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Authors: Gaie Sebold

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Babylon Steel

BOOK: Babylon Steel
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BABYLON STEEL

 

GAIE SEBOLD

 

 

SOLARIS

To my parents,

who wouldn’t have approved.

 

 

First published 2011 by Solaris

an imprint of Rebellion Publishing Ltd,

Riverside House, Osney Mead,

Oxford, OX2 0ES, UK

 

www.solarisbooks.com

 

ISBN (ePUB): 978-1-84997-325-0

ISBN (MOBI): 978-1-84997-326-7

 

Copyright © 2011 Gaie Sebold

 

The right of the author to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

 

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the copyright owners.

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

Day 1

6 days to Twomoon

 

 

W
HEN
I
HEARD
the shriek, I bolted up the stairs. That’s one thing about being my height, I can take stairs three at a time.

The sound had come from Laney’s room. I slammed the door open, and there was Laney, curled like a kitten at one end of the bed, and her client, flat on his back with his eyes shut. “What happened?” I said.

Laney just giggled.

I looked at the client lying in the crumpled pile of rose-pink sheets. He was one of those padded, flushed men who always remind me that people are basically made of meat. He had a glazed look, and although he had a sheet over him I was fairly certain that I could see either steam or smoke rising from the general area of his groin.

“Are you all right?”

He squeaked, swallowed, and said, “Oh,
yes
.”

“Laney...”

“Sorry, Babylon. We were just having a little fun.”

“Yes, well, I’d leave that sort of fun to the Twins, if I were you. I thought someone was being murdered up here.”

“Oh, really, Babylon, as if I
would
.” She patted the client on his balding head, bounced up, flung on a wisp of pink silk that served her as a dressing gown and danced past me. She grabbed my hand and dived into my office, pulling me behind her. She snatched up a red, leather-bound book I recognised all too well. “Babyloooon...” she waved it at me. A few scraps of paper fell out.

“Not now, Laney,” I said.

“If someone doesn’t do these soon, we’re in trouble.”

Laney’s tiny: all big green eyes and masses of blonde curls, but she can glare like a hawk. Plus, she’s a Fey. You don’t mess with Fey. Not if you’ve more brains than the average plant. Like every being of power, she can’t use most of it here on Scalentine – but she’s not helpless, not by a long way.

“I know,” I said.

“We need to order new bed linens, and curtains, and replace that lamp, and we haven’t paid the glazier yet. We might even have enough money, but no-one actually
knows.
Because no-one’s done the
accounts.

“You do them, then.”

“You know I don’t do
numbers
. That’s a completely different sort of magic from mine. But somebody has to do them.”

“What brought this on?”

She jerked her head towards her room. “Him. He’s an accountant.”

“Can’t we get him to do them?”

“Well, not right
now,
”she said, her mouth twitching. “And once he’s recovered he won’t be back for at least two weeks, he’s broke.”

Frankly, a broke accountant didn’t sound like someone I wanted doing my paperwork. I had enough problems. “All right, all right, I’ll do them tonight.”

Laney made a face in which hope, exasperation and disbelief were nicely mingled. “Well you need to sign this, anyway,” she said, waving more paper at me. “Clothier’s bill.”

I looked at it. “
How
much for that silk?”

She pouted. “One must
dress,
Babylon.”

“Amazes me that so little material can cost so much,” I said. I dipped a pen in the inkstand, signed the bill, and sealed it with my ring. Laney blew me a kiss and sashayed out. I hoped there
was
enough in the kitty, but I doubted it. There are usually six or seven of us working, but what with Laney’s taste in clothes, Flower’s taste in ingredients, and the Twins asking for new equipment every five minutes, considerably more had been going out than coming in. For a while, in fact.

I went back down. A few of the crew had gathered in the hall in case there was trouble; even the Twins had emerged from the basement.

“Everything smooth?” asked Cruel. She’s got cropped hair the colour of frost, and skin like midnight.

“As silk.”

Her brother, Unusual, glanced up the stairs. He’s the other way around, great mane of pitchy hair and silver-white skin. Well, they
claim
to be twins. Don’t ask me, I only work here. “Is that the culprit?” he asked.

Laney’s client was peeking over the banisters.

“Culprits should be punished,” said Cruel, smiling at him. Her smiles are... interesting. I saw him blanch and back towards the comparative safety of Laney’s room. It probably wasn’t just the smile; it might have been the leather, the spikes and the whip.

“Behave, you two, or you can help Flower in the kitchen.”

“Yes, Babylon.” They rolled their eyes, and withdrew to the Basement.

I looked around. The floor of the hall is honey-coloured wood, and the long windows let in the western light and have red velvet curtains, unfortunately now fading rather drastically to a sort of stripy maroon. I sighed. Laney was right, we really did need some new things. I started, reluctantly, to head back upstairs, but I’d barely got halfway before I heard the front door and Flower’s rock-crushing tones booming, “Babylon?”

I went back down to the hall to see Flower, and, in the doorway, the Chief of the City Militia. Flower made a worried face at me behind his back. Well, over his head, really. The Chief is tall, but Flower
looms.

“Right, come on, you know the drill,” the Chief said.

“Yes, Chief.” I led the way into the small parlour, sighing. He was going to make my life a misery, I knew it.

He stood in the middle of the small, blue-and-white room, with its big wing-chairs with their blue-velvet upholstery, its crackling fireplace, and its brass lamps with their pearly glass shades. He looked tough and tired and about to snarl. “Money,” he said.

“Money?”

“Money. Babylon... come on. How many times? I don’t want to have to arrest you, you know that.”

