Part V: The Close
Surcinger Close sat at the northern end of the city, so that the merchant freight from ships could be loaded into barges and ferried as far southward through the city as it needed to go, or taken out into the countryside to smaller towns and aughterlands. Some freight still came in by water-ship at the river main, through the tidal waters of the Lowon to the docks in Culls Downing, but Emmerich had never worked there and knew nothing of it. Shipyards were a different world from the close; there was no mixing of the two and they bred entirely different men, with very little patience for each other. But the close had been as near to a home as he'd had in the Kingshore for the first years he'd been in the city; he'd known the men there as not a family, but certainly something welcoming enough.
Emmerich wondered if any of them would recognize him still—if in the time he'd been away he had been forgotten. He had only returned here once or twice in the five years since joining Allister's crew, and that had been only on errands he had been sent on, so there had been no time to waste in revisiting old acquaintances. But his life at the close had been the start of who he had become in this city, certainly he owed that to it. His pay had been a copper half-peg a day, sometimes more if the work had been particularly grueling. Where he had lived, the cheapest he could find to put a roof over his head and one meal a day, cost nearly six times that a week. His other method of employing himself had given him anywhere from a half-peg to several full ones with each go at it, which was why he had returned again and again to the gritty stone alleys and cold shadowed corners of Pennygrand and Havesbonnet, where he could always find men searching for what he had to offer.
Occasionally, he had picked a pocket or two. Riskier, more difficult, and certainly with more chance of a truly mortal punishment, but oftentimes he could live for a week or more off of a single cut purse. And one day he had tried to steal off a man named Uxilord; a man who worked for Edwin Allister. He'd been caught, of course—caught before he'd ever cut the cords of the moneypurse, because all Allister's men knew how to tell at once that they were being had over. Emmerich had been shaken down well himself, and had thought himself lucky to escape with nothing more than a scare and a threat and a swollen eye. It was only later that he learned his handiwork had actually impressed Uxilord, and when Alister had needed a new quick-handed errand boy, it had been Emmerich they had come to find.
But from his years there, Emmerich knew the close well—not only the arrangement of the berths, but the way daily work went on within its busy boundaries. He knew how to work the great metal lifts that moved up and down the towering berths, knew how to work the clamps that held the ships into their scaffold-arches, merchant and missionary alike, knew the path of the freightbarges in and out, knew how much weight they safely held and how to tie and untie the knots that moored them, knew the cranes that could hoist the heavy loaded pallets when a crank was worked by hand. And he knew the system of the canals themselves, the way they joined and crossed and splintered throughout the city. The entire place was a familiar one to him, comforting in its ways.
Ezra had never been to the close at all; never seen it nor smelt it nor imagined it, and again Emmerich had felt pride and confidence strong in his chest, that he had such an ability to be an asset. Ezra would have had no reference in which to go about even beginning a plan. The men at the Thistledown had said the Frand was coming to dock in three days' time, which had given him and Ezra a wealth of time to prepare what they ought to do. Though in the end, their idea was quite simple and adaptable, and would quite depend on what their unknowing benefactors would do.
Emmerich had quickly decided it would be far safer to not attempt to take the cargo themselves directly from the ship. After all, they were one of three possible parties who had interest in the contents, who might be arriving there to retrieve it. It had originally been meant for Kegg, and if his man Staard still had an interest in it there was potential for a very dangerous run-in here with the very men Emmerich and Ezra were trying to avoid. So they would keep themselves subtle, watching from a distance, to see who arrived for it first. And then if it was Bartho and his men who secured it, he and Ezra would relieve them of it in turn.
The impression Emmerich had made of those men at the Thistledown was not one of crafty or dangerous criminals, just rather a few ragtag outlaws who had happened to hear of something that could help their fortune. Rather like themselves. He had no real desire to harm them, only take from them what was not theirs to begin with. He did not think there would be much difficulty in it. Perhaps it was unjust, but there was very little fairness that survived at this level of the world.
The morning of came with heavy clouds and a bitter crispness to the air that felt to Emmerich like coming snow. It was not winter yet, but autumn was beginning to peel away from the skies and leave them sparse and bleak. The most dangerous time of year, when cold and hunger often claimed more lives than disease or fever ever did.
He and Ezra departed for the close quite early. It was a good ways north on foot from the printing house, and they left just before dawn, bundled well into their coats. Emmerich had the bulldog secure at his hip beneath his coat, and Ezra was carrying his Lutreole somewhere upon him as well. They had divided their ten meager bullets equally between them, despite Emmerich's protests that Ezra would likely be of much more value with the majority of them. But Ezra would not hear of leaving Emmerich with less than he had.
They passed out of the factory district, through the muddy alleys Havesbonnet and Dialford and into the more polished streets of Highcarriage. There was little fog this morning and the streets were quite clear, and the sound of their footsteps were loud on the stones of the street. As they neared Carrousel Hill and a growing light began to come up behind the rooftops, lamplighters started to ghost about in the streets, carrying their poles to put out the very gaslights that they had lit the evening before. Emmerich caught Ezra watching them in a sort of rapt fascination, captivated by the way that they darted about in the shadows and touched out the lights.
