A/N: Oh nobody reads author's notes but here's one anyway. This is a backstory for two fairly minor but influential characters in my novel from NaNoWriMo 2008, which needs a complete rewrite before it's ever shared but was a universe I had so much fun with that it spun sidestories, like this one. It's technically steampunk, I guess, and the year is somewhere in the later mid 1800's, in an alternate!Britain. And...that's all I have to say. I also apologize for my skills in foreign languages and the mistakes I most definitely will make.
Title: Ex Legis
Author: Alyn Drasil
Rating: overall R
Part I: The Prince and Rose
The mattress was hard and lumpy beneath his legs, and the single yellowed bulb in the ceiling cast bruised shadows over the floor. The room smelled of old, extinguished cigars and faded perfume, over an older, muskier scent of all of the bodies that had exerted themselves here. Emmerich shifted on the bed, wincing as a sprung metal coil dug into his thigh, and wondered why anyone would pay to lay with a woman in a bed like this.
He'd been here since late afternoon, in the shoddy, second story room of The Prince and Rose, just waiting. The wallpaper was brown and faded, splotched with discolored flowers that might have once been roses themselves. Now they had wilted and smeared into pinkish splatters, swallowed up beneath water stains and age. The brass fixtures holding the gas lamps were tarnished, turned greasy and black with neglect. Under Order regulations, The Prince and Rose was a traveler's inn with a public house on the ground floor—and only a traveler's inn with a public house on the ground floor. But it was staffed almost entirely by busty women in somewhat immodest apparel, who would show you a room upstairs if you left a coin in the bottom of your empty glass.
Edwin Allister and the rest of his company were all down in the public house now. And Emmerich was in one of the private rooms upstairs. Without the company of a coin-bought woman, but with a certain kind of other companionship in the form of a large wooden trunk wedged beneath the creaking bed. It was part of a routine downmarket trade, the way Allister and Kegg had been doing their exchanges of guns, liquor, tobacco, exotic powders—anything the Order outlawed which was thus in high demand in the underground market—for years. This was simply the first time Emmerich had been allowed to be involved. Normally he stood about downstairs and watched the two men talk and laugh over mugs of ale for nearly a quarter-hour before getting down to business. He was never even allowed a pistol.
But he had one now, heavy in a holster at his belt, the leather so old that it had stiffened and cracked in places. It squeaked against his hip when he moved and smelled like stale dog piss. The pistol itself was a snub-nosed solid-frame revolver, the most expensive thing Emmerich was currently carrying on him. Keeping a gun, having the means to keep it cleaned and serviced and loaded, was a privilege not usually accessible to people like him. It belonged to Allister, and he'd used it before, as the man wanted all of his crew to be a capable shot, even if they weren't always allowed to carry anything to shoot with.
The high giggle of one of the women of the establishment floated through the door, coming along with a lower, rumbling voice of her current client. Emmerich could hear the worn wooden boards creaking out in the hall as they were trod on, and felt them move under his own boots. He shifted his feet, replanting them further apart, and leaned his elbows on his knees, hands dangling between. A door opened and banged closed next door, the room on the right now occupied. The faint sound of the woman's laughter came through the wall. Bed springs creaked.
Emmerich sighed and stretched his neck. It would have been a good time for a cigarette, if he had still been able to afford the habit. His hands and mouth didn't like to stay idle, they wanted to do things, if even something as simple as gripping and sucking on a piece of rolled paper and tobacco. Emmerich grinned to himself, trying not to let that imagery get too far. That was another habit he'd fallen out of practice with—Allister simply didn't allow him enough free time for it. Brothels were fine when he had a spare moment and a spare coin, but finding what took care of his real wants was always much more difficult, and risky.
There came new voices out on the landing. Two of them, both male. A gruff chest-deep rumble and a lighter, younger voice. Emmerich didn't recognize either of them, and he rested his hand on the grip of his pistol. His body went still, and quite alert. They could just be passing by the room, or it could be Kegg's men, or something else entirely. He'd take no chances.
When he heard a clunking at the door handle and the scrape of wood against wood, he drew the pistol from its holster, bracing the grip on top of his knee. The door shoved inward and Emmerich caught sight of a stocky man with copper-colored hair in the corridor. The other man was mostly a black shadow in the light from the gas lamps; smaller and slimmer than the first, braced across the doorway with his hand on the knob.
"Tsch," this shadowed man said, and flicked something round and dully metallic at the burly other. "Take your dreg money."
