Gabriel's City: A Tale of Fables and Fortunes
For spoiled young aristocrat Colin Harwood, the port city of Casmile is a buffet of easy pleasures. But when he steps into a pub brawl to help a dangerously outnumbered young man, he is drawn into the seedy underbelly of the city the young man calls home.
Gabriel is a cutpurse and a knife for hire, practically an urban legend. His vision of Casmile is touched by a strange combination of faith and madness, driven by fairytale logic and a capacity for love that he often must suppress to survive. He’s always worked alone, but when a dashing dragon who calls himself Colin saves him in a bar fight, he pulls Colin into his world.
Gabriel’s city is nothing like the refined, socialite existence that bored Colin senseless. Colin finds adventure and excitement there—and maybe even love. But with his layers of finery stripped away, nothing remains to protect him from poverty or danger—except Gabriel. So he must choose: go back to the civilized young man he once was, or fly free as Gabriel’s dragon.
Reader discretion advised. This title contains the following sensitive themes:explicit violence
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish. Click on a label to reveal its content.
Themes: coming of age, disability / disfigurement, financial gap / class disparity, first love, first time, homelessness, hurt / comfort, illness / injury, legends, mental illness, protection, self-discovery / self-reflection, the power of stories, young adult
Part 1: Autumn
Colin fidgets, wondering how much longer this dinner party can drag on. The rest of his table has just burst out in politely scandalized laughter at someone’s prettied-up version of a bawdy gaming house joke. He’s had enough lectures on how these people are his peers that he could recite them back to his father word for word, but compared to the company he’d rather be keeping, they remain excruciatingly dull.
At least he’s had the fortune to be seated across the table from Captain Darius Westfall of the city guard, who’s a falcon among finches if Colin ever saw such a thing. His blood’s common, to judge by his tan skin and black hair, and his features are too sharp to be truly handsome. Likely he was never invited to this sort of party at all before he was appointed captain. Colin smiles at him.
“What about you, Captain?” he asks. “You’ve been so quiet. Surely you must have some entertainment to offer.”
“I would hate to give offense,” Captain Westfall replies. His voice is smooth, carefully free of any trace of a dockside accent. “I’ve no fit entertainment to offer such polite company.” He reaches for his glass of wine, and there are raw scrapes on his knuckles.
“But you must have stories to share,” Colin persists. “I expect your line of work gives you no end of exciting tales.”
“Master Harwood,” Madame Hewitt says, her lips pursed. “That’s not decent conversation for young ladies, and you should be ashamed to encourage it.”
The only young lady in their immediate circle—Julia Mear, one of the more tolerable girls of Colin’s acquaintance—rolls her eyes. “Don’t keep all the fun to yourself.” She glances sidelong at Captain Westfall. “I promise not to faint away in horror, no matter what you say.”
Madame Hewitt harrumphs disapprovingly, but Colin grins. When his sister is old enough for society parties, he’ll introduce her to Julia. They’ll like each other.
“I cannot refuse, then, if the lady would make me such a promise.” Captain Westfall smiles at Colin. “What sort of story strikes the gentleman’s fancy?”
Colin says the first thing that comes to mind. “Tell me about Gabriel.”
The captain laughs, low and rough, but Colin imagines there’s a ferocity to it and shivers in anticipation of the tale. “No wonder your mother worries about you, if you’re keeping company with the sort of rogue who tells stories about Gabriel.”
“I heard of him from Sebastian Dunsmuir,” Colin protests.
“I hope you don’t think that’ll make me retract the statement,” Captain Westfall says. “He should still know better than to talk of such unsavory things with well-bred young gentlemen.”
“But clearly he doesn’t, and I do hope you don’t, either.” Colin leans forward, elbows on the table. “Sebastian made it sound like Gabriel doesn’t really exist. Is that true?”
“There’s something in Casmile that goes by that name,” Captain Westfall says. “I’ve seen what’s left of men who run afoul of Gabriel, and no matter how prettily you plead, Miss Mear—” here the captain looks over at her, and she blushes; really, he’s quite the showman “—you won’t get me to describe that horror in polite company.”