The close itself was visible from a great distance away, but most imposing when they had breached the crest of the hill itself. A great wall of brick and metal, rising hundreds of meters into the air for near half a mile on the crest of Carrousel Hill. Ships were housed in the wide arches of the framework, clamped in place as cargo was unloaded or loaded via great metal lifts. Great open platforms were built opposite it, a scaffolding to balance against the overwhelming structure of the berths, to hold pallets of cargo and to make reaching the ships in the higher tiers easier. Emmerich and Ezra had arrived at a time when the work of the day was beginning in earnest; the entirety of the close was rousing itself into motion, metalwork clanking and sturdy little carts trundling past beneath the wooden pylons, drawing pallets of crates behind them and puffing out clouds of steam from brass pipes. Men shouted out to each other over the noise, though it was far less of a racket now than it was at the busiest times, which were usually just around midday.
Ezra kept himself quite close to Emmerich's side, and though he appeared perfectly at ease Emmerich did notice that he sometimes startled at louder, unexpected noises and his attention moved constantly from one thing to another. Emmerich remembered feeling somewhat the same the first time he had been here; it was nothing like the rest of the city, and even the bustle of the busiest marketplaces and work yards couldn't match it for commotion and rush.
Finding if and where the Frand had docked was simple enough—Emmerich simply stopped a passing man wearing the sash of a Deputy Closemaster and inquired about it. It was not a suspicious request, and the man told Emmerich that the Frand had indeed come in and where she was berthed. Then on impulse, Emmerich asked after her laytime.
"Not so long for one of her size," said the Deputy, who spoke in a thick brogue that Emmerich had some difficulty understanding. "Only a few hours, she was given, and she's used up half of it already as they've not got her right papers through yet."
Emmerich thanked the man and pushed Ezra off into the bustle of the workers, before the Deputy had any time to wonder about who the two of them were or why they might be asking about a ship.
The Frand had come in on the far side of the merchant half of the docks, near the area where missionary ships made berth. It was quieter this deep into the close, as missionary ships were rarely chartered for cargo and their time in port was usually meant for resupplying, repairs, and leave. Emmerich and Ezra wound their way through the light mist shrouding the hill, easily seen through but threading cold and damp along the ground. The ship was berthed in a first tier, sitting in a brick arch only several dozen yards above the ground. It meant they did not have to climb to a second platform to keep an eye on it, or anyone approaching.
"What now?" Ezra asked.
"Anything those men will be wanting is still aboard the ship," Emmerich said. "So they'll have to come to her, unless she's unloaded soon. Unless that happens, we can simply wait for them here."
Ezra nodded, glancing around. There was a very long row of pallets behind them, holding cargo waiting to be loaded into outgoing ships, and his eyes fixed onto them. "Better if we don't stand about in the open," he said, and Emmerich agreed. Though the men had not seen him as the Thistledown, there was the chance that the dockers themselves might find them odd or suspicious. Men doing no work did tend to be conspicuous here, and Emmerich well remembered how quickly he had learnt the art of appearing busy, even if there was truly nothing to be done.
Ezra went and hoisted himself up into the nearest pallet, which sat a certain height off the ground and did take a large step to mount. Emmerich followed and braced one hand on the side of a crate. Ezra caught his other hand to help him up, just as the sound of several voices drew near. Emmerich could hear that of a woman's amongst them, a much more uncommon sound at the close. Intrigued, he leant sideways enough so he could see around the corner of the crates.
A missionary crew was passing by, crisp in the black uniforms outlined in grey, silver epaulets on their shoulders, caps upon the men and small neat bonnets on the heads of the two women with them. Though he'd had very little to do with the area of the missionary docks when he'd worked here, Emmerich knew all five types of Order uniforms on sight, even could recognize a few of the ranking insignias that were pinned to the lapels. All from watching in a kind of distant, impossible, half-wanting for all the years spent working here. He could still remember them now.
"Emery," Ezra whispered, and squeezed at his wrist.
"Yes, sorry," Emmerich said, and lifted himself up fully onto the pallet. Ezra kept a firm grip on him and pulled him in between the crates, steadied him and caught his shoulder.
"What did you see?"
Emmerich shook his head. "Nothing of importance."
From deep within the pallet, between towers of crates, they had a good enough view of the keel of the Frand, and any men who might be approaching her berth. Of course, there was no telling when the men from the Thistledown might arrive, or if the Frand's cargo would be unloaded, or when the pallet they were hiding in might be transferred into a waiting ship itself. And there was the distinct possibility that Staard's men might be coming for it all as well.
Ezra seemed rather unworried about all of this. He'd reached into his coat and taken out a small rough sack, and was now shaking its contents out upon the lid of the crate he was sitting on. Rolling paper and a smaller sack of what had to be tobacco. He'd not had it when they'd left this morning, so Emmerich could only assume he'd bought or stolen it off one of the men at the close.
"How do you always manage that?" Emmerich asked, and Ezra only smiled and handed him his own bit of rolling paper. It was a stronger concoction than what Ezra had bought off the proprietor of the inn of the rookery, and the first breaths of smoke burned Emmerich's lungs and lightened his head. Even Ezra coughed against the back of his fist a few times. After that they sat in silence, huddled into their coats and listening to the clanking of machinery, creaking of ropes, shouting of men and rumble of carts as they passed by.
"How do you suppose they'll get hold of it all," Ezra said after perhaps a half hours' time, nearly to himself. "I mean, out from the ship."
"I've no idea. It's not as though it'll be on the bill of lading, is it," Emmerich said, and then waved his hand when Ezra only looked questioningly at him. Ezra might be fully comfortable in his life as an outlaw, or in the upper class of the peerage, but he knew very little of common work. "I suppose we'll see soon enough."
