Shackles (A Prosperity Story)
Dear Mr. Dickens,
Since you was so kind as to publish my story in your magazine, lots of folks have been sending me lots of letters asking me about stuff what happened what I don’t know about. Seems like they want to know how a priest what got himself chucked out the church, and the Arch Rogue of Gaslight, being only the prissiest motherswinker whatever held a knife to your throat, wound up in what I reckon ye might call love, or as near as passes for it.
Things is, I never did get the whirligigs to ask Ruben himself, but I done some asking round, and I think I got the shape of it.
’Cos it’s Ruben’s story, I tried to write it all proper and inkhornish like he’d like it, and Byron Kae has checked all the spellings for me, so you don’t have to ask that nice Mr. Collins this time.
I ain’t so sure about the commas.
This title comes with no special warnings.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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There were many stories about the crime prince of Gaslight.
So many that Ruben Crowe, climbing the thousand stairs to the top of the Spire, half fancied he had been sent to meet a monster. But waiting in the iron-grey cell, his face turned into a stream of dusty moonlight, there was simply a man.
Who twisted as the door grated open, chains clanking at his wrists and ankles.
“It has been many years since I have seen the sky.” His voice was smoky sweet and as refined as any gentleman’s. “Tell me, do you think it beautiful?”
Three days ago, Ruben had received a personal visit from the Bishop of Gaslight. This was somewhat surprising, for the last time they had met, the bishop had revoked Ruben’s licence. He had also professed himself disappointed.
In truth, it had not been unexpected. Ruben Crowe, it was generally agreed, was a poor fit for the Church. When, after leaving Cambridge with first-class honours, he had announced his intention of taking orders, his father—the late Lord Iron—had declared that Ruben would be home by Candlemas. He, too, had professed himself disappointed.
Ruben received the bishop in the Citrine Drawing Room and served him Darjeeling first flush tea in translucent bone china. The sunlight that slipped through the arched windows paled in the savagely glittering splendour. As did the bishop.
He reached for one of the fancies, a cunning spiral of air and sugar, flavoured with saffron and lavender and, at last, essayed a conventional enquiry into Ruben’s health and happiness. Dr. Jaedrian Forrest was a lean, gilded lion of a man and not usually uncertain of his words.
Ruben gave assurances that he was quite well. He had just returned from the Stews. Dust had soiled the edges of his cuffs and clung to his hair. His fingers left rough, dark stains upon his teacup.
“I understand,” remarked the bishop, “you have been visiting the malcontents in the Lower City.”
“I wasn’t preaching.”
“No, of course not. That was not my intended implication.”
There was a long silence.
Dr. Forrest leaned forwards in his chair and steepled his fingers. His episcopal rings flashed darker and deeper than the gemstones that encrusted the room.
The motion was so startlingly familiar that Ruben’s heart shied like a roe deer. It was too easy to remember and easier still to forget. He could half imagine they were friends as they had used to be. The worldly bishop and the ardent young curate, ensconced together with tea, crumpets, and the debates of the day. And other pleasures, perhaps less easily reconciled with doctrine. Ruben knew too well the twist and arch of that silken, sinew-roped body. The chill pressure of those rings, warming like flesh beneath the weight of his palms.
“Do you still believe,” asked the bishop, “that all souls can be saved?”
Ruben did not hesitate. “Yes.”
“No matter how iniquitous or unrepentant?”
Ruben had little patience for what he had always termed “state room theology.” Church politics, in other words. So he watched the light skitter sharply across the surface of his tea, gold over gold, like Jaedrian’s eyes. And he felt, almost as if from nowhere, the soft stirring of loss, a restless and familiar longing for impossible things.
He remembered his father’s funeral. The silver apathy of the rain and the moment he realised that now he could never earn Lord Iron’s approval. Like most of his youthful ambitions, it had always been something he believed he could do tomorrow.
“Ruben, have you heard of the crime prince of Gaslight?”
He glanced up in some bemusement. He was not the sort of man to concern himself with fables. “I’ve heard the stories, but they’re just stories.”
“They’re not stories. They caught the man.”
“They caught a man.”
The bishop’s tawny eyes held Ruben’s steadily. “The reality hardly matters any more. It’s what he represents.” There was a pause. “He burns in less than a week.”
