It is said that he stood with his spine
as straight as a Lord Noble…
and his eyes downcast like a slave.
-Archer Talents, Royal Historian-
Seth accidentally caught the gaze of a small boy looking out of the window of a butcher shop. He ducked his head and hurried his pace down the street. It was late afternoon but already dim, for the sky drizzled misty rain and cold fog thickened with every passing minute. He huddled within his ragged frock coat, hat pulled low to meet his turned up collar. He kept his hands tucked within his coat’s overlong sleeves. Cold fingers were clumsy.
“The Lasrach are just a myth, boy.” The butcher ended his assurance with grunt as he hung half a pig from one of the heavy iron hooks in the shop’s window.
“But Papa, I do see one! He’s walking down the street.”
“Don’t be daft.” He frowned at his son, old superstition prickling across the back of his neck. “No man sees a Lasrach and lives to speak of it.”
“So they are real!” The boy hurried to the shop’s open door and stared up the street, a plucked chicken dangling forgotten from his hand.
“No, Archer. They’re naught but tales told to frighten wayward women and children. Hush your foolishness and get back to your chores or it won’t be the Lasrach you have to fret over.”
“Yes, Papa.” The boy turned away from the door and handed him the chicken to join the other meats on display.
Meeting no one’s eyes, careful to be nothing more than a tattered shadow in their peripheral vision, Seth sized up every passerby. A bit of fine lace and silk peeking out of a passing reticule somehow made its way out of the lady’s possession and up into his left sleeve.
Handkerchiefs didn’t bring much at hock, but a few coins were far better than no coin at all. Just as food in the belly and a roof overhead were more comforting on a raw wet night than the ease of a conscience untroubled by petty thievery.
Fortune hadn’t smiled on him today by granting honest work, but he still walked free, so he counted himself among the lucky. As he turned into the street that was the day’s meeting place, he caught a furtive bit of conversation, the voices dulled and hollowed by the thickening fog.
“Coo— look at that bit o’ fluff, will ya? What I wouldn’t do t’ that….”
A low, vulgar laugh. “What would you know of it, y’ little poof?”
“I ain’t no poof! I was with one of Madam Tremaine’s, just last night. She said I’d break me share of hearts, she did.”
Seth heard the rising click of a woman’s heels against the cobbles. He crept closer, flattening himself into the shadow of a back stoop staircase. A scavenging roach scuttled out from underneath to nibble at the mud on his boots. Seth shoved it aside and it fled, dragging two of its eight metallic legs against the pavement. Those devices never functioned properly for long, especially in this part of the city.
The furtive conversation just beyond his hiding place took an uglier turn.
“Ye’re a flamin’ liar. If ye’re so fine as y’ say, show that one there what that heartbreaker of yers is for.”
There was a scuffling sound, a woman’s gasp of surprise.
Seth eased close enough to make out the shadowy figure of a young woman, bracketed by a pair of strapping men.
“Evenin’ darlin’,” one of the men crooned. “Whatever are ye out by yerself here for?”
The woman walked faster.
“Maybe we should keep her company…” the second man offered as he moved in front of the woman, turning around to look at his companion, who dropped back behind their prey.
“Go away!” the woman snapped, and tried to sidestep the man in front, but he moved with her like a dance partner.
“Maybe we should teach her why pretty lasses shouldn’t walk alone,” the man following close behind her countered, with a throaty laugh.
The woman dodged and ran, but she was grabbed up into a punishing embrace by the man behind, his dirty hand clamping across her mouth before she could scream aloud.
Seth slid a hand into his pocket, slipped his fingers through the rings of heavy brass knuckles. The man behind was the one to take out first. Seth moved as quickly but quietly as he could. The pair was too focused on ripping the struggling woman’s bodice to notice any slight scrape of boot-soles against stone.
His fist lashed out with all the power he could put behind it. Just as the blow connected with a stubbled jaw, Seth recognized her attackers. It didn’t matter, at least not now.
Fergal went down in a dead sprawl and didn’t make a sound.
Charlie bellowed and shoved the half-naked woman to the road. She crawled towards the curb. Charlie trampled over her skirts to get to Seth, a knife in his hand as if it was conjured there.