The ginger man laughed and gave the other an amicable clap on the shoulder, then moved off out of sight, back towards the stairwell. The swollen edges of the wood squeaked against the door frame as the first man pushed the door open the rest of the way and stepped into the room.
He wasn't much of a man, Emmerich saw at once; young and slender and even almost pretty. But as soon as he saw Emmerich, and more specifically, Emmerich's drawn pistol, the boy had a gun of his own out as fast as a blink. Emmerich wasn't quite sure where it had even come from, since the boy was only wearing plain trousers and braces over a rough button-down with the sleeves rolled up. No belts or holsters or bags or anything else to hold a pistol.
"You're Allister's new man, then," the boy said. His pistol, six-barreled and all bright metal and dark wood, was trained towards Emmerich's stomach. His other hand moved out and shoved the door back closed. There was no lock, not uncommon in brothels.
"Reckon I am," Emmerich replied. The boy had obviously expected to see Thomme or Uxilord here—the usual ones who took this part of the job. It would make sense for him to assume Emmerich was new entirely.
"No need to be jumpy," the boy said then. "I don't bite."
They shared a wary smile, and Emmerich let the barrel of his pistol drop. When the boy did the same, Emmerich shoved the pistol back into the holster at his hip. He probably shouldn't have had it out in the first place, but nerves had gotten the better of him. In reciprocation, the boy's gun disappeared just as fast as it had appeared, somewhere behind his back.
"So," the boy said, moving into the room and along the right wall, passing in front of the drawn window curtains—also printed with roses, just as faded and drab as the wallpaper—"where is it?"
"Under the bed," Emmerich said, rising to his feet. It was uncomfortable sitting on a bed with another man in the room. Especially a bed inside a brothel. And with the kinds of noises that were coming through the wall from the room next door. Emmerich brushed his hands off on his trousers, then hooked his right hand thumb through the belt loop closest to the holster. He wasn't quite sure what to do with his other hand; he braced it on his hip after a moment.
Kegg's boy had meanwhile dropped to one knee beside the bed and swept his head down, passing a glance under the duster. The trunk, Emmerich knew, was just a large hulking shadow beneath it, indefinable as anything worthwhile at all. It also barely fit in the space. He had watched Thomme and Uxilord wedge it under there an hour ago with some amusement.
"Good," the boy said, when he'd gotten to his feet again. He had tufty dark brown hair and a boyish face that still struck Emmerich as nearer to pretty than anything else, a long neck and a slim build and not much of a sense of toughness or nerve. But he was Kegg's, and he had a draw that was faster than anyone Emmerich had ever seen, so he was worth something. His voice was clear and calm, marked by a Canalcourt accent—he was local, and by the state of his simple and worn clothes, faring in the world about the same as Emmerich was. Which was to say, not particularly well; despite the relative affluence of their respective employers.
Allister and Kegg dealt often, and they trusted each other, at least as far as two men constantly skirting on the edges of the law could. Kegg obviously trusted Allister enough that he hadn't ordered his boy to check inside the chest, to make sure that what was supposed to be inside actually was. Emmerich didn't know what was in it, either. He was not quite a fully trusted man, not yet. This job would either make him one, or put him back to menial unappreciated work. Depending on how well Allister thought he did it.
At the end of this deal, Emmerich would walk out of this room, join Allister and his other men downstairs, and leave the chest in Kegg's possession by way of this boy. A simple transfer of ownership, granted that Allister got whatever it was he wanted from Kegg. That part of the deal usually went smoothly enough. Keeping the goods out of the alert eyes of the clergy guard and other downmarket dealers—that was the difficult part. Kegg and Allister weren't really guarding anything from each other, but from outsiders. That was why the chest was on the second story wedged under a bed with a whole barroom full of brigands between it and the only exit.
And the two men in this room.
Emmerich drew out the chair beside the bed, spun it so it faced the wall, and straddled it backwards, crossing his arms over the back. So he could keep an eye on the boy and the door both. Kegg's boy continued around the walls, trailing his fingers over the mounted wooden shelves and the edges of the curling wallpaper, browning at the edges. He had a graceful way of moving, a walk that looked effortlessly casual, a way of tilting his head slightly that seemed elegant, rather than twitchy. As the boy walked the room, Emmerich saw where he kept his pistol—tucked unceremoniously into the back of his trousers, held in place by a loop of leather sewn to the waistband. It seemed an idiot place to keep it, but Emmerich kept his mouth shut about it.