Ezra nodded and shifted his position against the crate he was leaning against. He had rolled a second cigarette already, although Emmerich had refrained from the same. When he'd been more in the habit, he'd usually smoked to calm or entertain himself, and he had much more of a need to be alert and focused this morning. Emmerich turned his attention back to the gap between the crates because, as always, watching Ezra smoke was equally as distracting.
Some time later—long enough to lose track of exact minutes, but not enough for his attention to wane—Emmerich caught sudden sight of the tail-end of a ruddy-brown coat going past the crates, somewhat the color of dried blood. There were two other men following along with him; one fair-haired and the other with a hat pulled low over his brow. They were within his view for only a handful of seconds, passing beyond the gap in the crates, but Emmerich was sure of who they were. He recognized the wearer of the reddish-coat as the dark-haired man from the Thistledown, and the other two were likely the men who had been in his company then.
"There," he said, and Ezra glanced up at once. "They've come."
Without another word between them, they rose to their feet and squeezed out from between the stacked crates, jumping down from the pallet to the hard-packed ground. Emmerich spotted the men quickly—they were not moving towards the Frand but rather away from it, in the opposite direction of the great berths. Emmerich and Ezra began moving along the pallets, Emmerich in front and keeping the men in sight, but careful to not get too near to their quarry. These men did not know Emmerich's face, but it was uncertain if they knew Ezra only by reputation or if they could recognize him. Emmerich had decided to assume the latter, to err in caution.
They were still in clear view of the Frand when the three men they were following stopped under the shadow of a squat brick building. This Emmerich remembered as the Closemaster's Quarters, which would be mostly empty now during the active hours of the day. He and Emmerich paused themselves several yards away, just around the corner of the end of the row of pallets. This last one held barrels lashed together, and through the gaps in the round shapes they could clearly see the three men.
"What are they doing?" said Ezra, after several minutes where the men had not moved, only stood about together in a close bundle, their breath fogging up around them. The one with the hat was carrying an iron cat's paw with him, which he had perhaps picked up at here the close. They were common enough for it.
"Waiting for the ship to be unloaded?" Emmerich offered, though he wasn't sure. They were not close at all to where cargo from that berth would be brought. "Or perhaps, for a person."
He was proved right within a few minutes time. A man drawing a small handcart behind him came around the corner of the building, wearing a thick woolen frock coat and dressed nothing like a dock worker. Some sort of chandler or merchant, perhaps. But clearly he was the person who the other men had been waiting for. They approached him at once, the man in the red coat at the front, who looked to be rather in charge.
Emmerich could not hear their conversation clearly from their position, but it seemed as though the men were spending some amount of time convincing the chandler that they were the right ones to receive the cargo. The man did not appear to agree until a small rough sack passed between their hands, which the chandler peered into and seemed to approve of. Then finally the handcart was given over and the chandler disappeared back around the corner of the building, leaving the three men alone again.
"Bartho," said the fair-haired man to the one in the reddish coat, rather loudly. "You sh'uldn't've given that over."
"Well he weren't going to give it any other way. Let's have a look," said Bartho, and the three of them clustered round the crate. The fair-haired one levered several nails up from the lid with the cat's paw, enough for it to be lifted and looked under. The man in the hat made an appreciative noise and clapped Bartho on the shoulder.
"Well picked," he said, as the fair-haired man tapped the nails back into the lid, now that the contents were assured of. "Let's off, then."
The three men were gone nearly at once, seizing the handcart and pulling it around the corner of the Closemaster's building. Emmerich and Ezra held their positions for a few moments before following. There were several areas where barges clustered, each leading into one of three main canals—the west, east or north. The north canal threaded straight out of the city into the countryside, but the other two passed through it, and splintered dozens of smaller canals and channels. The barges that went north were larger, as they carried more and went further, and needed larger docks because of it. But it was towards the smaller river docks that the three men were headed, so they would be staying within the city wherever they planned to head, either to the east or west.
By the time Ezra and Emmerich caught up, the men were already loading the single crate into a small barge, painted along the sides with a worn blue color. Bartho was speaking to a lighterman on the shore, passing him another small sack and clearly paying for the man to give the use of the barge over to them. Then he climbed into the barge himself and they shoved off from the shore, the motor that drove it whirring its parts and heaving hot white puffs of steam into the air. The direction they were moving in made where they were heading clear.
"They're taking the west canal," Emmerich said. "Ezra, go."
The boy was on his feet at once, and his hand passed across the back of Emmerich's shoulders as he dashed off, as though in reassurance. For Emmerich or for himself, Emmerich was unsure, but it wasn't unwelcome.
They had planned for the possibility of the men taking a barge out with the cargo, and not simply walking from the close with it. Ezra would now follow them from the rooftops, keeping the barge in his direct sight. Emmerich could follow much more easily from the ground, as he was familiar with the system of the canals and knew what streets ran alongside them. They did not know the destination of the barge, so following it was what they would do until an opportunity to seize it had presented itself. Ezra could signal to him if a very unexpected change in the barge's path occurred, but otherwise Emmerich was sure enough in his knowledge of the canals that he would be unlikely to fall behind. And Ezra had been confident of his own ability to traverse the rooftops-after he had lead them easily through the city that way on the very morning after they'd met, Emmerich was as well.
