Gareth Charles picked his way through the snowy streets of New Eddington. Anyone with a lick of sense or fortune had retired indoors, far from the prying wind and stinging snow that battered at him. On nights like these it felt as if he was once again back on the frozen steppes of Crimea, hunkered down in the frozen mud, ducking a hail of bullets.
The thatch of unruly dark hair, still thick and full in Gareth’s fortieth year, combined with skin the color of a burnished penny, wide, thin lips, and deep-set hazel eyes had caused more than one man in the platoon to assume a traitor was in their midst. He might have been mistaken for foreign-born, it was true, but his heart beat for the commonwealth, and in more than one Black Sea barroom his fists had convinced anyone who thought otherwise.
With practiced ease, Gareth pushed his memories of the war back in the box where they belonged and crossed the deserted main thoroughfare, headed for a shortcut through the park at the town’s geographical heart. The once carefully trimmed shrubs thrust wild, bare branches toward the night sky, and the gravel pathways were worn and icy in patches. Only a statue of General Beaufort, New Eddington’s storied founder, kept watch over the space now, staring down with what Gareth thought of as frank disappointment etched on his granite features. The park’s upkeep had been cast aside with the government’s increased focus on Crimea. A lot of things were being sacrificed for that war.
The wind died down as Gareth reached the general’s side, and despite the cold, he paused for a moment and pulled out his cigarette case. Using the statue’s stone bulk for shelter, he coaxed a weak flame into life and touched it to the fragrant, hand-rolled tobacco. Standing in the shadow of New Eddington’s most decorated war hero, Gareth smoked quickly, enjoying the brief respite from the storm.
A little distance away at the edge of the park, several unfortunates hunched, rag-bound and shivering around a makeshift barrelfire. Gareth felt a pang of pity for them. New Eddington’s finest would be along soon to remove them to the tender confines of the jail at city hall. The town had been plagued with a string of arsons recently, and where once the shivering vagrants would’ve been granted their paltry warmth, fires now made the citizenry nervous. And as proponents of Reform so often touted, Distraction was the Enemy of Production.
The wind sprang back up, driving the snow before it, and with a last rueful glance at the overcast night sky, Gareth stubbed out his cigarette and left the general to his vigil.
He hurriedly crossed the road and reached for the door of Tom Moore’s Pourhouse. Gaslight from the tiny kitchen spilled out onto the sidewalk through steam-clouded windows, and as Gareth entered, he was enveloped in a cloud of warmth and the smell of cooking meat. The Pourhouse did a brisk late-night trade in takeaway: lard-fried pockets of gravy with a few bits of animals no one looked too closely at and certainly never missed.
“Evening, Mr. Charles, sir. The usual, sir?”
“Evening, Tom.” Gareth greeted the proprietor with a smile. “Depends what’s in tonight’s usual.”
Tom Moore stood close to six feet tall and was easily half as wide again. His complexion, like that of butchers and pastrymongers everywhere, was ruddy; wide pink cheeks led down to a tiny, pinched mouth at odds with the rest of his appearance. “Oh, a bit of this and that, sir, and gravy.”
One corner of Gareth’s mouth turned up sardonically. “As usual.”
Moore smiled and pulled a bowl down from the shelves behind him, filling it from a cast-iron tureen on the stove. The rest of the kitchen was deserted. “And would you be wanting anything else, sir?”
“Just put it on my tab, Tom.”
“Very good, sir. I’ll bring this down to you, shall I?” Moore wiped his hands on a filthy cloth hanging out of his apron pocket and pulled up one edge of a patriotic wallhanging. It bore a likeness of General Beaufort, mounted on a mustard-colored horse, his sword at the throat of an enemy in the shape of Crimea. The country had been given the requisite monocle and waxed moustache to help establish its villainous identity.
Behind the tapestry was a heavy wooden door. As Gareth depressed the latch, he caught sight of raw-looking wounds covering the butcher’s hand and arm where it held back the wall hanging. “Tom, what happened?”
The butcher looked abashed. “That fire we had last week at the dance hall, sir. It were a bad one. But the ashes after... The missus and I--well, you know how it is, Mr. Charles, sir. We all must do as must be done, sir.”
Gareth looked at the weeping blisters on Moore’s arm and felt his breath catch. The arsons. New Eddington’s wood-and-plaster edifices, huddling shoulder to narrow shoulder against the fierce winters, had proven a ready feast for the flames. In their wake, piles of still-smoldering ashes rife with half-burned wood, bits of glass, and other trinkets too tempting for many of the town’s poorer inhabitants.