Seth feinted, then snatched Charlie’s knife hand. He backhanded Charlie in the nose as he gave that captured wrist a vicious twist in a direction Dame Nature never intended it to go.
The sound Charlie made usually only came out of rutting cats. He went to his knees, snuffling blood and cradling his arm. “Y’broke it! Y’broke it, y’ bloody sheep-bugger!”
“Shut your gob and go before the coppers get ya!” Seth hissed.
“Y’ll pay for this, Conway!” Charlie swiped his sleeve across his face, smearing blood from his nose across his upper lip and cheek. “Me and Ferg will fix you proper, y’ boot-lickin’ judas.”
“Lookin’ forward to it,” Seth told him with a smile that was more a baring of teeth. “How ‘bout now?”
He took a stride towards Charlie. Charlie backed off fast, scrabbling like a roach.
“Get him out o’ the road and yourselves far from here,” Seth gave his former compatriot a swift parting kick in the arse.
Charlie lurched to his feet, then grabbed Fergal by the coat collar. He staggered away up the street towing Fergal behind, a human donkey harnessed to a heavy load. Seth watched until the two disappeared around the corner. He remembered the woman then, and turned, expecting to see nothing but deserted street. She stood at the curb, staring at him, her arms wrapped around her bosom.
“He knew you,” she said, her tone accusatory.
“Yes.” Seth picked up his hat and knocked a clot of mud from it. Nothing would help the shape of the thing, for that had vanished years before. “They were right about one thing, Miss,” he went on. “You shouldn’t be walkin’ here alone.”
She gave an unladylike snort. “Thank you for stating the obvious. I’m not stupid, you know. I was abandoned by my cad of an escort, and lost my way.”
“I beg your pardon, for no offense was intended.” Seth shrugged off his coat and held it out to her. “Here, Miss. It’s not clean, but you needn’t fear to wear it, for I’m not lousy.”
She glanced down at his offered coat, one eyebrow arched, before she nodded and turned her back so he could assist her into it. “I’m Delia Falken. You may have heard the name. My father owns Falken’s Flying Circus.” Her voice rang with pride.
“Well then, aren’t you one of the lucky ones,” Seth murmured as she slipped her arms into the sleeves and settled the tattered wool close around her, as if it was a queen’s cape. She was very pretty, and was a brassy little piece of baggage. He favored women who had more sass than polite society veneer, but his preference didn’t matter, now or ever. Miss Falken was a helpless young woman of far higher class than his own, unavailable as the stars for the likes of him. “If you’ll allow it, I’ll see you back home safe, Miss Falken.”
Her eyes traced over his form, from battered hat to cracked, filthy boots. Her shaken demeanor changed with a flutter of her eyelashes, as if she tucked her fright away like a discarded garment. Delia looked up into his eyes, chin tilted at an aristocratic angle, though her cheeks were still pale. “I’d be honored, Mr. Conway. That is what your filthy-mouthed friend called you, isn’t it?”
So, brassy and changeable as the wind, then. He answered her first with a little huff of scorn. “I wouldn’t go so far as to call him friend,” Seth answered. “But aye, my name’s Seth Conway.” He gave her a slight bow. “At your service, Miss.”
She stepped to his side and tucked her fingers into the crook of his elbow with a proprietary grasp. “Now, when escorting a lady, a gentleman holds his hand in front of his chest, like so.” She settled his hand into a loose fist, just above his stomach.
Seth allowed himself to be posed like a doll, compliant in amusement. “I do know some small scraps of refined manners, Miss Falken, for all my reek and rags.”
Her pale cheeks flushed. “I’m sorry, I should have known better when you rescued me instead of joining in.”
They strolled a bit closer to the yellow pools of light and safety cast by the gas lamps on the main street. “If it was me you met in the fog, you’d had no reason to scream,” Seth assured her.
“Why? Would you have ignored me?”
“Most probably,” he shrugged. The truth was, he may have accosted her himself, though for nothing more nefarious than a glancing, ‘drunken’ stumble to allow his hand access to her skirt pocket.
“I don’t like the sound of that,” she huffed.
Seth shot her a shocked glance, for one wild second afraid he’d spoken his thought aloud. “What do you mean?”
“Being ignored.” Delia bowed her head, looking up through long lashes at him with a pout pursing her plump lips. “I don’t like it.”
