The closer he got, the more it glittered, a great monolith of glass in the westering autumn sun. Swept up in the human tide, he elbowed from side to side so nobody'd knock him over, for in this crowd he wouldn't be bloody getting up again. All of them were drawn toward the Crystal Palace reclining magnificently among the lawns of Hyde Park, gulping in the curiosity-seeking masses. Admission to the Great Exhibition at first had cost the ungodly sum of three guineas the day, its marvels only visible to the rich and idle, but as Parliamentary season ended and the wealthy were fleeing London for their country houses, the price had come down. It'd be closing soon, the first fortnight of October, and then what they were after would never be in reach again. So the Captain said, at least, and the Captain was usually right.
As he casually cut the queue, Will Scarlet palmed a shilling from the unguarded purse in front of him, stepped up, and punched it into the box. He took the chit torn off the bronze machine and strolled in through the turnstiles, while the other bloke was still protesting he'd had his fee right here, just then, he swore he'd had it, he hadn't a clue where it could have gone. Will tipped him a regretful salute, then started to trot.
It was all he could do to keep his attention on the business at hand, when his head wanted to spin in every direction at once. Full-grown trees stood inside the Palace's soaring vaults of glass and iron, mysteries and wonders from every corner of the world beckoned alluringly, fountains splashed and sparkled, Turkey carpets the size of houses hung like banners, clockwork automata of every size and shape whirred and ticked and marched, and conjurers were everywhere, doing tricks. Cascades of colored sparks, pulling coins from improbable bodily orifices, some of the better ones even levitating themselves, the sharp ozone scent of aether heavy and golden in the air. Bunch of cut-purse charlatans, Will thought disdainfully. They wouldn't know where to find what he was after – or what it was – if it fell damn on their bloody noggins.
He kept on going, manfully resisting the urge to pinch something off the food-sellers that he passed, even though he was starving. No time for delay. His sole purpose was to get it, and get out. And though every bloody magician in the City of London was likely to be on his tail by that point, none of them knew the streets, and the underworld, like Will did. The rendezvous was three days from now, by which point the Captain would have secured the details and the buyer for the item Will was presently liberating. Three days was nuffing.
Will passed the impatient crowds trying to see the Koh-i-Noor diamond, the one they said was the biggest in the world. For a moment his fingers twitched, absurdly tempted, but they had peelers out the arsehole surrounding the booth, all impeccably uniformed with shining brass buttons, all armed with truncheons and nightsticks and pistols, and all with their heads rotating tirelessly in every direction, piggy little eyes scanning for honest thieves such as himself, all of whom they would be delighted to beat the living tar out of. And the Captain had said what they (rather, he) was stealing here was worth ten times that. They'd all be rich men.
Rich men. Will played the words around in his head, as he had countless times before. That was what he was clinging to, some impossible phantasm, his last best hope. Born poor as dirt in the crowded, filthy, coal-burning tenements of the East End, parents both dead by the time he was ten, and him with Penny to take care of. She followed him everywhere, whether he worked as a costermonger's brat or as a newsie-lad, scraping by enough to feed her. But the ice on the Thames had been too thin that winter, and his little sister went under, and she was dead too, like everyone else in his world, and which he expected to be shortly. Dead in debtor's prison, dead in the workhouse, dead in the gutter, it didn't make no difference, just that he would, indeed, be quite dead. Either way, he'd had no reason to live, and hadn't cared much neither.
But then, Ana.
Will grimaced. She had to stay out of his head; he had a job to do, and he'd not appreciate the distraction. He supposed he had to thank her, in a sad sort of way. If she hadn't stabbed him in the back, broke his heart, passed herself off as Lady Anastasia, married that Russian duke, and faffed off to who-knew-bloody-where, then he wouldn't have met the Captain in a Cheapside tavern (having already been kicked out of the secretive guild of thieves called the Merry Men, back when he was trying to steal enough to give Ana the luxury she wanted, and look how damned well that had gone). Wouldn't have signed on aboard the good airship Jolly Roger, and hence joined the most notorious crew of pirates in the British Empire. Wouldn't be here stealing the last thing, he hoped, he'd ever have to steal.
