Choke-Collared: Chapter Three

Four gutter bastards enter a fine dining establishment, and Quincy begins to play with fire. Dark gaslamp fantasy/romance(???) series.

Start at Chapter One here.
Chapter Two is here.

Content Warning: all previous warnings apply.


Falak was adamant. No filter mask. It is, of course, perfectly reasonable. Wearing it about on the street is no big thing, plenty of people go covered in Beinchann Fountain, from the factory workers with Miller’s Pox, to the church ladies and al-Wadi with their modesty, like Falak. But this is no mere stroll through the winding streets, this is dinner, and a different sort of protocol is in place.

(Quincy cannot recall the last time he was out for dinner. He clings to Falak’s arm as they walk to the Swan and Cygnet, wary of tripping on the ghosts of memories that were not sufficiently scrubbed from his mind.)

So here they are, all dressed up. They’ve got to make for a right strange party, these two lovely women and their escort of gross men. Quincy traded his normal scarf, stained with sweat and blood and soot, for a much less-battered blue one, and his trousers aren’t even dusty. Beneath his (comparatively) nicer clothes, though, Quincy is armed three times what he was at the prison. His one-shot pistol is hidden beneath a half-cape Falak embroidered yellow trim onto, and his long scout’s knife, which he was issued during his stint in the wastelands, is a comforting weight at the back of his belt.

Just as Falak said, all Westyard’s clothes are too big for him after ten months in prison. He seems in good humor nonetheless, bastard. He must have gotten his job in the boiler complex under the resort back. Look at him, all done up in his new scarf and a stupid black-and-brass soldier’s greatcoat and an equally bad felt hat, so obviously a criminal it has careened past the point of comedy. Scruffy red hair, scarred face, stubble now trimmed so it’s even but not gotten rid of. He must be cautious of all his open wounds.

Neri is beautiful, as always, a shawl of turquoise lace over her white shoulders, hair decorated with ribbons blue as lapis. Her petticoats audibly swish around her legs as she heads the group. The wooden soles of her embroidered slippers clack against the tile like the tattoo of gunfire. Heads turn as she passes, and she doesn’t seem to notice. Of course, this is the norm for her, Quincy assumes. An admirable trait, being able to take stares that way.

With her arm hooked in his, Falak takes up the rear, excitedly peering past the tables for a glimpse of the swans she was so chuffed for. It makes her a bit hard to hold onto, but half of climbing is clinging, and Quincy is the best climber he’s ever known. Falak’s traded her day clothes for a faded mauveine dress Quincy has only ever seen her wear one other time, before their official relationship, at the marriage of one of Mrs. ban Ibrim’s granddaughters. The same dress, the same green and black batik veil. She even put on her only piece of jewelry, a faience bracelet, just as she did for the wedding. Is this so important she’d put it on the same level as that auspicious event? Ugh.

They’re seated at a small table that overlooks the river proper, situated against the stone railing of the outdoor terrace. Westyard takes the seat next to Falak with casual impertinence, leaving Quincy to seethe next to Neriette. He ought to be pleased that he can easily observe both of them, but mostly he’s nauseous, and not any more in the mood for mussels than he was upon Neri’s announcement. The ginger soda he asks for is half out of wanting something sweet, and half out of hoping it’ll make his damn stomach stop flopping about. Neri requests a greengage gin, Falak red wine and water, and Westyard, a neat whisky.

“It is foul,” Falak comments before the waitress can come back with it. “Whisky.”

“Tis not. Tis the drink of gentlemen,” Westyard protests, his accent particularly coarse.

“Then you ought to send it back and request something more your station,” Neri says.

Somehow, her voice stays congenial. Falak covers her mouth to hide the little smile, and Westyard gives her a faux-wounded expression that looks just ghastly on his ruined face. Clearly, the dynamic here has been long-established. It remains to be determined if Neri’s piss-taking is meant in good fun, but Westyard tolerates it better than expected. Some men would give Neri the backs of their hands for such talk.

His good behavior here in public cannot fool Quincy. He’s a shipwright’s son, and in the light of the silver lantern, the scars on his knuckles gleam like oiled leather. Anyway, it’s not Neri catching the backs of hands that concerns Quincy, as callous as that may be. (He only has so much care in his heart, and every drop, he reserves for the one who reached out for him.)