Was she being coy with him? Seth felt shoved off his balance by her sudden swings of demeanor. She was proving to an amusing interlude in a long and dreary day, but he would be happy to see her off. Miss Falken was an intriguing puzzle in a very appealing package, but she would also be a dangerous complication his already tangled life.
“My advice is to develop a tolerance for it, Miss,” he said. “If you were ignored by all tonight, you wouldn’t be relying on the likes of me to escort you safe to a ‘pod. “
She stopped short, halting them both within the weak circle of light cast by the cracked globe of a street lamp. “The likes of you? Do I need fear you’ll force yourself upon me as well, Mr. Conway?”
He withdrew his crooked arm from her grasp and told her a sliver of the truth. “I don’t force women into letting me have my way, I charm them into thinking it’s all of their own free will.”
His reply brought a splotchy flush to her cheeks and wiped away her coy pout. “You haven’t deigned to practice any of that charm upon me, so why should I believe that you’re experienced in beguiling hapless women?”
“Why does it matter?” he asked.
“I told you, I don’t like being ignored.” A sly little smile flashed across her lips. “I strive quite diligently to be admired by all.”
“If Fergus and Charlie hadn’t expressed their vile admiration of your person, my own may have cost you the gold chain on your wrist at the least.”
She sucked in a startled breath. “You would have robbed me?”
He shrugged. “I would have picked your pockets. That’s naught but petty thievery. I would never harm your person.”
Miss Falken took his arm again and set them walking. “I appreciate your moral restraint, Mr. Conway, but you’ve hardly convinced me of your irresistible powers of charm and seduction. Though the fact that you’re escorting me rather than stealing me blind is somewhat a balm to my vanity.”
Seth looked down into this brazen, confusing little chit’s eyes and gave in to the sudden urge to rock her inner equilibrium as she had his. After all, he wouldn’t be seeing her ever again, once the ‘pod carried her back to her privileged life.
“I was born and reared in a brothel catering to the quality,” he began. “The Madam took a liking to me as a babe, and schooled me in literature and pretty manners from the day I could stand up on my own. She molded me into a dainty little prodigy before I was even out of skirts and ringlets, well-practiced in charming all manner of men and women, no matter how jaded. I was scarcely five when my mother died. The evening after her burial, Madam cashed in her investment by replacing my mother’s lost earnings with the first of my own. I made my escape when I was seven.”
Her lips sucked into a perfect little horrified ‘o’ around a gasp. “That’s… unspeakably ghastly! It breaks my heart to even imagine such heartless depravity being inflicted on a little child!”
“I’m hardly the first, or the last, and I survived.” He shrugged, banishing ugly memories back into their mental pit, and gave Delia his most delectable smile. “Since then, I’m free to be charming only when I choose to be. And I could still steal you blind before we reach the ‘pod.”
She blinked and turned away to face forward again. They took a few paces in silence.
“You’d make a good roustabout, you know,” she said as if they’d been discussing the possibility for half an hour. “You have a mean right hook, so you must be strong.”
“Is that an offer of employment or simply an observation?” Seth asked as they neared the platform for the flying peapods. At this hour, and in this part of the city, the shadowy elevated platform was deserted.
“Both!” she said gaily, leaning her head against his arm as they ascended the ornate, soot-caked, ironwork staircase. “Well, as much as I can offer. I’ll give you a shining commendation to my father for saving my life. I’m sure he’ll offer you a job on the spot.”
“We’ll see, I suppose.” Seth stepped slightly in front of her as the cylindrical ‘pod rattled and swayed up to the platform before them, its iron pulley wheels screeching at a painful pitch against the single rail above the ‘pod that suspended it over the street.
He clapped a hand to his hat to keep it from being swept away by the downdraft from the rotors that shoved the car along. The ‘pods were notorious for lifting unwary ladies’ skirts, so it was more engrained courtesy than concern for her questionable modesty that prompted him to block the wind from her.
The ‘pod braked to a stop with a hiss of steam and a down-pitched roar from the slowing rotors that tattered the gritty fog around the platform. Yellow lantern light spilled out of the ‘pod as the door opened with a pneumatic wheeze. The conductor waited to one side, his palm out at the ready.