By the time the boy had reached the wall opposite the door, Emmerich was finding the silence cloying and desperate. He hadn't expected this as part of the job; he should have, but he hadn't. They might be hours up in this room together, as Allister and Kegg talked and drank and generally spent ages getting down to business. Emmerich didn't take to silences well, especially ones as obvious as this. He knew he oughtn't get very friendly with Kegg's man, but he also couldn't spend hours on end just staring silently at him, either.
From across the room, the boy made a small sound of interest, and paused where he was. He was on the other side of the bed now, one hand splayed out at waist height along the wall, the other tracing carefully upwards towards the ceiling.
"There's a door here," the boy said. "Interesting." And Emmerich could see the lines of it now, just slight indents along the edges where the door and the frame met. With the lower hand, the boy peeled at the wallpaper, tearing a strip of it away.
The knob had been taken out, and now there was only an uneven hole beneath the paper where it had been. The boy dropped a long-fingered hand to the opening, dragging the tip of one finger into the space and pivoting it around. Emmerich had a strange moment of finding the motion arousing, while the mechanism inside the lock rattled and clicked. The boy bent down to peer into it, then glanced back at Emmerich.
"Ah," he said, with an unexpected grin. "We could look in on our amorous neighbors, if we like."
Emmerich must have made a face, as the boy laughed and smoothed the curl of paper back into place. "No, I think not either," he said. "Best leave it."
"That door could open, though," Emmerich said. "I don't like that."
The boy gave him a look, a lift of his eyebrows that clearly said he thought Emmerich was being rather unreasonable about a door that clearly hadn't been used for decades. Never sit with your back to a door or another man, Allister had told him, far more than once. That made three things in this room Emmerich couldn't sit with his back towards, one of which kept moving around. He didn't have enough sides of his body to cover all of that.
"This is the one I care about," the boy said, pointing with two fingers at the door he'd come in through. "You can watch that one, if it means so much to you." He gestured to the papered-over one.
Now Emmerich just felt foolish, but not enough so to forget about the second door. He was likely just being too particular about his first real try at a job, too anxious to not get anything wrong, but it didn't mean that he couldn't still do a little thing like wanting to keep his eyes on a door. He rose from his chair, brushed past the boy and went around the foot of the bed to the other side, and sat down facing the wall. He was now quite aware of the main door at his back, but that was what the boy was supposed to be for.
And after a moment, he heard a faint noise that might have been a laugh, and then the mattress dipped and something warm pressed up against his back.
"There," the boy said, his voice nearly in Emmerich's ear. "Settled."
The boy smelled of cloves and sweat, and—vaguely—of tobacco. The urge to have a smoke rose again, like a sleepy animal lifting its head in mild interest. It was reminding Emmerich of many other things it had been a while since he'd had. Like a strong body against his, lean muscle and hot skin under his hands. Emmerich didn't want to think to keenly on it, but this boy fit well into the type of body he usually preferred.
To make the entire thing even more strange and uncomfortable, their temporary neighbors in the room over were getting noisier. Muffled giggles and grunts came through the wall, metal springs creaking.
"So," Emmerich said, if only to distract himself, and felt the boy shift against his back. "What's your name?"
"Ezra," came the reply, and, after a longer moment, "Lace."
"Like on doilies and frilly bonnets, yes," Ezra said, with a slight edge to his voice like he'd clarified this a hundred times before and was tired of it.
"I was going to say, like in a boot," Emmerich said, and felt Ezra move against him again.
"I suppose Emmerich Mandelbrauss is much better?" he said after a moment, but his voice had evened and he sounded as though he might be smiling.
"How did you know my name?" Emmerich said, startled. Moreso that Ezra had said it near perfectly. The last syllable of his first name often became soft and slushy in the mouths of those who didn't speak the language. His surname often got entirely mangled. He felt the boy's laugh as a rumble against his back.
"Heard it downstairs," Ezra said. "They call you Emery, much?"
"What'll you do to me if I do?" Ezra said, laughing again. Emmerich decided that he liked his laugh. He was used to the thick, chest-deep swarthy noises of men on merchant ships, or the tobacco and alcohol slurred chuckles of men like Allister and Kegg. Ezra's laugh was light and open and real, completely incongruous with whorehouses and smugglers' deals.
"Not much," he admitted.