Tom cleared his throat. “’S’a good job those firewalkers drive their bugs like madmen. Get right up into the flames and get that blue goo right at the heart of it. Could’ve been a lot worse, by far. Could’ve lost the brewery and the tobacconist’s to boot. Wouldn’t that’ve been a fine mess, sir! All them smokeables gone up in an instant. I tell you, Governor Gray’s a good-hearted man, sir, for sending up more bugs. Who knows what could’ve happened if we didn’t have enough firewalkers to go around.”
Gareth couldn’t take his eyes off the wounds on Tom’s arms as knowledge of his own part in letting the fires continue festered in his gut. How many more must suffer before all is known
? “We’re truly lucky to have such a wise and benevolent leader for our colony. Things could indeed be a lot worse.”
If Tom noted the sarcasm in Gareth’s voice, he made no sign and instead returned to his stoves. Gareth turned resolutely away and stepped behind the tapestry and into the bowels of the building.
Rough stone steps led sharply down, curving to the right. Gareth had to duck his head to avoid the effluent pipe as it cut through the earth like a giant metal worm. At the foot of the steps lay his destination: a second door, heavier than the first and made of solid iron.
A hatch in the center of the doorway slid back, and an imperious voice asked, “Yes? What do you want?”
Gareth grinned widely. “Come on, Countess, you know who I am. You’ve known since I walked into the store upstairs.” Or, knowing New Eddington’s grande dame of the shadows, since before he’d known he was coming here himself.
A pair of baleful hazel eyes glared at him through the hatchway. “You’re late.”
Gareth shrugged. “I do what I can.”
The hatch slid closed with a sharp snick
, and Gareth was glad he hadn’t been leaning closer. The door opened halfway, but a weathered blonde at least a decade older than himself barred the way. She wore a man’s suit and waistcoat and the same mean glare, which did nothing to disguise a proud beauty little diminished by middle age. Countess Harvill was a lot of things--shrewd businesswoman, purveyor of all things desired, and illicit, sharp-tongued harpy--but a pushover wasn’t among them. “Gareth Charles, I want no trouble here tonight; do you understand me? Keep it clean, and if you can’t keep it clean, at least keep it close. Cross me and I’ll deliver you to the devil himself on the end of my foot, so help me.”
Gareth deposited a kiss on her wrinkled cheek. “I’m a gentleman, Countess. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I’ll just bet.” She stood aside to let him enter.
The good-sized room beyond stood in stark contrast to the plain, homely kitchen on the ground floor. Men packed in around the small tables, some sitting, others standing to wait their turn, and tinny pre-war tunes came from a small hand-cranked phonograph, complete with a scrubbed-up urchin manning the crank. A long, low table stood at the room’s far end; well-dressed gentlemen wearing tarted-up laundry girls tossed dice and grumbled or patted each other in commiseration. The room stank of sweat, cheap cologne, and hair tonics. A haze of tobacco smoke hung over the tables as cards and coins both exchanged hands.
Nodding acquaintance, Gareth pulled out a chair at the closest table. Before he could even unbutton his greatcoat, however, a steely hand gripped his collar, pulling him in another direction.
“As much as I’d enjoy seeing you unleashed against Judge Barrington’s secretary, I think you’ll fare better with these gentlemen over here.” She sank Gareth into a chair at a table nearby with a little more force than necessary. “Gentlemen,” she announced, “Gareth Charles. Mr. Charles, these are gentlemen. See if you can learn something from them.” With a painful squeeze of Gareth’s shoulder, she departed. The table’s occupants looked up with a minimum of interest.
Gareth rose and slipped out of his greatcoat as he was dealt into the game. He kept his eyes on the cards as they slid across the burnished wood tabletop, then sank into his chair and collected his hand with a contented sigh. It was time to put his troubles to one side, at least for a few hours.
The game on the table was Fetch and Carry. A trick-taking game of skill and one Gareth happened to excel at. With a quick look at the pot, he tossed some coins in, matching only the lowest bid.
A heavily sideburned older gentleman pursed his lips disapprovingly as his eyes tallied Gareth’s contribution.The banker, Gareth thought. Tight with his own money but hates to see other people tight with theirs. Gareth looked at his cards, his face a mask of unconcern for his surroundings.
Per the custom, they played two hands up, building tricks in front of them on the table. Gareth opted for two midlevel bids, taking one and dropping the other. He kept his mind and his eyes on the cards. At the third hand, they estimated their tricks for the full game.
Gareth bet safe, in the middle. Eight tricks. Liking to seem cocky but knowing he should drop the first game to win their confidence.