“You make him sound like a monster.” The servants are coming around to clear away the dishes from the meat course; Colin waits until the table’s bare between them before he goes on. “It’s hard to believe you’re not simply toying with me.”
Captain Westfall takes a sip of his wine, amusement clearly written across his face. “He may be a man. He may be an excuse, a bogeyman blamed for the crimes no reasonable man wants to confess.” He leans back in his chair so the serving girl can set the last course in front of him, stewed late-season berries bleeding into thick cream. “I’ve heard grown men swear he enjoys the favor of the Green Lady—and not only in battle, if you take my meaning.”
Madame Hewitt flinches. “Captain!”
“That’s perverse,” Colin adds before he can help himself. Arhon, the Green Lady of the Grave, is the eldest of the Fates; Colin’s not entirely sure he believes in them, but if she does exist, then the idea of anyone seeking her rotting embrace is grotesque.
Captain Westfall doesn’t look at all contrite. “My apologies,” he says with a self-satisfied smirk, as though he’s just won a hand on an outrageous bluff. “Madame Hewitt is right after all. I have no conversation fit for civilized company.”
The rest of supper offers no scandal to match the captain’s outrageous assertions, and Colin’s attention wanders. When the party adjourns from the dining table to the ballroom that takes up the back half of the house, Colin hangs behind and slips off the other way when his father isn’t looking.
The Ashfords’ butler is sitting up in the front hall, still on duty because of the party. He starts out of his chair when Colin comes toward the door. “You are leaving, sir?”
Colin nods, reaching into his pocket. “Should my father—should Isaac Harwood come looking for me, tell him I’ll make my own way home, and he needn’t wait.” He presses a half shilling into the man’s hand—he can’t use cut coin on the gaming tables anyway—and adds, “Don’t hunt him down to tell him. Let it wait until he’s searching for me.”
“As you wish, sir,” the butler says, and Colin is fairly sure he only imagines the reproach in the man’s tone.
The evening air is crisp outside the house, and the sky not quite fully dark. Colin takes the first block at a jog, expecting someone to call after him at any minute, and doesn’t slow until he’s out of sight of the Ashfords’ townhouse. Even after that, he tries not to pass too close to the streetlamps, and keeps an ear out for sounds of pursuit.
His father will be angry with him, of course, but right now Colin finds it hard to care. These society parties are barely tolerable when Danny’s around to keep him company, but now, with Madame Sheffield taking the waters in Nothwn for her health and insisting that the entire family go with her, there’s nobody to keep Colin entertained. The other young men are too serious, and the young ladies are all worrying about whom to marry.
Fortunately there’s always an interesting party going on somewhere in Casmile, if you know where to look and have a bit of coin to spare. Colin heads east, deeper into the city, and toys with the idea of going up to one of the Kite Street brothels and hiring himself some attractive company. But the houses on Kite are expensive, at least half a guinea for a tumble, and half a guinea’s worth of silver will buy quite a few hands of cards even if his luck’s awful—and tonight his luck must be good for him to slip out of the party as easily as he did.
He makes his way toward the gaming houses instead, the streets between Alder and Market blazing with lamps and alive with laughter. There’s company to be bought here, too, if he wants it; he turns down a girl in red silk and a boy with his hair in tight Cabirile braids before he’s passed the first block. The Golden Peacock’s doors are open, despite the cool night air outside, and that’s tempting, but Barron owns a stake in the Peacock, and Colin owes Barron rather more money than he cares to think about at the moment. Perhaps if he does well enough tonight, he’ll take his winnings from one of the other houses and go pay down a bit of his debt before he heads home.
The Quartermaster is almost as good as the Peacock, and it’s less likely he’ll run into anyone there whom he owes more than a few shillings. Colin steps into the warmth of the light and the sweet haze of smoke. There are three tables open so far this evening, one for dice and two for cards, and Colin’s spirits lift as he recognizes a familiar face at the far table. There’s even an empty seat to his left.
“Sebastian,” he says as he reaches the table. “Tell me this table’s lucky tonight.”