Under the laws of England, a condemned criminal would die by fire in order that they might repent in the last moments of their life and thereby save their soul eternal torment. However, if the condemned made a full confession and showed penitence, he would merely be hanged. The state called this mercy. Ruben was not so certain. “You must send someone to him,” he said.
Dr. Forrest stared at his own interlaced fingers. “I did.”
“And? Wouldn’t he repent?”
“He killed the man.”
An eerie chime sounded through the room as Ruben’s fingers slipped on his teacup.
“You see my quandary,” murmured the bishop.
Ruben wouldn’t precisely have called it a quandary, but he nodded.
“I cannot in good conscience send a criminal to the stake who has not received every opportunity to confess. But, equally, I cannot send another man into danger.”
Ruben’s lips quirked wryly. “But you seem to be sending me?”
Dr. Forrest had the grace to blush. “I’m asking you.”
“You may recall,” said Ruben mildly, “that you revoked my licence. Even if I was willing, I would be unable.”
“I could provide a dispensation.”
“Could you now?”
The bishop pinched the bridge of his nose wearily. “Ruben, I—”
“Of course I’ll do it.”
“I feared you might,” sighed Jaedrian, looking suddenly both older and younger than his years.
“You knew I would.”
“Yes.” Another pause, and then with a touch of pleading: “But you will be careful, won’t you?”
Ruben did not answer, but across the gleaming table, their hands met and roughly, tightly entangled, as if they were still lovers.
Ruben had come to the Spire prepared with many warnings. He had read all the newspaper articles and several penny dreadfuls, and he believed he harboured no illusions about the man who stood before him. He knew him for a criminal, a recidivist, a thief, and a murderer. In short: an unrepentant villain of unimaginable depravity.
He had not, however, expected the man to have the face of a feral angel. Nor that he might want to discuss aesthetics.
“The sky,” repeated the most dangerous man in Gaslight, somewhat impatiently. “Do you think it beautiful?” Since he could not gesture with his hands, he jerked his chin in the direction of the window set high into the granite wall.
Beyond its bars, Ruben could just about see a handspan of the waiting world—a piece of dark, speckled by a few irresolute stars.
“Well,” he said, at last. “Yes.”
“Curious.” The man frowned. “I wondered if I should.”
“Find it beautiful.”
The man’s ice-shard eyes did not waver from Ruben’s, and Ruben knew better than to look away. “Don’t you?”
“I have never had occasion to ask myself. Until now.”
“And what do you answer?”
“I believe—” his mouth turned up at the corners, tugged slightly lopsided by the silver scar that crossed his upper lip “—the stars are merely distant light and the sky a roof like any other.”
Ruben couldn’t quite help himself. He shivered. In the gloom, the man’s pale suit and pale hair gleamed softly, as though he was already the ghost of himself. But he was utterly calm. It seemed almost impossible to believe that he was waiting to die. Only the manacles betrayed him, hanging heavy from his fragile wrists, like some terrible insult.
“Forgive me,” added the prisoner, in his soft, too-careful voice, “but I have been remiss with introductions. I am Milord.”
Ruben swallowed something that might have been the most ill-advised laugh of his life. The man’s attention dropped swiftly to his mouth and then away again. The faintest of lines creased the smooth white skin of his brow. But Ruben pressed on regardless: “That’s not your name.”
“It’s what I am called.”
“I think,” said Ruben coaxingly, “I’d rather know your name.”
“Then you had better accustom yourself to disappointment, Lord Iron.”
Ruben tried to conceal his surprise and failed. Dissembling had never been among his talents. “H-how do you know who I am?”
“I have long made it my business to know things.” Milord’s gaze swept over him, assessing and impersonal, but with a weight behind it, somehow, like chill hands upon his skin. “They sent you to me like a lamb to the slaughter, Ruben Crowe.”
Well, Ruben thought, I’ve just been personally insulted by the crime prince of Gaslight. How many people can make that boast? And this time, his amusement slipped out before he could stifle it, and he felt again the knife-edge of Milord’s gaze upon his lips. “You think me a lamb do you?” Ruben asked, smiling faintly.
“You all are.” The man turned, or he would have done had his bonds allowed it. Instead he stumbled, chains clashing, and it was as though a spell had been broken. Milord stood before him, neither prince nor monster. He was a prisoner, and that was all.
