Chapter the First
In which the reader is introduced to our hero, Piccadilly—Concerning his birth, parentage (or lack thereof), history, education (or lack thereof), charms, endowments, and virtues (or lack thereof)—Of the skymining town of Prosperity and our hero’s arrival therein—Descriptions of a game of cards and sundry persons of variable character and importance—The lamentable actions of an ungentlemanly gentleman—Some notes on the workings of skyhooks
I ain’t never been one for truth-telling, and all that shite about what your father was called, and where you was squeezed yowling out your mother—but this ’ere tale ain’t your everyday moonshine.
See, it begins with a town called Prosperity.
It don’t really matter how I came to be there, cos back in them days, everybody was going. Way I heard it, the rush started cos of this one cull who got himself an airship and took to the skies over Gaslight. He went up there with pockets full of sweet fuck-all, and came down again with enough phlogiston to light up England for a year. Made him flusher than that Greek bugger what I read about.
And that’s when folks started buying up the sky, turning nowhere places like Prosperity into somewhere places. Leastways for the sorta folk who didn’t have nowt to stay put for, or had sommat to run from. And them as rather’d go clutching at dreams than turn their forepaws to honest graft.
When I first rolled into town, there weren’t much in the ol’ brain box except turning the usual tricks and running the usual rigs. Cos me being Gaslight gutterborn, I ain’t precisely grained for the straight and narrow. ’Twasn’t long afore I got settled in. Few days after making slip, I had five fat culls—meaning them as possessing more money than sense—chasing their own tails in hopeless pursuit of Judith in the game of three-card monte I was running from the street corner.
It didn’t make me no new friends, but I did get together enough chink for grub, and somewhere to kip that weren’t the ground or some stranger’s bed. Though I ain’t never stood in opposition to snuggling up with strangers.
Course, I’d also heard tattle of deep play at Albright’s Saloon, and I had the buy-in right there. I was hot for it, having always had sommat of an itch in my palms for the dealing of cards and, most particularly, for the winning at ’em by means both fair and foul.
Truth is, I like stealing more than I like having, and I like cheating more than I like playing. I know it ain’t honourable, but way I smoke it, any nick-ninny flat can get what he deserves, so the real trick is getting what you don’t. And since by rights I should’ve probably been croaked in a gutter down in Gaslight or mouldering at the bottom of the Spire—which is where they put pilferers, bobtails, and tradesmen of fortune when they can catch ’em—I reckon whatever I can sharply lay paws on is as close to mine as makes no difference.
Though mebbe this is why I got more talent for getting than keeping.
And mebbe why I found myself in Prosperity to start with.
I tucked my blunt away for laters and slipped into shadows betwixt a couple of shacks to practice. I usually carry a deck or two about my scrawny person and a set of dispatchers—them being dice what throw crooked—cos you never can tell when you might need ’em. Give ol’ Piccadilly (’tis me, by way, your narrator) a deck of broads, and he’ll show you a dance to make your glims water.
I riffled and sprung and cut and false shuffled and false cut. I dealt from the top, from the bottom, from the middle, did my jogs and double lifts, flashed and flourished, glided and glimpsed, passed and palmed, and fair dazzled myself with my own brilliance. ’Twas a shame there weren’t nobody to see it. Like that tree what falls in a forest what them philosophers is always thinking about.
And when the sun was slinking o’er the horizon like a lover what ain’t too pleased with the view, I made for Albright’s. I squandered a ha’penny with the barkeep for panem and old pegg, that being hardtack and sommat he claimed was a Yorkshire type of cheese, what actually tasted more like old socks. Then, seeing as folks was assembling for play, I sauntered over casual-like to join the game.
Sitting at the table was one Ephram, brother of the Jackson Albright what owned the place. He was built like a bear with a great bristling beard on him such as could be useful for the burying of badgers.
And Gap Tooth Alis with hair so eye-bleeding red it must’ve come from a bottle bigger than Prosperity itself, and skirts so wide and ruffled ’twas a wonder she didn’t go floating off like a dirigible when the weather was blustersome.
And finally some la-di-da court card fresh off the boat, all dressed up in white linen like the fucking prince of Persia. He was sitting there nursing a cup of what the canting crew’d call catlap. Tea, y’know, bits of leaf and shit and what ’ave ye in hot water, such as drunk by fat ol’ spinsters and delicate maidlings what need a good seeing to. It looked all kinds of strange next to the rest of the empty bottles littering the tabletop.
Course, I flashed straight off this fella weren’t proper nib cos he was the nibbiest nib I’d ever stagged and nobody goes to that much effort to be who they really are. He looked the part, though, I’d give him that. Fact was, with those fancy duds and the missish ways, he would’ve looked a regular pigeon to be plucked, except there was sommat sharp about him, sharp and fragile and deadly like a glinting blade. I reckoned I’d seen pictures of angels what were less comely than he was, but there was nowt holy in him. ’Twas like seeing a wolf wrapped up in a man-skin, and all the pretty in the world couldn’t hide it.
