The Angel of Bad Children
Me, I never believed in the Angel of Bad Children until I found the youngling under the East Pier. The fella was fourteen or fifteen years away from his birth, but he wouldn’t be getting any older. His spilled blood was still smoking when I knelt down on the beach sand next to him. The blood glowed puss-green against the sand, just like the tales along the seaside had claimed. He’d been reaped.
My first instinct was to shut his eyelids over his dry, staring eyes, but I yanked my fingers back before they touched his pan. If the bit about the Angel was true, the rest of the whispered stories might be true, too. Company could be coming. So I prompt-like scrambled up the wooden stairs from the beach to the shore walk and hid between a stack of fish crates and the wall of an oyster shack to keep watch.
Until I found the body, I’d reckoned all the kidlings and younglings were just trading a god-story about the Angel to make themselves feel less small, less scared. Sure, newsies, gangers, youngling boot-blacks, and wharf-rats had been disappearing all winter. Somebody was shipping them out west as bonded farmhands, I figured, or maybe stocking a locked-down factory, or even stuffing full a big-city whorehouse. Once or twice, when I was feeling specially low, I’d wondered if we were being hunted down like bison or aurochs for some richling’s jolly-time. But for-real folks being reaped by the Angel of Bad Children? I was too slick to believe in that kind of temple fish-fodder. Except I was wrong.
The early spring night was fresh but not sharp, and the breeze blew from off the land; I’d meant to hole up for sleep in the common nest atop the pier cross-bracing and save my pocket-coins, unless some futtering couple got there first. Instead, the dead fella had got there first.
Even with my skull-stuffing working again, I reckoned I didn’t know him. From what I’d glimmed underneath all the blood, he was wearing a gold-colored necktie, which made him a Yellow-Boy ganger. And, as much as I’d run with a gang, I’d belonged to the Fish-Crushers. At least I’d done jobs for the Fish-Crushers until this last winter had thinned them out into nothing.
Now where could I go? Most of the safe hide-outs belonged to what was left of other gangs, all of them huddling together, passing around the sweet-corn bottles and praying to our Good Master for the Angel not to get them. But I knew they’d pause in their drinking and praying, if I tried to sneak in, long enough to whale the spit out of me and then chuck me back onto the beach. We kidlings and younglings left over after our gangs were gone got dubbed bad luck.
The ganger superstition fulfilled itself as neatly as the Archpriest’s yearly prophecy always did. His Holy-And-So-On stood on the white marble steps of the High Temple every Winter Solstice and announced folks would transgress, calling down another disaster courtesy of our Good Master. Sure enough, every year folks kept sinning and somewhere something big went wrong. By saying the Angel would reap leftovers and then chucking them out, the gangers made sure lots of leftovers were waiting to be reaped. I reckon the gangers must have paid tight attention as kidlings in their temple classes to how miracles really worked. At least, that was how I’d once figured miracles worked: all fakery, fooling, and fish-fodder. No longer.
But, miracles or no miracles, the Angel wasn’t getting me. Not me, not Ratty. I risked a peek around the fish crates I was jammed behind. Just like I’d feared, over by where the body had been, I saw the Innocents. Three or four naked, violet-glowing, dragonfly-winged babies were hovering in the air, their shining mold-blue eyes darting this way and that like they were afraid they might miss a sugar-tit or a blankey hidden in the jetsam and trash beneath the pier. Then, sudden-like, they were joined by another double handful of their gang, flew up into the night sky, and were gone. I knew that if I went back to look, the Yellow-Boy’s body would be gone, too. But I wasn’t thick enough to try, any more than I’d been thick enough to check if the Innocent’s mouths were for-real bloodstained now, like the god-story said. Instead I headed for Pinnacle Park, the one place I might be safe.
In Oyster Beach, there’s always lots of stuff to do. You can stroll along the wooden shore-walk or the piers, go to the oriental baths, eat at the oyster shacks, or play games in the glee-booths. You can stay in a hotel shaped like an oliphant or visit the Museum of All the World’s Amazing Abominations. But the top attractions, what makes the city folks climb into the pneumatic tube and ride all the way out past Breamertyn to the end of the line, are the three big festival parks. There’s Sanguine Park, which is full of jolly-houses, rude jesters, and twirling platforms that make the ladies fall over and show their lacey drawers. There’s Edification Park, as stately and gilded-white as temple paintings of the Good Master’s paradise, where families can stroll together amid the flower beds watching the dancing fountains or ride the swan boats. And then there’s Pinnacle Park.
Pinnacle Park is gaudy. Even I get that. But it’s gaudy like a kidling’s tale, all silver and gold, scarlet and cobalt, with tusky towers and swoopy arches looming over sculpted tableaus straight out of the stories about the old-gods overseas. While you enjoy the thrill-rides – free with your gate-fee - you can pretend to be a noble earl or a marshal of the ancient Imperium, serving the Prince-to-be, questing to save the Realm.