The banker bid nine with a glare in Gareth’s direction, and a long-limbed redhead with an easy grin bet six. Interesting, Gareth thought. Probably a sly man hoping to pass himself off as an innocent.
A pug-nosed young man smelling oddly of mint bet five, then looked over at the redhead, who met his glance and looked away, gaze traveling like oil on water.
Which left the final occupant of the table.
Gareth looked up and found himself unable to move. The last member of their gambling party was about forty, with a shock of graying blond hair, a prominent, aristocratic chin, and slender, elegant hands that shook a little as they gripped the cards. Above bruise-colored hollows, his eyes were bright blue and scared.
He looked up and met Gareth’s eyes, and it was like the whole world went suddenly, blessedly silent. Gareth froze in the power of that gaze, drinking it in like the finest whiskey. Then the man looked away, and the whiskey soured in his throat.
As Gareth watched, he downed a shot of clear rotgut and signaled for another. Gareth felt his stomach drop. This guy was in trouble. Gareth wondered how long he’d been at the table, how long he’d been losing, how many shots he’d had, what his name was, where his people were, why he was here all alone...
Feeling eyes on him, Gareth looked up and caught the countess staring at him, cigar in hand. He shook off her heavy gaze and forced himself back to the game.
Play commenced, and Gareth focused on the flow of the cards, hand after hand, trick after trick, until he’d amassed the seven tricks he wanted. Staying competitive, just not cleaning up. Not yet.
At the end of the first game, the banker scooped the pot into his possession with a satisfied snort and made neat piles of the coins. Gareth rocked back in his chair and mentally tallied. The redhead made one over his bet, and the mint-smelling man one under, with a few covert glances throughout. Gareth mentally shook his head. Amateurs
. The blond guy came three under but made up for it with two more shots of the hard stuff.
As if sensing Gareth’s gaze, he looked up and scowled. “Does my display of ill luck displease you, friend?”
Gareth opened his mouth to reply, but the banker interrupted. “Another round, gentlemen?”
They all murmured agreement, and Gareth willed himself not to stare at his blue-eyed antagonist, who was shakily signaling for another drink. This was going to be a bloodbath.
An hour later, he was proved right. Gareth was ahead, leading neatly but not without the appearance of a struggle. The banker harumphed into his finely waxed mustache and restacked his earlier--now much smaller--winnings. Gareth’s suspected pair of cardsharps were in the middle of a protracted eyebrow-driven conversation when the redhead caught Gareth’s expression and blushed, the glow springing quickly up his cheeks. Gareth didn’t look away.
“If you gentlemen will excuse me, I think I could use some fresh air.” The blond pushed away from the table and headed unsteadily toward the cardroom’s rear door. The way he looked around as he went, wide-eyed and unseeing, knocked about by pushed-back chairs and high-spirited patrons, knotted Gareth’s stomach. He found himself on his feet before his brain could object. The others stared curiously.
“A smoke break sounds like just what I need right now.” Gareth forced his voice to stay steady. He watched the door close behind the mysterious cardplayer’s dispirited form. Swallowing the lump in his throat, he addressed the banker. “Be sure to keep those coins warm for me. I like my winnings like I like my women: willing and many.”
The others chuckled dutifully.
Moving as quickly as was seemly, Gareth grabbed up his greatcoat and made it to the back door and out, up a long, sloping dirt path to an enclosed courtyard nestled between the Pourhouse and its neighbor. Open to the night sky, the courtyard was sheltered by a latticed trellis wearing the frost-stung remnants of a climbing rose plant native to the colonies.
Gareth spotted his tablemate leaning up against the rough brick wall in the far corner of the courtyard, head back, eyes closed. His breath formed clouds in the cold night air, but there was no cigarette in his hands. Gareth stepped forward onto the hard-packed, icy dirt. He fumbled in one pocket for his cigarette case, gingerly crossing the small space.
His companion didn’t open his eyes, so Gareth leaned forward and nudged him in the ribs with the closed case.
Gareth’s companion jumped and pushed back into the corner, scanning the alley for escape. Gareth felt sick. He’d seen this before. This was the true cost of the Crimean Offensive.
“Easy, friend, easy,” Gareth said softly. Up close, under the clean moonlight, Gareth realized that his tablemate was older than he’d first thought, gone forty by at least a year or two. Out here he could see sharp lines etched around the eyes, the planed cheeks a little too hollow to pass for a comfortable middle age. Still, there was something in those wide, blue eyes. Something childlike and vulnerable. “How long were you over there?”