He had this scar crossing his top lip, like a silver-coloured brand. And, looking into his glims, which were blue like somebody washed all the colour out of ’em til there was nowt left but ice, ’twas enough to send a shiver running through me. He was too gaunt and too pale, cheekbones standing out like they’d been carved. And when I gave him the cutty eye, being how one rogue beholds another, I got a peeperful of the chivs (blades, y’know) strapped to his forearms, as well as the six-shooters on each hip.
First off, none of them thought much of me rolling up, but once I paid the buy-in and acted like I didn’t have no clue, they soon perked up.
’Tis kinda its own sting, this face of mine, being so pretty-like, and my years so slender. I don’t reckon I seen more than mebbe eighteen full revolutions of the earth, but ’tis a costly mistake to underestimate ol’ Piccadilly cos I ain’t no greenhorn, no sir. Truth is, I ain’t never found a square concern—what ye might call an honest job—what with having a powerful disinclination for starving, but I done all the rackets before I turned to card sharping.
’Twas Miss Alis made the introductions, and I played along, even though I already knew what was what. First thing you scope out in a place like Prosperity—who runs the brothel, and the name of the biggest fella in town. “And this hoity-toity swinker’s known as Milord,” she finished, gesturing at the stranger.
Except he weren’t no stranger after all cos I knew the name already. Milord was what they called the crime prince of Gaslight. I’d never met the master of misrule myself, but any cove working the Stews—that being what them as lived above called the undercity—worked for Milord. The thief-keepers would tell the little uns and the kinchin coves: “You do yer job and you pay yer dues and you don’t get caught, or Milord will cut ye into ribbons.” He was supposed to be an artist with a knife—if you take artist to mean scary fucker.
Peeping across the table, I thought ’twas probably the same fella. If it hadn’t been for his eyes, I’d never have believed a dandy priss like that was running Gaslight. Except he weren’t running Gaslight. He was right here, right now. And, truthsomewise, I felt a bit wary about bobbing him cos you don’t go around trying to pull the teeth from tigers if you want to keep your fingers.
His lordship didn’t deign to speak, just flicked up a brow, swift as a striking snake. Chilled me right through, but Miss Alis grinned like he’d made a joke, and said with a slyish look, “How’s Saint Ruben? Ain’t clapped eyes on him since Shadowless made slip. Dimber cove like that—I gotta queue o’ pretty things would like to make him mighty happy.”
I faffed with my chips, acting as though I weren’t paying attention, though of course I was. Ol’ Milord wasn’t giving much away, but his cold glims got even colder, and finally he said all casual-like: “Ruben doesn’t care for happiness. It interferes with his rigid programme of guilt and self-righteousness.” You could’ve cut glass with his accent. And then he turned to me, pinning me with his attention like he’d thrown one of his chivs. “I don’t think I caught your name.”
“I don’t believe I told it.” I was being carefulwise as could be. “’Tis Piccadilly, though most prefer Dil for being as you might say less vocally challenging.”
“How singular,” observed the fucker calling hisnabs Milord.
I didn’t have the whirligigs to bring it up though.
Thing is, for a bunch of years, nobody bothered to call me anything except bratling or squeaker. But I had no intention of going through life wearing where I’d come from like a badge, so I’d reckoned if I wanted a name to call my own I was going to have to take it. There was this loony family man we called Ol’ Louse (cos he was a rogue’s companion, gettit?) what used to fence the swag, and he was always mumbling on about going to Piccadilly Circus one day. Being young and benish—daft headed—I got the notion Piccadilly was sommat kinda magical.
Course, when I finally got there, ’twas just a big ol’ crescent with a couple of roads all running together. Turned out circus was highfalutin for circle. How dingberrying pissed was I? But I kept the name anyways. ’Tis mine now.
Then Ephram growled, “Less jawing, more dealing.”
So we got to playing. Suppose I could have took it square, not bilked them, and mebbe done okay for myself, but there wouldn’t have been no fun in it. Besides, til I met Ruben (I’ll tell you about Ruben soonwise), I thought truth was for flats. When I said I was a cunning shaver, ’twasn’t just clankers and moonshine. I took it slow, not wanting to spook them, acted the chub and played booty—which is what you call it when you play to lose, but strategically-like. Once I got ’em lulled, I started skinning ’em, and quite the dance it was cos they weren’t no buffle-noddles. Made my little heart go pitter-patter, pitter-patter with all the wicked, naughty pleasure of it.
And the winning, when I got there, was some of the sweetest I’d ever tasted—not leastways cos by then Milord was looking like there was a spike stuffed up somewhere unspeakable. He knew he’d been bobbed, and bobbed soundly, but he didn’t know the how of it, and ’twas making him mad as a box of cats.
As for me, I couldn’t help crowing a bit, just to myself, cos I’d sat down with the crime prince of Gaslight and come out ahead.
As I reached for the pot, his hand shot out and caught mine, slamming us both onto the pile of chink in the middle of the table. I looked up and his glims were burning like blue flame. “You, young man,” quoth he, precise as cold water dropping down your back, “are a cheat.”