Me, I think the spicy peas, the smoked oysters, and the candied ginger are all best at Pinnacle Park. The workers are the nicest. The shows are the cleverest. The thrill-rides are the safest, too; the only fella who ever got thrown out of a slide-car on a curve was a half-drunk sailor who landed in the bay, swam back to shore, and demanded the rest of his ride. Marcan, Boss of the park, gave it to him, too.
Up atop the wooden shore-walk, the early evening crowd was thick and swarming as temple market on Consecration Day. I kept my paws in my pockets, not wanting to be called out by some fat burgher as a wallet thief or a slicky-boy, and forced myself to stroll past the souvenir shops and glee-booths. But the skin on the back of my neck kept creeping and crawling. I wanted to run, which would be plain thick. Any tame youngling who was poor enough to dress like me would linger, feeding his eyes on all the free sights before spending his few coins in the booths.
As I passed yet another oyster shack, I tugged my cap, respectful-like, at the ward watchman propping up an incandescent streetlamp. He frowned but let me go on my way without asking any questions. Oyster Beach’s guard dogs were growing fat and dull since the Angel had thinned us wildlings out. So, nothing to fear from the watch. Nothing to fear from the Angel, either: I was wrapped in the kind of crowd where He never hunted, according to all the tales. Why was my heart still jumping?
I had a quarter-bit left, my next-to-last. Since I’d fished it out from a place I don’t want to talk about and cleaned it up some, the coin did well enough to hand over to the booth lady for my entrance token. Madame Felvia was collecting that evening, and she gave me a smile and a wink before dealing with the Alderwoman and her Goodman lined behind me. I twisted my neck around one last time, searching for trouble, before I went through the mouth of the giant blue seashell and into Pinnacle Park.
Going into the Park so late was a waste of hard-earned coins unless your life was at stake, which I felt mine was. Usually, if I hustled hard, I could get inside Pinnacle Park maybe one or two days of seven. Those days were my times of proper rest. The park opened just after midday and closed a turn past midnight; long enough for me to wander, wash up in the retiring rooms, and then sleep. Boss Marcan knew what I was up to, but he let me be. He’d told me once that, if my dreary idea of paid entertainment was sleeping, as long as I left wildling business outside and didn’t bother the other patrons, I could have my jollies. So I’d made myself a nest inside the Scare-House, way back out of the way where the visitors and Marcan’s workers wouldn’t stumble over me, and I kept to it. Most nights I’d sleep until closing. A few times Red, who ran the Scare-House, had woken me by rolling me over with a boot. He’d yap at me a while before chasing me out the door. He never stole my bedroll, though. I reckon Marcan told him not to, and I also reckon Red liked me. I’d carry bets to his bookie at Yeften’s barbershop for free.
That evening I meant to sort through what I’d learned and come up with some cunning plan. But instead I slept like I’d been clubbed. I suppose all the fright and fret must have drained me dry. When I woke at last it was with something prodding at me. I opened my eyes, and, sure as I’d supposed, Boss Marcan was standing over me, poking me with his gold-topped cane.
“Ow!” I complained. “What’d you do that for?” He doesn’t like hand-licking as a rule. Besides, I was still tired.
“Ratty-boy. What brisk sea-breeze has blown you here to torment me this night? Felvia was that shocked to see you coming in so late.” He had an old-country lilt to his deep voice, but he wasn’t small and skinny the way immigrants from the Isles usually are. Instead he was huge, with a chest like an oyster-barrel and more padding below than one of the divans in Madame Zoza’s fortune-seeking tent. He dressed fancy, always wearing gold-embroidered silk waistcoats with a ruby stick-pin in his tie, always carrying a walking stick in his white-gloved hands. Up his coat sleeve, he kept a bone-handled knife with silver inlays. That, he rarely pulled out, but when he did the blade never went home thirsty. His pan was big, his ears and nose were bigger, his cheeks chubbed, and his eyes looked half asleep.
I considered the shrewd, heavy-lidded grey eyes. Marcan’s eyes were better than lots of the ones belonging to folks I’d heard called kind. “Meant to sleep outside, Boss. But there was a body under the pier.” I left out about the Angel of Bad Children and His Innocents. Most adults wouldn’t believe me, and why should they? I hadn’t believed myself until this night. According to the temple-taught god-story, only wicked children could glim their Angel. Besides, even the pious never for-real expected anyone to meet this particular sacred fella. The Angel of Bad Children was a tale meant to scare good-folk’s kidlings back from evil ways, not some trash-picker cleaning up Oyster Beach’s wildlings.
Now, sudden-like, Marcan didn’t look sleepy but tired. “Ah, by the Good Master’s—” I’ll skip a minute or three of fine cursing although I was impressed. He even used one I hadn't heard.
I waited, but he seemed to have run short on stuff to say. So I rolled over and sat up, cross-legged, my hands on my knees. “Closing time, Boss?”