“You wouldn’t.”

“If you don’t pay your damn taxes, Babylon, I don’t have a choice! You’re six months behind, woman! You’ve got ten days.”

“Ah. Ten days?”

“They’ve extended it twice already. This is the absolute last time they’ll do it. And this is the last time I’m warning you. Just pay them
something
to quiet them down, even if you can’t pay the whole lot.” He frowned down at his sword hilt. “I’d lend you some money, but if it got out...”

“I wouldn’t let you.”

“I know. So do me a favour and just damn well pay it, will you?”

Ten days. I really
was
going to have to do the accounts. And see if I could increase the client roster, too. Though I doubted even that would get us out of the hole.

“All right, all right,” I said. “I’ll throw them a bone.”

“Good. My move, I think,” he said. He sat himself down in one of the big wing-chairs and picked up a pawn from the chess board.

Chief Hargur Bitternut. He’s one of those lean, wolf-haired, long-faced types who looks like he should be carving out new territory in some untouched land, but as head of the militia, he spends most of his time just trying to hold back chaos right here.

I sat down opposite him, looking at the board, turning the ring on my forefinger around. The sword and lotus caught the light. “You moved something. Before I got here.”

“You think I snuck past Flower? How? Babylon, one of these days you’re just going to have to learn to trust me.”

“You, I trust. Your chess game I don’t trust.”

“That’s because I always beat you,” he said.

“True. Let’s arm-wrestle instead.”

“Now, or in a week?”

“That time again? Ah. It’s a Twomoon, isn’t it?” I said.

He nodded, looking more lugubrious than ever.

That’s Scalentine. It’s on a planar conjunction, for one thing; and it has two moons. And once a year, they’re both full at the same time.

In a city endowed with a thousand different sorts of madness, not to mention a fairly wide variety of weres (the Chief’s one of them), you can imagine what a double full moon does. We put on extra security, don’t let in anyone we don’t recognise and stock up on cures.

I moved a pawn, and the Chief sighed. “Babylon. Come on. You’re not trying.”

I made a face. We played for a while in silence. Well, he played. I moved things around and swore under my breath when he destroyed another pawn.

“So,” he said. “Heard anything that’s going to make my life more complicated?”

“I’ve not heard a thing. It’s been unusually quiet, to be honest.”

We all hear things. We’re not in the habit of betraying bedroom confidences;
not
good business. But I know a lot of the local whores, plus their attendant hangers-on. They tell me the gossip. If it’s a bit of petty skimming I don’t bother the Chief with it, but anything that sounds likely to cause serious trouble I drop him a hint. In return, he warns me about anyone who might cause
me
difficulties, and tries to teach me chess.

Somehow I don’t think I’m ever going to get it, though. I don’t have the patience.

“Well, I should warn you... the Vessels are on the warpath,” Bitternut said. “Diplomatic Section had another delegation trying to get all the pleasure-houses closed down.”

The Diplomatic Section is three times as big as the militia and pretty much runs the joint. In a place like this, you need a lot of people who can exercise multilingual tact at short notice.

“Not
again,”
I said.

“I doubt you need worry – even the Diplomatic Section realise what a bad move that would be. But you may get some Vessels giving you noise.” He moved a knight.

“Can’t you arrest them for something?”

“I can’t arrest a whole community, Babylon. And annoying as they are, they haven’t actually shown any sign of breaking the law.”

“Painting nasty slogans on our walls? Hassling my crew?”


Apart
from that. And they’ve been warned. They haven’t done anything serious – at least, I don’t think so...”

“You don’t
think
so?”

He scowled, and moved the knight back where it had come from. “Girl got attacked down in Ropemakers’ Row, the other night.”

“Oh, shit. One of the freelancers? Who?”

“New girl. Straight off the boat. No instinct for a bad client, probably.”

“How bad is it?”

“She’s going to be all right, though she’ll need a good healer to reshape her face.”

“Bastard. She got money for a healer?”

“Not a lot. Few of us helped her out a bit.”

That’s the Chief. No wonder his clothes always look like they’re older than he is. I’d give him a discount, only he’s never been a client. Just a friend.

Then I realised what he’d said. “Hang on... don’t tell me she was attacked by a
Vessel
? They’ve started to take the law into their own hands? You could have told me before we started playing, Chief.”

“You wouldn’t have concentrated.”

“I can’t concentrate
now
.”

“There’s no real evidence the Vessels had anything to do with it. I’ve already talked to them.”

“So why
did
you talk to them?”

“The girl said the attacker was wearing a Purity mask, but that doesn’t mean a lot. It’s not impossible to get those masks copied. Could have been a previous client or someone she’d turned down, who didn’t want to be recognised. We set dogs on the trail, but by the time she got up the courage to report to us, more than a day’s worth of trade had gone down the street, including half the pigs in Scalentine.” He shook his head. “You know what it’s like. We’re lucky she talked to us at all.”

“I know. They’ll come around, Chief, just give ’em time.”

“I hope you’re right, Babylon. Anyway. I just wanted to let you know. Don’t go thinking it means more than that there’s some idiot out there with a taste for using his fists. Not like they’re unknown.”

That was true, sadly enough, but personally I wouldn’t have much trouble believing that the Vessels had stopped talking and started hitting.

As religious orders go they’re a pain in the arse. Heavy on the general ‘Shalt Nots,’ and with the weird but not uncommon idea that all sin starts below the neck.

“You know if they come anywhere near me or mine I won’t be responsible, Chief.”

“Yes, you will, Babylon.”

BOOK: Babylon Steel
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