He flipped over the discards and my dealt hand. And, though he was like one hundred percent correct about the cheating, I’m a cheat with a talent for it, and there was nowt to be found to blow the gaff. Then he grabbed my wrist with an icy paw as though he expected broads to come tumbling out my sleeves.
And I confess that got the ol’ dander up a bit cos what kind of amateur did he think he was handling, eh? But I reckoned there was nowt to be gained, and probably quite a lot to be lost, by getting into a spat with a fellow like that. So I just dimpled at him, sweet as sweet, til he took himself away.
Though mebbe ’twasn’t only my charms what did it, cos right then he started coughing and coughing, and he had to get a pocket fogle to muffle it. And it weren’t no gentry cove’s ahem-ahem he had going on. ’Twas a rattling oyster-puking Gaslight cough, all dust and smoke and phlegm the colour of tar, and even a silk wiper couldn’t hide it.
He was bucket-kicking pale when he was done, but somehow he found breath to say, “The next time I see you, Piccadilly, and believe me, there will be next a time, I shall inscribe an object lesson on the folly of irritating me into your flesh.”
I didn’t feel much like laughing about it myself, but Gap Tooth Alis burst out with cackling. “Lost yer manners, Milord?”
He flushed all pinkish, which would’ve been kinda endearing somehow if I hadn’t believed every fucking word he’d just said. I was starting to think this hadn’t been the best idea I’d ever had, but I’d plenty practice with scarpering, and I reckoned mebbe Milord had better things to do with his time than go chasing a nobody all over Prosperity.
All being well, I’d be giving the place the laugh first thing in the morning.
I was just wondering if there was any way I could sorta give the coin back and, like, no hard feelings when Alis grinned at me. “Don’t think you’ll get much play in this town after that performance, Dilly lad, but I’d’ve coughed up double the blunt to see his nibship rattled. Ye got quite the set of bollocks there.”
Ah well. Too late. And no point fretting over it now. Horse was bolted, milk was spilt, Piccadilly was flush. I smirked. “I could make the introductions if you wanna get to know ’em better. Seems like I’m pretty equipped all suddensome.”
Rumour had it she weren’t no devotee of Master Thomas, but you can’t blame a cove for trying.
“I reckon any o’ my pretty things’d be glad to, sweetheart, but bring your bollocks near me and ye’ll be wearing ’em as a shappeau.”
Milord pulled out his fogle again and started cleaning the tips of his fingers in this idlesome way. Even though, far as I could stag, they was already clean. “He’ll wish he gave them to you in a presentation box by the time I’m done with him.” His voice was still all raw to nowt from the coughing, but it didn’t look like anything short of death was shutting him up. “Cheating is not gentlemanly.”
“And what the fuck would ye know ’bout that?” ’Twas Ephram, weighing in hard, like mebbe he had sommat personal at stake. “Reckon ye weren’t feeling mighty gentlemanly the day you trimmed m’ kin.”
“Morgan owed me.” Milord was as calm as you please even with Ephram breathing at him like a bull. “I simply collected on that debt.”
“That skyclaim weren’t his to spout.”
“Then you may take it up with a lawyer.” Milord gave this thin, gleaming smile with no mirth nor nowt in it, cos everybody knew there weren’t no law in Prosperity. “If you can find one, that is.”
I thought Ephram was mebbe going to lamp him one, cos he got all red and stompy, and Milord was just sorta sitting there, still smiling, like he wanted him to try it. But I guess Ephram thought better of it, and I couldn’t blame him. “This ain’t ’bout legality. You took what weren’t yours to take. And I’m gonna be reclaiming what’s rightfully mine, one way or t’other.”
It looked like it were all set to turn into an altercation of some duration, suggesting that now might be a good time for Piccadilly to bing it, so I gathered up the chink and did so right tantwivy—id est (as the inkhornes would say) really fucking fast.
I slipped onto the main street, pockets all heavy with my winnings. ’Twas chill and dark, stars hazy through the drifting cloud. From the bawdhouse, all bright-lit, came sounds of laughter and merrymaking, music and swiving, but my heart was swiftwise turning heavier than my pockets.
’Tis oft the way, I find, when the job is done. Cos I keep thinking sommat’s waiting on the other side. I dunno what, but I’m sure it’s there, just out of reach, like when I was a kinchin pressing my conk up against shop windows at Christmas.
But there’s nowt. There’s only silence. And the things you filch ain’t ever the things you want, and I reckon living itself is a filched business.
These sorta times, I fall to worrying. I start wondering if my winning streak is done for good and the gutter is pulling me back where I rightly belong, like mebbe there ain’t nowt waiting round the next corner except an eternity box and some worms having a party. Just the thinking of it makes my fingers itchy to feel broads slipping through ’em again, and if I think too long, and too hard, I’ll go looking for another game, one to lose this time, just so as it’s a choice.
Just so what I have, and what happens with it, is sommat what’s still mine.
I wandered haphazardish, trying to sell myself on the idea of getting a whore to give the ol’ arborvitae a good going over in celebration or whatever, but mainly being chilled and buffeted cos skytowns aren’t exactly the ideal location for a spot of promenading.