“No, you still have three turns or so of the big clock to go. So steal your sleep while you can, laddy-boy, in here where you’re safe.”
Now, to get this next bit, you have to understand a few things. First, I was far past desperate for protection. Second, Boss Marcan was stone-hard dependable and as gentle as a fella could be who never gave anyone anything for free. So, third, I admired him, even liked him. And fourth, he was a pervert.
Oh, not a preyer on the wild kidlings and younglings, like a lot of tame folks were. He asked the fancy-men polite-like and then paid for his pleasures above the counting-board, same as he paid for everything else. But I’d heard talk. So instead of reaching for my blanket or my shirt, I planted one hand behind me on each side and tried smoldering at him.
Marcan looked down at me. “Ratty.” I thought I had him for a tick or so. His eyes got narrow and bright, and one white-gloved hand left the gold-headed cane to reach out towards me. Then he tossed his head back. “Don’t bother. You know what the laws say about younglings.”
“That one law about flesh-trading never stops nobody—anyone but you. Hardly a youngling left on this beach that hasn’t swapped body for goods at one time or another. And I know you go to Hemmuc’s.” Hemmuc’s was the oriental bath men-perverts went to.
He raised one eyebrow. “By the Seven daemoni, that puts me in my place.” The hand went back to join its friend on his cane, and he half-smiled. “But my ways aren’t so crude, darlin’. If I were after breaking the laws of this Consecrated Republic, it would be to give you a job, not to futter you senseless. And you know I mayn’t give you a job.”
I sighed and reached for my shirt. “Yep. I know.” Although Marcan was Boss of his park and swung a lot of weight around Oyster Beach, Deacon Harailt hated him. And Deacon Harailt was boss of the town. Beach rumor said Harailt was the majority investor in Edification Park and wasn’t thrilled that lots of families preferred Marcan’s fantasies to his own. He was always looking for some excuse to run Marcan down. The Boss breaking the shiny-new youngling labor-laws would do fine.
Marcan twirled his cane. “Come along and I’ll buy you dinner. A favor for a favor you’re owed for your doleful news of troublesome remains, and I’m not one to be in debt long.”
That offer made the night seem brighter. I shrugged on my coat, rolled up my bedroll, picked up my cap and put it on my head, and off we went. I could be glum at missing fire on one more bid for his protection or cheered by thinking about dinner. I chose cheer. Even though the Boss couldn’t employ me, he’d swapped me my dinner for his chores lots of times before, and I could look forward to good grubbing. Better to live tick to tick when you’re a youngling on your own. And every tick I spent with Marcan was one tick I wasn’t spending with the Angel of Bad Children.
We stayed within the park, of course. Marcan wouldn’t tow a male youngling around outside his own patch. So he took me to Hedrick’s Saloon, over by the water-slides, to his set-aside table in the corner where he could survey the crowd without being overheard or broken in upon. For a tenth-bit he bought me a small-beer at the hickory bar and then turned me loose on the free lunch table, still crowded with fodder at this late turn. I moved down the length of the red linen table-cloth piling a plate up high with meat-pies and hard-cooked eggs, pickled fiddleheads and spicy peas, head-cheese and mustard, with a nice, tall stack of honey crackers to finish me off. Marcan eyed what I’d chosen and shook his head. He’d kept to smoked oyster rolls, himself.
“Ratty,” he said, “a day will come when one of those perilous mixtures you stuff yourself with will blend the wrong way. Won’t the explosion be a grand one, then?”
I swallowed before I spoke. On the rare occasions we’d gotten our mouths full at the Waif’s Home, the table-proctors delighted in asking us questions to glim if we’d speak before swallowing. One night spent in the coal-hole contemplating my sins was enough to teach me how to get my feed down fast before talking. “If I figure out before times that I’m going to blow, you can sell tokens to glim the spectacle. But I get half the coins you collect for my burial fee.”
He lifted his cane handle to hide his smile. “Dedicate your money instead to the priests, so they’ll petition the Good Master to ignore your impious ways. Then I’ll lay you out as part of the tableau in Morbeath’s temple here, laddy-boy, and charge folks for that sight as well.”
Interested, I paused. “Which old-god is Morbeath? What tableau is that?”
“The one decorating the tusk-tower, wherein I always find you lingering, waiting for yet another ride on the automaton horses. Morbeath’s the Oliphant-daemon appearing in a smoke-puff above the altar.” He extended a forefinger to either side of his mouth.
The tusk-tower was my favorite of the Park’s buildings. “Sure, put me there.”
“That I will, if there’s a body left to put.” His sleepy eyes widened a bit. “Will there be?”
“Depends on how big the explosion is, I guess.”