Emmerich dug his way into the dockers and lightermen bustling about, making his way towards the part of the close that would take him into the streets that banked the west canal. He kept an eye on the blue-painted barge as he did, keeping abreast of it through the passing dock crowd. It chugged slowly through the dark greenish waters of the canal, powered by a worn-out engine that moved it at a sluggish but steady pace. He reached the edge of the close only a few moments behind the barge, and watched as the men steered it off the first branch of the canal that took them southward. Emmerich pressed his hand against the shape of the bulldog inside his coat, took in a breath, and moved into the streets.
The canal the men had taken was only three or so times the width of the barge itself, edged by tall and narrow brick buildings to either side, crushed together with very little or no spaces between them. Every so often Emmerich could see the reassuring flash of Ezra's silhouette on the rooftops, moving nimbly and easily and keeping a near even pace with the barge below. Emmerich himself held back, staying to alleyways and streets that kept a building or two between himself and the barge, and as the men were taking a very direct path along one of the smaller canals, he was easily following them. They had already nearly gotten out of Highcarriage and were moving in a gradual but clear south-west direction. They would be soon be passing into the edges of Sussebury Faire; a great market district where the canals would splinter apart and it would become much more difficult to follow them.
Emmerich saw a sudden flicker of white from above; Ezra waving his signal down to Emmerich. He realized why at once. They were approaching a lock up ahead beyond a bend in the canal—a place where the barge would need to stop and operate the mechanisms to carry it on to the next section. It would be a natural opportunity at which to waylay it, with the men distracted and the barge itself stationary in the water.
He flashed his own signal back to Ezra, and reached to his holster to retrieve the bulldog. The grip of it was heavy in his hand, warm from being pressed close to him beneath his coat, and he could feel the added weight of the few extra bullets within the chambers. He smoothed his thumb over the worn wood of the insets, and took in a sturdy breath. Then he came around the corner, onto the open lane that lead alongside the canal, only a few dozen steps behind the barge.
The man called Bartho was sitting in the front of it, the two others behind—the one in the hat and the one with fair hair. The former was sitting nearly atop the single crate, his feet braced to either side of it. The lock was just coming into sight up ahead, and the fair-haired man rose to his feet and began to carefully climb towards the prow, likely to help with working the mechanism, which often took two. The man in the hat stayed in place. With this further distraction, Emmerich's appearance at the side of the canal went wholly unnoticed. There was no one else in this quiet part of the canal, the lane empty of passersby and mostly back ends of buildings pressing up to either side.
"Oi!" Emmerich called out, cupping a hand to the side of his mouth. "Wait up there!"
Only the man in the hat glanced up, the others still settling themselves in the barge. "What's that then?" he called out, peering in Emmerich's direction.
Before Emmerich could pull the bulldog from his coat and begin the hold up, there came a sharp whistling, a loud crack that echoed down the length of the canal. The man in the hat jerked as though he'd been shoved from the back. A strange expression of surprise took hold of his face, nearly comical in its exaggeration. Then he fell forward over the crate, the back of his shabby coat torn open with a ragged red hole.
Emmerich staggered back to the brick wall behind him at once, into an alcove that held a thick iron door. Firing shots was a very last choice in their plan, and there was no reason for Ezra to have done so now. The only explanation was that someone else had. The two remaining men in the barge scrambled into motion. Bartho brought out a large, clumsy flintlock from beneath his coat that made the bulldog look very sleek in comparison. He aimed it towards the rooftops, but it was clear that from their position in the middle of the canal he had a very poor line of sight. Emmerich, on the other hand, could see much more.
At least two other men had appeared on the rooftops above, dark shapes against the greyish skies. Emmerich would guess that there were more on the side above himself, the side he could not see. He hoped that Ezra had already noticed them when the shot had gone off, and hidden himself. Emmerich could hear them shouting to each other, in a language that he of course did not speak, so he didn't know if they had seen Ezra or if they considered Emmerich a threat either.
Emmerich heard a splash, and saw that the fair-haired man was now in the canal, thrashing wildly about. Whether he had jumped or fallen was unclear, but that he could not swim was quite apparent. He was trying to make his way back to the barge to hold onto it, calling out for his remaining companion to help him. But Bartho had begun to fire his flintlock up towards the roofs, poorly aimed shots that cracked and echoed down the canal. He was nowhere near to hitting anything, and Emmerich could hear the men laughing at his attempts.
They didn't seem to be in any hurry to do what they had clearly come to do—the same thing that Emmerich and Ezra had hoped—and with Bartho and his companion providing a distraction, Emmerich knew he should take the opportunity to get out of this doorway. There might be more men coming for the barge, on the ground or on the roof, and if they were not seeing Emmerich as an enemy now they surely would if they caught him and found his pistol. Or his partner. He had to find a way up to the roof himself, out of the clear sight of the men, and get to Ezra.
Emmerich was not usually a devoted man, but he did pay a quick prayer in his mind then, just for luck. Then he threw himself out of the doorway and dashed around the corner into a narrow alleyway. No shots were fired after him, and the alleyway was empty. Several old barrels happened to be stacked and lashed together here, tall enough to reach halfway to the roof. He made for them at once, clambering up until he could get his foot onto the sill of a window and one hand grasped around a stout chimney, and pulled himself onto the roof. He lay quite flat there for a moment, drawing the bulldog out from his holster and glancing about for the positions of the others up here with him.