“Of course it is, darling.” Sebastian smiles in that warm, conspiratorial way that makes him seem almost like a boy as young as Colin, instead of a man twice his age. “You know I only play at lucky tables.”
“I’ll take your word for it,” Colin says as he settles in his seat. Sebastian seems to be doing well, as always; he is sitting at ease, and the rings on his fingers glitter elegantly as he arranges his cards. His coat looks new, a pearly velvet that calls attention to the pale gray of his eyes, and somehow he makes the tousled wildness of his hair—still black with not a thread of gray, despite years devoted to mastering Casmile’s vices—look fashionable rather than sloppy. Not for the first time, Colin thinks it would be a blessing to have an older brother, like Sebastian does, who could inherit the family estate and all its responsibilities.
“And you, Colin?” Sebastian asks as Colin antes for the next round and the dealer shuffles the cards. “How do the Fates find you tonight?”
“Counting my blessings.” A serving girl passes with a bottle of brandy, and Colin motions for her to bring him a glass. “I narrowly escaped dying of boredom just a short while ago.”
“Congratulations are in order, then. That would have been such a disappointing way to go.” Sebastian picks up his cards, rearranges them, hesitates over one and discards another. Colin looks down at his own and tries not to betray his surprise when he discovers two knights and a maiden among his cards. The first hand of the night is almost always a throwaway.
“Wouldn’t it have been?” Colin says. The man on Sebastian’s other side is glaring at them, but he pays it no mind. “Just a terrible waste.” He gives up the pip cards that round out his hand. “Tell me you have some interesting news to share.”
Sebastian pushes two shillings toward the center of the table. “Of course I do. Do you want to hear about Sophia Betteridge threatening divorce, or about the dismal state of the Maiden’s Mercy when she limped back into harbor yesterday?”
It’s no real secret that Henry Betteridge takes mistresses from the slave quarters; that’s gossip Colin could have heard if he’d stayed at the Ashfords’ party. Disasters at sea sound far more exciting. “Was it pirates?” he asks. His newly dealt cards net him the ace of blossoms, which matches up to the maiden and leaves him with the winning hand. A few more like that and he might be able to stop by the Peacock after all to show some goodwill by paying down his debt a bit.
Sebastian nods as he antes his shilling for the next hand. “Up from the islands, apparently.” Colin nudges a coin from his winnings back into the center of the table. “Burnt black as pitch, from what I hear, and fierce as northmen. The Maiden’s captain will likely never walk again.”
The man to Sebastian’s right spares them another irritated glance and gets up from the table, either out of luck and coin or simply out of patience. Colin doesn’t much care; someone else will be along to fill out the table soon enough.
Sebastian leans over and rests one hand on Colin’s back. “There’s a story I’d like to hear out of you too, you know,” he murmurs. “What on earth have you done to get Barron’s attention?”
“What?” Colin asks in alarm.
“If you’re in trouble, you can tell me, darling, and I’ll help.” Sebastian looks so sincere, it’s almost impossible to believe him. “A few of his boys were here looking for you earlier.”
Colin winces. “It’s nothing serious.” If he tells Sebastian his troubles, the entire city will know by week’s end. “I’m touched that you’d worry, but I’m fine. I promise.” He really will have to start paying down that loan soon.
“If you’re certain,” Sebastian says.
“Completely.” Colin reaches for his cards. “Don’t give it another thought.”
By the time Colin leaves the Quartermaster, it’s late enough that he has to pay his shilling up front before the hired carriage will take him out past the west gate. He doesn’t mind so much; his luck held for most of the night, and he’s going home almost two guineas richer than he left. It’s not until they’ve passed the gate and driven all the way out past Mockingbird Lane that he remembers he meant to stop in at the Peacock and look for Barron before going home.
Well, there’s always next time. Even if he winds up in terrible trouble for this evening’s adventure, he can’t imagine it’ll be more than a week or so before he goes out again. He can always enlist Anna’s help to get out of the house—she’s only fifteen and a girl besides, so there’s no way their parents would let her go out in search of adventures, and she depends on Colin to bring home stories. She’ll love the tales Sebastian was telling tonight.