The talk is idle and not of even vague interest to Quincy before the drinks arrive, so he watches the swans. Great black cobs and kohl-colored pens, their gauzy cygnets bobbing between them. It’s night, so they loiter at the grated entries to the drain system in which they nest. Neriette orders everyone’s food—she’s the one that made the reservation, after all, and as middling a place as it truly is, in the big scheme of things, Quincy doubts either Falak or Westyard have ever even stepped foot in the Swan and Cygnet, so what do they know?—and, with a bit of time now assured, conversation can begin in earnest.

“You’ll have to catch me up,” Westyard says. “Falak wrote, but there’s only so much you can say in letters. Guards go through every damn thing. One of ‘em thought the one, Falak, that you sent during Grass Cutting was particularly sweet, so he did me the pleasure of reading it aloud in front of every man and ghost.”

Thought Neri laughs, Falak’s mortified expression kills it before long. Quincy wishes he could grit his teeth. He’s already being plenty cruel to his cut by swishing soda over it.

A massive barge with a full brass band pulls up alongside another building on this bank of the river, greeted by resounding cheers. Gods, of course. Springtide. He’d, somehow, forgotten the party. Where’s his holiday spirit? Quincy rests his forehead against his knuckles for a minute as the music washes over them. It’s jaunty, modern stuff, the kind of music that Quincy would enjoy if he were a good distance away, alone, out of sight. As it is now, he anticipates a headache in his future.

“I notice I didn’t get any letters from you, Neriette,” Westyard says over the rim of his glass. His annoyance is put on; it’s clear from the cast of his eyes that he does not give one mote of a fuck about her correspondence.

“Hm? Oh, yes. Terribly sorry, Vhatair. It must have slipped my mind.”

“Well, I expect you were quite busy.”

“Very busy, what with you not around to pull your weight. Now that you’re back we can return to business as usual,” Neri responds archly. Falak blinks, then frowns, sets down her wine glass so she can point.

“Neri! Why are you unkind? We have been long apart!”

Quincy hunkers in his seat and glares at his ginger soda. He feels at once entirely invisible, not even capable of inserting an edgewise word, and exposed. The wide River Yonslua rushes alongside them, peopled by swans and countless boats. Flat-bottomed barges, taxis, and personal sculls, the water teeming with eyes. Nobody is looking for Quincy, naturally, but anyone could be looking at him, and the effect is much the same.

“I think the best way to handle his ordeal is to get on with normal life as soon as possible, no coddling, none of that,” Neri says.

“I wouldn’t mind some coddling.” Westyard dabs at the scar on his mouth, the one that exposes some of his teeth, with one of the foam-white napkins. “Blazebarrow is just as bad as they say.”

“Worse than Ashebury’s Institute for the Destitute?”

“Oh, aye, a hundred times. At least at the poorhouse I didn’t have to listen to them talk about ‘turning me into a dedicated citizen.’ That treadwheel, I tell you, is not half so bad as all the bleating they do about it. All the guards—”

“It is over and done with,” Falak says, a bit of an edge creeping into her voice. “Let us cause it to fade to memory, and then to nothing.”

Bless Falak, she truly is a treasure. Neriette immediately turns to get the attention of the passing waitress so she can have another greengage gin. Westyard, on the other hand, narrows his eyes, fingers tight on his glass, gaze traveling from Falak to Quincy, purposeful and slow. The left corner of his mouth, which looks as though it once was split open, begins to twitch.

“Quincy, darling,” Neri calls, loud though her seat at the table seems yards away, a stretch of white cloth and empty, unused dishes that dance before Quincy’s eyes like ships in a squall. The horn players on the nearby barge aren’t very good. The melody of the song is too chaotic, too irregular. Like the sound is being rattled in a bottle, same as him. “Would you like another soda? There was a big shipment of tinned cherries recently, one of my boys told me about it. Have you ever had a cherry? You’ll love them, I’m sure. Waitress, a cherry soda as well, if you don’t mind.”

Ah, and he still has so much ginger soda left… he ought to finish it now, so he can trade one glass for the other, simplify the waitress’s life a bit. The soda burns in his throat, fizzes in the back of his nose. When he tries to swallow it, it goes all solid and sludgy. He swallows harder and keeps swallowing until the glass is drained and the rock of his throat is bobbing on nothing.