The chimneys and edges and varying heights of the rooftops made for endless places to shield oneself, and Emmerich could not see Ezra at all. He knew the boy was on this side of the canal with him, at least. There were two men on the opposite side of the canal, and at least one on his own side as well. The man on his side was several rooftops away and paying all his attention down towards the barge. Emmerich could hear loud voices coming from the canal, though he could not see what was happening, it sounded like some sort of struggle was going on there. There was the sound of yelling, then splashing. A pistol shot cracked off the brick walls, and a second followed.
With the appearance of this other group of men, Emmerich was giving the crate in the barge up for lost. He and Ezra would be foolish to try and take on this many men with their limited ammunition and knowledge of the new situation. If he could only find Ezra, somehow signal him to stay hidden, they could likely escape from this unharmed. Just as he was thinking that, he saw the movement of a shadow some distance ahead; low and moving carefully across the roof. He could only imagine it was Ezra. He desperately wanted to alert him somehow, make his own presence known, but all he could safely do was watch as Ezra crept closer to the other man standing above the eaves.
Emmerich could not call out without giving himself away, so he only watched as Ezra put himself behind a soot-blackened clay chimney only a few paces from the man, and then whistled. Softly, but enough to catch the man's attention, draw him back from the edge of the roof and bring him to peer curiously around the chimney corner. And then Ezra had his pistol on him, gesturing with his other hand and directing the man down to his knees. The man went, slowly, a grimace furling over his weather-beaten features.
Ezra said something to him, and the man replied, but they clearly did not understand a word of what the other had said, from the expressions on their faces. Despite everything, Emmerich found himself amused that, finally, they had come across a language Ezra did not speak.
Suddenly the man moved, his shoulder shifting as if to reach for something on his person, and Ezra's own movement was quick and immediate—he struck the man across the temple with the butt of his pistol and sent him collapsing to the roof. He did not move from where he fell. At once Ezra went about looking through his coat, and drew out something rather pistol-shaped. He glanced quickly into the chambers and then tucked it into his coat, keeping his own pistol in his hand.
A distant shot echoed out, and Emmerich thought nothing of it, assumed it was yet another from down at the canal. Until a puff of white mortar came off the corner of the bricks, only a handspan from Ezra's shoulder.
Ezra's head snapped up and he froze for a moment, the wind whipping his dark hair off his face. Then he fired back, out of what looked like pure instinctive reaction, before scrambling back around behind the chimney. A strange ceramic ping echoed back from the other side of the roof, a sure sign of the bullet missing the mark. Ezra cursed fiercely and Emmerich counted the shot in his mind—eins. Ezra had four bullets left now, and himself still with five. Although Ezra had acquired a second gun, likely with a certain amount of bullets in it. But they still had no idea how many men were here, nor how many shots they could afford to spare.
Emmerich could still hear a commotion down at the canal, of whatever scuffle was still going on there, but Ezra had clearly somehow drawn the attention of the two men on the other side. Enough that they were shooting at him. Emmerich still could not go to him, and Ezra did not even know he was here. For the moment he could only watch. The men on the other side of the rooftops were moving, positioning themselves so that they were not out in the open.
Ezra suddenly rolled out from behind the chimney, staying flat on his belly, and fired off a shot that cracked across the rooftops. Zwei. But there was no hint that he had hit what he was aiming for. Their remaining bullets were now down to eight, and Emmerich held more than half of them. He thought he ought to get to Ezra as soon as he could, but he did not want to make himself an easy target, and there could also be more men that he was not aware of, that he hadn't yet seen.
Ezra had already retreated behind his chimney tower again, his back pressed to the stone and his face grim. The man he had struck with his pistol still lay beside him on the roof, but it was at that moment that he began to stir and move again. Ezra glanced down and, with no change of his expression, fired a shot into the man's throat. A splash of dark, frothy blood and the man's body jerked and seized and went still. Emmerich swallowed. Drei.
When Ezra lifted his head again, his eyes caught Emmerich's from across the roof. His face brightened at once. He made a rapid gesture and mouthed, "to me!" And Emmerich trusted him; that Ezra would make sure he would be unharmed.
It was just about a dozen steps across to where Ezra was crouching, and yet they felt like the very longest of Emmerich's life. He heard only his breathing and the pounding of his own feet as he ran. Ezra threw an arm around the side of the chimney and fired rather blindly across the canal, but that maybe have been something of the idea—to keep the other men in their cover as Emmerich made for him.Vier,Emmerich counted as he reached the chimney and threw himself behind it, collapsing hard to his knees to stop himself. He could not look at the ruined body of the man lying nearby on the roof, instead tilting his forehead to the brick and panting through his teeth. Ezra grabbed Emmerich's coat front at once and clutched him close.
"I didn't know where you'd gone," he breathed out. "Were you there, the whole time?"
"Most of it," Emmerich said, and Ezra's grin was rather wild.
"We've two across from us left," he said. "One is wounded in the shoulder. I did hit him, but he made no noise about it."
"Can he still fire?" Emmerich asked. There was a thin lash of hot pain beneath his own ribs, a stitch from the running and climbing and throwing himself about.
"Unless he favors his left arm, likely not very well."
They caught gazes for a long moment. Ezra's eyes looked as grey as the sky, all traces of blue drawn out from them, his eyelashes flickering in the wind. And as a certain thought ran through Emmerich's head, he was sure the same was going through Ezra's.
"Do you trust my aim?" Ezra spoke first.
"Yes," said Emmerich, with no hesitation.
