Chapter ONE

 

GIVEN A choice between listening to the prattle of children or walking unarmed into a room full of murderous assassins… well, once I wouldn’t have wagered one shiny silver sixpence on which I’d prefer. Less uncertainty than a flutter on the nags at the Derby.

These days, I’m not so sure. I wasn’t given a choice, to begin with. And where’s the fun in not knowing which horse to back?

Here’s your sixpence.

 

 

IT ISN’T quite cricket to wager with a gentleman to whom you haven’t been introduced.

So… Rafe Lancaster, at your service. Ex-aeronaut in the Britannic Imperium’s Aero Corps, forced into a medical retirement when, flying over the African veldt in action against the Boer rebels, a crash left me with damaged eyesight. Present coffeehouse owner. Gentleman. Scion of a cadet branch of House Stravaigor, one of the Minor Houses in the Britannic Imperium’s government, and although every gentleman in the Imperium is a member of some House or other, my relationship with House Stravaigor is as loose as I can keep it. I may be a wastrel, a wanderer, an iconoclast, and a rootless stray, but I’m an honest one. That’s more than you can say for most Stravaigors.

Honest enough to mention that I am also a confirmed bachelor, if you know what I mean. I expect that you do. With regard to this last item, friend to Ned Winter, who is the First Heir of Convocation House Gallowglass. In fact, I’d say Ned Winter is the most important thing there is about me.

And that is all you need to know for the moment. More, I expect, will become apparent.

 

 

NOW THAT we are acquainted, picture me minding my own business—that is, my coffeehouse near the Britannic Imperium Museum in Londinium’s Bloomsbury—on the morning of 2 August 1900, one of those few idyllic British summer days when the weather wasn’t recreating Noah’s flood. By ten, the tide of breakfast customers had abated, and I handed the reins to my two indispensable lieutenants, Hugh Peters and Alan Jenkins. I fortified myself with a cup of my best brew, polished my spectacles in readiness in the same manner I used to check my gun before combat, and retired to the office to wrestle the July accounts into submission. I am not a natural accountant. I sat at the datascreen of my analytical machine and chased a recalcitrant guinea up one line of the accounting sheet and down several others. To no avail. An hour later, I still hadn’t managed to lay the pesky little blighter by the heels. It was a blessed relief when Hugh poked his head around the edge of the office door and interrupted me.

A blessed relief that lasted for all of a second. I knew that hard-lipped expression, where even Hugh’s nostrils thinned and flared. The hand he had on the doorknob was white-knuckled.

Trouble.

“You’d better come through, sir.”

I was out of my chair before he could close his mouth again, riding the blood rush that always came at such moments, my heart pounding. I pulled open the desk drawer to reach for my pistol.

“Not sure you’ll need that, sir, but some of your House guards are here. We’re to expect visitors.”

Oh. Joy.

A visitation. And by someone of rank in my House’s hierarchy, given the guards. The important people in a House went nowhere without the escort of men so well armed they could start their own war. This did not bode well. Although I was invited to major House events, I was not on good terms with most of the important members. Some positively disliked me, astonishing as that might seem.

I slumped into my chair again. Scrubbing my face with the palms of my hands and kicking one foot gently against the desk leg did not help. “I’d rather welcome the Beast of the Apocalypse.”

“I know, sir.”

“Did they say who’s coming?”

“No, sir. I didn’t get the impression it’s the Stravaigor himself, though.”

The Stravaigor’s Heir was an unwelcome possibility. He was one of those important House members impervious to my charm. He also had a bone or two to pick with me, I fancied, regarding what he viewed as my lack of enthusiasm for House affairs.

After a wistful glance at my aether pistol and a hearty slamming closed of the drawer—all the better to express my wild delight at the prospect—I went through to the main coffeehouse. A House guard awaited me. To be more accurate, a House assassin. He held a harquebus, the aether chamber obviously charged and ready, and wore his aether pistols as openly as he wore his dark gray House uniform.

Across the left shoulder of his uniform jacket, underneath the twist of scarlet braid on the epaulet, sailed a small ship—three-masted, canvas bellying out with a strong wind behind it, the metallic thread of the embroidery glinting. His House badge. I couldn’t read the motto from more than six feet away, not with my bad eyes, but I knew what the tiny letters proclaimed: errant in aeternum. Forever wandering. A perfect motto for the rovers of House Stravaigor, the footloose, the chancers, the vagabonds, the gadabout adventurers.