Colin gets the carriage driver to let him out at the top of the private lane to the main house. It’s not terribly likely he’ll manage to sneak up to bed without having a row with his father first, but he can always hope. He’s beaten worse odds tonight already. His breath fogs in the moonlight, and his boots kick up drifts of fallen leaves. The Lady’s feast night has already come and gone, so winter’s almost here—the dry chill that leads up to the Longest Night, and then the miserable cold rain that lasts right into spring. Danny had best come back from Nothwn soon, because it’ll be snowing in the mountains, and having him stuck so far away for the entire winter would be just awful.
The lamps are lit outside and in the front parlor. His parents must be waiting up for him. Colin slows, a bit of the swagger dropping out of his stride. There’s no avoiding the lecture he’s in for, he knows that, but it would be so much easier to take after he’s had a few hours to sleep off the exhaustion and the brandy headache. Perhaps his mother will have gone up to bed already, and that’ll keep his father from really getting blustery about it.
Only then he gets closer to the house, close enough to see the cracks in the doorframe, the raw splintered wood where the lock used to be. Colin takes a few more steps, catches himself looking to the shadows as if whoever did this might still be there, waiting for him. But that’s ridiculous, isn’t it?
The door swings open silently when Colin pushes, and he steps inside. He feels queasy, like he did the very first time he smoked a pipe. The hallway is dark, save for the moonlight filtering in through the glass of the back door. Why would burglars smash their way in the front door and leave the glass in the back alone?
He startles, nervous as a barn cat, when he hears a sound on the stairs. It’s only Anna, coming down the steps in her nightgown, her hair tumbling loose over her shoulders and her eyes wide in the dark.
“Colin,” she whispers. “Thank the Maiden. Are you all right?”
“Fine,” Colin whispers back. “What—” He gets no further before Anna throws herself into his arms, holding on tight. “What happened?”
Anna takes a shaky breath, and it sounds like she might be crying, of all the awful things. “You’ve never seen anything so terrifying,” she whispers. “Papa was already angry when they came home, because you’d gone, and then just after we put out the lights, the door burst open, and these men came storming in yelling for you, and—”
The parlor door slams open behind them, and Colin flinches. “Anna,” their father growls, “go back to bed. The last thing he needs now is coddling.”
Colin turns, squinting against the light spilling from the parlor. “What’s that supposed to mean? I haven’t—”
His father crosses the hallway and backhands him. “Don’t dare to tell me what you have and haven’t done. Bad enough that you abandon respectable company to waste your money in gambling dens, but this . . .” Colin’s face stings, feels hot; his limbs tremble with the desire to strike back. “Borrowing money from thugs and ruffians to further compound your troubles!”
“Papa,” Anna says, and Colin raises a hand to warn her to stay back.
“I never meant to— I mean, I was going to pay it back! It’s not as though I thought—”
“I doubt you were thinking at all,” his father says. In the parlor, Colin’s mother is sobbing softly. “Fifty guineas, Colin! How did you even get in that much trouble?”
The figure stuns Colin nearly as much as being hit again. He knows he never borrowed so much from any one person; he was careful not to let any of his debts grow too unwieldy.
A chill creeps up Colin’s spine. Barron must have bought up the rest of his loans. If he bought them all, and compounded the interest together . . . “We can still pay, though, can’t we? You said the plantation yields almost a thousand a year. Fifty isn’t so much of that—”
His father raises a hand as if to hit him again, and Colin flinches, but it’s Anna’s distressed noise that saves him. “No,” his father says, “I won’t be paying extortionate sums to a pack of arrogant criminals because of your thoughtlessness. Upstairs, both of you.” He steps forward, shepherding Colin and Anna up the staircase. At the top, he lets Anna go and follows Colin down the hall.
“Look,” Colin says as he gets to his room, hoping he can head off the additional lecture, “I know I’ve made a mistake, all right?”
“Do you?” his father asks, stepping into Colin’s room and lowering his voice. “I’d like you to think about how lucky we’ve been tonight. You should thank the Fates that your mother and I had come home, and that one of the serving girls had the sense to run to the stable and rouse the boys before those thugs had a chance to do too much damage. I don’t even dare to think what they’d have done if they’d caught your sister alone.”