Smooth, but not smooth enough for the Boss. Did I pause, did I jitter, when he spoke of bodies disappearing? I’ll never reckon, but he saw whatever it was. The big head went back, and he puffed his rounded cheeks out rounder still. “Now, I wonder. If I was to be walking down underneath the East pier, is it a body I would be finding?” I tilted my head to one side to show my bewilderment. Marcan studied me. “Or would I be finding nothing at all?” He bit off and chewed some smoked oyster roll, swallowed, and said, “I hear tales, Ratty, ones that make me wonder if they’re true. And I’ve always found you a youngling for a good, true story.” He gestured towards the table. “I’ll swap you something. Another dinner.”
“You don’t have to.”
“Ah, but I do. No free gifts from man or youngling to poor old Marcan. Here’s neither my town nor my country, merely my park, so I’m careful in my dealings.” He snorted. “Or haven’t you heard what Deacon Harailt has to say of me?”
I kept my voice low. “Yup. His word is that the Angel of Justice will reap you as a man-pervert.” My turn to snort. “Quash. If that Angel’s for-real, and now I half-believe maybe He is, when He shows up looking for you, I figure you’ll have just stepped out.”
He cupped his chin and one finger crept up over his smiling lips. “When did I last hear a compliment so fine to my taste? But you’ll not be distracting me that way, Ratty.”
So I’d no luck diverting him, but it was worth the try. Yielding, I dropped my voice lower yet and leaned towards him. Later I found out I’d smeared mustard all along my coat sleeve. “The Angel of Bad Children reaped the youngling, Boss. His spilled blood was smoking and all glowy-green.”
Why hadn’t I chanced telling Marcan before? Everyone knew that folks from the Isles believe such god-stories. They were heathens, after all, thinking the six old gods and our Good Master did miracles every other day. But maybe I’d reckoned, given how easy the Boss was about the Good Master’s Judgment, that Marcan wouldn’t be one to have much faith in Angels. Yet again, I’d reckoned wrong.
He closed his eyes. His face went still and his lips moved, saying something silent. Then he took a deep breath. “Ah, that I were your Boss in this evil time, Ratty darlin’. But I’m not your protector and you mayn’t stay here, even though yours is bad news for the wildings, with worse news coming. Once that Angel arrives there’s no stopping Him until He’s reaped His field clean.”
I found I was checking the saloon crowd for I-didn’t-know-what and made myself quit. “You can’t take me in?”
“Rather, I mayn’t. My ground-lease is strict and my residency requirements stricter still. Besides, my heathen views are too well known. One violation and I’ll lose my sylvan toe-hold, never to enter this Consecrated State again.” His look was full of sorrow and he reached out a big hand to stroke my hair, once. Another fella I’d have shook off, but Marcan had always been straight with me, and I knew he hurt to tell me his bad tidings.
When the Angel got me, though, I’d be hurting worse. If Angels were for-real, could the Punishments of the Wicked be, too? I opened my hole to ask Marcan and then figured my question would be thick. How would he know? So, instead, I said, “Then I’ll go for a soldier, I guess.”
“Now there would be a pretty plan if you were a legal adult. But though you may be past your fifteenth year, you’re still wearing your youngling tail, laddy-boy. And those new labor-laws cover the army as well.”
If my voice had been low before, now it was beneath the floorboards. “Boss, I look small, but I’m old enough for war.” Reaching behind, I tugged the thin braid of hair forward over my shoulder. “I’ll cut my tail. Then I won’t be a youngling any more.”
“Cut it yourself, rather than let a priest have his hack? What a wild lad for dismissing both sacred ritual and the niceties of the law he is.” His tone was admiring but his eyes were full of warning. “And him having just learned the truth of Angels, too.”
I turned a hand palm up. Angels or no Angels, the age rituals for-real were temple fish-fodder. That much I knew, and I told him so. “My forelock was never consecrated to the Good Master when I passed up from kidling to youngling, and I’m still here.” Mind you, given how they went on at the Waif’s home afterwards, I might as well have been struck dead from On High for blasphemy. No surprise that I went over the wall and joined the wildlings before the stripes from my first beating even crusted over.
He looked at me doubtful-like, which was enough to keep my hole flapping even when it should have been closed. “Boss, do you know how they muster the kidlings from the poverty wards for Consecration all in a gang, not one by one? We were at the High Temple and the line was longer than for the slide-cars here on a festival night. And we waifs went last, sure bet.” Marcan had a bite of smoked oyster, but his eyes were on me, brooding-like. Folks from the old-country love a good story. “A kidling would get up on the altar in his patched-up green tunic and the High Priest would lecture him. And lecture him. Very kind and holy-like, he’d lecture him, trying to turn him back from the evil ways poor folks always seem to fall into.” The corners of Marcan’s mouth turned up. I went on, “So I got bored and wandered away. There are lots of fine sights to glim in the High Temple, and who really cared about Ratty?”
“Who, indeed? So you missed your shearing, laddy-boy?”
