It was the mask engaged your mind,
And after set your heart to beat
London, November 1878
The knowledge that Archer would soon end the life of another cut at his soul with every step he took. The miscreant in question was a liar and a thief at best. That the whole of the man’s meager fortune now rested at the bottom of the Atlantic did little to rouse Archer’s sympathy. On the contrary, it only ignited his fury. A red haze clouded Archer’s vision when he thought about what had been lost. Salvation had almost been his. Now it was gone because Hector Ellis’s pirates had raided Archer’s ship, stealing that which might cure him and hiding it away in their bloody doomed clipper ship.
Mud-thick fog hung low on the ground, refusing to drift off despite the crisp night breeze. It never truly went away, ever present in London, like death, taxes, and monarchy. The ends of Archer’s cloak snapped about his legs, whipping up eddies of the foul yellow vapor as his mouth filled with the acrid taste of coal, filth, and decay that was the flavor of London.
Archer rounded a corner, moving away from the street lamps and into shadow. The sharp staccato of his footfall echoed over the deserted cobbled streets. Far off on the Thames, a mournful foghorn wailed its warning. But here all was quiet. The constant clatter of coaches and the occasional shout of the night watch calling the hours had faded away. Darkness swallowed his form, as it always did, both a comfort and a reminder of what he’d become.
The neighborhood around him was old but fine. Like all places that housed those whom fortune touched, the streets were empty and desolate, everyone having long ago tucked into their well-tufted beds.
Ellis’s house was near. Archer had walked the streets of London long enough to move without hesitation through its perverse network of twisted alleys and endless avenues. Anticipation, cold and metallic, slid over his tongue. To end a life, see the incandescent light of a soul slip from its house—he wanted that moment, craved it. The horror of such craving shook his core and his step faltered. Never do harm. It was every doctor’s creed, his creed. That was before he’d forfeited his own life. Archer took a cleansing breath and focused on the rage.
A garden lay ahead, large and walled in, its pleasures solely for the benefit of those who had the key. The seven-foot wall loomed up before him. It might as well be only four feet. He vaulted himself lightly up and over, landing on the soft grass below with nary a sound.
He rose, intent on his mission, when the sound of steel slicing against steel stopped him. Odd. Sword fighting had long fallen out of fashion. London fops now settled matters with law and courts. He rather missed the days of his youth when grievances had started with the slap of a glove and ended in first blood. He gazed over the dark garden and found the swordsmen as they moved under the weak haloed light of the gas lamps cornering the central court.
“Come on!” taunted the fair-haired one. “Is that your best effort?”
They were boys. Archer slipped into the deep shadows by the wall and watched, his unnatural eyes seeing as well as if he’d been ringside. The blond could not be more than eighteen. Not quite a man, his limbs held the lankiness of youth, but he was tall enough and the timbre of his voice had dropped. He was clearly the leader as he paced the other boy round the slate-lined court in the garden’s center.
“Keep your arm up,” he coached, coming at the younger boy again.
The younger boy was nearly as tall as his compatriot, but altogether delicate in form. His legs, peeking out from an ill-fitted frock coat, were mere sticks. A ridiculous bowery hat was crammed down upon his head, so low that Archer saw only a flash of white jaw as the pair sparred about ala mazza.
Archer leaned against the wall. He hadn’t seen such eloquent sparring in a lifetime. The elder boy was good. Very good. He had been trained by a master. But the little one, he would be better. He was at the disadvantage being lighter and shorter, but when the blond attempted a Botta-in-tempo while the youth was tied up in a bind, the little one sprang back with such quickness that Archer craned forward in anticipation, enjoying himself more than he had in decades. They broke measure and came back again.
“You’ll have to do better than that, Martin.” The youth laughed, his steel flashing like moonbeams in the purple night.
Martin’s eyes shown with both pride and determination. “Don’t get cocksure on me, Pan.”
Martin thrust once then cut. The youth, Pan, crossed to the right. To Archer’s delight, the boy leapt upon the thin wrought-iron railing that surrounded the court and, in a little display of daring, slid along the rail a distance before landing just behind Martin. He gave a swift poke to the elder boy’s backside before dancing away.
“I am the god Pan,” he sang out, his youthful voice high as a girl’s. “And if you don’t watch yourself, I’ll stick my flute right up your blooming arse, ah—”
The silly boy toppled backward over the boxwood hedge he’d overlooked in his gloating. Archer grinned wide.
Martin’s laugh bounded over the garden. The boy doubled up with it, dropping his small-sword to hold his middle. Young Pan struggled to rise, holding his absurd hat in place while grousing about English hedges under his breath.