His father leaves before Colin can recover from the shock of that awful idea enough to protest—of course he’d never want such a thing, never meant to put Anna in danger—and punctuates the slamming of the door with the heavy thunk of the bolt sliding home.
“Wait!” Colin says, grabbing the doorknob, rattling it fruitlessly. “Come back!”
His father doesn’t answer, footsteps fading down the hall. Colin pounds on the door, and then winces when all that does is sting. Well. Fine. He turns away from the door, crosses to the window, and pushes it open. He’s not going to sit here like some child being punished for tantrums, waiting to be allowed out of his room.
It’s the work of but a few minutes to change out of his fine dinner party clothes and into something more suitable for Casmile late at night: a plain shirt with no lace at the cuffs, dark cotton trousers instead of embroidered breeches, the high cavalier boots that he’s always thought make him look like a highwayman. He even has a jacket that’s wool instead of velvet, with deep pockets to keep his coin out of easy reach. He pushes his hair back off his face, catches it in a cord at the base of his neck.
He’ll go back to town tonight, he thinks as he studies his reflection, and he’ll talk to Barron. He’ll put up what money he can, and he’ll apologize for those jokes he made last month to the man’s friends, which of course he didn’t mean but perhaps were a bit over the line in any case. They’ll get all this worked out before it gets any worse. Things will be fine.
The night’s taken on a good deal more chill already when Colin boosts himself out the window. Perhaps it’s only that he’s more sober now. He lowers himself down as carefully as he can, hanging from the sill for a moment and taking a few deep breaths before he lets go and drops to the grass.
There are clouds drifting over the moon, dimming its light, but the route through the gardens and the orchard is one he could manage in his sleep, after all the times he’s gone out with Danny before now. He finds his way with barely a false step, over the fence and back to the road, and is already thinking about how he’s going to tell this story once Danny comes home from the mountains. It’ll sound like a grand adventure by then, he’s sure.
When he tells the story, Colin decides as he walks down the road, he’s going to leave out the part about how cold it gets when one is tired and sober and walking back to town in the middle of the night. Or the way the distant baying of dogs makes him shiver and reminds him uncomfortably of children’s tales of the Lady’s hound. Or how dismal the western road seems when it’s late enough that all the plantations have doused their lamps, and he has no company to help him pass the time. Most likely, he’ll leave out the walk back to town entirely.
When he reaches the west gate, it’s already shut for the night, and there’s a guard on duty in the gatehouse, slouching out to meet him as Colin walks up. “Late for honest business, isn’t it?” he asks, propping his duty pike beside him so he can lean on it.
“Never too late for Kite Street,” Colin bluffs. Probably it isn’t strictly true; the brothels must shut their doors eventually. But Colin’s never been there late enough to see it happen.
The guard doesn’t move to unlock the gate. “If you’re headed up to Kite, your lordship, you must have coin to spare.”
Colin stares. That certainly doesn’t happen earlier in the evening, when there’s more traffic coming through. “You can’t be serious. My father knows your captain personally. I was at supper with him just this evening.”
“That so?” The guard has a tooth missing in front, which only makes his smile uglier. “You going to run back home and complain that you couldn’t go whoring in the middle of the night?”
Colin grits his teeth, clenches his fist until he’s sure he has control of himself. He’d gain nothing by fighting here. He digs a shilling from his pocket and tosses it at the guard’s feet. “Open the gate.”
The guard waits another few moments, but Colin can read that for the bluff it is, and when he doesn’t produce any more coin, the man does turn at last and dig out the heavy iron key to unlock the gate. “Enjoy your business in Casmile, your lordship,” he says. Colin can’t bring himself to say thanks.
He’ll definitely leave out the parts about how he got back to town, when he’s telling all this to Danny. None of it is worth repeating.