The guard bowed slightly. “Captain Lancaster.”

Memory stirred. “I saw you at the wedding of the Stravaigor’s eldest girl back in June, didn’t I? In a waiter’s uniform.”

The man’s mouth almost twitched into a grin. “I wasn’t a very good waiter.”

“I expect your guns got in the way.”

His grin made it all the way through.

Mercifully, the coffeehouse had been almost empty in the midmorning lull. Another guard was ushering out my last customers. He turned to stand at the glass front door, blocking the entrance, a hulking great brute possibly made by the same manufacturers who build the Britannic Imperial Aero Corps’ dreadnoughts. Alan stood behind the counter at the coffee urns, one hand bracing himself against the countertop as if for support. As I glanced at him, he inched his hand a little closer to the electric warning bell that connected us to the office of my tenants on the floor above. They were House Gallowglass guards, permanently stationed in the coffeehouse to watch over Ned whenever he visited, but who might be expected to lend their assistance to us in a pinch. I hoped to God it wouldn’t be necessary.

“A visit from my House, Alan. I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about.”

He didn’t look convinced, but he let his hand drop. I can’t say I was convinced either, especially since I had only managed to raise the funds to buy the coffeehouse from old Mr. Pearse—alias the Jongleur, head of a House at least as important as my own—by selling the Stravaigor all my dead mother’s jewels and taking out a House loan for the balance. I was still paying off the mortgage. Being in hock to the beggars put me at a crippling disadvantage.

An autolandau drew up in the street outside, darkening the windows with its shadow and steaming up the glass with a great burst of hot, tarry vapor from its emissarium. At exactly the right moment, the man at the front of the coffeehouse stepped aside as a third guard flung open the door with such force the bell rang madly, dancing on its coiled spring. I slid my hand into my pocket for the comforting touch of the little hideaway gun I kept there.

I had been right about my visitor. Two visitors, in fact. My elder brother, Peter, and the owner of those heavily armed assassins, John Rohan Lancaster, First Heir of House Stravaigor.

Peter and John.

Oh, what joy.

 

 

I IGNORED Peter. Five years my senior, he was very like our dear departed papa, inheriting his florid cheeks, cold eyes, and grasping nature. I hadn’t liked my father either.

I did, however, incline my head in John’s direction and greeted him with the civility the thought of my mortgage demanded. “First Heir.”

John’s expression would have curdled milk so fresh it was still in the cow. “Rafe.” He looked around the coffeehouse. “Your shop. How quaint.”

My mouth ached with the effort of keeping the smile charming. “Thank you. A most unexpected… pleasure to see you in it.”

The pause had been just long enough. John’s mouth, never what I would term generous, thinned out to the point where his lips whitened and almost vanished. “A word, if you please.”

The assassin-guard stepped forward then and saluted. “Best done in the office at the back, Mr. John. We’ll hold the door here.”

Rats in traps had a better time of it, I fancied. No way out of talking to my beloved family members short of the guards being taken with a simultaneous apoplexy that would allow me to punch John on his overlarge nose without the risk of being roasted by an aether fléchette from their harquebuses. I took comfort from the fantasy as I led my unwelcome visitors behind the counter. Alan and Hugh frowned at me as we passed, brows furrowed and mouths downturned, but they stayed where they were.

My office was a commodious room, with my desk and chair set before the barred window that gave onto the paved backyard. John didn’t wait for an invitation to take the only other seating, an old sofa ranged along the wall opposite the door, with a low table set before it. I could only hope he found the broken spring.

I chose not to hide behind my desk. Instead I propelled my office chair out into the room, keeping it at right angles to John’s sofa. Stretching out my legs and crossing them at the ankle, I leaned against the high leather back, the very model of a young man socially and emotionally at ease. Jamming my hands into my trouser pockets gave me a casually indifferent air and kept them from betraying anything to the contrary. I had a half crown and some pennies in the left-hand pocket. The coins jingled easily as I let my fingers trace the milled edges.

Peter joined John on the sofa. John had to shift a few degrees in his seat to face me at a more direct angle. Causing him even that minor inconvenience was very sweet. It was, in fact, the only genuine amusement to be gained.

John eyed me up and down for a moment. “You know why I’m here. Your conscience, although I doubt you have such a thing, will tell you.”