"You've a Kaiserreich accent, as well as name," Ezra said. Emmerich wasn't surprised that the boy had picked that up as well—most couldn't tell, and if they did it was only when he tripped over a w here or there. "You're from there, then?"
"Yes," Emmerich said. There was no harm in admitting it. "And you're local."
"Never left the 'shore."
"Should get out more," Emmerich offered, hoping for another laugh and getting one. It went under his skin like a kind of warmth and stayed there, gently humming like the purr of a cat.
"If I could afford to leave, would I be sitting back-to-back with someone like you, on top of a chest in the upstairs of a whorehouse?" Ezra shifted against him again, and Emmerich felt the slight jab of his shoulder blades. He thought the boy must have folded his arms.
"Someone like me," Emmerich said.
"Like both of us. An outlaw. A…Schnapphahn."
"So you know some Deute, do you," Emmerich said, more impressed than he ought to be. After hearing the way Ezra had said his name, knew his accent, he wasn't entirely surprised to hear the boy use some of the language. But it was still strange. His home tongue had been reduced to a Fifth District when the Orders laid their laws, hardly anyone out of those diocets spoke it now. He couldn't guess at why a young boy from the Kingshore might.
"Had a—knew someone who did," Ezra said, and then, carefully, "Lernte ich einige Dinge."
"Sein Akzent ist schrecklich," Emmerich told him, and Ezra laughed again.
"I imagine so," he said. "It's been some time."
Dreadful accent or not, Emmerich couldn't deny that hearing the language spoken by someone else was a good comfort in this strange situation—even the best comfort he'd had in the last few years. He wanted to ask Ezra to say something else, see if he could carry on more of a conversation…but he really oughtn't get sociable.
Silence fell between them again, as if Ezra had thought of the same thing. Emmerich tried to move as little as possible; every time he did, he felt bone or muscle slide against him, a reminder of the boy's presence at his back. If he stayed perfectly still, Ezra faded to just a flat press of warmth against him, most ignorable except for when either of them breathed.
Minutes ticked by. Emmerich rubbed his thumb back and forth over the worn metal inset in the grip of his borrowed pistol, warming it up as he kept watching the door. The pistol even had a name—the bulldog. When Allister had told Emmerich that he was 'giving him the bulldog', Emmerich had thought he was about to be mortally ended, or have some strange sexual maneuver performed on him. He knew that wasn't unusual either, in associations of this type when people sometimes sold for more than objects.
Although, he probably wasn't pretty enough for that type of business. Only the undiscerning might consider his face a useful commodity. His body was a bit better, made sturdy and strong from trawling on merchant ships and carting around the docks for years. But his more recent employment with Allister had him gone a bit softer, with less manual labor and more sitting around watching downmarket deals.
Even if Emmerich wasn't much of anything, the boy he was sitting backs with was certainly more than something. Pretty to look at, but certainly with a masculine countenance and a good lean build. Emmerich hadn't thought the latter at first, but sitting pressed up against half of the boy's body had made him reevaluate. And Ezra had a different air about him, something—just like his laugh—that wasn't fitting to this place, standing out like a coin in the gutter. He obviously knew this kind of work, knew how to play the games, but it was as though he'd dropped into it from somewhere else, a different and more beautiful world.
Emmerich wondered if Kegg had noticed it, if that was maybe even the reason that Ezra was in his employ. The boy was distracting—could throw people off by his presence alone, just like he was doing to Emmerich now. A good tactic in a situation where concentration was needed. Luckily, Emmerich was only shut up in a room with him, made to watch a chest. Easy enough business.
"You've done this often, then," Emmerich said then, finally unable to stand the heat of the taught silence any longer.
"Fair few times," Ezra said, as easily as if they'd been speaking all along. And then, "you?"
"Not as many as that," Emmerich replied. It had to be true, seeing as this was his first try at it. "Doesn't get much easier, does it?"
"Certainly never gets any more exciting," Ezra said, and Emmerich laughed. They both fell silent again, but now the quiet between them was charged, buzzing with possibility. Emmerich could almost feel how much they both wanted to talk to each other, like an excited crackle in the dry air.
They started to speak at the same time, cut themselves short, then both made awkward noises of consent.
"Go on," said Ezra said, his voice riding along on top of a laugh.
"I was only going to say," Emmerich said, carefully, "that you don't seem the type. For this—line of work."
Ezra was quiet for a moment, then made a soft humming noise in his throat. "I reckon I don't," he said. "But I'm not so terrible at it."