Milord steadied himself, but it was too late, and they both knew it. For a moment after, his face was open, maskless. Furious. His eyes wild and glittering, like the eyes of a wolf. Colour seeped across his cheekbones, a dull stain like old blood on marble. He drew in a harsh breath, but before he could speak, a violent tremor ran through him, and he began to cough.
Ruben was startled, but he did not dare look away, in case it was some sort of—admittedly highly imaginative and obscure—trap. Although, as the attack persisted, it seemed far more likely that the man was just ill. Terribly ill.
That cough was a familiar sound down in the Stews. It was a sign of the complaint that was known simply as dustlung, and as far as Ruben knew there was no cure. Some claimed gin alleviated the symptoms, but Ruben, who had dabbled in the sciences as he had dabbled in most things, thought it a questionable treatment. It probably just made you die more quietly.
He stood there, utterly helpless and fighting down pity, as Milord choked and coughed and struggled to breathe. He could not have been aware of much beyond pain, but there was another rattling of metal as he pulled clumsily away from Ruben. Seeking privacy in a cell less than two meters across.
Ruben’s burgeoning pity warmed and deepened into something like genuine sympathy. It was simply beyond him to behold suffering—however, some might claim, deserved—with indifference. And he had just witnessed an almost unbearably human act: strength amidst all that weakness, the futile fight for pride in a moment of humiliation.
At last the fit abated, and Milord crumpled into a crouch on the floor, knotted in his chains like some desperate animal. Black fluid clung to his lips, and he pressed his mouth into the crook of his elbow, smothering the last of his coughs. When he lifted his head again, his skin was dead white in the moonlight, the sweat standing out sharp as diamonds. And when he spoke, his voice was shreds and tatters: “C-can you believe they were so uncouth as to arrest me without a pocket handkerchief?” He dragged a trembling hand to his lips, the links that held him stirring like snakes.
“For God’s sake, you need a doctor.” Unthinking, heedless, helplessly moved, Ruben crossed the space between them and dropped to one knee on the rough, cold flagstones.
Milord flinched back as though anticipating pain, an instinct that—in the strangeness of that moment—struck unexpectedly against Ruben’s heart.
He drew a handkerchief from his coat pocket and offered it.
The other man stared at it blankly. Then very slowly reached out a hand. Icy fingers slid lightly against Ruben’s, raising, almost one by one, like the ripple of wind through a cornfield, all the hairs on Ruben’s forearm. He caught his breath.
Which was when Milord lunged.
There would have been no warning at all except for the drag of the chains. His hand closed over the hilt of Ruben’s sword and yanked it free.
In some vague, timeless otherworld, insulated from the concerns of his body and its imminent danger, Ruben felt foolish. He was accounted an intelligent fellow. He had been warned. And he had thought he had understood those warnings. But it had taken Milord less than five minutes to prise him open like an oyster shell. It should not have felt like a betrayal, but it still, somehow, did, as though Milord had twisted into weakness everything Ruben held deepest, believed truest.
Internal hesitation did not, however, dull Ruben’s reactions. He possessed, in spite of everything, a certain facility for taking care of himself, something a year in the Stews had only improved. He caught Milord by the wrist—skin, metal, and bones as thin as a bird—and twisted. He would have preferred not to hurt him, but Milord—devil take him—would not yield. The sword was too unwieldy a weapon to be used effectively in the narrow space between their struggling bodies, but still Ruben felt the edge of the blade scrape a shallow cut beneath his ribs.
He forced Milord’s hand to the floor, and his fingers at last twitched open. The sword hit the floor with a dull clatter. Milord’s other hand came up, weakly, then his knee with a most uncouth intent. It was not a time for Ruben to concern himself with dignity; he got his leg across Milord’s, pressed him flat to the floor, and pinned him there with the weight of his body.
His captive writhed and hissed like a feral cat, but Ruben simply held him down until Milord exhausted himself and—finally—lay quiescent. His head was turned away, his ash-blond curls plastered to his brow with sweat. It was not a thought Ruben wished to entertain at such a juncture, but there it was regardless: Milord was beautiful. Like a pre-Raphaelite angel, his lips—even with the scar that marred them—as pale and soft as rose petals.
“If you carried a knife instead of that gentlemen’s toy, I would have killed you.” The texture of Milord’s voice had changed again, roughened somehow.