“You are quite mistaken, John. I am honored, of course, but I can’t begin to account for your visit.” This was not strictly true. Although I wasn’t certain why he’d waited over a month to remonstrate with me.

Peter’s scowl was vitriolic in counterpoint to John’s cold, unwavering stare. “Do stop playing the fool! You know very well what you’ve done to offend John.”

“I have no idea, Peter, but whatever it is, it was most unconsciously done.”

Peter rolled his eyes. “Winter.”

Of course it was Ned. Edward Fairfax Winter, the Gallowglass First Heir. Now there was a House luminary to make even an iconoclast like me pause. None shone brighter.

Ned Winter.

My Ned.

Not that John needed an excuse for wanting my blood, but I had a strong suspicion I understood why my knowing Ned served as an incentive this time around.

John raised a hand, and Peter’s irate stuttering cut off abruptly. “Let us be clear what’s at stake here, Rafe.” John’s bland tone set my teeth on edge, so much falsity seethed beneath it. “My father, I know, has told you of our… our delicate position when it comes to the Cartomancer.”

Indeed. My House was on the outs with Convocation House Cartomancer, to which we’d been allied since the Restoration. The Stravaigor had told me the alliance was shakier than a blancmange in an earth tremor. With the very real possibility we’d be cast off, the strategic importance of access to other Houses was incalculable, especially one of the eight great Convocation Houses. The Stravaigor was doing his utmost to repair the damage but was seeking alliances outside of Cartomancer as insurance, in case he failed. He had to capitalize on every possible link to the other Houses.

So I nodded. My shoulders were stiffening, rising instinctively to protect the back of my neck. I had to force them down, to continue to appear indifferent and relaxed.

He nodded back, almost genial, but his eyes had the cold, flat hostility of a snake’s. “Then you will understand my concern. You bought this coffeehouse from the Jongleur. It is patronized by both the Scrivener and the Gallowglass First Heir. And you didn’t tell me.”

John might have noticed for himself if he hadn’t been such an indolent dunderhead, too eager to get me under a financial obligation to the House to look at the details of why I sought a loan. That snake’s stare, though, was enough to make me keep my observations to myself until I could see just what John was after. Some recompense for the Stravaigor’s anger when he had found out about John’s negligence, possibly—and good Lord, the old man had been very angry, as I’d seen for myself at the wedding back in June when this had all come out. But John’s manner had a whiff of more than that.

“The Jongleur….” John raised one shoulder fractionally. “Too much of a recluse to be of political use. But the Scrivener alone would be reason to be put out with your refusal to tell us you had the connection. That’s bad enough, Rafe. But to conceal your friendship with Ned Winter is unforgiveable.”

I would lay any odds that he was quoting his father verbatim on the Jongleur and the Scrivener, but there was a tremor of something very personal underneath the snake’s hiss. Anger, most certainly. Resentment, particularly that I was aware of the Stravaigor’s ire over the matter. A deep-seated rancor born of years of antipathy between us. Although his expression remained cold and his eyes flat and dark, his right hand clenched and relaxed, clenched and relaxed.

It behooved me to tread warily. Not only had I the unholy temerity to befriend Ned Winter, but I hadn’t begged for permission first, nor had I run to the House to ask them how I could best turn this friendship to their advantage. In not asking John’s sanction, I had, in his view, set him up to showcase his incompetence in front of his father. In short, it was my fault.

It was, I assure you, merely a happy accident. Pure serendipity.

“John, I regret that my friendship with Ned came as an unpleasant surprise—”

“Unforgiveable,” he said, the repetition heavy and uncompromising. “You should have told me.”

“What could I tell you? When we met in February to discuss the loan the Stravaigor offered me, I had no idea Mr. Pearse was the Jongleur or that the archaeologist he talked about was the Gallowglass First Heir. I didn’t withhold this knowledge from you. I didn’t have it in the first place.”

“You knew later, and you didn’t say anything. You hid the fact you were acquainted with Ned Winter until you could rub our faces in it at my sister’s wedding. You concealed it for your own advantage—”

“Edward Winter!” Peter obviously could contain himself no longer. “Gallowglass! You conniving, treacherous bastard, Rafe! How dare you sit there smirking at us? How dare you!” Spittle flew everywhere, and his face was scarlet. If I’d cared, I might have worried about apoplexy. “I am ashamed of you! Our poor father… thank the Lord he isn’t here to see this! How could you? How could you be so lost to every finer feeling, be so ungrateful! We owe the House everything. It’s our duty to support the Stravaigor and the First Heir in everything they do. You know the situation we face with our Convocation House. You know we must all do everything we can to protect ourselves. But do you care? No! You are no brother of mine.” He made a pushing gesture toward me with both hands. “No more. I cast you off.”