“Our Falak says you’ve got a sweet tooth,” Westyard pipes up. None of his disapproval touches his voice, but it’s there in the tension around his eyes, the tightness of his jaw as he tries to stop his mouth twitching.

“Aye.”

His voice is quieter than he’d like. Why does Westyard have to meet him at his worst? It’s all because of that damn prison. Falak expression bleeds worry. Her fingers twitch, and the hippopotamus amulet on her bracelet drags across the linen as she reaches for him, then decides better of it before her hand can get too far. Bless her, bless her. If she’d made him weak in present company, he’d have been cross with her all over again.

Before Westyard can make it clear what he thinks of Quincy’s minimal answer, Falak starts the catch-up he requested. For all her otherworldliness, for all she is a sorcerer, Falak is also a laundress. She could gossip the copper from a kettle if given half the chance. Westyard puts all his focus on her, chin on his fist, other hand on the back of her chair. The lantern light and the gaslights that line the river turn the spaces under his brows to dark pits, black save a wet glint and a flash of green.

Ten months is a lot of time in a city as big and busy as theirs. Delia Fountainpool, one of Lawkafon Regal’s pennyscrubbers, had a baby girl recently, this one expected to make it out of the cradle. Quincy waited on the roof while Falak and some other ladies took caudel with her, and Falak warded the nursery. Old Selben Southdocks died and now his son, Kalen, is in charge of all his holdings, and all the businesses on the border between the Tidesmen and Lawkafon’s Lads are restless. Westyard seems especially intrigued by that, and Neri joins in to add that it’s rumored his death was a little more sinister than the stroke his coroner claimed.

It’s all old news to Quincy. The words begin to blur. The horn players do not get any better.

The waitress returns with Neriette’s greengage gin, and a bright pink soda with two candied cherries, still on the stem, hanging on the edge. Quincy doesn’t touch it. He’s afraid this one will go sludgy, too. Or that he’ll drop it or something. His hands sit limp on the table in front of him, and intuition or paranoia or maybe both tell him that they can’t be trusted.

(Better to go without than to look weak.)

Falak lets Neri pick up where her news runs off. Brothels are just as good for gossip, maybe better, than laundry houses. Certainly a different sort of gossip. Neri gesticulates gracefully, the picture of charming joviality, as she continues to talk. You’d never guess she was talking about transactional fornication. That’s what Quincy’s assuming she’s going on about, at least. Her words have smeared into meaningless nattering, she may as well be speaking al-Wadi for all he can make out.

Under his heavy clothes is baking, and his head bucks in time to the music. What is he, a maiden just like that seal of a clerk thought he was, sitting here about to swoon? Is he some wilting flower who needs a goddamn fainting couch? Will nobody shut those fucking horn players up?!

If he were to get up and get some quiet, Falak might follow him, and he could tell her what’s weighing on him, like he always does. Then he’d have to come back and face everyone’s questioning stare. He won’t give Westyard the satisfaction of cracking in front of him.

“I must say, you aren’t what I was expecting,” Westyard says. His words slice through the cacophony, perfectly understandable. Mother of the sea, his shipwright’s accent is overpowering, and the grit of his voice rumbles in Quincy’s ears.

“Yeah, you neither.” Quincy puts as much pointed disinterest in the statement as he can, dragging it through gap in the haze that Westyard’s voice has opened.

Westyard’s expression doesn’t darken. He rustles through his greatcoat’s pocket and comes up with a heavy-looking pipe. The motions are deliberate and relaxed. Years of watching angry men tells Quincy he is putting forth considerable effort in keeping them this way. Falak stares at him, fingers tapping slow against her jaw, the way they do when she’s thinking. Her other hand rests curled on the tablecloth, bouncing her mussel fork.

“Falak didn’t mention the teeth, for starters,” he continues, opening a tobacco tin. Quincy catches only a glimpse of the image on the front. Star jellies? A bunch of star jellies in front of the moon, he thinks. That’s disarming, something very nearly cute. He’d half expected a naked woman.

“Give you a fright, Mr. Westyard?”

Show nothing on your face, he urges himself. That was a lot easier to do when he could get away with a default expression of ‘snarl’ or ‘leer,’ but such faces are frowned upon in mixed company. ‘Nothing’ is a bit more strain.