Panic flitted across the chiseled features, and Gareth quickly took a step back. “Relax, comrade. We’re just two old soldiers talking.” He withdrew a cigarette from the case and lit it, just to have something to do with his hands. “I spent three long years serving His Majesty belly-down in the frozen muck. Nights like these, snow on the ground, more coming, sometimes it feels like I never left, you know?”
His companion relaxed a little, sagging against the bricks at his back.
Gareth took a long pull on his cigarette and stuck out his hand. “Gareth. Gareth Charles.”
There was a few seconds’ pause before his hand was firmly grasped, the shake quick and tentative. “Thomas Cole. Cole, if you’re a friend.”
“I look forward to it,” Gareth answered. The minute their hands met, he felt like his whole body had been dipped in tallow and was slowly melting, despite the frost hanging round them in the air. He found himself unable to let go. And from the look on Cole’s face, the feeling was, if not reciprocated, then at least understood. And accepted.
The two men locked gazes.
“Gareth, I feel like I’ve met you before,” Cole began haltingly. “That’s not possible, is it?”
Gareth smirked around his cigarette. “I think I would have remembered.” One corner of Cole’s mouth lifted at the comment.
The two of them seemed to realize simultaneously that their hands were still joined, and each dropped the other’s quickly, looking away. Gareth thought he saw a hint of reluctance on Cole’s face. Or maybe I just hope that’s what I saw.
Despite the depths of winter, his new friend was dressed only in a yellowed linen shirt over the customary woolens and baggy wool trousers. Gareth could see threaded scars where the fine linen had been inexpertly repaired at the elbows and collar. The places that wore through easily.
Gareth walked over to lean next to Cole against the wall, offering what heat he could at the connection of shoulder and hip. His companion looked over curiously but made no attempt to pull away. Gareth offered Cole his lit cigarette; it was accepted eagerly this time. “How long have you been here? I mean, at the tables.”
Cole took a long drag and exhaled inexpertly before handing the cigarette back. “Too long, that’s how long. Sometimes I just don’t know when to quit. Think my luck will change and then...”
The wind picked up, and even in the sheltered courtyard, Gareth felt it make its icy presence known. Cole shivered next to him, and Gareth hazarded leaning in a little closer. This close, Cole smelled like shaving soap and scotch. This is either the best idea I’ve ever had, or I couldn’t care less that it’s the worst
. “I’ve been waiting a long time for my luck to change, Cole.”
“And here I was thinking you were one of the lucky ones.” The words were soft in his ear, Cole’s voice like beeswax on leather.
Gareth came to his senses, forced himself to listen to the words rather than the voice. Keep it together. You don’t need this distraction.
But when Gareth looked at Cole’s wide blue eyes, innocent and questioning, eyes he thought it wasn’t possible for any Crimean veteran to possess, Gareth knew this was more than a distraction. Much more.
The pause between them lengthened until the cigarette, long forgotten in Cole’s hands, burned to a stub. He dropped it with an oath, and the burning embers landed on Gareth’s trousers, flaring slightly before dying without a sound.
Gareth reached for Cole’s hand. “Let me see.”
Cole gave his hand unhesitatingly. There was barely enough light in the courtyard for Gareth to see that the embers had blistered the fingers he held in his own. He probed the pads of Cole’s fingers and was startled by Cole’s hiss of pain. He looked up sharply, meeting Cole’s questioning gaze.
The two of them were silent, Cole’s breath warm on Gareth’s cheek. For the first time in a very long while, Gareth Charles was unsure of himself. They were both on fragile ground. Gareth searched for something to say, some way to express what--
An explosion ripped through the night air. The two men looked up in surprise, then at each other. Cole recovered first.
He ran to the edge of the courtyard, where the wooden latticework of the trellis rose in a deep bower, shielding the space from prying eyes. A dense orange glow lit the night; the explosion had been close by, and thick black smoke billowed up in a plume. Cole leaped onto the trellis, clawing frantically at the dead rose branches and wood. They held firm. He jumped down, dashing back to Gareth with an oath. “I’ve got to mount up and get going before the whole city burns! I’ve got to get my bug!”
From the other side of the latticework, shouting and rapid footsteps reached them as the explosion woke the slumbering neighborhood. With a last look at Gareth, Cole disappeared back through the door to the cardroom. Gareth could hear excited, concerned voices there too, and the clink of coins. He looked down at his fingers, ungloved and starting to stiffen in the chill air.
A firewalker, huh. Just my luck.
Gareth took a deep breath, smoke and the promise of snow filling his lungs. The cigarette butt was still smoldering at his feet, a fierce orange eye watching him from the wet ground. Gareth stubbed it out viciously with the toe of one boot and headed back inside, hot on the heels of his new companion.