John raised the hand nearest Peter and made a chopping motion. Peter shot him an apprehensive glance and clapped his hand over his mouth. He could have been a model for those delightfully drawn newspaper illustrations advertising toothache remedies. All he needed was a rabbit-eared handkerchief tied around his jaw. The poor chap looked to be in torment, and I believe he wished he were still safely in Shanghai, where all he had to deal with were wily opium dealers who’d slit his throat as soon as look at him.

I had some sympathy with the opium dealers.

There was no point in appealing to Peter, even if I felt inclined to do so. He had always taken John’s part. “Even supposing my friendships were any of your business, John, I had no opportunity to tell you. We are hardly bosom friends. It’s not as though we see each other outside House events.” I did understand John’s point of view, although I had no sympathy with it. Any well-intentioned House member would have made a point of coming to John to ask for advice on how to make the most of it for the House. Well, obviously I was not well-intentioned. “And just for the record, I don’t think my friendship with Ned Winter is any of your business. I won’t parade my friends for your inspection.”

The snake drew in a hissing breath but spoke with a calm that appeared to cost him dearly. His hands clenched in spasms, and his voice fairly thrummed. “My father intends to see you later today. He has the foolish notion he can work on you to do your duty to the House, to support our efforts to extend our influence. We both know that will never happen. You’d see us all to Hades first. I know that.”

Dear God in heaven, another visitation? And the Stravaigor himself? Well, that explained John’s presence in my coffeehouse. Typical Lancaster, trying to get in first and screw out of me whatever advantage he could. I would probably do the same in his position, although when it came to his dismal incompetence in carrying out the duties of a First Heir, I honestly couldn’t do worse myself.

John let out a long breath. “Listen to me well, Rafe Lancaster. My father will not live forever. His curious indulgence for your insolence and disobedience will not survive him. I will deal with you as you deserve. I will call in all loans. I will refuse to acknowledge you as a member of my House. You will be nothing to us, to the entire House. An outcast.” The viper showed his fangs in a sharp, poisonous little smile. “You know what that means.”

Yes, indeed. That no one would speak for me if John decided to make my banishment more… permanent, shall we say. My hand closed over the half crown in my pocket end-on, the serrated edge hard, every hill-valley-hill-valley indentation biting into my palm.

“If you wish to avoid that, you will apologize. And you will turn over the handling of Ned Winter to me.”

He meant it, that was clear. I stared. And then… I couldn’t help it. I used the only real weapon I had against him.

I laughed.

John couldn’t have looked more astonished if I’d slapped him about the face with a seven-day-dead codfish. All the color ebbed from his face, leaving him pasty white, and when it came back, his skin was patchy and mottled. He stiffened as if every muscle had spasmed into rock. Beside him, Peter’s jaw fell open, and his eyes became as round as pennies.

Two fools. Two astonished fools.

“Look, John….” I released my grip on the half crown and took my hand from my pocket. I expected to see the Queen’s head imprinted on my palm, I’d held the coin so tight. Nothing but a faint pink mark. “I realize the only friend you have is Peter, so you probably don’t know how this works, but you do not hand over your friends as if they were a secondhand suit. Ned is my friend, not an asset. I do not intend to let you or any other member of this House exploit him.”

“Then I will break you, Rafe Lancaster. I will destroy you. I will see you in the gutter for this, you… you…. You will do as you are told!” John bit out each and every word.

“No, he won’t.” The quiet voice made us all jump.

John’s head jerked. He stared at the doorway between my office and the coffeehouse proper. His mouth dropped open, and the spots of red on his cheeks drained again to pallor so fast he must have been dizzy. He leapt to his feet. “Father!”

The Stravaigor’s expression was unreadable, as usual. He strode across to my chair—no old man’s doddering steps and uncertain gait for him. The head of my House looked reassuringly healthy, and I can’t tell you how surprisingly comforted I was. I wouldn’t last long when John came into his inheritance. I quite believed him when he said he’d break me. I was so heartened I didn’t even have to be reminded to hop up sharpish to offer the Stravaigor my seat. He took it as if it were his by right.