“No doubt you were counting on it.” Westyard packs the bowl slowly, in no hurry, without looking down at it. His focus is on Quincy’s eyes.

“He’s a firecracker, our Quince,” Neri interjects. “And he simply adores Falak. Well, naturally. Falak is simply too easy to love! Aren’t you, my dear?”

Falak smiles, but Quincy knows she’s not paying Neriette that much attention.

“Very easy to love.” The first quick motion in a while as Westyard’s eyes flicker to Falak for a moment. He smiles too, but it’s a baring of fangs, not an expression of friendliness. “My goldfish.”

“Goldfish? What’d you do, win her at the fair?”

Nobody says shit for a good two seconds. Falak’s lips press together and go white, her finger paused against her jaw, the mussel fork no longer bouncing. Westyard has this dumb, dull look about him, like he’s lost his grasp of Glasreord, but his teeth are tight on the mouthpiece of his pipe. Quincy waits, gauging the strength of the explosion he’s just caused.

As good conversation skills are vital to her trade, Neri cuts in before anyone else can speak. Her laugh could almost be real.

“The fair! Oh, Quincy, darling!” She slaps the table, not too hard but just a little more than is genteel. “Sometimes you are just too funny.”

“Aye, a good laugh,” Westyard growls, voice strung tighter than a coping saw and twice as jagged, “a good joke. Me old dad, he used to say the best jokes dance on the line of good taste. Man might have cause to be angry at words like that, if it weren’t a joke. S’what makes it funny, right?”

Quincy might have grinned, were he in a position to move his face. Way to snap up the bait, you big bastard. Falak looks like she wants to curl up and crawl under the table, for which Quincy feels terrible, but he’ll apologize later. ‘Goldfish.’ Quincy’s well aware of the connotations. A pretty thing, (a pretty pet, and Quincy tastes rust like the gouge in the roof of his mouth has reopened), a fancy little luxury for people like them. Also, they have goldfish swallowing contests down by the docks and at fairs. A luxurious pet or something you swallow whole, alive and wriggling.

When Quincy says nothing, when his expression doesn’t shift toward fear, the corner of Westyard’s mouth starts fluttering like a trapped bird. As he leans forward, closer to the lantern, his eyes are illuminated once more, narrow and venomous. His lip curls, twisted out of proper shape by his scars. Neri goes stiff and still, all deer and no help to anyone at all. Falak grabs Westyard by the elbow and opens her mouth—

Before the fight can well and truly start, the mussels arrive, and everyone does a bang up job pretending there was no upcoming public nuisance. That might endanger dinner. No mere boiled mussels with bray, or pickled mussels right from the jar, these were cooked in butter and wine with herbs that might have even been fresh. Not so much as a hint of vinegar, that’s how you know it’s truly posh. There’s side dishes, too, sea grape and shallot salad, piping hot chips, and a bunch of green spirals it takes Quincy a moment to realize are sauteed fiddleheads.

As much as Quincy was thoroughly not looking forward to this, and as much as his stomach is still churning, he’s impressed. He and Falak mostly eat fermented soy pulp and tinned fish. Being a laundress pays in gossip, but not so much in cash. Neri really is being generous, and, even if it’s ostensibly for Westyard, Quincy can appreciate that.

“My friend,” Falak says, before the waitress can be off again, “if you could bring us another glass of what he is drinking—”

“Of that? Pish posh. Waitress, bring us a bottle of Continental Clear and three shot glasses,” Neri declares.

Westyard’s eyebrows go up.

“Oh aye? I thought you said you weren’t going to coddle me,” he says.

“We’ll see how coddled you feel when you’re puking out your window. Either way, this is a celebration, right? We deserve a touch of levity. As Falak said, we’ve been apart for a long time.”

“Careful, love.” Westyard sets down his pipe, still unlit, and finishes his whiskey with a not-all-the-way sardonic raise of the glass in her direction. “You may trick me into believing you enjoy my company.”

Look at them banter. And just now he was furious. Quincy wonders which precise implication set him off so badly. Were Quincy inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt, he say that the implication that Falak was something a man could win and be off with did it. Mother of the sea knows that Quincy would’ve raised a ruckus at such an insult, never mind being in public. Perhaps Westyard just doesn’t appreciate audacity. Perhaps he thinks a scrawny little boy ought not speak out of turn to a man. Joke’s on you, bastard, Quincy thinks, I’m a man too, and a whole Hell of a lot bigger than I look.