It’s next to impossible to find a carriage for hire this late, of course, so he doesn’t really have any option but to keep walking. Colin stuffs his hands in his pockets, hunching his shoulders against the chill, and starts down Market Street into the city. The later it gets, the less this seems like a good idea. He’s cold, he’s tired, and his head aches. His steps grow slower the closer he gets to Alder Street and the gaming district. Surely it’s too late to find Barron at the Peacock by now. Only the most dedicated players would still be at the tables at this hour. Tomorrow would be soon enough, wouldn’t it? When he has his wits about him and can explain himself properly.
Colin passes the turn he ought to take, and immediately feels better. Not entirely relieved, of course—Market Street is dreary at night, the shops all shuttered and the open stalls bare. Nothing moves save in the alleys, and there the rats are the most wholesome thing awake. He walks a little faster. It is late for honest business, and he might be the biggest troublemaker among his friends, but that’s still a far cry from the worst the city has to offer.
He’ll stay the night in a tavern, he decides, and straighten out this mess with Barron tomorrow. When he makes it all the way down to Front Street, there are plenty of places still open, light shining from their windows. Sailors, he remembers hearing once, keep time by the tide, not the sun. Of course, that presents its own problems—the door to the Mermaid opens as he passes, a few men staggering drunk out of a room alive with song and laughter.
There’s no way he’ll see a decent night’s sleep with that sort of lullaby, so he walks onward, past the busiest part of the street near the main docks, and turns onto Ash Street a little further north. About halfway up the block, he finds a tavern whose sign is shaped like a dragon’s head, with light in the windows but no sound spilling out into the street. It should be passable enough.
The light in the Dragon’s Head comes mostly from the fireplace, with a few lamps behind the bar to help it along. The furniture is rough wood, unfinished, and plain where it hasn’t been scored by guests leaving their mark. Apart from the innkeeper, who’s a woman probably Colin’s mother’s age but considerably the worse for wear, there are only two other people in the room. One is an old sailor with a wooden leg who’s nodding by the fire. The other is a skinny boy about Colin’s own age who looks up with wary eyes, inspecting Colin suspiciously before he turns his attention back to the wooden cup in his hands. All three of them are ordinary Casmilan stock, with dark hair and eyes and skin similar shades of dusty tan, and Colin wishes he weren’t quite so pale, nor his hair so tinged with red.
But for all that he feels awkward, nobody’s actually challenging him. He crosses the room and steps up to the bar, trying to act as though he does this sort of thing all the time. “Have you a room free tonight?” he asks.
The innkeeper barely glances at him. “Three shillings for the room,” she says, “or four with meals.” She has a faint lisp when she speaks.
“Just the room is fine.” If he does want breakfast in the morning, he’s sure he can find better than the dull porridge they no doubt serve here. “I’ll take a pint now, though,” he adds. His nerves could use it, and it’s probably polite.
“Three pennies a pint,” the innkeeper tells him, and turns away to pull his pint while Colin fishes in his pocket for some copper. She puts his mug on the bar, he drops his coins into her hand, and after a moment of hesitation, he decides to take his drink to a table. No point in saddling either of them with the obligation to converse, is there?
Casmilan ale somehow manages both to be bitter and to taste of almost nothing. He lifts his mug to his lips and congratulates himself on managing to not make a face, though he’s not sure how he’ll get through the entire pint. The lager imported from the northlands is far better, but a place like this probably doesn’t carry something that expensive, and he wouldn’t want to give offense by suggesting he preferred the barbarians’ craft, especially when he’s so white-skinned himself. So he sips his bitter ale, and stares at the scars beaten into the tabletop, and wonders just how awful it will be to get Barron to agree to reasonable terms for repayment.
He’s making himself miserable for no purpose, he thinks, and takes a long pull on the ale as though it’s medicine enough to calm him. This mess won’t get straightened out tonight, and it won’t help matters any for him to worry.
The boy in the corner is watching him again, eyes too intent and focused for any sort of polite or well-intentioned interest. Colin glares, daring the boy to come give him trouble. He could take down a skinny little rat like that, and it might even make him feel better, with the way this night’s turned. The boy just smiles, though, or possibly bares his teeth—he looks amused enough, but not at all friendly. Brat. What makes him think he’s so tough?
Colin’s about to get up and go over there, ready to ask what the boy thinks is so rotting fascinating about him. Then the door opens, and the boy looks away immediately.