“Nah, they cut our forelocks before we even came to temple, to haste the queue. That silver-shears-before-the-altar tableau is only for good-folk’s kidlings.” I showed him some teeth. “Anyhow, off Ratty went for jolly-time.” I mimed the way I’d swung my kidling’s forelock in a circle that long-ago day: impious, that. This time Marcan’s lips stayed still but his eyes smiled. “I found a shrine, dusty, dirty, and all clasped-closed, sure signs of jolly inside. So I went in.”
“Through the lock. How educational our Consecrated State’s Waif’s Homes must be,” he mused.
“The lock was old, like on our milk pantry. Inside were—” I paused, expectant-like.
“Six small altars of the old-gods, the daemoni that once were, those who co-rule with the Good Master in foreign parts.” He clicked his tongue. “Ratty, Ratty, Ratty. Bad lad.”
“And that’s where I left my forelock. Given what they kept saying at the Home, the Good Master wasn’t specially interested in me. I reckoned one of the others might like it. They seemed—I don’t know, wistful. Hungry.”
His long lashes swept down, and then up. “Do I need to be guessing which altar you chose?”
“Oh, sure, the star-speckled Lady was pretty, and I liked the soldier with the broken sword. He seemed tough. What the naked fella-gal was doing just confused me back then.” I tried another smolder and he gave me a dry look in swap for my effort. So I grinned and kept going, “But food won me over in the end. We never got enough food. All the small critters carved on the back-panel, the ones serving that old-god’s big feast, were getting a taste of what they were carrying. And—” I enjoyed the final punch the way a good story-teller should “—to put paid, there was a rat holding up a huge platter of sweeties for his Master, with the Oliphant-Head god himself feeding the rat a honey-ball from it. This, said I to me, is the altar for Ratty. I left my lock.” I shrugged. “But no punishment followed from on high. I’m still here to tell you my tale.”
One big hand gently patted the other atop his cane, acknowledgement for a tale well told. His eyes were far away, though, looking through me. I turned, reckoning he’d seen some familiar pan in the saloon crowd. Here came Red, working past folks to the Boss’s table. But by the way Marcan started when Red cleared his pipes, Red wasn’t the picture he’d been staring off towards.
Red gave me a smile-scowl and leaned towards Marcan’s far side to whisper in his ear. The Boss puffed out his cheeks, and one gloved paw slid over to touch the sleeve where his knife lived. Trouble. Then he whispered back to Red, who nodded and retreated.
I waited to hear the news. Marcan didn’t make me wait long. He leaned over and said, quiet-like, “Madame Zoza sends word that we have visitors overhead who didn’t pay their fee to ride my tower swings.”
Madame Zoza the fortune-seer? I did well enough in the Waif’s charity school to be able to put one with one together and guess two as an answer. Seems that kidlings, younglings, and priests weren’t the only ones who could glim the Angel and his little helpers. “The Innocents?”
“Unless this sorry world holds other naked, flying, blue-eyed infants, the Innocents indeed.” Slow-like he tilted his head towards me. “You may have to pay for your blasphemy yet, laddy-boy.”
I swallowed. Was I the one the Angel had been hunting? Then why hadn’t he come to me first? All the gone-away wildlings, Tatters and Sharpie, Little-Beya and Artur—
The Boss’s hands tightened on his cane. “I’m that upset the wee black-hearts didn’t pay. Clear and bold are the prices posted at my gates. Even an infant-in-arms doesn’t loiter here for free.”
This once, he made no sense to me. Not that I was in a state to hear sense. Crowds or no crowds, the Angel of Bad Children was coming, searching for me. He’d wreak the Good Master’s judgment in the park, reap me, and reap any innocent who got in the way. I stood up. “He can have me. I’ll go.”
A huge hand shot out and grasped my arm. “Sit.”
I looked down at his broad pan, for once a bit lower than my own. I could yank free and flit. Small as I was, Marcan couldn’t catch me before I threaded through the stuffed saloon and was gone.
His eyelids widened a little. “Sit, darlin’. I’ll not be telling you again.”
He’d never once led me wrong. I sat.
“No sense in running, Ratty. That One pursuing will just follow after. Determined, Angels are, by all accounts.” The Boss put one hand onto the tabletop in front of him neat-like and then placed the other atop it. “So eat your dinner and leave me to think.”
If you figure I couldn’t feed any more, you’ve never visited a Waif’s Home. I wiped my plate off while the Boss stared out into space, his thin brows knitted as he pondered my problem the way he’d turn over a poor day’s receipts. About when I was wondering if I had time for another pass along the lunch table before I went out to get reaped, he smiled. I stilled with a mouth full of honey cracker.“Well, now, all’s not as storm-dark as you’re thinking, and I should tell you why. So it’s come time to be my turn to spin you a tale.” He leaned back. “Long ago, in the Old Countries, soon after the first sailing ships sighted this empty land, seven Masters of mankind made a poor agreement—” Just then I glimmed the barkeep flourishing a rag over his head. Marcan caught the signal too. He looked in the direction of the flourish, towards the door. Just inside the swinging doors, Madame Zoza was smirking at me. “—and here’s all my time wasted, spilled out across the floor like beer in a brawl.” Marcan’s tone had gone grim. He reached over and used one gloved finger to tilt my chin up. “Come along with me, Ratty?”