He had to be getting close. The booths here were darker and less flashy, sober and drab, the hallmark of true power. So far as Will had heard, the Royal Society of English Magicians had had to have their collective arms vigorously twisted to agree to contribute to the Great Exhibition at all. Secretive bastards, jealously guarding their power and their mystery and the fact that they truly ruled England, not Her Majesty the Queen and not Lord John Russell and not any of them. As it had been since aether was discovered in Italy during the Renaissance, and the spymaster Walsingham sent agents to bring this new power back to England for Queen Elizabeth, since it was used to help defeat the Armada, since the School of Night and the Star Chamber and the Invisible College all fought to control and dominate it, pulling strings and intriguing at politics and backroom deals, cutting throats and stealing secrets, magic reigned over Britain. They had even, over the objections of the Church, gotten it taught in Oxford and Cambridge. Not that Will really knew or cared what those were aside from a bunch of bloody toffs and wankers who could be reliably counted on to not take a joke, but it did lend some perspective as to just who he was attempting to rip off. Turning me into a toad would be the least of it.
There were only a few people at the smallest and plainest booth of all, which was a complication. Nonetheless, he strolled nonchalantly into the line, then into the darkroom beyond, where a few unimpressive artifacts were on display. The Royal Society had evidently wagered that if they made their contribution as deadly dull as possible, everyone would lose interest and go back to the bejeweled dancers of Bengal and the horologists animating the clockwork man and the machine that made moving daguerrotypes – a wager which, from the looks of things, had been exceedingly successful. Not much security, nothing like was at the Koh-i-Noor. Just a bored-looking guard, trying to read a penny dreadful in between making sure that no one had made off with the bloody magical hairpins or whatever it was. That, or so it very much seemed, was it.
Will began to hope that this was going to be easier than he thought. He reached into his right-hand pocket and fingered the marble-sized object there, drew it out, and rolled it around his palm. Then, when the few other visitors had drifted out and the guard was buried behind his penny dreadful again – The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, what sort of stupid title was that? – he threw it.
At once, a choking, complete blackness sprang up, and there was a surprised yelp as the guard fell off his stool. Springing over him, Will pulled the other marble from his left-hand pocket (he had gone over it a dozen times so as not to be a complete nincompoop and get it backwards) and lobbed it, hearing a hiss and crunch as the display-case glass dissolved into dust. Then he vaulted into it, able to see only by the faint golden motes of aether sparking and igniting in the air, as he grappled around, deftly detached the simple clasp, and scooped the item in question – a heavy gold-rimmed compass – into his pocket. Knowing he had only a minute left in the darkness, if that, he jumped out the side, picked the direction least encumbered by crowds, and scarpered.
Shouts of "Stop! Thief!" began to break out behind him, as he reached the Turkey-carpet exhibit, dodged into it, then had a bright idea, got on the floor, and rolled like a haunch of mutton turned on the spit, whizzing under the feet of startled carpet aficionados who jumped out of the way with exclamations of alarm. Bolted upright on the far side, whipped a hot, lard-dripping bridie out of the hand of a large gentleman about to bite into it, dodged said gentleman's walking-stick, and kept on running until he could see one of the gates up ahead. Hurtled the stile like a track-and-field champion, into the trees of Hyde Park beyond, then into the darkening streets, the red-faced boys just going round with lantern and ladder to fire the gaslamps.
Will forced himself to slow to a walk, navigating the still-crowded lanes and wynds, darting into a shop and waiting as a brigade of peelers ran past shouting, then emerging and switching directions, as around him the folk of Westminster filtered into supper clubs and saloons, card-tables and coffeehouses, theatres and hurdy-gurdy halls. He didn't think anyone had got a particularly good look at him, but it would still behoove him to go underground. Literally.
Someone else, someone else not born and raised here, would have lost their bearings in the dark, mazelike warrens, but Will could have navigated them with both eyes shut. If all else failed, he could always follow the stink of the river, until at last he emerged on the bank, could see Big Ben rising spectral into the underside of the clouds, bells booming the hour over the crooked, cluttered rooftops. But the bridge was just ahead, and there was a door in the piling that led into the tunnel system. Once he got down there he'd be safe enough (well, as safe as one could ever be) and then laugh his arse off at the dimwits going in circles trying to find –
"GOT YOU NOW, BOY!"
Oh, bloody hell.