"I didn't mean anything by it."
"No, no—I know." Ezra took a deep breath that pushed Emmerich slightly forward. "I only meant that it's strange that I am good at this."
Ezra laughed. "If we ever met again, I'll tell you," he said.
It was likely they would meet again. If Ezra was given this responsibility often, and if Emmerich did his job well enough tonight, they might end up meeting frequently. They might sit together again while deals went on below them, filling up silences with these snatches of conversation, reaching an odd sort of comfort with each other inside the walls of a brothel, a public house, a gambling establishment. Emmerich looked forward to it with an odd kind of longing, and this night hadn't even yet ended.
He passed a hand over his face, frowning at himself. This was not the way he should be thinking. He was losing focus; just the reason he'd known he shouldn't speak to Ezra at all. It would be easy enough to bring his mind back to where it needed to be—all he had to do was shut himself up and hope Ezra followed that lead.
For a while, it was quite effective. Emmerich didn't speak and Ezra, at his back, didn't either. There was no clock in the room and Emmerich didn't keep a timepiece, so he had no way of knowing how much time was passing. At a point, the man in the next room over snored for a while, before that stopped as well. Some time after, he and the women began to go at it again. Emmerich grumbled a little at the same time Ezra did, and then felt the boy laugh against his back.
From downstairs, suddenly, came two loud noises in a rapid succession—echoing claps of sound that ricocheted through the entire building. Unfamiliar as he was with the mechanics and handling of a pistol, Emmerich knew well how one sounded when fired. It also appeared to be a familiar noise to others, as well. The woman next door let out a shriek that had little to do with her current activity, and there was a man's muffled and surprised cursing. There were heavy thuds on the floor, two pairs of footsteps scrambling from the room. All over the brothel, doors were flung open, voices carried into the hall and down the stairs, high and anxious and bewildered. Emmerich found himself on his feet, his hand at the grip of his pistol. He hadn't been aware of standing up.
Then there was a third noise, a consequent bang that was this time inside the tiny brothel room with them. The sound resounded off the walls, seemed to swell against them and press back in on Emmerich's skull, his chest, ringing in his ears and stopping his breath. He whirled round, a haze of deafness clinging to him and reeling his sense of balance about, so that he nearly lost his footing standing in place.
There was a smoking hole in the mattress, and Ezra was shakily fumbling his pistol into the back of trousers again.
"What the hell was that all about?" Emmerich hissed at him, heart pounding in his throat, bile strong in his gut. The smell of gunpowder was acrid and overwhelming in the air. The floorboards of the brothel were shaking beneath them, as women and their guests ran throughout the upper floors, no doubt spurred into more panic by the third, nearer, gunshot. The whole place was, to Emmerich's dulled ears, in a distant and faraway uproar.
"Sorry," Ezra muttered. He was pale and tight-mouthed and looked much younger suddenly, embarrassed at what had clearly been a helpless reaction. "Sorry, sorry."
Emmerich saw the words form on his lips far more than he actually heard them. His hearing would clear up, he knew, but it was an inconvenience in a situation that he would have very much liked the use of all his senses. Likely Ezra was more inexperienced than Emmerich had thought, to react such. But it no longer mattered, as something had just occurred downstairs that was very likely nothing short of terrible. Gunshots were not a usual occurrence in a deal between Allister and Kegg. And only two of them; a startlingly low number if something had gone wrong, if their deal had been interrupted by a contending group of downmarket thieves.
"What just happened?" Emmerich said then, clutching at the worn grip of the bulldog. They glanced at each other, then both dropped to the floor on their opposite sides of the bed, pressing their ears against the warped wood. The Prince and Rose had been built sturdy and thick, and beyond the pounding of feet and errant shouting, Emmerich could hear nothing. He was still half-deaf anyway.
He got to his feet again, putting a hand to the bulldog at his hip. "I'll go see," he said to Ezra, who was still on the floor. "Stay here. We're still on a job, remember."
"I know," Ezra said, sounding irate but looking fully involved. He climbed to his feet and gave Emmerich a nod.
Emmerich went out onto the landing. The brothel was in an uproar, half-dressed men and women fleeing up and down the stairs, tumbling dazedly out of doors, clutching at bedclothes and underthings. No one paid him much mind as he made his way down the stairs. He didn't take his pistol out, but he kept his hand close to the holster, fingertips flickering on the leather. The first story was in a similar state as the second; Emmerich made his way down the last set of stairs to the ground floor, and the public house. He stopped halfway down, as soon as he could get a good look at the room without stumbling headlong into it.