“And what good would that have done you?”
“Perhaps I enjoy it.”
“Is that why you do it? Because you enjoy it?” It seemed somehow too simple, too base an answer.
“I do what is necessary.” He met Ruben’s gaze. So close, the silver-blue purity of his eyes was almost unbearable. As was their coldness. Ruben searched, with something that might have been desperation, for remorse, for feeling, for some shadow of humanity. And found nothing.
There was a long silence.
Milord stirred restlessly, his body pressing sharply into Ruben’s. His throat rippled as he swallowed. “Release me.”
It was not quite command, not quite plea, but there was a strange softness to it. And, at last, in his eyes—something, something that might almost have been fear. Another trick? It had to be. “I’m not sure I trust you.”
“Of course you should not trust me.” That sounded more like Milord. Sharp and impatient. “But—” again that anxious, twisting motion “—you must release me.”
He had a point. Ruben could hardly keep sitting on him. But, in a strange way, it felt safest. Like holding a tiger by the tail. He shifted slightly, strengthening his hold on the man, and Milord . . . Milord gasped.
His eyes closed, and the sudden stillness in him was like the moment before glass shatters. But there was no resistance there. None at all.
That was when Ruben knew: he could make the crime prince of Gaslight beg, and it required nothing but this rough collision of their bodies and souls, two magnets spinning between the twin impossibilities of attraction and repulsion.
And he wanted to do it. He wanted to hear words of desperation shaped in that voice of silk and shadows. He wanted to punish Milord, not for any of the atrocities he had committed, but for making Ruben too aware of his own follies and failures. It was the most sordid and contemptible of impulses, tangled up in something that was almost worse, something that was somehow sensuous and cared nothing for morality, retribution, or wounded pride. It simply, achingly wanted. This man. Like this. Powerless. For Ruben.
He jerked away from Milord as if he held fire between his hands, stooping clumsily to retrieve his sword, in full retreat from the other man, and from himself.
He banged his elbow against the cell door to summon a gaoler.
After a moment, Milord sat up, curling his legs primly beneath him, like a maiden aunt at a picnic, his manacled hands folded as best as he could manage across an utterly undeniable erection.
They did not look at each other. They did not speak.
Ruben paced the length of the Mirrored Gallery. Lost amidst silver echoes of himself, he sometimes thought he saw the reflection of his father.
He would have to tell Jaedrian he could not do it.
The man—Milord—was irredeemable.
And so, in a different way, was Ruben.
The mirrors passed the bloodstain on his white shirt back and forth between them like a rust-red kiss.
Ruben was not, and had never been, troubled by his inclinations, nor by the mode of their expression—the sweet-dark things that made his heart quicken and his cock rise. On the other hand, he had never felt them so thoroughly and comprehensibly exploited. Milord had worn his weaknesses like trinkets. They had glistened like fallen stars on his long, pale fingers.
He paced and he paced, and he tried not to remember wolf’s eyes and a catamite’s mouth, and the too-sharp, too-thin, too-surrendered body under his. He broke several of the probably irreplaceable mirrors. But neither his thoughts nor his blood would settle.
Later, he tended the cuts on his hands and the gash in his side. The pain was hot and soft as tongues, and stirred him. When he was respectable again—a man who did not think too much on chains and those they held—he left the town house in the Golden Quarter for the Gilded Crescent and a discreet, inordinately expensive establishment where a honey-haired courtesan promised, and would likely have delivered, all the pleasures, dark and light, that Ruben might have desired. But there was no hidden harshness in the man’s voice. No frailty in his wrists. And the eyes that held Ruben’s from beneath a sweep of pale lashes were the wrong blue, and too gentle.
Ruben pressed coins into pampered hands, murmured his apologies, and left.
Back at Lord Iron’s mansion, he tried to read, then to rest, but for the first time in his life, the nature of his thoughts and the desires of his body shamed him.
The next day, he resolved to speak to the bishop.
But he didn’t do that either.
He descended instead to the Stews, the twisting paths that had grown familiar to him. The darkness deepened, thickened, until it swallowed the night and congealed into an impenetrable smog of tar and shadow: an artificial sky, as unforgiving as a coffin lid, intermittently smeared oily orange from the gas lamps. Dust coated the backs of his hands and the back of his throat. His mouth filled up with the taste of filth and metal. But he had grown accustomed to it.