Will dodged and spun this way and that, backed onto the bridge. Blinking hard, he saw that what he had taken for a passing pack of stray dogs was no such thing. Too bloody big, for a start, and too bloody vicious, bared fangs dripping in slaver, straining at the chains their handlers were barely keeping hold of – wolves. They had sodding wolves. Werewolves, if the rumors in the Night Market were anything to credit, but no matter what sort of wolves they were, Will Scarlet did not like them. Especially now, when they were being released to tear him limb from limb.
Jaws snapped an inch away from his throat. He ran to the railing and leapt out into thin air, remembering to point his toes and hold his nose for the twenty-foot drop into filthy, fetid water. Swam madly around to the piling, jerking at the rusted-shut door, even as heavy splashes behind him announced that the wolves had followed him in. Could see the monstrous great beasts paddling closer, dodged again and felt pain red-hot in his shoulder, even as he was wrenching madly at the damned door, he wasn't going to die floating like a turd in the Thames, he was not, not like every other ne'er-do-well that was good riddance to bad rubbish –
With a shriek of eroded hinges, the door gave, and Will propelled himself madly through it, the wolves still snapping and snarling at his feet as he fell headlong into the damp blackness of the tunnel, as they kept pawing and growling and clawing with an altogether hideous racket, but couldn't get down after him. He slammed the grate and wedged it firmly fast, but knew it wouldn't hold the buggers long. Though if they were smart, rather than risking their own necks, they'd just set up a stakeout at the tunnel mouth and wait for him to climb out, as he had to eventually. Nets and chains and dragged to the gallows at Tyburn, and heave-ho and so long for poor old Will Scarlet, everybody try not to cry their eyes out over his grave.
Head ringing, Will descended the ladder, blood trickling from his shoulder, until the sounds from above had finally gone quiet and he was well deep in the sewer tunnels. The stench seared the lining off his nose, but you got used to it quick; it wasn't that much worse than the rest of London, really. He'd find a side tunnel, stay out of the reach of the rats (he swore the damned things smelled weakness like sharks), and hope the peelers and their wretched wolves didn't know all the entrances to the tunnels. Could climb out of one on the far side of the city, book it, and hope he still made the rendezvous. Captain would be none too pleased if he didn't.
Three days was starting to sound like a rather unpleasantly long time indeed.
He slept a bit, uncomfortably crammed onto a narrow catwalk above the depths of the black river below, hearing skittering small feet pass every now and then, water dripping down the barnacled walls; he was mostly under the Thames here, never liked being near it for that long. Penny's ghost still watched him with damp hair and disconsolate eyes, her voice whispering to him from the bitter watches of the night. He contrived a makeshift bandage for his shoulder so it wouldn't keep bleeding all over the damned place. At least I still have the compass, eh? he thought resentfully. Wouldn't want me dying before I could hand it over.
In too much pain to actually drop under for long, he waited until he could hear distant noises from topside, the pipes rattling and whooshing, heralding that it must be morning. Uncurled from his perch and weighed his options. He knew a few tricks down here. He'd make it. Somehow.
As long as he stayed relatively near where he'd gone down, he could mark time by the muffled booms of Big Ben echoing into the ground. But he had to venture deeper to find the sewer-folk, trade them the various other things he'd nicked in exchange for food. Queer ghost-white creatures in rags with eyes that had a disturbing habit of looking in different directions, scavenging the treasures that fell into London's sewers; they had a whole world down here. He didn't starve at least, though he was none too comfortable about it, counting off the hours, until it was time to commence the long sunless journey through the tunnels. Should give me a flag to plant, like a conquerin' hero.
Will splashed and sloshed and swore his way through the muck, smelling worse and worse with every stride, reaching obsessively into his pocket as if in fear the compass would have disappeared, tore-up shoulder aching something fierce, thinking that he would be well within his rights to demand double the share of the profits after the ordeal he'd gone through. Here and there were marks on the sewer walls, indicating how far it was to the various tunnel mouths, and he chose the one that led in the direction of the West India Docks, five miles east along the embankment, where the Roger was supposed to be arriving before the day was out. Any other man might have chosen a private and out-of-the-way place to land his airship, given as he was the most wanted pirate in the Empire, but then, most men weren't the Captain. He had a long-standing arrangement with the port master that the authorities would either conveniently forget to note his arrival, or every once in a while spot him, mount valiant pursuit, then lose him in the fog, or write down the name – Red Beauty – under which the vessel had legitimate papers at a Mr. Darling's barrister firm. Either way, it had proved vastly profitable for both the Captain and the embezzling port master. At least till one of them got nabbed, Will supposed. Odds were on the latter.