Rose-hued gas lamps sat in dirty brass fixtures along the walls, casting the place in a reddish light. The theme in the upstairs rooms continued here with perhaps more subtlety—the walls and counter were of rosewood, and around the grubby windows were patterns of thorns. Several tables had been overturned and the place smelt of heady ale, bitter gunpowder, and a strange coppery tang. Men groped about in the smoke and gloom, some clutching at the serving women who stared around with frightened eyes. Some had stumbled downstairs half-naked, and had been caught before they reached the door. Clearly, no one was meant to leave.
A tall, lanky man with a kink to his long nose was leaning over the counter in front, a pistol held casually at his hip. Maurice Clavel, what amounted to Allister's right hand man. He was speaking with a neatly dressed man that Emmerich assumed must be the proprietor, and at his side stood the burly ginger that Emmerich had seen upstairs with Ezra. The ginger man was counting out a fair amount of coins onto the counter. Clearly some kind of bribe, or even a payoff. The proprietor looked rather unshaken despite the current state of his establishment.
Nearly out of range of what he could see of the room, Emmerich caught sight of a boot on the floor, encasing an unmoving foot and leg. He recognized the boot—had seen it and its partner nearly every day for the past several years. And now it was spread across the floorboards of a brothel's public house with a dark splash of something spreading beneath it. And on the other side of the room, two men he recognized—one of Kegg's, the other the ruddy-faced Thomme—were dragging something else heavy and unseen across the floor, behind the corner of the bar.
Piecing it together took only moments. Allister and Kegg had trusted each other, but forgotten about the men beneath them. Too worried about outside threats that they'd forgotten about the inside. Their own men had turned on them—a joint maneuver, a double mutiny, conspired by their own right hands working together. The two shots had been one for each of them.
Numb and light-headed, Emmerich crept back up the stairs, to the room on the second story and to Ezra.
"Allister and Kegg are dead," he said upon entering, and Ezra only looked grim at the words. He'd been standing just inside the door, nearly out of sight, his pistol held close and ready at his side. "The right hands are running things, now. It's something of a mess down there; I expect it'll be at least a minute or two before it's sorted, and they come up for—"
They locked eyes again. Then both looked towards the bed, and the chest that was wedged beneath it.
"We ought to look," Ezra said, shoving his pistol back into the loop in his trousers. "If nothing else, I want to know what I might be killed for."
"It's only fair," Emmerich agreed, and together they started for the bed. Emmerich went to the foot of it, resting his weight against the molded frame that
"It'll be easiest," Emmerich said, "if I brace myself here, and lever it up enough for you to slide the trunk out." Ezra nodded. "On my count."
The frame creaked and groaned and budged up only slightly, but it was enough for Ezra to clamber beneath and emerge again, crawling backwards and heaving the trunk behind him. The metal corners screeched across the worn floorboards and Emmerich winced at the sound. His hearing was returned, thankfully.
"Locked, naturally," Ezra said, drawing a hand up through his dark hair and glancing up from the chest.
"I can pick a lock," Emmerich said, and Ezra raised a brow. "On occasion."
"Try it, then. We haven't much time."
Ezra moved out of the way, and Emmerich dropped to a knee before the chest and slipped the small soft leather toolcase out of his boot. He kept it there always, never out of a thought of needing it but rather as a comfort, and protection. It was the only thing he had left out of his belongings that had come to the Kingshores with him. Everything else was sold or stolen.
The lock was a surprisingly simple one, and within half a minute Emmerich had it open. It had still felt like a very long half a minute, and the noises inside the brothel were quieting down around them. It hadn't been very long at all since the first shots had rung out downstairs, but time inside the brothel was stretching out oddly around them, endless and abrupt all at once.
As soon as he heard the sound of the tumblers turn, Emmerich's heart leapt to his throat, and he looked up at Ezra. He had his pistol out again and was watching the door warily. "Come on," he said, gesturing the boy down beside him. "Zusammen."
Ezra knelt at his side, and together they pried their fingers beneath the heavy lid and pushed it up and back, the thick hinges squealing and the wood creaking.