Falak lights Westyard’s pipe for him. Placation? Falak spoils Quincy rotten, it can’t be denied, but this isn’t spoiling. This is deference. Like his fucking wife. Quincy swallows outrage and makes himself feel nothing but detached curiosity. He can be mad later, when it’s useful.

Westyard does seem placated. He ignores Quincy for now, and Quincy lets all the voices smear to nonsense again. On purpose, this time, so he can focus on what’s important. Words? Words can mean any old thing, they’re made up. The way things are said, the position of the hands and the shape of the mouths, the cast of the eyes, those are where the real conversations are. He’s still a bit cross, Westyard is, and Neriette a touch—just a touch! She is a professional after all—more frantic than usual. Falak sounds just as gentle and pleasant as always. She chides Westyard a few times. His laughs are short but genuine, and she laughs too.

So Neri considers Westyard’s anger something to fear. Though she’s the one who acted to alleviate the tension, Falak doesn’t seem to fear it like Neri does. Then again, Falak is hard to spook. Westyard was placated by Falak’s deference. (Falak isn’t—how dare this man treat her that way. How dare he make her submit to him. That’s what it is, Quincy knows, he wasn’t born yesterday. Helping a man smoke, that’s an act of submission. I’m useful, please don’t hurt me, look what I can do for you. Falak shouldn’t have to grovel that way, Quincy’s treasure, she shouldn’t have to be dominated that way.)

The waitress returns with the requested shot glasses and a blue bottle of Continental Clear on her tray. The cork has been removed, so even from here, even over the river, Quincy can smell fumes. Lucky they don’t use candles here, eh? He’s heard that mummers use the stuff to spit fire. He’s never seen it, mind, but it seems right. Being so repugnant makes it the drink of choice for toasts, for some godsforsaken reason.

“I had noticed earlier, but no glass for the lad?” Westyard says as Falak fills the glasses, pipe in his off hand. (Another deference, though since she’s pouring everyone drinks, it’s a little easier to bear. Would it hurt you to move your bloody hand, Neri?)

“Quincy does not drink,” Falak says. “The toast will be in his heart.”

“No doubt,” Westyard says, doubtfully.

“To what shall we toast?” Neri asks. “Vhatair, come up with something. This is your celebration, after all. Make it good.”

“What do you take me for? Some kind of poet? Hang that. To good fortune, ladies, to good fortune and Neriette’s money and Falak’s bleeding heart!”

Quincy can’t exactly find fault with anything Westyard said, so he raises his glass for a half-second before taking his first sip of soda as the others shoot back their paint-thinner. Westyard takes it without flinching, Falak’s face crumples like paper, and Neri, somehow, manages to roll her eyes at Westyard while wincing. Falak slams her shot glass down and whines, grimacing, gold eyes swimming with unshed tears.

“Neriiiiii!” she cries. “Betrayer!”

“You’re the one drank it knowing it’s too much for you, don’t you ‘betrayer’ her,” Westyard scolds, patting her on the back even so.

“For your toast! You are being so ungrateful!”

It’s not as though she doesn’t drink. Still, she’s a gentle girl, not some shipwright with a scabbed-over throat. Quincy reaches across the table and takes her hand, and pretends he does not see Westyard staring at their intertwined fingers.

Down on the barge, they seem to have traded out horn players. Now they’re playing songs again, not just blaring metallic shrieks. And this soda is going down much better than the first one, too. It’s been a long, long time since he got to taste cherries. He holds each sip in his mouth until the burn of carbonation fades, lets the syrup coat his teeth like blood. It’s so rich a flavor, so thick with sugar and nostalgia, that he half expects that if he opens his mouth his teeth, even the black chitin ones, will be cherry red.

Neriette turns, scans the room. Probably looking for the waitress. Dinner’s pretty much done, and, chances are, if she’s indulged them this much she’s going to indulge them dessert, as well. About halfway through her second pass, she gasps, then turns around, flapping one hand in Falak’s direction.

“Oh! Falak, at the bar! That’s him, Uthor Lightridge, the one I was telling you about.”