At last, breathing as if he'd been chased by a bloody train, he wearily hauled himself into the Docks tunnel and climbed up, hand over hand, to the surface. Pushed the door cautiously ajar in expectation of wolves promptly buggering down it to eat his arse, but there were none.
Muttering a hearty prayer of thanks to whichever luckless sod's job it was to be the patron saint of thieves, Will heaved himself out, lay on his back wheezing gently, clutched his pocket once more just to be sure, then rolled over and lurched to his feet. He had emerged under a quay at the busiest port in London, crowded both with the merchant steamships that sailed to Africa, India, the Caribbean, America, and returned fat with trade, and the Royal Navy airships that plied the skies. He had heard that the Captain used to be a Naval officer, a commissioned lieutenant, but had deserted some years past, some nasty bit of business Will had mostly gleaned in muttered gossip from the crew, about losing his elder brother and then all his faith in the British Empire whatsoever. Surely he had a special animus for them; if one was in range, they would track, capture, and destroy, no matter what. The waters off England were scattered with the wreckage of airships the Roger had shot down from the skies.
Will began to trot along the docks, where nobody spared him a second glance. Apparently the peelers hadn't been able to distribute his precise description, though surely the news was getting round that some idiot with a death wish had burgled the Royal Society's booth in the Exhibition. Likely someone had gotten the chop for it already; they weren't supposed to include objects of actual value where they could possibly be pilfered, so to do this was a bloody massive –
Unless, it occurred to Will suddenly and most unpleasantly, they hadn't made a mistake at all. This all could be, now that he thought it over, a careful and subtle setup. Get the lads to pinch some worthless bit of junk, nothing the Society would miss, move one of their flunkeys into place as the purported buyer, then spring the trap. Nothing else had sufficed to catch the Captain yet, and though he was usually excellent at sensing when things weren't right, this mission had seemed downright personal to him, as if there was nothing he'd stop at, no risk he wouldn't take. In such a case, he might be overlooking his gut in favor of a chance at revenge.
It was something to mention, that was all. If he could do it without his head being bit off, the Captain not being the most reasonable man when it came to hearing sense. Will ducked into a shabby little pub at the end of the docks, ordered a drink, and settled in to wait, keeping a weather eye on the door. He had just an hour or two more to pass without dying, that was all, though the alcohol on an empty stomach was fast going to his head, and his shoulder was beginning to sniff a bit queer. It hurt when he lifted his right arm, so he used his left instead. Not much longer. There were bandages and unguents on the ship, he'd patch himself up proper then.
Time crawled by like a dead snail. The bells began to call the next hour, and the shadows were getting long. At dusk, the Captain had said, darkness being the state preferred for these sorts of things. Did this qualify as dusk, Will wondered? It was colder outside every time the tavern door banged open, and his eyes were starting to burn from the low, smoky air. This was where he was supposed to wait, though. If they were still coming. If nothing had gone wrong.
Too edgy to stay sitting, he got up and shoved out, standing on the rain-slick stones and listening to the dull drone of airships in the clouds above, emerging like phantoms and gliding down to dock, the great silk zeppelins hissing as the gas was drained. They'd have to be pumped up with a fresh supply before they took off again, but no matter the bother, it was safer than keeping them filled; one stray spark could level the entire Docks. Beneath the zeppelins, which served them in place of sails, the airships were elegant vessels with decks and windows and figureheads, courtly and old-fashioned, more comfortable and refined than the steamships. The aether freighters, the ones that carried barrels of the magical golden dust from the mines up North here to England, were loaded with guns to discourage privateers, while the plainer, faster Navy cruisers were loaded with guns for the same reason. Though the Roger is fastest, and has the most guns. Will took a certain pride in that. They'd never yet been defeated in an aerial dogfight. At least until now.
