December 16th, 1899
Rhys stood by his table, ensuring that every element was in place.
It wasn’t often that he negotiated from a weak position, but there was nothing that could be done, and it left him feeling…uncomfortable.
The bag sat beside his chair. The wine had been poured.
He smoothed his shirt, his jacket and the majority of his weapons abandoned for the moment – whatever the outcome, knives were unlikely to come into play.
Rhys closed his eyes, targeted Julia, and shifted her. The whore appeared, holding a bag of flour.
Anger flashed in her eyes, and he felt himself smile at the strength of the emotion.
‘You need to find some way to warn me of your intentions, Rhys, however much that may go against your nature.’ She held up the bag. ‘I am now a thief. I haven’t paid for this.’
‘That won’t be an issue,’ he said. ‘Such pettiness is–’
‘I exist outside of your bed, Rhys,’ she snapped. ‘I will not–’
He stalked forward, grabbed the flour, traced the shift back, and disappeared from his home. A store appeared, a frustrated-looking man at the counter. Rhys dropped the flour to the counter, along with the all money in his pocket, grinned at the man, and shifted from the store.
There were written and unwritten rules about shifting in front of civilians, but there was little the System could do to him. His execution had already been set. All they could do was move it forward, and they were unlikely to do so for the small crime of shocking one man.
‘You don’t usually require my services at this time of day,’ she said. ‘I thought you had others for lunchtime.’
Rhys held up his hand. ‘This is different. Sit. Drink.’ He sat at the table and lifted his own glass. ‘This is the second-finest wine I own. I’m in a position to waste it with you.’
Julia stared warily at the glass. ‘Why, did someone accidentally piss in it?’ She lifted the glass and sniffed it. ‘If you’re calling it your finest, then it isn’t conjured–’
He shook his head. ‘And if you agree–’
She sat and put the glass back down. ‘You’re not acting like yourself, Rhys. That’s…worrying.’
He gulped wine from his glass, barely taking the time to enjoy it. ‘I want to buy you, Julia.’
The whore looked away, avoiding his gaze altogether. ‘You don’t even pay me now.’
‘Don’t be obtuse,’ he said, his voice low. ‘You know that isn’t what I meant. I wish to buy a lifelong commitment from you. I wish to buy your cunt, your womb, your loyalty.’ He drained his wine. ‘You owe me your life,’ he said simply. ‘In return, that’s what I’m asking for: a life.’
His words confused Julia. ‘What?’
‘I want an heir. You’re going to give him to me.’
‘If you keep asking the one banal question over and over, we aren’t going to get very far.’
Julia pushed her glass away from herself, shock and confusion on her face. ‘What…what would you even do with a child, Rhys? I can’t imagine–’
He raised his eyebrows a little. ‘I will not even meet him. You can ignore whatever spurious imaginings you have of my child-rearing skills. You would be responsible for the care. For the nurture, for whatever else it is that children require.’
‘Rhys, a child is not conducive to–’
‘I said I wanted to buy you,’ he said, cutting her off. ‘It’s a transaction. You’ll be compensated.’ He banged a fist on the table, forcing her to look at him. ‘Well compensated,’ he clarified, ‘beyond any measure of money you could hope to make in your life, in ten lifetimes.’
Fear and confusion had taken over her expression. ‘Rhys, what is going on?’
He paused for a moment. ‘You know I’m something other than a man.’
He drummed his fingers on the table. ‘You accept I am magic. This is the root of the truth, and it is what I have told you. The machination is harder to understand, because humans are still evolving their technology.’ He tilted his head. ‘My kind – we aren’t static as humans are. Each generation can be vastly different to the last. Imagine a composer and piece of music, and each time that music is played, parts are added and removed, depending on the mood that the composer wants to convey. At one point, we were in robes with wings, smiting from on high. My iteration, you people needed to be reminded to be afraid of the dark.’
‘Works well enough.’
‘It would also seem that my generation is serving as a crescendo of sorts. The new kind – the agents are pathetic, compared to me. They will not be able to do the job I do. They won’t be able to protect the streets of my city. And they don’t tend to come out after dark, so there won’t be any more last-minute rescues.’
‘And you are…being rewritten?’
‘No. If they use the notes of my music after I’m gone, I won’t know it. Music doesn’t remember what it was, once it’s been rewritten. Part of me, my memories, my soul, will remain, but it will be locked away forever. It is, in the ways that count, worse than death.’
‘When is this happening?’
‘The thirty-first. I’m going to die with the end of the century.’
Julia suddenly looked afraid. She took a drink and sat silently for a moment, avoiding his eyes. ‘What are we going to do without you?’
It was strange to hear words that so clearly echoed his opinion coming from a woman’s mouth. ‘You’ll have the agents.’
Her face went hard. ‘I’ve never met Reynolds,’ she said. ‘He’s visited some houses, but I have never seen him in my corners of the street. He doesn’t muck about in the filth like you do.’
‘No.’ Rhys bowed his head and lit his pipe. ‘He does not.’
