it.
Tired and hungry, he abandoned his search soon enough and retired to his little cell on the third floor. It was scarcely large enough to hold the narrow bed, small night table, basin, and cloth. Robin took off his coat, wiped his hands, and sat down on the straw mattress to eat his curry. Being full made him sleepy right away. He unlaced his worn work boots, unbuckled his utility belt, and got out of his heavy canvas trousers, their knees reinforced with riveted leather. He took off his green tweed waistcoat and the pumpkin-colored shirt beneath and folded them neatly. Then he turned down the scratchy wool blanket and coarse sheet and fell into bed. He thought he’d pass out right away, but he lay watching the black and orange patterns the single candle painted across the ceiling.
He wished he’d bought the newspaper after all, or maybe a used book. He ran his palm lightly over the bulge in his undershorts and felt it twitch in response. His fingers continued down and curled around his balls, squeezing them once before descending lower. Robin opened his legs and petted his tiny opening through the soft cotton. He groaned and squeezed his muscles, feeling the contraction against his fingertip. If only he had something to distract his body from how much it craved a man’s attention. Then he remembered that he did: the case he’d taken at the station. Ignoring his erection, he sat up and lifted it into his lap. The fine leather felt cool against his thighs.
He rooted through his pouches, found a hairpin, and went to work on the lock. Since he didn’t really know what he was doing, it took a quarter of an hour of fumbling before he got lucky and the mechanisms clicked. It took only a few minutes before he became disappointed with what he found inside the case: long reports, inches thick and held together with brass brats. The language of these confused Robin so much he could not have said whether they described medical or mechanical research of some kind. After struggling through a page and a half, he determined them to be worthless and put them aside. Below them he found a few recent newspapers. The case’s owner had circled certain articles with black ink, mostly the ones mentioning fey sightings or human deaths and disappearances. He’d saved an invoice from a mason who’d been doing some work around his house, and from this Robin learned the man’s name: Maxwell Bunge. Giggling a little at the unfortunate cadence, Robin took note of the address in Kilfallow-Over-Roefields, an affluent and idyllic town two hours or so to the southwest.
Robin doubted he’d be able to do anything more useful with these papers than to use them when nature called, so he set them on the floor beside the bed. At least he had a new case for the Bump and Switch. This one was finely crafted of buttery leather and lined with brown silk. As Robin examined it, he saw the lining had come loose in one corner. Closer inspection revealed not a tear, but a pocket. Robin felt something beneath the cloth and smiled. People didn’t bother to hide worthless things.
Fantasizing about stacks of bills, Robin reached inside and withdrew a brown paper envelope. He opened the clasp and emptied the contents onto the bed. His heart sank yet again as he looked at about a dozen well-worn, sepia photographs. Creases like forks of lightning marred many of them, and most of their edges curled from wear. What might a businessman like old Max Bunge need to hide? Lewd pictures of Aurential girls or topless prostitutes? Maybe Max had a mistress, or even a second, secret family. Robin had never considered earning his living through blackmail, but if the photographs were incriminating enough, by all evidence, Max could afford to pay handsomely to keep his dirty laundry off of the line.
He retrieved the candle, picked up one of the pictures, and held it to the light. He didn’t know what he thought he’d see, but he didn’t expect a nude male body stretched taut beneath a pair of manacles hanging from the ceiling. And what a body it was: gracefully muscled and lean, with an elongated, willowy waist and limbs, fair-skinned and hairless save for a sparse patch above the impressive, semi-hard cock. Low light accentuated the dips and divots of the young man’s (he had to be young, with that body) prominent abdominal sinew. Even the muscles of his underarms popped to the surface as he clearly twisted within and struggled against his bonds. Robin’s body reacted to what he saw, and before he realized he’d done it, he ran his thumb up the lithe waist, over the black hood that obscured the man’s face and across the long, light hair that poured out from beneath it.
Certainly such a display was scandalous at least, but Robin counted too many prostitutes as friends to be shocked by it. He knew from their accounts that some men enjoyed this type of play, both aspects of it. Unless he could find a picture that showed good Mr. Bunge participating in the fun, he wouldn’t be able to tie him to the photographs nor benefit from their discovery. He moved on to the next, holding it close to the flame. He saw the same young man in the hood, but this time on his knees and elbows with his hands bound and some sort of metal bars holding his legs apart at the knees and ankles. Welts and gashes crisscrossed his shapely ass and long, lean thighs. Robin saw the ends of the cat-o'-nine-tails at the corner of the picture, but if Max Bunge held it, he’d never be able to prove it. Similar pictures followed, but Robin quickly discerned that they bore witness not to consensual fun but to actual abuse. His initial arousal turned to disgust as he viewed savage beatings and rapes. One close-up shot of the young man’s face, a face as perfect as that gorgeous body, showed a horse’s bit pinching his tongue and tearing at the sides of his mouth. Bruises covered his neck. A tear fell from beneath the blindfold he wore. What if he was a prisoner? Robin decided to turn the pictures over to the authorities anonymously. He no longer wanted to make money from this atrocity. He could only hope the police might be a little more sympathetic to the plight of a queer boy-whore than usual. Normally they laughed off his friends’ complaints of beatings or worse. Whores knew the chances they took, but—
My god, no one deserved this.
One picture remained facedown on the bed. Though he feared to do so, Robin picked it up and brought it close to his face. He saw the victim in profile, a defiant look on his fine features. A thumb and finger pinched his pointed chin and angled his head up. Blood trickled over his full, shapely lips. His nose was slender and delicate and his ears—
My god, Robin thought. He’d been wrong to feel sympathy for this, this thing. It wasn’t human and probably deserved everything it got. No court would censure Mr. Bunge for abusing a faerie; they’d probably give him some sort of a medal. Robin wadded up the pictures and stuffed them back in the envelope, ashamed of himself for feeling compassion and, worse yet, attraction, for a cursed fey.
Yet as he lay tossing on his thin mattress, the horrible images returned to plague his conscience and steal his rest. He tried to revel in the suffering of the faerie. His people had suffered for decades at their hands. When he couldn’t enjoy the thing’s pain, he attempted to dismiss it. Certainly they didn’t have feelings akin to humans. The vision of the tear escaping the blindfold surfaced again and again. Probably some sort of a trick, a glamour.
No matter what he told himself, the photographs haunted Robin’s thoughts as he lay awake and his dreams when he finally managed to sleep.