Bloody hell, it was past dark. Where were they? He tried to quash the foreboding in his gut, unable to imagine his future if the Roger and her captain had finally met the end of their luck, and he was left here with stolen goods and the entire Royal Society after him. Run and run like hell, defect to the Russian Empire who would be delighted to have an English spy, try not to think about Ana and her bloody Russian duke who were doubtless very fucking happy in their –
Will jumped nearly out of his skin as a short, stout man in a red woolen cap materialized from the shadows and waved at him: William Smee, the Roger's first mate, holding a dark lantern and clearly in a bloody hurry. While he'd never liked Smee all that much, the man having a generally ratty air that seemed to promise any trust in him would be misplaced, he was abjectly grateful to clap eyes on him now, and broke into a run across the cobbles as Smee ushered him down mossy steps to where a small rowboat was waiting, bobbing in the black water. Both of them applying themselves to the oars with vigor, they reversed out, slipped into the wake of a steamship passing the entrance lock, just barely avoided being crushed as the lock rolled shut behind them, and sculled into the fast-running Thames. Neither of them said anything, knowing how sound carried and focused on their escape, until they hauled up near Greenwich Pier, tied the boat, and waited tensely.
A few moments later, Will heard the thrumming overhead, and glanced up just in time to see a low-flying, spectral black shape block out the chilly stars. A rope ladder dropped, and Smee bolted for it first, naturally. Will jumped up behind him, feeling the airship already starting to lift off again, so that he was swinging ten and then twenty and thirty feet above the ground as he kept climbing, determinedly not looking down; heights were not his especial favorite thing in the world. But the dark bulk of the Roger loomed reassuringly above him, closer and closer even as London continued to fall away below, and soon he was scrambling up over the side, grasping hold of the rail, and somersaulting at full length on the deck.
He lay there, gulping air, thinking that he'd very much like his supper and his bunk now, until another shadow fell over him in the gloom; they'd fly dark until they were well clear of the city. Boots measured a steady pace up to his head, then stopped, and the Captain looked down at him as if Will were a mildly interesting bit of rubbish they'd dredged up in a fishing net. "Scarlet."
"Cap'n." Will got himself pointed more or less the right way up, still panting. "Got it."
A grin curled the Captain's mouth, lending him even more of a debonair, roguish air than usual. He was that sort of man, the sort that made all the ladies (and not a few of the blokes) stop dead in their tracks: lean and dark-haired and blue-eyed, with a penchant for long leather jackets and sheer black shirts and inadequately buttoned vests, rings and necklaces and kohl, high boots and the basket-handled sword he always wore low on his hip, the bloody walking definition of the word "swashbuckler." But though he had the look of a pretty boy, nobody called him that to his face. In place of his missing left hand, the Captain wore the lethally sharp steel appendage that gave him his name: Hook. He could smile and charm you and dice with you and drink with you and pick you bloody clean of your valuables before you had the foggiest what was going on, but you insulted or crossed or challenged him at your peril. Not if you didn't want to find it buried between your eyes. So Will had been told, at least, but not being a shy sort by nature, he rarely held back when he had something to say, and hence he and the Captain tended to sauce each other something fierce. It was an unspoken agreement, though he always knew where the boundaries were. He thought Hook liked him, a bit. Much as the bastard liked anyone.
"So," Hook said, stepping closer and holding out his good hand. "I'll take it now."
For an instant Will was tempted to refuse, or at least fill the Captain in on the trouble he'd gone through to get it, but wanted food and sleep more than he wanted to spend the night in the brig, and fished it out of his pocket. "I'm fine as well, thanks for asking."
Hook cocked a sardonic eyebrow. "We'd have all been heartbroken if you fell in the line of duty. Grave in the Abbey, a week of national mourning, the lot. Eh?"
"I'm not that fussed, I'd take a knighthood and call it done," Will shot back. "Sir William Scarlet, the ladies would be swoonin' left and right. Permission to leave duty, sir?"
"Granted," Hook said with a careless wave, tucking the compass into the pocket of his vest – but not before covetously stroking his thumb over it, staring down at it as if it was precisely what he'd been waiting for all this time. And once more, Will had to wonder what exactly, if anything, he knew about this entire damned affair. If they were still going to sell it, if they were going to be rich men, or if perhaps everyone involved had no clue what was really happening save the Captain. Double-crosser double-crosses everyone, likely I'm no bloody different.
In which case, Will thought as he trudged off to the crew's quarters, glancing back at the dark silhouette still standing by the rail as they climbed into the clouds, they'd best take especial care. The Captain had outrun and outsailed all sorts of storms in his day, but whatever this was, whatever it meant, whether they'd survive thumbing the Empire's most powerful and dangerous men straight in the bloody eye, one such as they had never seen was coming.
And it was coming now.