‘We need someone who looks into the filth.’ Her brow creased. ‘There’s so many of us there.’
‘You can plead your case with him, but I don’t know if he’ll hear it. He works alone. He may not have the manpower to spare for whore patrol.’
‘You’re one man.’
He took the pipe away from his mouth and blew a cloud of smoke. Small requirements sharpened the edges, a small affectation he sometimes allowed himself. ‘I have the freedom of little oversight. I think the new men are burdened with it, but it likely only extends to a certain class of people. It’s a new century, and they won’t help everyone.’
‘And you want me to bring a child into that world. Raise a–’
‘Son,’ he supplied, the word firm.
‘Raise a son without someone watching my back. I refuse to lose another child, Rhys, it was hard enough the first time.’
Rhys placed his pipe onto a small tray, then lifted the bag onto the table. He slid it towards her, then circled her, reaching over her shoulder to open it.
Her silence seemed to suck all the sound from the room.
Slowly, she reached to touch the ludicrous pile of money, jewels, and gold. Her fingers slipped around a thin chain, which ended on a small morri bead.
‘That’s fae,’ he said, watching her touch it gently.
‘It feels like winter,’ she said. ‘But I was sweating outside.’
‘They capture a season, or a feeling, or the impression of a person. They’re…’ He struggled for a way to explain it to a human. ‘Like photographs of feelings, trapped in glass and worn as jewels.’
She pulled it from the bag. ‘I couldn’t begin the count the absurdity of money in that bag. It seems so much simpler to focus on this.’
‘This is a fraction of what you’ll get, Julia.’ He took the necklace and slipped it around her neck. It was strangely similar to garrotting someone, but without the satisfying conclusion. She was trembling, but for once, her fear wasn’t appreciated. ‘You’ll be one of the people the agents will see. One that warrants attention and rescue. You won’t need someone like me in the mud and shit.’
Julia’s hand covered the pendant. ‘Is this an offer you’re making to all of your whores, Rhys? Will this child–’
‘A son,’ he said again. ‘It will be a son I plant in you.’
‘Will this son have a dozen brothers?’
It was something he had considered – paying every woman who knew something of what he was, and even a few who thought he was merely human. The system, however, might see that as his own form of rebellion – and the system was not above killing children when it suited their purposes.
One child wasn’t dangerous. One child could slip through the cracks – and one chance at a legacy was better than nothing.
He touched her chin, letting his fingers rest on her tan skin – a hint to some measure of mixed ancestry, and tried to look sincere. Some measure of play-acting was going to be required, after all, though he had expected the money to do the majority of the talking for him. ‘Only you, Julia.’
She scowled, and he smiled.
‘I’m sure you have your reasons for that,’ she said. ‘Or did all of your other girls turn you down?’
‘You fit an ideal number of my prerequisites for asking,’ he said, his tone as plain as he could make it.
‘And you didn’t run at the question.’
She looked back to the money. ‘You can pull things like this from thin air, but questions will be asked if someone like me was to come into so much money. I doubt you want your child born in jail.’
‘There will be papers and providence. You’ll have’ – the word stuck in his mouth – ‘Agency backing.
And the widow’s benefits, as befits the dutifully dead.’
She arched an eyebrow. ‘Widow?’
‘Don’t worry,’ he said. ‘I won’t be seeking out your father for his permission. It’s simply the most applicable category.’
Her mouth twitched into a playful smirk. ‘And you wouldn’t marry a whore.’
He met her gaze and held it. ‘I will if it’s what makes you say yes.’
She was silent for a long moment, then shook her head. ‘I have no desire to be married and widowed in a month. And I have no desire to be married to you, Rhys. You aren’t the kind of man you write home about.’
‘Are you saying yes or no, Julia?’
‘You have made an irresistible offer. How could I say no?’
He reached a hand out and brushed his thumb across her lips. ‘You open your mouth, and you say a single syllable.’
‘How do I know what I will give birth to? How do I know it won’t be–?’
He curled his hand and slipped it into the hollow of her neck, the backs of his fingers rubbing against her throat. ‘A monster? He’ll be mine, so part of him will be.’
‘Horns, a tail – will I be pushing out a devil?’
‘You’ve seen every inch of me,’ he said. ‘If you didn’t know, you’d call me human. My son will have the same anonymity.’
She reached up to touch his hand, stopping its gentle rhythm. ‘I accept your proposal, Rhys, but I want it in writing.’
He smiled. ‘Of course.’ He leaned close, one hand wrapping around her back, one hand clutching the belly he’d embiggen, the side of his face resting against hers.
There was no love, but there was…gratitude. Memory and legacy were everything when the world would do their best to erase his existence, and he would have a legacy.
He let her go and stepped back. ‘I’ll shift you home. Start making lists of what you think you’ll need, where you want to live, and the like. I have little time to organise this, and I intend on living freely with what time I have remaining. Enjoying every last second.’
She nodded. ‘I am surprised you’re not bedding me now. Should I expect you later?’
He let his voice go low. ‘We’ll have dinner. You’ll need your energy.’