Martin took pity and helped the boy to his feet. “Call it quits, then?” He offered his hand once more in peace.
The youth grumbled a bit then took the proffered hand. “I suppose I must. Take the sword, will you? Father almost found it the other day.”
“And we mustn’t have that, hum?” Martin tweaked the boy’s nose.
The two parted ways, each going toward opposite garden doors.
“ ’Night, Martin.”
“ ’Night, Pan!”
Smiling, the blond boy watched his little friend leave the garden and then left.
Archer moved through the shadows, heading toward the door where Pan had gone through. Prickles of unease danced over his skin. Fighter or no, the boy was too fragile to walk alone and unarmed in the dead of night. A rare bit of entertainment certainly earned the boy a safe passage home.
He stalked him easily, staying to the shadows, keeping well behind. The boy moved through the night without fear, a jaunty near swagger in his step as he turned from the sidewalk into an alleyway.
Thus his squeak of alarm was all the louder when two grimy older boys slipped out of the shadows and blocked his path.
“An’ who’s this?” The fellow was a big brute, short and wide. The type, Archer thought grimly, for he was in no mood to throttle children, who always wanted a fight.
“Hello,” said Pan, stepping back one pace. “Don’t mind me. Just out for a stroll.”
The taller one of the two laughed, showing a large gap between his teeth. “ ‘Out for a stroll,’ ” he parroted. “Who you think you are? Prince Bertie?”
Pan was quick to rally. “Eh? Can’ a man use the Queen’s English now an’ then?” he chided, slipping into street tongue as smooth as plum pudding. “Especially when it helps wit me fannin’?”
Young Pan eased around them, slyly moving toward the back of a large town house. There lied safety, Archer realized. It was the boy’s home. It was Ellis’s home, he realized with a little shock. Who was this boy?
“Them marks always appreciate a kind word,” the boy went on.
Archer had to appreciate the boy’s flair with the common tongue; he hardly understood a word. But the lad was putting it on too thickly. The young roughs knew it, too.
“You think we’re flat?” one of them snapped.
The youth backed up as the older boys closed round. “Here now, no need to kick up a shine…”
“Need a slate, do ya?” The taller of the two roughs cuffed the boy lightly on the head. The boy’s hat flew off, and Archer’s heart stopped short. A silken mass of fire tumbled free, falling like molten gold down to the boy’s waist. Archer fought for breath. Not a boy, a girl. And not thirteen, but closer to eighteen. A young woman.
He stared at the mass of red-gold hair. He’d never seen hair so fine and glorious before. Titian hair, some would call it. That ineffable color between gold and red that captivated artists and poets alike.
The high pip of a voice pulled Archer out of his reverie. His urchin moved into a defensive stance as her attackers loomed in with interest. Surprise had overcome the two roughs as well but they recovered quickly and now sought a new opportunity.
“Aw, come on, luv. No need for tantrums. We didn’t know you was a dollymop, now did we?”
They moved in, and the hairs lifted on the back of Archer’s neck. A growl grew in his throat. Archer took a step, then another. They wouldn’t hear him yet; he was too quiet, his form steeped in darkness.
“Show us your bubs, eh?” said the shorter one, and clearly the first who would feel the business end of Archer’s fist.
Surprisingly, the girl didn’t appear as afraid as she ought to be. She stood defiantly, keeping her fists raised and her eyes trained on the boys. The idea was laughable.
“Leave off,” she said with iron in her small voice.
The street roughs laughed, an ugly sneering sound. “Oh right, leave off, she says.”
The taller one snorted. “Listen ’ere, toffer, behave an’ we’ll leave you intact.”
Green eyes blazed beneath her auburn brows that arched like angel’s wings.
They were green, weren’t they? Archer squinted, his abnormal eyes using what little light there was to see. Yes, crystalline green ringed with emerald, like the cross section of a Chardonnay grape. Yet he swore he saw a glint of orange fire flash in them.
“Leave now,” she demanded, unmoved, “or I’ll turn you both to cheese on toast.”
Archer could not help it, mirth bubbled up within, and he found himself laughing. The sound echoed off the cold stone houses and brick-lined alley. The young men whirled round. The fear in their faces was clear. They weren’t up for an exchange with a grown man, most especially any man who’d be out on the streets at this hour. Archer knew their cut, cowards who preyed on the weak and fled at the first sign of true danger. He came close enough for them to see his shape and the toes of his Hessians, preferring to stay in shadow until necessary.