A Lightridge? Quincy bristles and there is no stopping his teeth gritting, not after everything he has had to deal with tonight, he just doesn’t have the strength. Pain shoots through his skull and down his throat. Nobody was looking, though, they’re all looking off toward the bar, which can be seen through tall, narrow windows and a set of broad glass doors set into the old stone walls of the Swan and Cygnet. Quincy hasn’t the slightest idea who to look for in there. Just an anonymous crowd of people in for overpriced drinks and quite alright shellfish on this, the second night of Springtide.

“The bookseller?” Falak asks.

“The very one. Oh, boo, he’s brought his wife… oh well.”

Neri does nothing so graceless as scrape the chair legs across the stone. Still, she’s exuberant as she circles the table and crosses behind Westyard, so exuberant she nearly clocks him with one elbow as she jerks Falak up to her feet with both hands.

“I beg your pardon,” Westyard snaps.

“Beg, then. Come, darling,” Neri says. “This is just too convenient! And with you looking so lovely! We must go see him, I promised to introduce you.”
Falak looks back over her shoulder as Neri drags her toward the door.

“Neri, what about my Quincy?”

Yeah, what about him? Quincy tries not to pull his feet up into the chair and put his head down on the table. Goddammit, Neriette Fountainpool, goddammit, what is with you tonight?!

“Ah, let the men talk as men,” Neri says, waving off the obvious problems in her statement with a simpering flick of the wrist.

Quincy glares at her, but it doesn’t seem to phase her. Falak looks from Neri to Quincy—and she fails him. She offers a conciliatory smile and trots toward the bar, hand in hand with Neri. Now it’s just Quincy, Westyard, and the ruins of dinner stretched out between them, the silver lantern’s light glittering off the coagulating butter and dirtied silverware.

Quincy swallows the anger. It’s getting harder and harder to keep it all contained, but gods be good, he will try. Later, later, save it for later. Pick it up, put it in your bag, and wait to find a use for it, that’s the way he learned out in the wastelands. Of course back then it was machine parts and artifacts, not abstract concepts such as anger, which presents significant logistical problems.

Knowing the trajectory of his luck, now is the time Westyard will decide to start shit, while he’s reeling from Falak’s flagrant betrayal. But Westyard stays quiet, following Falak and Neri with his eyes. After a moment to make sure he’s not about to be played, Quincy looks for them, too. Neri is getting her hand kissed by an enormous man with ridiculous facial hair, while Falak smiles at the small-waisted lady sitting beside him, who hides whatever tart expression she must be making with an ostrich feather fan.

After a moment, the fan drops, and that austere face edges toward a smile. Quincy wonders what Falak complimented. Probably the ostentatious, peacock-green dress she’s got on, or the live flowers pinned to her wide-brimmed white hat. What’s the point of dressing like that if not to make people take notice? Falak’s very good at picking up on such things.

Looks as though she’s already forgotten about Quincy, never mind what she said to Neri before. One one hand, where’s your loyalty, Falak? On the other, he must take up for himself. As much as he likes to be spoiled, he is a man, and a man has to be able to defend himself. Else he’s just a boy. Quincy was done with being a boy a long time ago, and this old bastard cannot frighten him.

It’s just, he doesn’t want to spoil Falak’s good time. She’s obviously so happy to have Westyard back. The friendly thing to do is to let her have her celebration, let her just be happy for one goddamn night before he starts throwing hands. (Because this will dissolve into violence. Like he tastes the metal holding his bridge in, like he tastes the cherries in the soda and in his memories, he can taste that sooner or later, and probably sooner, this will come to violence. Quincy still doesn’t have a lot of information on Westyard, but what he has has promised him that there will be blood.)

A loud slosh catches Quincy’s attention. Westyard has taken Falak’s abandoned glass and is pouring a shot into it, another into his.

“Shall we, Quincy?” he asks, nudging Falak’s glass closer. “Now that we’re not longer in mixed company.”

“I don’t drink. Falak told you.”

“Be a sport,” Westyard urges. “Have a shot. It’ll make you a man.”

Quincy pushes the glass back to him, and, sure to enunciate each syllable, sure to maintain eye contact, says “I said. I don’t. Drink.”

It doesn’t quite have the effect Quincy was going for. Westyard leers at him, eyes narrowed to mocking slits, teeth shiny with spit in the dull light.

“Oh, come now. Don’t you want to be a man?”