Somewhere in the depths, down some wretched alley, three ragged ruffians came at him with fists and flashing blades. Having grown accustomed to this also, he disarmed them swiftly, and saw them off. Milord might have sneered at Ruben’s sword, but down here the weapons were knives and knuckles, desperation and brute cunning, and Ruben’s sabre had far better reach.
He did not walk the Stews entirely without purpose, though he hesitated to own it, even to himself. Crime was as much a part of the undercity as the smog, and just as all-pervading and ephemeral. But the newspapers had mentioned a place, an alehouse known sometimes as the Chicken, for its sign had long since rotted away beyond any hope of recognition.
Ruben found it at last, a mean little building at the far end of a mean little street, sagging between an opium den and a bawdy house. There appeared to be a corpse on the doorstep, but Ruben was relieved to discover the man was merely unconscious. He possessed nothing worth stealing, so he was probably not in any immediate danger. Ruben moved him carefully into what little shelter the slop alley could provide and left him there, his head propped on his elbow so he would not choke on his own vomit during the night.
This too was something Ruben had learned: kindness had no place here. So he tried instead to make usefulness its own virtue. It was not what he might have imagined. On those dreamy afternoons at Cambridge in Jaedrin’s arms, goodness had seemed as certain as skin, a grand and golden thing. And now it was little more than a succession of acts, too random and too individualised to acquire any great meaning. Too petty to effect or motivate change.
His faith in God had not wavered. His faith in people, though, that had become its own problem. For Ruben, the two were inextricable, the Creator and His creation. One saw the watchmaker in the watch, though more than mere reflection. A kind of prefiguration, he had called it once to Jaedrian, in a moment of intense bodily unity. And later, more dangerously, in the pulpit. “If you want to see God,” he had told his congregation, “look at each other. If you want to feel God’s love, love each other. If you want a glimpse of Heaven, see the world. If you want to understand what—for lack of a better word—we have called Hell, simply close your eyes, and turn away.”
Later, Jaedrian had tried to protest. “It’s not biblical,” was what he’d said.
“Damn the Bible,” Ruben had cried. “It’s just words. Truth isn’t words.”
That had been in 1859, about six months before the publication of two books that would change Ruben’s life forever.
He pushed open the door to the Chicken and stepped over the threshold. He hadn’t known quite what to expect from a reputed den of iniquity, but inside it seemed merely unpleasant. Dank, smoky, and redolent with the aromas of sweat and stale beer.
Conversation did not dwindle as he entered. Nobody dropped a glass. A few bullyboys glanced his way, sizing him up, but for the most part life went on.
He moved carefully through the crowds, a hand resting lightly on his sword hilt. As he approached the bar, the man behind it reached under the counter for a bottle, uncorked it with his teeth, and splashed about a finger width of liquid into the bottom of a very dirty glass. Then he pointed to the chalkboard fixed to the wall behind him. All it said was “1d” in a barely legible scrawl.
Ruben handed over a penny and the barman—or the bluffer, as he would have been called in the local dialect—slid the glass across the bar straight into Ruben’s slightly unwilling hand.
He had little taste for gin, and even less for cheap gin possibly adulterated with rat poison. All the same, he lifted it to his lips and took a sip. It was about as bad as he had imagined.
When his stomach had stopped roiling, and he had blinked the water from his eyes, he leaned across the bar. “I’m looking—”
The barman jerked his thumb over his shoulder to the door at the far end of the room.
And that seemed to be all the answer Ruben was going to get.
He nodded his thanks, picked up the glass, and went through to the back room. Now people were watching him, and Ruben felt a prickle of anxiety run down his forearms and across the nape of his neck. Being able to take care of himself meant knowing when to be afraid.
A sensible man would probably have turned, walked away, and never looked back. But Ruben had always been ruled by his passions.
The room into which he stepped seemed to be little more than a converted cupboard, though Ruben suspected at least one of the walls was false, and he could also see a faint mismatch at the centre of the flagstones, suggesting the presence of a trapdoor. In a spill of dirty yellow candlelight, four sat at play around a battered table, and the only one to glance up from their cards as Ruben came in was a tall, loose-limbed woman at its head.