Ezra nodded, and his eyes flicked about over the rooftops. "Get to that gable there," he said, pointing with the barrel of his pistol to an upraised portion some distance away on a lower roof. "Not too quickly, give him a chance to see you and—what are you doing?"
Emmerich had swung open the chamber of the bulldog and emptied two of his bullets into his palm. "You've only one shot left," he said. "I dotrust your aim but you'd be left with nothing."
Ezra let Emmerich pass him the bullets, and he hesitated only a moment before sliding them into the chambers of his own pistol. "I've a second gun now, as well," he muttered, but that was all, and then he put a hand to Emmerich's shoulder and held. "Ready?"
"Yes," Emmerich said, getting to a knee. His heart throbbed in his chest but on the outside he was steady. He would go out into the open and when the man across the roof made himself visible in order to shoot him, Ezra would return the favor. That was, if the man saw Emmerich at all, or even decided to shoot. But they might be trapped here for a while, otherwise.
"Go," Ezra whispered then, and Emmerich went.
His first step was on a particularly slippery bit of roof and his feet nearly came out from under him—at least the noise he made regaining his footing as he dashed towards the gable might be enough to catch the attention of anyone on the opposite side of the canal. Emmerich didn't dare to glance that way as he went, because if he was to be shot at he didn't want to watch it coming. And just then, something pinged past him and snapped off the slight slope of the roof just an arms' length in front of him, digging a deep rut there.
Emmerich's first deep, helpless reaction was to turn about and run the other way. He faltered in his paces for a moment, but holding still would be even worse than going forward. His momentum forced him onwards anyway, and all his hesitation did was to throw him a bit off balance. The gable was not far away now, another few strides and he would be there, although it was not very high and wouldn't provide as much cover as the chimney, it would be something—
A shot roared from his side of the canal, ringing in his head. Ezra had fired. A moment later Emmerich reached the gable and collapsed behind it, flattening himself to the roof and hearing nothing but echoes in his ears and the rush of hot blood. His skin burned with excitement even as the wind froze against him, and he panted into the collar of his coat. Sweat trickled from his hairline along his temple.
"Emery!" Ezra called out, and his tone was satisfied. "You're all right. It's done."
Emmerich lifted his head. Had Ezra only needed that one shot? It seemed to be true, as the boy was coming along the roof to him now, looking pleased with himself and his single shot. But Emmerich's attention was on something else, because from this place on the roof he could now see down into the canal, and what had been occurring there in the meantime.
Something had happened to the barge, and half of the stern was submerged in the greenish water. Perhaps it had been shot at, or purposefully overturned, but it was plainly sinking. The fair-haired man floated alongside it, motionless and face-down in the water. Another man lay along the lane alongside the canal, atop a large dark patch of red. A ways further down the canal, having drifted there, was the body of first man who had been shot, now missing his hat. Bartho was nowhere to be seen. But the crate was still sitting there in the middle of the barge, apparently untouched, though the water was lapping up against the very corner of it.
"Ezra—" Emmerich began, getting to his feet, because if they didn't make it back down to the canal quickly, that crate would be lost entirely.
"These weren't Kegg's men," Ezra said, his mind clearly elsewhere. "Must be another—down!"
They dove apart in opposite directions as a shot rang between them—Ezra around the edge of chimney stack and Emmerich off the edge of the roof onto a lower one, built with a sloping edge. But he was not alone there. In fact, he nearly dropped down upon the head of a man crouching there on the ridge, one Emmerich had had no knowledge of being there or where he had even come from. Perhaps waiting for his own opportunity to shoot, for Emmerich felt the solid brunt of a pistol knock against his shoulder when they tangled together. The man grunted, and Emmerich heard a clatter of metal skittering away from them.
The man had dropped his pistol, leaving himself unarmed. Realizing it at the same moment, he and Emmerich both stopped their tussling. The muzzle of the bulldog was pressed up near the man's jaw, and both of them were breathing hard and balanced precariously together on the ridge of the roof. The man had pale blue eyes and a ragged growth of fair beard, did not appear to be much older than Emmerich himself. Emmerich felt his heart beat sickeningly in his chest, and he twisted his hand so that his finger fell neatly to the hollow of the trigger guard.
For a still and silent moment, neither of them moved.
"Nej—" the man said, breaking it at once. Then Emmerich squeezed the trigger.
The pistol barked in his hand, roared and jerked with a life of its own. But he was too close to miss. The man's face disappeared into an eruption of red, and a spray of warmth splashed across Emmerich's face and neck. The world rang in his ears. The scene of gunpowder bloomed bitter in his nose and on his tongue. The man's body, now heavy and limp and still partly entwined with Emmerich, began to slide down the slope of the roof. Emmerich's grip on the ridge was already tenuous, and his fingers lost their hold entirely then.
He was dragged along helplessly, rolling down towards the roof edge. Another deafening shot from further away whirled in his ears as he went, and a howl of a voice that was not Ezra's. Emmerich hit the edge of the roof then and caught, for a moment, in the wooden gutter. A few moments later, a splash of a heavy body into water. The roof overstretched the lane below, hung directly over the canal, and there was now a wide ripple spreading from a section of frothy water. A few moments later a dark shape bobbed back to the surface, unmoving.