Trust in the Boss or the Good Master’s mercy: what choice did I for-real have? None at all, I decided. I shrugged, nodded, and followed Marcan.
When we went outside, Madame Zoza was swirling her scarves around, muttering to herself. The passers-by were impressed and so was I. She caught sight of me and screeched. I flinched. Boss Marcan clucked. “Now, Zoza, don’t be after terrifying the laddy just for jollies. His night’s shaping grim enough as it is.”
She cackled like a crow. Seemed to me she was enjoying all this too much. I made a rude gesture with my pinkie and she cackled louder, swung a slow slap at me that I ducked easy-like, and then went trotting off towards the tusk-tower. Marcan chivied me after, poking me into motion every time I tried to pause and stare up into the night sky.
Outside the tower was a big sign on an easel reading in bold, curlicued type, “The management regrets to announce that this edifice is currently closed for YOUR well-being and comfort.” Zoza, I, and the Boss went straight on in the direction pointed out by the hand printed on the notice. Zoza shoved apart the two great wooden doors, all banded and studded with brass, like they were hammered together of feathers. Marcan, when he followed me inside, left the entrance wide open behind us.
The grand hall wasn’t empty. In front of the tableau of an old-god heathen ritual, I saw a handful and some of folks I knew, Boss Marcan’s closest crew. Red scowl-smiled at me again and Felvia blew me a kiss, but I didn’t have ticks free to greet the others. Marcan said, “Up on the altar, Ratty. Let’s see if the Angel will trespass upon his Good Master’s rival.”
That wasn’t going to work. The temple was phony and so was the oliphant-headed, plaster old-god dangling from his thin wires above the altar. Looked like I’d be laid out dead in the tusk tower after all. I wondered if Marcan would charge his patrons to glim my corpse. Somehow I wished he would: less waste. But no, I’d forgotten that, when the Innocents were done with me, I’d disappear. Still, no one else would go with me just yet, a good-enough thought to make me move. I went where Marcan had sent me.
Red was going to give me a stirrup-up but I’m used to dealing with a world taller than I am. I scrambled up onto the platform without help, clambered under the velvet ropes, and finished up leaning against the altar, gilt-shining and bright. The others all pulled back against the walls, holing up by the candied-ginger stand, the archway to the automaton ride, and the net-a-star booth. But Boss Marcan vanished, only to pop out from a small, hidden door onto the tableau platform like a high-town matron exiting a box carriage. Cautious-like, he ducked around the wood-and-wax figures of the tableau, being careful not to step on their embroidered robes or knock loose their lacquered hats as he passed. That sort of jim-jam costs coins to replace.
When he got up next to me, I cleared my throat and said to him, “Boss, this isn’t very safe up here.”
“Ratty, unless I’m mistaken, you’re awaiting the Angel of Bad Children. However bad I may be, long years have passed since I was last called a child.”
Maybe I figured to argue with him some more, but the time for talking was done. Through the open door darted the first naked baby, followed by another, and then another. Soon the upper reaches of the hall were filled with them, fluttering around the pendants and other fancy plaster-work, making a noise I hadn’t heard down by the pier, a soft, droning sound like wasps stirring on a hot summer day. I swallowed. And in walked the Angel of Bad Children.
What surprised me the most was that I wasn’t surprised. I felt like I’d seen him once a turn every day of my life. The Angel was tall, grave, and seven times more beautiful than the statues in the High Temple, with wavy black hair above perfect features. His eyes were black and two bright little suns lived inside them. He was naked except for one teeny-tiny midnight-blue scarf that stayed put all by itself and fluttered in some silent breeze. In one hand he carried a knife like melted gold and in the other he had a hickory rod, the same sort they’d used on us back at the home. He glowed. I hated him on sight.
“Ratty,” the Angel said. His voice rang and hummed like town-hall bells accompanied by wind in high wires. Up towards the ceiling, the Innocents were dipping and swooping all in a flock together, blackbirds disturbed by the bells.
“Do you have your entrance token, Angel?” Boss Marcan asked soft-like, his deep voice a little cranky. Thick on his part, to court the Angel’s attentions, but the words made me want to wrap my arms around his waistcoat and not let go. Instead I stuck out my pinky towards the Angel and repeated the gesture I’d used earlier that night. He sure deserved it more than Madame Zoza.
The Angel was still as carved and painted alabaster. Only the scarf, the blade, and the Innocents moved. Then the Angel said, “Don’t meddle, Fat-Living-One.”
“So, no token, then, Buck-o? A deal’s a deal, even where I’m weak, even in this Consecrated State of yours. You forget this park is mine, not your Master’s, and you haven’t paid to come in.” Marcan drew his knife.