Prosperity’d been a refuelling rig before the rush, so ’twas even more rickety and tringum-trangum than most, and to this day, I don’t rightly think anyone meant to settle there permanent-like. I suppose some came and never scraped up the cash to get back. But then there was the others, like Gap Tooth Alis and Seth Silver and Jackson Albright and Father Giles and Kirkpatrick, who seemed to stop trying. Came to call this shaking rattling patchwork monster home. They probably did better for ’emselves selling guzzle and cunt to cloud-chasers than half the hopefuls with a skyclaim passing through. But some folk hit the big time, make no mistake, so the stories kept getting told, and the people kept coming, and Prosperity kept on growing.
Weren’t everyone what had the stomach for the place though—’tis one thing to understand the principle of sommat, another to live there day in, day out, to walk over them wobbly platforms with nowt but sky all round. There was rails, of course, supposed to be for safety, but truth was there weren’t no thinner edge betwixt somewhere and nowhere. Land was cheap cos it was whatever could get hauled up and strung up—wood and metal and scraps of this and that, all cobbled and riveted and bolted together, connected with ladders and bridges and bits of beam and what ’ave ye, sometimes not so careful-like, so that the blue would suddensome break beneath your forepaws like a big ol’ smile.
The docks was pretty solidsome, and the main drag with the Abbey and the saloon likewise, cos those was all commissioned and done proper. But the rest was anybody’s guess and anybody’s turf—anything what you could sling to a skyhook and call home. Life up here was a slip-sliding business, never the same betwixt one day and the next, and nobody counting what was lost.
Folks grew customed, cos folks always grow customed, to living with the swaying and the shifting, the cold, and the shriek of the wind through the skyhooks. And compared to the Stews of Gaslight, I don’t mind saying I found that bits-’n’-pieces town of sky and stars and makeshift dreams damn near close to paradise.
But there ain’t no place on earth ’tis wise to make a hobby of distraction, specially when you’ve just gone and bilked a crazy high-and-mighty motherswinker. Cos one minute I was walking along, counting stars and thinking coins, and the next I was pressed against a wall with a chiv against my throat. And Milord, of course, pinning me there, telling me again in a voice that made my skin crawl how cheating weren’t gentlemanly.
I tried not to squirm nor swallow cos I was frightened that even a teeny-tiny movement would split my skin beneath the blade. And I know cringing into the wall don’t seem precisely heroic-like, but I seen my share of violence; enough to know I ain’t so nuts upon it. And if that makes me a coward, leastways it makes me a walking, talking, still-breathing coward.
I could tell I’d do better trying to reason with a rattlesnake than Milord, but I had a go anyhow. Cos all I had to lose was breath and that was probably going to be in short supply soon enough. “Don’t reckon silencing a fella fer nowt is partic’larly gentlemanly either.”
I’d known before I come that there weren’t no law up in the skies. Truth is, that was sorta part of the appeal. But ’twas only at that moment, with Milord all hot and cold and sharp and about to really fucking kill me, that I properly understood what it meant when there weren’t nobody answerable to anyone or anything.
Even in the Stews there’s sommat. Chant was, Milord himself had done time in the Spire, though the details were what ye might call sketchy. But up in Prosperity, there weren’t no truth left but one, and the name of that homegrown godthing was greed. The greatest weakness of the human heart, Milord used to say. He’d kinda sneer round at us, and be all, “Learn to want nothing, and you shall have freedom.”
But I reckon there’s such a thing as having too much freedom. And there certainly ain’t no place freer than the edge of a blade.
Milord heaved a little sigh, like he was sorta regretting being put in the difficult position of crashing me. “No, but your actions have rendered it necessary. I assure you this is as much an imposition on me as it is on you.”
I reckoned it really weren’t. I tried to sound sommat like normal, but it came out all whimpersome: “’Twas only bamming a bit.”
His lip curled, the scar pulling his mouth a bit crooked. “Has anything you have ever heard about me suggested I might possess . . . a sense of humour?”
“I am not a man to be crossed, Piccadilly.”
I couldn’t think about nowt but the knife to my throat. I’d been in sticky situations before, but none to match this one. I’d never felt so sure I was going to be hurt, never so sure I was dingable—sommat to be discarded. ’Twasn’t even like he was a sadistic type, going to get some kinda power-rush sick thrill out of doing the deed. He looked bored, like he was settling his accounts book and mebbe putting ol’ Piccadilly in the outgoing column.
And I couldn’t have told you why, but somehow that was worse. I seen folks driven to do all kinds of desperate things in the name of this and that and the other, or simply for the privilege of living from one day to the next, but this was the coldest fucking act I’d ever witnessed.
“I reckon I’m awake to the fact.” A trickle of blood or sweat or fuck knew what glided under my collar, but I didn’t dare look to see what it was in case ’twas the last thing I ever saw. “P’rhaps you could chalk it up to lesson learned, and we could go our separate ways friendsome-like? How ’bouts I see m’ way to returning the blunt to, like, sweeten the deal?”
“Money is not one of my motivations.”