Inside, piles of paper filled the chest to the brim. Not paper, Emmerich saw, but banknotes. He had only seen them once or twice before, and never handled one. It was the last thing he had expected to see—Allister and Kegg hardly ever exchanged representative wealth like this, as far as Emmerich knew. He'd thought the trunk held a half the share of powders that Allister had bartered cheap off a foreign merchant earlier that week. He'd heard the other men talking about it earlier, and just assumed. He'd known he'd never actually see inside the chest, and it wasn't his job to worry about what was inside, only that it all got to where it was meant to.
"You couldn't spend this in a lifetime," Emmerich said, breathing out.
"Depends on your standard of living," Ezra said briskly, and stood up again. He didn't look at all awed by the piles of paper stacked up in the trunk, just mildly surprised.
"Put it back under," Emmerich said. Something in his stomach had gone cold and tight. "Put it back."
"And do what?" Ezra said. "They'll be up here any minute now, once they've got things controlled down there. It doesn't matter what we do. They'll kill both of us."
"Then you think we should—what? Have a standoff, right here, in this tiny fucking room? They'll come in shooting."
"Then let's take it," Ezra said. "All of it—let's take it. Take it and just leave with it."
"Sind Sie verrückt?" Emmerich demanded, forgetting himself for a moment. "Ich—
"Probably, but why not?" Ezra said. "We either get out of this or we don't; and if they find us we'll die either way, if we stole their money or not. Emery—let's take it."
"You are mad," Emmerich said, and the grin Ezra gave in return was wild and bright.
"I might be," he said. "But I know what I'm doing. If neither of us knew that this was happening, obviously we weren't meant to know. And that means they see us as expendable, or as obstacles. Because we're the ones in the room with the fucking chest! Why wouldn't they let us know unless they just plan to off the both of us in the end?"
He was right, and Emmerich felt the pit of his stomach go over cold. It didn't seem like a coincidence that the first time he was allowed a bigger part in a trade, something like this happened. The likelihood of all this made him sick at heart.
"Emmerich," Ezra said, clear and quiet. Emmerich lifted his head, heart pounding, found Ezra looking quite calmly at him. "I need you for this. Together or not at all. What do you say?"
It took him only a moment to decide. It wasn't that difficult, in the end. "All right," Emmerich said. "All right. I'm with you. Zusammen."
Ezra grinned, so widely that it put deep creases at the sides of his mouth. It was a handsome smile, disarming and unexpected. "Zusammen," he said. "So let's find something to put this all in that isn't a five stone trunk."
"Pillowslip," said Emmerich at once.
"Ungainly," Ezra replied, but was already moving towards the bed, hands going out for one of the squashed, limp cushions propped up at the head. His hand dipped to his waist, and a small metal dagger suddenly glinted between his fingers. With one solid motion he stabbed the blade into the pillow and ripped the top edge open. Stuffing tumbled out the top, and Ezra turned the case upside down and emptied all of it onto the bed, spilling downy puffs everywhere. Then he threw the empty case at Emmerich, who snagged it from the air.
"Start on that," Ezra said. "I'll watch the door."
As he passed by, Ezra's hand slipped down, brushing along Emmerich's waist, jostling something there. It took Emmerich a moment to realize that Ezra had slipped the bulldog out of his holster. Ezra had just taken his pistol, as casually as if he did it all the time. It had been familiar and careless—almost intimate. A shudder washed through him, one that only worsened when he caught sight of how Ezra looked hefting a pistol in each hand, elbows bent and barrels pointed at the ceiling.
"I'm not watching the door with only six shots, when there's nearly twice as many downstairs," Ezra said. Then he grinned, lifting his chin. "I'll warn you next time I do that."
Don't bother, Emmerich nearly said. He should have been upset by how easily Ezra had taken him off guard and outright stolen the pistol off him…but he was too busy being bothered in an entirely different way. He drew in a long breath as he knelt down in front of the chest and started dumping double handfuls of the notes into the pillowslip. It would have gone faster, and easier, with the both of them working at it, but Emmerich was glad that someone capable with a pistol was on lookout. Watching out for both of them.
When he risked a glance over at Ezra, the boy was pressed back against the wall by the door, which he'd pushed open a sliver. Just enough to see into the hallway and down the stairs that lead to the floor below. His eyes were trained forward, never moving, hardly blinking. His chest moved in quick, soft breaths, and the rest of his body was perfectly still. Emmerich was sure he'd never seen a person so focused.