For a tick I thought he’d run crazy and was going to try attacking an Angel. But instead he put one hand on my shoulder, turned me towards him, and moved his hand onto my nape. Fine: I’d rather the Boss reap me than Master Ever-So-Pretty-And-Horrid, now pacing towards us. I tilted my head back.
His big, gloved hand at my nape pulled my head back and then seized something, yanked. It hurt. The knife in his other hand flashed fast. I reached out towards him without reckoning, just in time to catch my own shorn tail, the sacred braid of my youth, as he dropped it into my hand.
“Well?” he asked me, gentle-like, hard as stone. “Will you be the Good Master’s, then? Or Another’s?”
I grinned. I got him. This had to be way ruder to an Angel than any pinky-waving gesture. Turning, I tossed my tail onto the altar. It landed neatly below the large, blue feet of the plaster old-god.
Marcan looked at the Angel, nodded towards me. “Also mine,” he said. And then he stabbed me in the gut.
Have you ever sliced open an over-ripe seed-pod? It doesn’t so much fall apart as explode. I wonder if the seed-pod enjoys the exploding as much as I did. All the feelings life had stuffed into me, the fear and anger, the long hunger, the eager yearning, burst out in pleasure, leaving nothing behind but a new Ratty.
Seems this Ratty was about two man-lengths long, with a naked tail, long buck-teeth, and pearl-gray fur. Fine: I’ll take gray over shining mold-like blue or glowing puss-like green any day. The Angel reared back and raised His knife, but I knew my Boss had given me a job to do and I did it. One leap and I was off the altar platform and onto him. Like any wildling knows, you should never threaten a cornered rat.
Sure, the Angel had his blade and the Angel had his switch. But I had teeth and claws, and plenty of mad. I also had turns of ganger fights up and down Oyster Bay behind me, and the scrapings in the Waif’s home, too. All else he had was lots of dealing death on wildlings who couldn’t fight back against their Angel. I could. I bit off that switch and clawed away that knife. Then he held out one mitt to halt me, fingers spread wide and pretty face mad, like that should mean aught to me. Instead I started in on him, my bites and tears feeling like I was shredding into a giant fried pea filled with marshmallow fluff. Inside, he reeked like two hundred rose gardens gone rotten.
Before I was done, of course, the Innocents tried swooping down on me, tiny sword-toothed mouths gaping wide, but my new gang took care of them. When all was over and I found myself the old Ratty again, panting with a human’s mouth amidst the soft-like glowing scraps of gods-knows-what, they were already long done. Red and Zoza were even arguing over who should clean up the mess. Every time she screeched back at one of his foxy yaps, black feathers would sift out of her scarves.
“Draw lots,” Boss Marcan told them from where he’d picked his careful way back down off the altar. No one argued with him.
Boss strolled over to me, twirling his cane. Having drunk its fill, his knife was back in his sleeve. I looked up at him from where I squatted on the marble floor and I bet my eyes were larger than the lamps on an airship about to dock at a big-city sky-tower. He asked, “All well? Feeling no urges towards throwing a fit?”
Without speaking, I nodded.
“Ah, I know what you need for your shock, Ratty-mine. You’ve done a good job for me, and you’ll get a grown man’s pay from this day on. But I still owe you swap for your last youngling’s tale. Feel like a midnight snack?”
That was better. I grinned.
This time he took me into the small back room where he’d hold audience with Oyster Beach aldermen and bankers. This time I stuck to poached-fowl over pea-cakes and peppered squirrel stew. Nothing sweet: it would take me days to get the spoiled honey-brandy taste of Judging Angel out of my mouth. Marcan had tugged off his gloves and sat next to me cleaning his nails, thoughtful-like. His fingernails and palms were bright cobalt blue.
“Well, as you’re clever enough to have reckoned, my name in the Isles is Marcan Morbeath, and I’m what’s wrongly termed an old-god and rightly named an aspect of the daemon of abundance.” He made a face all modest-like, but his eyes were laughing. “That’s a mortal incarnation of said daemon, intended to mind human affairs on a human scale, quietly and with no fuss. Like putting a wee mouse into a baseboard hole to keep watch on the Kingdom of Mice.”
Swallowing, I said, “Yup,” before stuffing in another pea-cake.
He pointed his pen-knife towards my plate. “The problem with being a daemon, you see, is one of feeding. Humans ways and dreams feed daemoni like nectar feeds a beehive. So too few interactions between humans and your incarnated aspects and you can’t sense or do a blessed thing, you’re so hungry. Too many and you grow sated, with your attention drifting off to entirely daemoni matters. For all mortal intents and purposes, you fall asleep.” He pursed his thick lips. “We warned Him that taking sole charge of an entire country would demand a bushel of incarnated aspects, a deal too much of the human touch. He wouldn’t listen. But then, the Good Master’s always been one for the glutting.”