’Twas sommat right ironic in that—cos it made him the only fucker in Prosperity for who it weren’t. Problem was, I didn’t have a fucking clue what his motivations might’ve been, otherwise I’d have offered them. I’d have dropped to my knees right then and given him the best cocksucking of his life, but something told me that probably wasn’t one of his motivations neither.
So I just closed my glims and prepared to fold on this losing hand called The Life and Tragically Limited Times of Piccadilly of Gaslight, cos I didn’t want my last sight to be Milord, sneering away like I was some insect what had dirtied his boots by dying on them.
They say your life flashes in front of your eyes before you snuff it, and mine sorta did. Bits and pieces of memory cos, y’know, it ain’t all been rotten. Shame there weren’t more of the good stuff though. Could’ve done with less of the cold and the hunger and the stinging smoke of the Stews. And more of the drinking and revelling and clicketing. Aye, much more of that. I tried to cling to some of it cos I ain’t never been warmer than when there’s been some other body twisted next to mine, paid or paying or gratis, lad or lass, it’s all good to ol’ Piccadilly.
Wish I could’ve kept feeling like that, but it always slides away like a win at the tables.
Just a bright moment, mebbe a few bright moments, and then nowt to show for it.
“Make it quick, yeah?”
Right then, a cough that seemed to come out of nowhere doubled him over, and the knife went spinning out of his paw. Ol’ Oliver (being the moon to the nibfolk), shining down betwixt the pale stars, gleamed on the edge of the blade, alongside a ribbon of shadow that was probably a bit of blood previouswise belonging to yours truly. And since I always been a cove to carpe the fucking diem, I culped Milord somewhere no fella should culp another, and he dropped like he was made of nowt but air and malice.
He landed on his knees in the dirt, gasping like he was dying, blackish kinda blood frothing on his lips and splashing on the backs of his hands. And y’know sommat? I didn’t give a flying fuck. Bugger had tried to kill me, and I ain’t no good wossname Samaritan.
I pounced on his chiv. Got my fingers tight in his hair and yanked his head back. He was too weak and breathless even to struggle. Just fell against me like he didn’t give a single fuck. Like he wanted me to do it. The light painted silver all down his shuddering throat.
I tried to like psyche myself up to it. But, truth be told, I ain’t never done . . . that before. I never quite fancied it somehow. But I had the principle down, and it should’ve been pretty simple. Except my hands wouldn’t quit shaking.
“Look, look—” my breath came out all wrong and shuddery “—how ’bout I don’t and you don’t and we like call it evens. What say ye to that?”
He turned his eyes up to mine. Same colour as the moonlight. “I would say . . . fuck you.”
’Twas the act of an absolute bottlehead, but I dropped the knife and pegged it.
Helter-skelter through Prosperity, heading for the docks cos I reckoned it’d be easier to hide there, thoughts flying back and forth as I went bobbing and weaving thisaway thataway, leaping over crates and past ropes and cables, and kinda internally kicking myself for having wussed out on solving sommat that’d turn into a pretty seriouswise problem if Milord was inclined to put Snuffing out Piccadilly above Getting sharpish to the nearest quack.
Plan was this: find a nook to slip into, wait til the lightmans, and book passage as far-as-fucking-away from this great floating rock of nutters and psychos as my winnings could get me. Course I could’ve stowed away, which was how I’d got to Prosperity in the first instance, but I reckoned I’d run through my rightfully allotted share of serendipity for this lifetime (and mebbe the next).
And, to be straight with you, I ain’t exactly nuts on airships. Never mind all the nasties out there in the aether—they’re ugly clunking beasts, lumbering through the clouds like donkeys with a serious case of flatulence. People who ain’t travelled on them wouldn’t believe the noise or the juddering. Always feels to me like you’re two seconds from dropping clean out the sky, and actually, if one of them engines packs up or one of them turbines stops turning, you probably are. Which ain’t the most consoling thought when you’re stuck on one.
Milord didn’t seem nowhere close, so I cast my glims over the assembled vessels, wondering which one of ’em would be least rattlesome and smellsome and get me back to London in the same number of pieces as I arrived in Prosperity having.
And then I yorked a prime article, a ship of ships, the like of which dreams were surely made on. She was black, with fittings of silver, except ’twas a kinda black beyond the everyday, as though it’d swallowed down all the other colours in the world and they was swimming about inside it like rainbow fish.
’Twas also the first time I’d ever laid ogles on one of them airluggers and thought her beautiful. She was sleek and slim, fitted with tall sails like an ol’-fashioned sailing ship. And though all the other buckets was chained to Prosperity’s skyhooks to keep them moored, she held herself in the air easy as an angel, aethercurrents stirring her sails like the wind through a lady’s hair.
At her prow was a figurehead carved into the shape of a prancer, glistening black like the rest, front hooves reaching forward as though ’twas galloping over the clouds and the mane flying out behind til it joined with the body of the ship. ’Twas the most lifelike piece of work I’d ever clapped peepers on, and I half thought she was mebbe looking right at me with eyes like the night sky, all black and silver with stars.