It was Seth’s turn to flush in shame then. “If you’d be so kind to tell me where I may find your father, I’ll come in the morning to speak with him. I don’t have the brass to take the ‘pod.”
“I think, Mr. Conway, that recompense for saving my life would at least begin with fare to see my father. I’m sure by this hour, he’s becoming worried about me.” She smiled as Seth handed her up into the ‘pod. “Please?”
“As you wish, Miss Falken,” he nodded with an answering smile and stepped up after her. Once the conductor punched their tickets, Seth settled onto the leather seat opposite Miss Falken and tucked his chilled fingers under his arms. If nothing else, at least this ‘pod would carry him out of Fergal and Charlie’s easy reach.
She was quiet a moment as the ‘pod roared away, her expression indiscernible in the shadowy interior. “Will anyone worry for you tonight, Mr. Conway?” she asked, her voice softened slightly, though whether from remorse or pity or simple weariness, Seth couldn’t determine.
“No, there’s none to worry over me,” he answered, just as softly. His lips tilted into wry disgust. He had no doubt he was the center of many a heartfelt thought just now, but it wasn’t worry they were wasting on his memory. He’d seen Charlie gut a man like a trout once, for far less offense than he’d served up in the middle of that street.
“Ah,” she answered, as if she had been enlightened by some profound reply. She leaned back against the seat and closed her eyes with a weary little sigh, her skirted knees somehow insinuating themselves into the space between his.
Seth shook his head and looked out the window, making careful note of the passing stations to keep his bearings about him. Wherever this peapod left him, if it was within the bounds of Manchester, Seth knew he would be wise to walk on further.
Ambrose Bierce defined it best:
‘Circus: n. A place where horses, ponies and elephants
are permitted to see men, women and children acting the fool.’
-Archer Talents, Royal Historian-
When he stepped down from the ‘pod at the Old Trafford’s Gardens platform, Seth stopped, so stunned by the sight spread before him that he forgot the woman waiting, trapped inside the compartment, behind him. He forgot even to breathe.
The main tent rose at least three stories into the sunset-streaked, smoky sky. The ruddy light drew out the brilliance of the blues and greens, yellows and reds that spiraled up its sides. It looked like an enormous candle, topped by a huge Union Jack fluttering proud in lieu of a flame. But even more awesome than the massive, cylindrical tent were the airships behind it.
The largest hung so high, it almost seemed another moon, but one flattened like an onion. It glowed from within, and twinkled in the beams of light playing over it from below, almost as if it was studded with stars.
A round gondola hung halfway down the stalk that tethered it to its loads, and to the earth. Seth could make out tiny figures, small as ants, moving about past the windows. Men, he realized, the crew of the magnificent ship.
Smaller dirigibles of the usual oblong shape encircled the large ship. They spelled out the name of the circus on their sides, as colorful as the tents and booths on the ground below. Their gondolas gleamed with polished brasswork and glossy paints.
The whole fleet was wreathed in wisps of white mist, steam released from the boilers below. The low-pitched, thrumming rumbling piston-beats of the engines they drove blended together into an uneven rhythm, the thudding heartbeat of some great, sleeping beast.
“It’s grand, isn’t it?” Delia said, voice light and airy with pride as she, too, took in the sight of her home. “I still get all weak in the knees when I see it from a distance, and I grew up with the Circus.”
Seth twitched, startled by her voice at his shoulder. He quickly turned to smile up at her. “Grand is hardly the word for it all,” he answered, and didn’t care that he sounded awed even to his own ears. “Beautiful, surely. Even magical….” He shook his head with a little laugh. “I’ve never seen so much light and color all at once in my life.”
The ‘pod conductor tugged the cord that blew the tardy whistle.
Delia gave a little shriek and jumped down from the car, shoving Seth forward. Seth probably jumped half a foot, himself, then staggered a little as she landed against him.
“I beg your pardon, Miss,” he blurted and swung her away from the danger of the departing ‘pod.
“Oh hush,” she giggled. “It was fun to see you almost jump out of your boots.”
She tucked her fingers into Seth’s elbow again as they descended the fog-slick platform stairs. “On show-days, there are omnibuses pulled by zebras to bring people to the ticket-gates, but tonight we’ll have to walk.”