I stared at him. “He’s asleep? I was right, there’s no—” from habit, I lowered my voice “—Good Master guiding the temples? But the Angels—”
“What’s the old saying? When the would-be god’s away, his angels will play?”
“Nah. Cat away, mice play.”
“Don’t be so literal, Ratty. Or are you just tugging my never-grown tail?” He chuckled and I grinned. “In any case, the Good Master thought a Sanctified Country, one consecrated all-entire to one daemon, would be a strong country and so give strength to Him. Ah, this Sanctified Republic has grown bright and bold, to be sure, but without any of His leading, and in spite of His Angels would-be tending in His absence. History here gives a daemon to think, sure and it does.”
Reaching over, he stole one of my pea-cakes. After the first bite went down, he said, “An interesting experiment, but one that should have ended long before it did. Mortal life poses difficulties enough without adding an absentee landlord and cruel bailiffs to the mix. Time to wake the Good Master and tell Him His so-called reign is over. I don’t think He’ll be half-pleased with His own servants.”
My mouth was full, so I raised both eyebrows and pointed at him.
“Is it of me you inquire? Those so-called servants have finally grown careless of the sorry deal we Seven made so long ago. In exchange for other considerations, all this country belonged to the Good Master. That little we Six were given to support our observing his efforts belonged to us, not to be trespassed on or abused without violating the contract. Although there was little more we could do but watch and disapprove as long as our deal with the Good Master held, with none of this land’s humans consecrated ours to protect and cherish.”
My chewing slowed.
“No wonder the Angel was so desperate to hunt you down after your youngling choice made you disappear from their ken. He needed to make sure you didn’t finish what you’d started at my very own altar with your very own kidling forelock. But he failed and you did not. Now you, a child born of this land, are consecrated Mine and my finger-hold’s made a firm grip.” His gaze, meeting my own, seemed both cunning and wise. “Soon my firm grip will become a strong grasp, the better to free those who should never have been bound without the choice between Masters, or the choice of having none at all. Do you comprehend, Ratty darlin’?”
I tilted my head to one side. Half yep, half nah.
“No mind. I’ll tell you again until you’re clear on such esoteric bibble-babble, or the folks I’ll set to tutoring you will do the same.”
If you were clever in the Waif Home’s charity school, the teachers didn’t cane you and even sometimes fed you sweeties. So I’d been clever. School had been jolly. Even though I was now a man, more learning wouldn’t hurt me. I nodded and then yawned.
“But it’s late. With you come to work in the park, where do you want your bedroll moved? I’ve long thought that Fright-House floor cruel hard.”
I perked up. Rats don’t just hunger for food. “Where do you make your nest, Boss?”
“My bed’s not for your nesting, Ratty. Even the human aspects of daemoni don’t sleep nights. And I won’t be using you for mere distraction, either. That’s no part of your job, staying up just to keep me company.”
I scowled. “But Boss, in the old-god tales, heathen deities spend half their time seducing—”
“Do you always believe everything you hear?”
“Nah. Should I?” I considered what I’d seen that night and shrugged. “Would your naked flesh for-real burn me up into flinders, or turn me into a singing tree-toad, or—” the grimace came of its own account “—make me bear your hero-kidling?”
The fat cheeks puffed out, and then pulled up into a smile. “No. Only tempt me towards various much-too-mortal indulgences, hungry as I always am for human touch, human joys, human dreams.”
His temptations sounded jolly to me. “Then, if you’re not interested, may I visit Hemmuc’s Oriental Bath with you? Will you still get in trouble with Deacon Harailt if I do?”
He laughed. “No, he won’t be troubling me. It was always my deal with his Boss I walked wary of, not him. Now I don’t need the man as an excuse, Deacon Harailt can kiss my overstuffed buttocks.” I opened my mouth and he interrupted, “Don’t pester me with saying you could do so better than he. That’s long been clear.”
The Boss had stolen my clever crack. So one last time I tried smoldering at him, and again his eyes grew narrow and bright. “Ah, me,” he said, “bad younglings make bad adults, or so our temple priests always say. It’s a disgraceful man-pervert you’ve shaped into being, and don’t think I haven’t noticed, Ratty-darlin’.” He folded up his pen-knife, put it away, and picked up his gloves. “Very well. Tonight you can share my bed as you’re sleeping, while you still need it, until your body remembers who you belong to now. Tomorrow night, when you’re done with your work, I’ll show you a way of going about matters a bit more exotic than a wildling ever learns from his gang on the beach.”
For once I kept my hole shut. Day after tomorrow was time enough for more explanations about revenging dead wildlings, daemoni-brawls, and pearl-grey fur. Tonight and tomorrow I would sleep with my new Boss, learning his ways, which was answer enough for me. After all, my belief in Angels and daemoni might still be nothing but a fancy spawned by a cracked skull or a fever dream. But my faith in Boss Marcan, whatever he might be, was complete.
Return to the index of my original slash stories