I could see a swirl of symbols running over her side, and not for the first time in my life, I felt the lack of schooling, cos I dear wanted to know what to call a purest pure like her.
’Twas before Byron Kae taught me lettering and how to sound out the shapes of words even though sometimes they go dancing away from me. But since I know a bunch of shit now I didn’t back then, I’ll tell you everything, so you don’t have to feel like all-a-mort like poor ol’ Piccadilly, so far out of his depth, he was drowning.
M’lady’s name is Shadowless, cos she’s the fastest ship in the sky. And she ain’t no everyday airship. She’s an aethership, meaning she don’t need engines nor turbines nor nowt but an aethermancer and the stars to guide her.
But, right then, I was just standing there, gaping at the ship, all calf-eyed and wondering if I could mebbe sneak aboard. Or pay my way all square and legitimate-like. I’d’ve given far more than chink to fly betwixt the clouds on a ship like that. She made my heart feel like a piece of coal turned glowy side up.
Except then this prickling ran all the way down my spine. You don’t stay living—and you certainly don’t stay pretty—if you don’t got instincts, and mine was telling me this weren’t nowt bene.
I spun round.
And there was Milord picking his way towards me, pale as bones in the moonlight, with eyes like death, and a gun in his hand.
I didn’t stop to do anymore thinking, just leapt for one of the cables leading up to a skyhook and started hauling myself up it, hand over hand, as quick as if Ol’ Scratch was on my tail, which, knowing what I did about Milord, he probably was. ’Twas fucking scary, cos though the hook was sturdy enough to hold the town, ’twas still swaying about all over the place. My hands were getting burned raw, but I was damned if I was slowing or stopping, not til I’d put a mile or more of sky betwixt me and Milord’s chivs.
I’d never been this close to a skyhook before, but I wasn’t exactly in the mood to get all awestruck over the wonders of modern science and what ’ave ye. Ruben told me ’twas only phase boundaries and surface tension betwixt one bit of sky and the next what stopped it all falling down. ’Twas a good job I didn’t know that then, or I’d probably have preferred standing around getting shot to clambering up the thing.
In fact, further I got from the ground, the less I fancied thinking about it, but looking up weren’t exactly no happy picnic neither. ’Twas just the cable stretching swayfully up up up into the darkmans, and a wavy glimmer where it split like a seriously buggered parasol into all these little lines and cables what was stuck into the top of the stratosphere.
I hauled myself onto one of the docking platforms, breath rattling out of me rough and hot as fire, but that was nowt to the relief of having stalled off his lordship. I cast a hasty glance down to see what he was up to. There was a glint of light over his extended hand and the gun he held in it, and it took me a too-long second to realise what was happening.
First came the sound, cracking through the darkness louder than it had any right to be for sommat so small and faraway.
Then pain in my shoulder, jagged-bright like the way lightning cuts through clouds.
And all I can remember is being confused where it had come from and how it could be hurting so bad.
And then the air was rushing past me, stars smearing over the sky.
And a voice from nowhere was shouting out, “What the hell are you doing?”
And there was just long enough for me to be down with the notion I was falling when it was over.
And then great big handfuls of nowt.
Chapter the Second
In which our hero Piccadilly spends a lot of time in bed—Concerning the aethership Shadowless and her crew—Introductions to an opium-addled governess and her peculiar dreams, a mysterious captain with a passion for rainbows, and an extremely unorthodox clergyman—Piccadilly’s exertions upon the aforementioned clergyman—Considerations of morality, theology, philosophy, and literacy—Some notes on the aether and the monsters that dwell therein
Next thing I knew was pain and pain and more pain and not being able to move my arm, nor my fingers, nor the rest of me. And then I couldn’t breathe neither, and mebbe I was trying to thrash around, and mebbe I was crying out, cos suddenly I felt a coolish touch against my brow and some stranger’s voice was coming over me all softly-like: “Hush. Try not to move.”
And then came a different voice, all deep and rich and special like spiced wine in winter: “You’re safe now, Piccadilly.”
I couldn’t recall the last time I’d been safe, but ’twas a warming notion.
Slowly, I pushed back my glim-closers and found myself at the centre of a ring of faces. Some of them I recognised from my time in town—the ol’ black coat, name of Father Giles, and the local quack, a sawney fella called Kirkpatrick. And I wasn’t what you might call wildly thrilled to stag either of them right now, cos having a need for both a doctor and a priest suggested pretty strongsome that all weren’t bright and bene with Piccadilly. The rest of them was strangers though, and all blurred together into a kinda face noise, so I wasn’t real sure what I was looking at.
My mouth felt like a cow’d took a shit in it. I licked my lips, trying to remember how to say things. “W-what’s he doing ’ere?” I tried to point at the priest, but even my non-duff hand just went flump.
“He was cheaper than the doctor.” I’d’ve known that voice anywhere anyhow. Cold and sharp and nasty. And right now I gave a good ol’ yell at hearing it so close.
I got my head up, and sure enough, there he was. Milord. Sitting cool as you like across the room, cleaning what looked to be my blood off his chiv with another one of his white silk fogles.