Peter let out a faint squawk and jumped up like a jack-in-the-box. He looked like he’d find it a relief to gibber.

The Stravaigor didn’t invite us to sit. John and I stood before him, side by side, a pair of errant schoolboys facing the headmaster. His stare had me fighting to keep my feet from shuffling. I don’t know what John felt. He was possibly more used to it.

The Stravaigor deigned to acknowledge me. “Rafe.”

I bowed like the little gentleman I am. If he chose to take self-preservation as respect, well, let him. He acknowledged me with a quirk of the lips, not quite a smile.

The Stravaigor glanced beyond me. “Peter, would you join us?”

Peter made the mewling noise of a cat stuck down a well. It must have been consent, for an instant later, he joined John and me to stand in front of the Stravaigor’s chair.

“I wasn’t expecting you here so soon, sir.” John sounded like a man with a garrote around his neck.

“No?” The Stravaigor was oh so genial. “Well, I shall endeavor to keep you better informed about my engagements.” He turned his attention to my brother. “Peter, your loyalty to John is pleasing, but I would regret your allowing your devotion to John’s interests to—inadvertently, I’m sure—undercut mine.”

“Sir.” Peter’s voice was a ghost of its usual plummy self. “Of course, sir. Please accept my apologies if I’ve offended you. It was the furthest thing from my mind, I assure you.”

“I’m certain of that.” The Stravaigor looked at his son, letting the silence stretch until it was twanging like a bowstring with an arrow on the nock. “I am gratified, John, that you have taken to heart my advice to grasp the detail of House business and throw all your energies into furthering it. However, I would prefer to have those measures I have planned myself remain undisturbed. It would be better if you concentrated on other issues.”

The Stravaigor’s tone was mild and, written down like that, what he said doesn’t look too bad. You had to have been there. My toes curled inside my boots, and his little speech wasn’t even aimed at me.

“You can’t trust him! It’s madness to think of it. He cares nothing for the House. He’s out of control, dangerous, unprincipled, and disloyal—”

“Oh, I’m aware of Rafe’s views on the House system. That’s a far cry from treachery. It merely means he requires a different sort of handling.”

Did I, indeed?

The Stravaigor rested his elbows on the chair arms and steepled his hands together. He regarded his son with a benevolence that had me looking for cover. “I really do think you should leave Rafe to me.”

“I… I just wanted him to understand he has to play by House rules.”

“Rafe understands that completely, I think.” He turned to me and raised an eyebrow. “Is that not so?”

I forbore to crack a joke. To everything there is a season and all that, and after all, the old man held my mortgage on the place. I just nodded.

“Good. Then we all understand one another. I think, John, that it’s time you and Peter left me to my discussion with Rafe.”

John looked from me to his father. He gave a jerky nod, half turned, and stopped. “That’s twice, Rafe, that you’ve crossed me. There won’t be a third time.”

I could only hope that was a promise. The less I saw of John Lancaster, the better for both of us. Well, at least, for me.

The Stravaigor had his own guards with him, of course. One of them knocked on the office door just then and opened it. I recognized him from my occasional visits to the House. What was his name? Thatcher? Thatchlock? Something like that. Whatever he was called, he was a rather undistinguished man, neatly dressed in a subdued town suit with a smart bowler hat over a shiny bald pate. At first glance, I’d as soon expect a bank clerk or a shopkeeper to draw a pistol on me as this man, with his bland, characterless face and air of respectability. And therefore I kept a wary eye on him. He was far more dangerous than the tough that John had brought with him.

The Stravaigor glanced up. “Mr. John is just leaving, Tatlock.”

Tatlock! That was it. The Stravaigor’s chief guard and distant cousin, doubly tied to service.

John jostled past me, Peter scuttling along in his wake.

“John.” The Stravaigor’s tone was back to freezing fire.

John stopped. When he turned, his face and neck were brick red, his jaw clenched so hard the cords in his neck stood out. “With your permission, sir.”

His bow was a mere jerk. Peter squeaked out something that may have been a polite farewell and bowed so low his nose scraped the floor.

The Stravaigor let the silence stand for an eternity. Probably no more than half a minute, but in those few seconds of silence, he underscored just who was in command. At last he inclined his head. “Safe journey home, my son.”