Quincy snarls, he can’t help it, his lip curls over his chitin fangs, an achingly familiar expression. Westyard raises one eyebrow, and reaches across the table so he can snatch up Neri’s abandoned greengage gin, sip at it disaffectedly. There’s a shift, though, in his posture, one that suggests to Quincy that he’s armed, something holstered under his left arm.

“I am a man,” Quincy snaps.

Westyard gives him an obvious up and down. Another obnoxious, tauntingly collected sip of his stolen gin, his fingers drumming on the tabletop, rattling the dishes strewn with the remains of Neri’s generosity.

“A man, eh? How old are you, lad? By the look of you, you can’t be more than sixteen… though that’s not possible, not with those tattoos. Hm. Eighteen, nineteen, then?”

Two can play at the ‘sipping like you aren’t unnerved’ game. And soda goes down a lot easier than gin, Quincy would bet.

“You got the right of it, Mr. Westyard,” he says. “Nineteen.”

To Quincy’s shock, Westyard laughs.

“Nineteen, truly?” he asks. The smile is genuine. It pulls at all the scars, makes the one on the left corner of his mouth pucker, makes the one that exposes his teeth stretch open, too honest to be concerned with its ugliness.

“Something funny?” Quincy demands.

“Falak—Falak had just turned nineteen when I met her.” Westyard reigns in his laughter. “Just a few days into it.”

He takes the shot he’d poured for Quincy and downs it, downs his own after. It’s not smart to get so drunk with someone who don’t like you, someone with a mouthful of blades. Not that Quincy is in any position to do anything. Still, he can at least feel superior in that he’s not a dumb bitch with no situational awareness. (The only other option is to be offended. How dare you drink in front of me? Are you saying I can’t hurt you? Bastard, I could tear out your throat, sober or not.)

“Nineteen, huh?” Westyard’s eyes are no longer soft in the slightest, all the warmth turned to a freezing edge.

“That’s what I said, yeah,” Quincy says. If Westyard hopes to hurt him, he’s going to have to pull an actual knife. A sharp look can’t cut him.

“Awful young to have been put in Cellblock Twelve, aren’t you, Quincy Fountainpool?” The accusation in Westyard’s growling voice gnaws through Quincy’s brain, acidic and furious. But he won’t take the bait, nor will he flinch.

“That,” he says, “is not even a little bit your goddamn concern.”

“I refuse to believe that someone with those tattoos could be stupid enough to believe that.”

“What do you know about tattoos? Ten months is no time at all.”

“Not in the grand scheme. But I know what sorts of men get put in Cellblock Twelve. And I know what the blood by your eye means, and the ones by the corner of you mouth, too. I’m sure that if I got a look at those little hands of yours I’d see all sorts of disconcerting stories written on your fingers. Might even be able to find out what you did to get tossed in that block.”

(He could laugh. He could cry. He’s not sure which he’ll do if he doesn’t keep himself under wraps, and he doesn’t know which will be worse.)

Quincy licks his lips. His teeth barely scrape the scars on his tongue. The sneer comes naturally, too, even more than the snarl did.

“Mind your own fucking business.”

Westyard gets to his feet, both hands coming down hard on the table, loud enough that the people eating alongside them get very interested in their meals very quickly. Westyard’s eyes are bright with frustration and reproach, his fists clenched as he starts coming round the table. Quincy twists in his chair, ready to duck under the fist and catch Westyard in the chest with his shoulder, bear them both to the ground where Westyard’s height and weight make no difference.

The lantern flares up as bright as it’ll go, part of the mantle going white-hot in an instant and crumbling away. Quincy and Westyard both jump, then look toward the bar in unison. Sure enough, Falak is approaching, without Neriette, and though she is smiling, hands clasped modestly in front of her, the lights of her pupils are visible from here.

“You are up, Vhatair! Are you wanting to leave now?” she asks, her courteousness almost mistakable for genuine.

“Ah, no, not yet,” he says, rolling his shoulders. Quincy doesn’t move, stays waiting for the blow he knows won’t come.

“Oh no? Then you are standing for some other reason? Perhaps you were looking to observe the barge?”

“Get off it, Falak.” His voice brokers no argument, or at least says he thinks it does.