“You shitting shot me, you cuntsucking quean,” I spluttered, anger overriding survival instinct.
Father Giles gave this little hop, clearly not thinking much of my lingo, but Milord didn’t even look up, just faffed on with the fogle. “It was an accident,” quoth he, mildsome as a woolbird.
“How in the name o’ the profane canst thou shoot someone in the shoulder, and say ’tis a dilberrying accident?”
His eyes met mine, clink clink like twin bullets finding their mark. “I was aiming for your heart.”
“That’s enough.” That weren’t no shouting voice, but it made everyone stow it anyway. I recognised the sound from before, and now my glims had cleared enough, I got to clap ’em on the face of the fella speaking.
And, truth be told, I don’t reckon I ever seen a face formed to make me like it more. ’Tweren’t about beauty nor nowt like that, but I could’ve looked forever and never got bored. A squaresome kinda jaw, rough with stubble, dark eyes, hair similiarwise, falling this way and that across a likewise squaresome kinda brow. Nose what looked like it’d mebbe been broken, so ’twas flattened like one of them golden great cat beasts I seen in a picture book once.
’Twas not at all the time for me to be carrying on like a lovesick jade, what with being shot and surrounded by loons and having a priest staring down like he was preparing to rebuke my sins and send me off to a warmer place, but I been a son of Mercury all my life and wanting is what I do, and I know it ain’t never no rational thing.
I wish I had the words to write properwise about Ruben Crowe cos even from that first moment, not even knowing who he was, there was sommat about him I liked a good deal more than anything I’d ever liked before. Being a sharper and all, I hadn’t had much truck with truth—fact was, I was nowt but moonshine and clankers from nose to toes—but, oh, Ruben was full of true things. Like he was some ol’ knight in some ol’ tale; the sort of tale I only dreamed about knowing before Byron Kae taught me how to read ’em. Except there ain’t no dragons left for Ruben to fight, leastways not the outside sort.
Anyways, ’twas a bit of a blow to meet the finest man I’d ever met when I was giddy with pain and scared shitless lest I was going to lose a forefin—cos some thief I’d be without a goddamn arm. Nowt but a maundering beggar, and I ain’t ever stooped that low in all my fucking life.
“Is m’ arm like totally buggered?” I asked in the smallest of small voices, feeling about a hundred miles of pathetic.
“I foond the bullet,” piped up the quack. He was shorter than me, blatantwise sozzled, and previous to now I’d have not took a bet on him being able to find his arse with both hands and a map. “And I set the bone.”
“Amputation would have been cheaper.” Fucking Milord. “And in Gaslight I would have taken far worse than an arm for stealing from me.”
“You’re not in Gaslight anymore,” snapped the fella I’d later know was Ruben.
Milord huffed out a quiet sorta sigh. “A fact I am in very little danger of forgetting.”
Once, when I was feeling particularly brave, or mebbe a bit bird-witted, I asked Milord if he missed it. Gaslight. Cos he was the only one there what knew the ol’ place like I did.
And for once he didn’t offer to gut me if I didn’t stow it. Instead, his eyes got sorta dreamsome. “I miss the power. People who had never even seen the Stews knew my name and knew to fear it.”
’Twas sorta sunset happening round us, while we was talking, setting the deep grey skyhaze all aflame with streaks of pink and purple and orange, almost too bright to look on. “I don’t miss nowt,” I told him. “I don’t reckon all the power in the world could make up fer not being able to see the sky.”
“That’s because you’re a fool. And powerless.”
I pointed at the wild horizon. “But don’t that count fer sommat?”
He looked like he hadn’t even noticed ’twas there. “What use is that?”
The scar twitched at the edge of his lip. “I have no use for beauty, Piccadilly.”
But I knew he was lying cos I’d seen the way he looked at Ruben.
Course, that was later. Right now, I was fucked up and bedbound, and didn’t know either of ’em from Adam. While they was bickering back and forth, I made a grab for Ruben’s hand. “Don’t let him cut off m’ arm.”
“What the hell is wrong with you?” That was for Milord. For me, a squeeze of rough, strong fingers. “Nobody is going to hurt you. I promise. You’re going to be as right as rain.”
Right as rain, hah. Who says that? Who says that and means it? But betwixt some fucker wanting to slice off my arm for kicks and some other fucker promising the moon on a string, I was going with the second fella.
“Perhaps he should take some laudanum.” ’Twas a woman’s voice what spoke this time, almost as posh as Milord, though trying a good bit less hard to be. I turned my head to get a look.
Nowt special over there, just some gentry mollisher all muffled up in grey from neck to floor like she were afraid exposure to air or other people’s glims was going to burn the skin right off her. No-colour hair twisted up tight into one of them plaited buns and chalk pale cheeks and brownish eyes with a tell-tale glazed-over look to them such as I’ve seen on only the most committed opium eaters.
“He just needs tae rest.” The doc was looking as though he was as eager to get away from the asylum as I was. “Now, to the account.”