It took at least a minute to empty the trunk, and each second that passed only compounded the fear that the men below would be on the stairs at any moment, coming for them. Emmerich's hands were sweating against the dry stacks of crisp paper, hardly aware of just how much wealth was passing beneath his hands. He had only four silver shales in his own pocket and had thought that a good share to keep him for the next week or two. He could not even conceive of how much he was stuffing into this threadbare sack of cloth.
"Done," he said, when the last note was safely in the pillowslip and the trunk itself held only a few crumbs of old dirt at the bottom and threads of some long forgotten fabric. It looked much smaller now, empty and insignificant.
"Fortuitous timing," Ezra said, pressing the door back closed and turning to him. "We'd best be leaving now—listen."
Emmerich cocked his ear, but there was nothing. The panic in the brothel had died away like it had never been there. And that, he assumed, was Ezra's point. With no other distractions, the men who had once worked under Allister and Kegg would be coming up to tidy up the last loose ends of their mutiny.
Ezra crossed the room to the window then and threw back the curtains, then got one boot up on the edge of the sill. He kicked the frames open, twisted his body through the window and into the chilled night air. His hands gripped the bottom edge of the window and then disappeared, one at a time, as Ezra scaled himself down the face of the building. Inside the room was only silence. Drafty, damp air came in at the window and flickered at the lamps on the walls. Emmerich watched the faded rose-printed curtains waft inwards, and shuddered as the cold prickled up his bare arms. His coat, foolishly, had been left downstairs.
"Emery!" came a call then from below, whispered and only a little frantic.
Emmerich was not quite ready for this part, nor was he sure he would ever be, so he made himself go to the window and lean out, resting the full pillowslip on the sill beside him. Ezra was standing on the cobbled street below, half his body bathed in the yellow light from one of the gas lamps. A moment later, he stepped fully into the shadows, invisible all except for a gleam of light off his dark hair.
"Drop it to me," he called up in a whisper.
This was the telling moment. Emmerich drew in a breath, and dropped the pillowslip down into the dark. He heard the heavy flumph of it landing in Ezra's arms, and nothing else. Silence, and the hollow drip of the drainpipe. There was nothing left to do but to swing himself out of the window and begin climbing down.
The bricks were old and damp, sticking out like jumbled teeth, and he could hardly get enough purchase on them with the tips of his boots. He gripped at the windowsill with his hands, moved them down to the raised moldings running down the face of the building. Ezra was either down below, waiting in the dark with an armful of the possibility to change both of their lives—or he was gone, sucked into the shadows of the city and an insurmountably richer man for it.
Emmerich's boot slipped on a crumbling, loose brick. He grabbed at the wall, caught a niche, lost it, nails dragging against grout. He only had a few meters left to fall, but he fell hard, landing on his back, breath bursting out of him. His vision swooped grey at the corners, blurred, then danced with yellow and white spots as his head started to ache. The cobblestones were cold and hard beneath him and water from the gutter was running into the top of one of his boots. He wasn't sure if he should move. And he didn't see Ezra.
Then he heard footsteps near his head, the shift of fabric as someone knelt beside him, and a duller impact as something large and heavy dropped to the cobblestone beside his leg.
"Emery," said Ezra's voice. His face loomed oddly white and drawn out of the dark. He'd dropped the pillowslip at his side, and it had wilted over, sagging formlessly against his thigh. "You're all right?"
"Es geht mir gut," Emmerich said, taking his outstretched hand. Ezra grinned and pulled them both up.
"Das lass ich mir gefallen," he said, his voice warm and quiet. They were still clasping hands. The air between them seemed thicker, slower. Emmerich swallowed, and tugged his hand away. Ezra let his own arm drop, rubbing his palm absently against his leg. Then he reached down and grabbed the top of the pillowslip, and slung it up over his shoulder.
"All right," he said. "Let's go. Quickly."
Above them, through the open window on the second story, there was the sound of a wooden door being shoved open in its swollen frame. A brief few seconds of silence, men's voices shouting, heavy footsteps barging into the room they'd just climbed out of, wooden boards rumbling and shrieking against each other.
"Fuck," Ezra said, turning wide eyes to him. And then, he grabbed Emmerich's hand again, just as the distant bell of the city's clock tower began to toll midnight. "Run."
THERE IS ALREADY A SECOND CHAPTER TO THIS. But it's on my livejournal and you have to friend me to read it; it will show up here sometime later on. I am staggering my updates in an experiment you can read more about here: teromain(dot)livejournal(dot)com(slash)55418(dot)html