She had swung her chair onto its back legs and was lolling in it like a lion taking its ease, one booted foot resting on the tabletop, her skirts rucked carelessly under her knee to reveal not only her entire ankle but a good deal of stocking too. She was handsome in a bold, vulgar way: square jawed and wide lipped. Her hands and forearms were covered by a writhing tangle of brightly coloured ink disappearing under the shabby green velvet of her gown.
“Well, well, well—if ain’t Lord Iron hisself.” Her voice carried a veneer of Gaslight, but her vowels were southern. “You’d better be stopping right there, my duck. Not anuver step til you put down that toasting iron.”
Ruben’s hand had flown so swiftly to his sword, he had barely been aware of it.
“I think it would be unwise to do that,” he said mildly. “But I assure you, I mean you no harm.”
She blinked, the cards slipping between her fingers to land beside her knee. “Oh, you assure me, d’you? Well then.” Her gaze flicked to one of the other players. “’Parently we’re assured. D’you feel assured, luvvie?”
This man, too, put his cards down. “Well, I dunno, Nell. Don’t reckon we’re in the business o’ being assured just cos some swell says we are.”
Ruben took a step backwards, only to discover someone had closed the door behind him.
Nell yanked her skirts still higher, pulled a pistol from her garter, and levelled it at Ruben. “You ain’t calling no shots here. Now, drop the sticker and come sit down wif us.” She smirked. “Or d’you need some assurances.”
Sighing, Ruben pulled his sword free and dropped it onto the floor. “Would they be worth anything?”
“I ain’t no bravo, Ruben Crowe. I don’t crash a cull wifout cause. You going t’give me cause?”
“I hadn’t planned on it.”
“I heard tell you was a clean fella.”
They jostled along to make a space for Ruben at the table, and he had no choice but to sit with them. Nell had her elbow braced next to her leg, the pistol still pointed, unwaveringly, at his heart.
Oh God, he thought, too ruefully for it to be much of a prayer, I’m going to die.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“Nell, they call me. Little Nell.” It did not strike Ruben as a likely descriptor. And perhaps it was a common thought for she shrugged and went on. “The name was given to me when I was just a kinchin. ’Tis sommat folks ne’er reckon on, ain’t it?”
“I’m sorry, what isn’t?”
Her eyes held his, flat and cold as the gun in her hand. “Ye grow.”
And, in spite of himself, Ruben shivered. “And your friends?”
“My friends?” she repeated. “Well, my culls, if it ain’t your lucky days. Lord Iron wishes for an introduction to your right respectable selves.”
None of them seemed willing to meet his eyes. Or to speak to him at all. He thought it wasn’t so much fear as a kind of superstitious avoidance. As though he were a black cat or a ladder they preferred not to walk beneath.
“See,” Nell went on, “the canting crew tend to get a might particular when it comes to fings could be put on a poster or told t’ the beck. But, err—” she gestured carelessly towards the others with her free hand “—this ’ere fine gentleman is one Jemmy Fellow, and this gentry mort ye can call Daisy Cutter, and this topping cove is Nob Thatcher.”
The so-called Jemmy Fellow sniggered unpleasantly into his tankard. And Ruben knew he was being mocked, though the precise nature of it eluded him. Not that it mattered. His pride could be easily healed later.
“Now, if we’re all done wif making civil whiskers—” Nell grinned at him, her incisors flashing gold “—what can I do for ye?”
He was out of his depth. Too many people recently had seemed to know far more about him than he did about them. But he knew better than to show his uncertainty. “I was only looking for information. You know there will likely be consequences were you to hurt me.”
“Are you threatening me? In m’own ken?”
“Not at all. It was simply a . . . a point of information.”
She huffed out a sigh. “Y’see what’s staring right at you? That’s the point o’ my gun. She’s called Stella. Her sister Fanny’s in m’other boot.”
Ruben had never been introduced to ordnance before. He was not particularly enjoying the experience.
“Trust me, Ruben, you don’t want to know ’em any better.”
Sweat had gathered under his hat brim. “What do you want with me?”
“I want you to pike off, and I reckon the sharpest way t’ see it ’appen is giving you what you came for. Chant says, you bin up t’ the top o’ the Spire.”
He didn’t see why it was any business of Nell’s, but he supposed the presence of Stella made it her business. “I was sent there, yes.”