“Good tip,” says the man in the doorway. “He’s in here.”
Colin’s heart stutters in his chest, panic locking his limbs as the man steps inside and brings three of his friends with him. They’re big, broad-shouldered as dockworkers, one of them dark like an islander, and all four of them are carrying cudgels. But they don’t even glance at Colin, instead heading straight toward the boy in the corner.
The boy gets to his feet, uncoiling into a ready, tense stance, and bares his teeth at them, too. “The dogs come snapping at my heels, do they?” he asks. His voice is smoother than Colin would have expected, a light tenor that sounds almost friendly.
“Morgan’s not happy with you,” the leader of the thugs says as his companions spread out between the boy and the door. “He wanted his girl back in one piece.” Colin glances over to see if the innkeeper is going to try to intervene, at least to tell them to take the trouble outside, but she’s disappeared.
“Well.” The boy shrugs, shifts his weight, and somehow there are knives in his hands, glinting in the firelight. “You’re good dogs who do as you’re told. Maybe he should have sent you after her instead of me.”
“You think you’re clever?” the leader asks. His men close ranks, weapons ready.
The boy hisses, low and threatening, like a barn cat cornered by the hunting hounds. Colin almost can’t stand to look. This is going to be awful.
They all move at once, sudden as a flock of crows startled off a corpse. One moment they’re glaring at each other, and the next they lunge. The boy is fast, ducking low and catching the leader’s arm with one knife as he twists out of the way of a swing. A fine spray of red arcs across the floor, but it’s not enough to slow the man down. The thugs swear and yell as they fight, but the boy stays quiet, hissing sharp little breaths between his teeth as he dodges their blows and shoves furniture between him and them. A chair splinters under a cudgel blow, and Colin winces. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees the old sailor hobbling for the door. If he had any sense, he’d follow, but he can’t bring himself to move. He’s never seen anything like this; even the best theater can’t capture this feeling.
The boy snarls—the first real sound he’s made since the fight started—as he loses one of his knives, caught between the ribs of the most aggressive thug. It unbalances him, and the islander’s next swipe sends him sprawling to the floor. He rolls away, dives toward the fireplace and comes up with the poker, iron scraping stone as he pulls it free. He jabs it into the islander’s stomach as he regains his feet, and the man goes down howling, clutching at the burn. The air reeks of seared flesh.
But the poker’s too heavy for the boy to use one-handed, and the leader knocks it from his hand. The boy springs back, dodging and swiping at his attackers when he has the chance. He looks like he’s trying to get past them, but they’re driving him into the corner. Once he has no place left to run, this won’t last long.
He should be doing something, Colin realizes abruptly.
He gets up, crosses the room to take the cudgel of the man who’s been stabbed. It’s heavier than he expects, unbalanced, weighted at the end. The last two thugs have the boy cornered, so there’s no time left to hesitate. Colin steps up, swings the cudgel, and there’s an awful, wet crunch when it connects with the back of the first thug’s head. The impact jars up Colin’s arm, solid and final, and the man drops gracelessly to the floor.
The last one, the leader, turns toward him, and the boy lunges immediately, grabbing the man’s hair with one hand and drawing a knife across his throat with the other. Blood sprays; the man makes terrible gurgling noises as he collapses.
Then, thank the Fates, it’s over.
The fire pops and settles, loud in the sudden stillness. Colin stares at the boy, his blood pounding in his veins. The boy grins back, fierce and proud. “Ah,” Colin starts, not even sure what he’s going to say, “I—”
The boy shoves past him, knocking Colin out of the way with a snarl, and buries his knife in the eye of the man he’d burned before. Colin catches himself against the edge of a table, swallows hard against the feeling that his throat is closing up. He starts to shake, his nerves overtaxed, as he takes in the long, thin blade in the dead man’s hand. He could’ve— If this boy hadn’t been so fast, he’d—
Lady’s luck, this night is going all wrong.
“That went pretty well, didn’t it,” the boy says, more a statement than a question. He pulls his knife free—Colin winces at the rush of fluids—and wipes it on the dead man’s shirt