Two more shots went then, in quick succession, and Emmerich heard the hollow ricochet of a bullet nearby, saw the puff of dust from where it had skidded along the roof only an arm's length from him. There came a loud yelp, and a muffled thump. Footsteps ran across the roof towards him, and Emmerich tried to shift himself back onto the more solid edge of the roof. As he did so, the gutter creaked beneath his weight and bowed downwards. It did not detach, but it was enough to send him tumbling over the edge.
"Emmerich!" Ezra's voice shouted. But Emmerich had managed to grab the eaves, a much more solid support, and his boots could reach the wide ledge of a windowsill below. Though he was still directly over the canal, his hold was solid enough, his weight well-caught. He was all right.
"Emery!" Ezra cried out again from somewhere above him.
"I'm all right—I've a good grip!" Emmerich called up. "Get down to the barge!"
But Ezra was at the edge of the roof now, and he threw one hand down toward Emmerich, stretching as far as he could without toppling himself over the eaves.
"Take my fucking hand, Emmerich!"
Emmerich did so. His palm slapped against Ezra's wrist and his fingers clenched around it, as Ezra's wrapped back around his own wrist and held. Ezra dragged him up over the roof, got an arm around Emmerich's waist and rolled them, pressing him down with the weight of his own body as if still afraid Emmerich would slip out from his grasp.
"Ezra," Emmerich said, muffled from the way the boy's shoulder was pressing against the edge of his mouth. "Ezra, ich bin unverletzt. Es ist nicht mein Blut."
"I know," Ezra said, and still didn't move from him.
"Ezra," Emmerich said again, softly, and put a hand to the boy's hair. Ezra clung to him for one moment more, and then climbed to his feet. He put his hand down and Emmerich took it, allowed himself to be pulled up. They wobbled together for a moment, pressed close with hands clasped, until Emmerich got a hand up round Ezra's shoulder and kept him steady, moved them apart. And then, remembered what it was they were up here for, how they were likely not safe yet.
"Die Männer —" he said, beginning to glance about the rooftops.
"Dead, or run," Ezra said simply. "There's no one left."
"Und die Barkasse...?" said Emmerich, and Ezra drew in a sharp breath. He reached down and took Emmerich's wrist, drawing him across the roof.
"We'd better go and see."
They climbed down from the rooftops together, Emmerich harboring a certain fear that the barge had sunk all together and taken the crate with it. And then they would be exactly where they had been before—no. Not the same as before; even further behind. Because they were very nearly out of bullets now. He had two left and he was unsure how many of the shots he had heard in the last few minutes had been Ezra's, and how many had come from elsewhere.
But when they got out to the canal again, the barge was not much worse off than it had been the last time Emmerich caught a glimpse of it. It was still sinking, but the crate was still sitting out of the water and looked mostly unharmed but for the red-brown stain drying across its lid. A man had been shot over the top of it, after all.
The barge had drifted near the canal wall before it had sunk, so it was just within arms' reach. Still, it took the both of them and all their strength to drag it through the water towards them, kneeling at the stone edge of the canal and leaning as far out over it as they could. Ezra had to push away the sodden body of the fair-haired man, which had somehow gotten snagged against the prow and was coming along with it. The water was lapping heavily at a corner of the crate by now, but did not look as if it had gotten into it much. Finally, the edge of the barge grated up against the stone, and Ezra held it there while Emmerich dragged it bodily out. His body remembered this, and even though he was not as strong as he had been years ago, he could do it better than Ezra could have.
"We've got it," Emmerich panted, sitting back on his heels once the crate was secure on the solid ground. Though he had not yet seen what was inside, there was finally a feeling of accomplishment, of having done something that would help them to survive.
He glanced up at Ezra then, who was still a bit red-faced from exertion. The icy wind whipped and bit at his clothes, ruffling through his dark hair and raking it off his forehead. His lips looked a bit blue. He suddenly rose to his feet, grabbing Emmerich by the shirtfront as he did and dragging him upwards as well. Both Ezra's hands closed in his collar and he shook Emmerich, hard.
"Guns. Guns, you great idiot," Ezra said, eyes bright and somewhat wild. "You wanted me to let you fall for guns? And bullets?"
"I'd a grip," Emmerich said. "And I'd likely have survived falling."
"Can you swim?"
"Never tried it."
Ezra stared at him, gaping for a moment, and then caught him roughly around the waist and embraced him, his face pressed against Emmerich's neck for just a brief, warm moment. Then he let go, stepping away as if it hadn't even happened.
"You're still an idiot," he said, over his shoulder.
"Tut mir leid." The wind caught Emmerich's voice and threw it down the canal.
"I know," said Ezra. "Just don't do it again."
Getting the heavy and cumbersome crate back through the city was something of its own adventure, as the barge was sunk and they had no cart with which to pull it, and it was rather awkward for even two men to carry between them. And, they were still very far away from the district where the printing house was, further into the west of the city. Eventually they came upon a pile of old boards at the back of a building and took two, straddling the crate atop them and making for far easier carrying with one man bracing the boards at each end. It was not the most subtle of methods. They had to stay to wider and flatter streets for easier passage, and Emmerich felt as though at any moment someone was going to see them, recognize them, realize what they were carrying. He had splashed some of the water from the canal on his face and neck to wash off the blood of the man he had shot, but it was still all over his collar and he could feel it drying in places water hadn't reached. Inside his ear and in creases near his mouth and eye. If nothing else, he was afraid that someone would notice that. That he looked like a man who had just murdered another.