“But now you’re sniffing abaht ’ere. Bit of a rum turn abaht, wouldn’t ye say?”
And Ruben, at last, understood. This woman thought him Milord’s cat’s paw. Which meant . . . “You’re his . . . usurper.”
“Successor, luvvie, falls more kindly on a lady’s lugs.”
“I truly have no interest in the politics of your . . . of your operation. I am not—” for some reason he stumbled over the name and could not bring himself to utter it “—his agent.”
Nell’s eyes, which were simply brownish, unremarkable, narrowed as she studied him. “Y’know sommat, I believe you. But it still don’t esplain what you’re looking for.”
Ruben felt himself blush like a schoolboy. “I was looking for something that would help me understand him.”
Laughter from around the table. He had truthfully not expected otherwise. But it still made him feel foolish.
“Ain’t nowt to understand. He was the Arch Rogue, til he weren’t.”
“You betrayed him.” It wasn’t quite a question.
“Someone was going to. Just ’appened t’ be me.”
“But they’ll kill him for what he’s done.”
“And ’ow any people do you fink he’s killed? Tortured? Maimed?”
“He’s still a man,” said Ruben sharply. “And he’s not beyond hope. Or redemption.”
Ruben’s words spun in the silence like gold coins. Then Nell chuckled. “You sweet on ’is lordship, Preacher?”
He tried not to cringe. What he’d felt, shoving the fragile, straining body of the erstwhile crime prince of Gaslight against the floor of his cell, had been far from sweet. “I have been tasked with saving his soul.”
“Hypocrisy don’t look good on you.” Nell shrugged. “You’re not the first, Ruben. I reckon you won’t be the last. He’s got his ways, ain’t he? Ol’ Black Jack Callaghan would’ve pulled the stars down one by one if Milord had only asked ’im.”
“Arch Rogue afore Milord. My bleeding eyes, you’re as green as a flat after a bubber of All Nations. I ne’er met the cove, but from the tellin’, Black Jack was a balls-the-wall baddun through ’n’ through. Though Milord twisted him rahnd his little finger like he was ribbons for a Mayday maiden.”
Ruben thought of cold eyes and a voice of silk and a face to make devils weep with longing—and could believe it. “And he took over when Black Jack was caught?”
“Lord love you, you don’t catch a cove like Black Jack. They’re still finding bits ’n’ pieces of ’im in the Humber. Compared wif what Milord did t’ him, what I done’s a kindness.”
“Somehow I don’t get the feeling kindness figures much in your thinking.”
“’Tis a luxury for ’em as can afford it. And I like a little luxury in m’life. Silk stockings ’n’ wine that ain’t been watered ’n’ being able t’ be kind when the occasion warrants. And there’s plenty’d see that poncy motherswinker dead.”
“He will be dead. In less than a week.”
She laughed, tossing nut-brown braids clear of her shoulders. “The Spire won’t hold ’im. But it’s a bit of a deterrent for them as ain’t too committed to snuffing him personal-like.”
“You aren’t worried about him coming after you?”
“’Tis a risk, but I don’t reckon he will. He knows he can’t be Arch Rogue no more so what’d be the point?”
Ruben lifted a brow. “Personal vengeance?”
“That ain’t his dance. He don’t do what’s personal. He does what’s necessary.”
“It sounds almost like you admire him.”
“Mebbe. He’s a queer cove, make no mistake, but he had a clean way abaht him. Ne’er went back on hisself, ne’er backed down, ne’er left aught t’ chance, paid up ’n’ paid well.”
“I see,” said Ruben, at the same time thinking he probably didn’t.
“Don’t go bobbing yourself, Ruben. He ain’t walking no road to Damascus wif you. E’en half-dead wif the dustlung, there ain’t no turning back for a man like that.”
“A man like what? It sounds to me that he did dishonourable things in an honourable manner. We cannot always choose what life makes us.”
“Oh, he chose. He knows wrong ’n’ right ’n’ the difference betwixt ’em, same as me. And dishonourable fings is dishonourable fings, don’t matter how you do ’em. Black Jack liked what he did t’ folks. Kept ’em in line. Milord didn’t and did it jus’ the same. Kept ’em in line e’en more. Y’flash?”
And suddenly Ruben remembered those cold words: I do what is necessary.