“I gots chink.” My voice came out all thin and weak as I tried to show where I’d stashed the swag. But my coat was in a tattered pile on the floor, and when the doc lifted it up to turn out the pockets, there was nowt there. Not even a clipped fucking copper. From across the room, Milord’s smile gleamed for a moment and vanished.
“Allow me, gentleman.” Suddenly I realised there’d been a hand upon my brow all this time, soft and cool, and I only noticed when it was gone.
The room was spinning all round again, and the pain was sorta making me feel fuddled and cropsick, and there was too many voices and too many folk and all of them seemed to be a bunch of crazies, so I didn’t figure nowt except a jingling of coins and this sudden swirl of colours so bright I thought I was going to shoot the cat or whatever all over the floor.
I shut my glims right tantwivy, and darkness came washing sweetly over the pain.
Ruben told me later I was in a fever for enough days they thought they’d have to get the priest back. I was dreaming of Gaslight mainwise, and the greasy dark of the Stews. Though one time I opened my eyes and saw the woman what I’d stagged before sitting on the edge of my bed with her sleeve rolled up to show a makeshift tourniquet, one end pulled tightly betwixt her teeth, while she was cheerfully shooting fuck-knew-what straight into the vein, easy as you please.
When she realised I was wakesome, she just pulled her sleeve down and stared at me with her pupil-shrunk eyes, saying, “Shall we trade dreams, Master Piccadilly?”
And I can remember her voice going on and on about some measureless city in the aether, wrapped in the loathsome rust of the ages where the greatest of the krakens lie dreaming.
Mebbe I was supposed to die, mebbe I wasn’t, but time was I became conscious of sommat real, and that was being thirsty, and it got worse and worse and worse, til it seemed like ’twas either die or get better, and, as chance or bloody-mindedness would have it, I got better.
Though when I opened my eyes proper, it kinda seemed like death mebbe would’ve been kinder. I felt weak and sore and kinda wrung out like an ol’ damp washing rag. And when I opened my lips to try and say sommat, all that happened was a sorta crappy croaking noise. Then a hand was holding a glass of water to my lips, and living suddenly seemed like a real sweet proposition cos nowt had ever tasted quite so fucking good.
I could’ve drunk oceans if I’d been let, and then I’d probably have been sick as a dog, but the stuff kept flowing all careful and patient like I was sommat special to be fussed over. My vision was fuzzy like my glims wasn’t used to looking no more, but while I was drinking, I could see sorta little rainbows reflected on the glass from the tips of the fingers holding it. And when I was done with the water, I peered up into eyes black as the ship I’d been yorking at forever ago.
And by black I don’t mean dark, I mean black, proper black; black like nowt so as even the pupils and the iris was lost. I ain’t proud of it, but I screamed the fucking place down cos that ain’t how eyes are supposed to be. ’Specially not when they’s attached to sommat sitting right close on the edge of your bed, and you’ve recentwise had some loony wench going on and on about monsters when you was trying to be asleep.
“Oh . . . oh, please . . . don’t . . . there’s nothing . . . I’m not . . . I don’t . . .” Voice was nice though, smooth and edgeless, sweet as honey. “Let me get Ruben.”
And there again was that swirl of bright colour, except this time, it sorta resolved itself into a right rum coat of patchwork velvet, wrapped round the oddest-looking creature I ever clapped eyes on.
I ain’t exactly what ye might call high ’n’ mighty, so most folks look tall to me, but this cove was tall and made up of angles and not particularly graceful with it. Put me in mind of one of ’em birds, all legs and wings, mebbe designed for being in the air not on the ground. They had one of them nowhere faces like mine, like they didn’t belong to nobody except themself, though they was all pale like lily flowers, which I most certainly ain’t. Hair to match the eyes, blacker than black, and tumbling all over the place, right the way down to their waist in bits of plaits and curls, woven with feathers and gold and silver chains and beads strung through it.
Footsteps sounded on the deck above and next thing I knew, the other fella—the one I remembered a bit too well—came bursting in.
Ruben Crowe, as I learned later, got chucked out of the church for believing the wrong things about the way God was supposed to work. I ain’t no theologian or whatever, but he did try to spin me a yarn about it once.
See, there was this book what claimed that instead of being made in the image of God, folks just sorta developed over time, and that made everybody get in a big tizzy over the meaning of the Bible. But here’s the thing about Ruben: he never had any doubts at all.
“God,” he told me, “lies not in the words of priests or the pages of the Bible. Supreme moral authority—God, if you wish—lies within the conscience of every individual.”
And that made me feel a bit bad cos I’m pretty damn sure there ain’t much God in me.
Ruben must’ve seen it cos he nudged the end of my conk with a fingertip (for a serious-sounding cove he ain’t half-cute sometimes). “Even in yours, Piccadilly. Transgressing against legality is not the same as transgressing against morality.”
Speaking of the almighty, God but them break-teeth words of his got me all hot and wrigglesome. I remember him leaning down for a kiss, rough and sweet, just like him, saying after, “God is good, Dil.” And hell to the yeah, quoth I, when my velvet wasn’t otherwise engaged in his smiling, wordful mouth.
But, really, ’tis no wonder he ain’t no churchman.