But they made it back to the printing house unscathed, unnoticed, and rather exhausted. They hauled the crate upstairs first, and then Emmerich went to the washroom and scrubbed the rest of the blood from his skin. But it had already dried well into his collar and coat, and wouldn't come out. He returned to his and Ezra's room with a sodden brown-tinged shirt, thinking over the day's events and the relative—though difficult—success that they'd had. Mostly, he wondered who the other men on the rooftops had been, how they had heard about the crate and its contents if they were not Staard's, as Ezra had said. If they had come from a larger group who might want revenge for their comrades that had fallen today.
And beside all of that, Emmerich had also shot a man. Shot him as he was looking into his eyes and had hardly hesitated about it. He had no strong feelings upon it at the moment, but he was sure they would come later, when the likelihood of their survival was less dire. Then it might truly come to him, and he would have to think of himself in somewhat of a different light, but until then it was of no desperate importance. Ezra had done much more than that today, killed at least three men, and he was certainly not dwelling on it.
Ezra had got the crate lid sprung up again by the time Emmerich returned to their room, but it was clear he had not yet fully opened it to look inside. He was leaning against the wall and appeared to be waiting for Emmerich.
"I thought we ought to look together," he said by way of an explanation, and Emmerich was oddly touched.
It was late afternoon by now, near the entire day had been spent up with this, especially bringing the crate back through the city. Smoke rose from the nearby factories into the darkening sky, and an orange haze hung over the river. The crate upon the floor was bathed in the strange light from it, the wood turned to amber and the thick forged nails gleaming at their edges, the bloodstain on its lid like black ink. Ezra and Emmerich both went to a knee in front of it, and pried it open together.
The crate was neatly packed, rows of slim wooden boxes carefully arranged in between smaller boards of wood to keep any of it from becoming displaced. Ezra took out one and opened the lid carefully, as though afraid of what might be inside. Emmerich found himself holding his own breath until the lid tipped back far enough for him to see the contents, the neat rows of bullets set into little slots within the box, evenly arranged.
"Three rows of twelve each," Ezra said, and looked up at Ezra with a bright grin. "Thirty-six to a box, if each is the same."
"Donnerwetter," Emmerich said through his fingers, and Ezra laughed warmly and caught his shoulder.
"You won't need to count my shots any longer," he said, and Emmerich let out a breathless laugh of his own. Ezra kept smiling at him, his hand warm on Emmerich's neck, and for a moment Emmerich wondered what might happen if he were to kiss him. Perhaps he could pass it off as just an expression of excitement if Ezra weren't to like it. But even the thought of it made him clammy and lightheaded, and then Ezra had let go of him and turned back to the crate and the chance was gone.
Not all of the boxes were the same, or held bullets—some held gears and mechanical parts that maybe have been meant for revolvers or even for other things, as some were clearly too large to fit into the makings of a firing weapon. The Acllaum-made pistols Emmerich had heard the men mention at the Thistledown were inside a wooden case, stamped with a mark that Ezra touched his fingers to carefully before tipping the lid open. There were four of them inside, all identical. The barrels were forged of a strange whitish-silver, the grips inlaid with a pearly white material that glimmered faintly iridescent. Otherwise they were plain, no engravings to speak of, each resting neatly in an individual slot within the case. They appeared as though they had never once been used.
"Lovely," Ezra said, brushing his hand across them. He glanced up at Emmerich with a smile. "You don't happen to need a new pistol, do you?"
Emmerich thought of the bulldog, the first and only gun he had ever killed with, its heavy aged frame and marks of use. It had done its job as it had been made for, as it had done for many men before him. He was not sure he trusted these delicate white things in the box, sitting so very clean and bloodless. Ezra picked one out and after a moment of examining it, seemed to break the pistol in half. The chambers sat built into the body of the gun, rather than swinging out to the side. Ezra clearly knew its kind as well, as he seemed to know most things. Emmerich touched a hand to the lustrous grip of one of the other pistols, nearly expecting it to be soft to the touch.
"You could have gone for chevaliat training," Ezra remarked suddenly as he peered down into the empty chambers of the one he held.
"What?" Emmerich asked, startled.
"You were watching them." Ezra snapped the Acllaum pistol back into one piece then placed it down on the lid of the crate, keeping just his fingertips touching the length of the barrel. "At the close, the missionaries. And I've seen you watch their ships from this room—you spend hours, sometimes, just waiting for one to pass by the window. You've not a talent they could use, or you'd already be there, I assume. But the chevaliats, they can be anyone."
"I did always want to," Emmerich admitted, and Ezra turned on him the same look that always warmed him—attentive and thoughtful, as though he might listen to Emmerich speak all day and not mind it at all. "But there was my family to take care of, and my village was only in the aughterlands and would have been days travel between to the missionary schools—I couldn't leave them. Especially not when my mother was gone. Then I came here, but it was all I could do to survive, and I hardly could manage to speak and be understood for years, and there was no time to think of it."
"But now?" Ezra said. His hand came up and settled on Emmerich's shoulder, fingers light and hesitant against his neck.
"Now...ich habe dich," Emmerich said, unable to look at him as he spoke. There was a soft silence between them for a moment, in which Emmerich kept his breath trapped in his chest in fear of disturbing it.
"And I have you, too," Ezra said, and gripped his fingers more firmly into Emmerich's shoulder.
Emmerich laughed, and kept on laughing, pressing back against Ezra and very glad indeed that this was what he had.
As always, the next chapter is already up at my LJ (friends locked). It has sex in it, if that's any sort of incentive. :)