“Had enough, Preacher? A little hinformation goes a long way, don’t it?”
“Truthfully, I feel no more illuminated than I did when I came here.”
“Mebbe it’s cos you don’t know what you’re looking for. Mind you, neither does he. Y’make a pretty pair.”
Ruben’s hands clenched on the tabletop. “I don’t understand how I’m supposed to help him.”
Nell shrugged. “Mebbe you ain’t.”
“I don’t believe that. I believe divine purpose drives our actions, most particularly when events takes us down paths we would not have previously contemplated.”
“Ruben Crowe, you’re sitting where the sun don’t shine, talking to a woman who rules a court o’ vagabonds, murderers, and thieves.” She stretched out one of her arms so the candlelight twisted over her tattooed skin. “This is the story o’ my life. Written on my skin so it won’t belong to any bugger but me. It’s everyone I’ve e’er killed. Every act o’ violence. Every act o’ cruelty. Every hurt I’ve e’er endured. Every deed I’ve e’er done, good or ill or in-fucking-different. I’m twenny-one last time I reckoned it. And y’know sommat? It’s just some stuff I done. There ain’t no purpose.”
“Someday you may look at it and feel otherwise.”
“It is, after all, a pattern of a kind. A rather beautiful one.”
There was a long silence, and Ruben wondered if at last he had gone too far.
But then she chuckled and slipped the pistol back into her garter. “Well, give fanks for the purpose behind your pretty glims cos I ain’t gonna cut ’em out. ’Tis a shame your inclinations don’t favour me ’n’ mine.”
Ruben coloured a little. “I’m afraid they do not.”
“All that fervour. I reckon you’d be a wild ride.”
He had no idea how to answer that.
Nell smirked and brought her chair crashing back onto its front legs. “Reckon we’re done ’ere, don’t you?”
They were letting him go? Ruben was still too wary to feel much relief. Just bewilderment and a faint sense of dissatisfaction. He had come here for something, and he had quite spectacularly failed to either work out what it was or to get it. But he’d pushed his luck enough for one day. Possibly one lifetime. “Thank you for your time.” He rose carefully, keeping his hands where everyone could see them, for there was no need to get shot or knifed while he was making his escape. “One more question, if I may?”
Nell gave him a slightly cold look. “S’pose I’ll indulge you.”
“What . . . I mean . . . What manner of man is he?”
“Who is he? What are his passions, his pursuits?”
“He was the crime prince o’ Gaslight, Ruben. He don’t have hobbies. Unless . . . knife work mebbe. I watched him strip the skin from a man once. ’Twas a fucking masterpiece.”
Ruben swallowed. “There is more to a person than what they do.”
“Not him. I flipped his ken, y’know, after the clappers took him. Nowt there but a bed to kip in and a chair t’ sit in.”
“That’s it? The sum of everything known about him?”
She shrugged. “He weren’t someone you knew. Or cared to.”
Suddenly one of the others spoke up. The man Nell had called Jemmy Fellow. “He saw a bawd once a month. Same place, same time, same way. Apparently used to wipe his prick off after, like the bloke’s mouth was dirty.”
Ruben had no idea what to do with that information, so he simply said, “Thank you.”
“And,” added Daisy Cutter, “he ne’er touched a drop o’ liquor.”
So the man bought oral sex from a prostitute once a month, didn’t like alcohol, and murdered people. Ruben was suddenly consumed by the oddest desire to laugh. At what or whom, he didn’t know.
“Oh aye.” Nell nodded thoughtfully. “He liked that nasty smoky tea or what-ave-ye. Told you he was a queer ’un. Now, if that’s everyfing, you was about to pike it.”
Ruben was, indeed, very ready to pike it. He bent slowly to retrieve his sword and slipped it into its scabbard. But just as he was reaching for the door handle, Nell’s voice made him turn back.
“Oh, Preacher? Two more fings.”
“Yes?” This time he was probably definitely dead.
“If you still got questions need answering, and you will, ducks, you will, you should mebbe go see Lord Silver. And if you come rahnd ’ere again, I’ll kill you m’self. Gottit?”
“I’ve got it.”
He didn’t run. That really would have been fatal. But he felt like it. And the feeling didn’t abate until he was standing in Lord Iron’s mansion, sealed behind its high metal gates.