Falak gives him a chilling look, the same frigid expression she gave the guards at the prison, and goes to her chair. She stands there for a moment before raising her eyebrows expectantly. Westyard’s glower goes from angry to exasperated. He pulls her chair out for her, which melts her expression back into a smile.

“Thank you, Vhatair. Come, sit with me. Is this Neri’s gin? You are bad.”

“So I been told.”

Quincy forces himself to relax, and nearly vomits his words in his fear that he won’t be able to get them out.

“How was Lightridge?”

Falak’s nose wrinkles.

“When he kissed my hand it was rather a bit wet, I thought, and he clears his throat often for someone who does not appear to have anything in it. I feel pity for his wife. She seems a very proper sort and it must have been unpleasant to see her husband behave in a manner so shameful. She has given me this card also.”

Falak reaches into a pocket hidden by the folds of her dress, and slides Mrs. Lightridge’s calling card closer to the lantern, which is now even dimmer than before with part of its mantle gone. The card is an extravagant affair to be sure, scalloped edges and Mrs. Lightridge’s full name in ornate calligraphy, must have cost a sterling to get it and its fellows made. Her visiting hours are posted in tiny print near the bottom, on a banner held aloft by two doves. Disgusting.

“Look at that mess,” Westyard says. “Runny letters and all that. Ha! What a load of shit.”

“You have the social intelligence of a basking shark, Vhatair.”

“Maybe so, maybe so,” he agrees, picking up the card and eying it more critically, exactly what you’re not supposed to do with the bloody things.
He looks as though he’d like to crumple it up and toss it in the Yonslua. Fair enough. Quincy dislikes it, too. It feels like a trap, it does, like the bitch is trying to lure his Falak into making a fool of herself, for the entertainment of a bunch of posh old gulls. Calling cards are a fat lot of bother, far out of reach for the likes of gutter folk. Who’s got the time? Who’s got the money?

“You gonna call on the old bitch?” Westyard asks.

Falak steeples her fingers for a moment, staring past him, past the card, past the Swan and Cygnet.

“I am interested in the books, and Mrs. Lightridge smells of witchcraft.”

“Uh, figuratively or…?”

“Literally smells of dream salve and flower wine,” Falak says. “So either she is a madwoman having visions for fun and a flower addict, or a witch. If Neri was so keen to introduce us, I am thinking she is a witch.”

“The address says she lives in Downbeacon, not Lightridge,” Quincy points out. “So it’s a longer way to go, but not so bad as going to Lightridge. You could do it next week, on Cant Seven, if you like.”

He braces his chin on his fists, looks out toward the boats. Someone on the barge with more lungs than decency has brought out their bagpipes, and boaters all along the river are singing along with them.

“But if she ain’t there to receive you, you have her doorman tell her to jump up her own ass, because then she’s just making fun of you for not having a calling card to give her back.”

“I have to give her one back?” Falak asks, appalled.

“Imagine having so little productive to do that you invent shit like that,” Westyard says.

Neri returns not long after that. She squints at the lantern as she sits back down next to Quincy.

“I say,” she begins, then falls silent. Only for a moment, though. Then her beguiling smile returns, and she claps her hands. “Well, that was a nice surprise.”

Falak and Westyard both shrug, though Falak’s is clearly more cheerful than his. Neri huffs, then turns to Quincy, who, somehow, she seems to hope will provide more in the way of conversation.

“How did you like your soda, Quincy dear?”

He takes another sip, rolls it around in his mouth for a moment. It’s going flat, frankly, but that makes it sweeter.

“’S good,” he says. “It’s sweet.”

“Glad to hear it, love! I just knew you would like cherries.”

Quincy lifts the candied cherries from the rim of the glass, pops both fruits and the stems into his mouth. When they’ve been in syrup for a long time, even the stems are sweet, though you gotta spit ‘em out eventually.

“Yeah.” Neri, though she has been less than helpful tonight, at least to him, deserves more followup than Westyard, so through the mouthful of sugar and the headache that’s starting to thrum behind his eyes, he pulls up words. She was generous. He can try for the same, for her. “Yeah, right on the money, Neriette.”


Chapter Four is here.

The featured image is a color-edited version of John Atkinson Grimshaw’s “Shipping On The Clyde (1881)”. The original is a lovely atmospheric green; I needed something a bit darker.

Two barely averted fistfights in one night isn’t great, but it could’ve been a lot worse! They could have actually started brawling.

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