Here we are, the final part to this little webnovella. I may bookend this with a little epilude (like an epilogue but in keeping with my interludes), but I’m not sure whether it needs it yet. I don’t think I’m done with Leander Crane though, and once I’ve made some more progress on novel 2 (which I keep putting on hold to do these more immediately gratifying novellas) I may just come back to him. Or maybe someone new, I’m not sure yet.
Anyway, part 10.
A number of things run through your mind when you find out that your trusted friend is actually a commissioned member of the Watch, the first of which being the urge to run. Fortunately, my various accumulated injuries made that impossible, which is a good thing because running from the Watch can land you in serious trouble.
It’s all about the probabilities. Sometimes running is necessary, and I have done it on more than one occasion, but that makes you look guilty. It’s a fine piece of police psychology that only the guilty run, therefore you should always walk away from the scene of a crime if given the opportunity. You first action when presented with the Watch will cement their view of you for the immediate future, and looking like a criminal means that they will pursue you like one. Lying in a pool of your own blood, however, gives a rather different impression.
Bridge surveyed the area in slow motion as his merry band of watchmen fanned out around him. The Lendians were stunned (even those who hadn’t taken a brick in the head) and did nothing until Th, eyes ablaze with anger, lifted his sword away from me and pointed at the mage.
‘Kill them all! Protect the children!’ he shouted with genuine fury, spittle flying everywhere.
It had the desired effect, and before long a proper brawl had kicked off, and Th and Bridge were right in the middle, stalking each other. In a fair fight I would have had to put my money on Th, especially in his current condition. When he had been toying with me (I realised now that this was what he had been doing) the man had looked rather serene, if a little too arrogant for his own good. He had treated me like an inconvenience rather than a threat which, I had to admit, was probably true. He seemed to have a different view of the Watch.
Th and Bridge circled each other a number of times, one of them occasionally spinning around to help out his underlings briefly, or to ensure they didn’t breach the circle. This always happened in fights, a duel among the organised chaos.
‘Back off, sorcerer,’ Th said. ‘You cannot win this fight. I know of your kind and their strengths. They excel at long range combat against numerous foes, where accuracy isn’t too big of an issue. If your spell swings wide you take out only enemies, not friends. You start slinging spells in here and there’s every possibility you’ll hit the very thing you came to save.’ Th gestured to the cage.
Bridge tweaked the brim of his fedora. ‘You know a lot about magicians, foreigner. Killed many?’
‘Whereas I have killed,’ Bridge stopped for a moment to count his fingers. ‘Three thousand four hundred and twelve swordsmen, only half of them at a distance.’
This was probably true. In his youth, Bridge had signed up for every war going, even ones that didn’t even involve us. His theorised that the best way to be a warlock (as was the fashion for young magicians at the time) was to actually be in a war. It seemed to do him a world of good, too, as his skills increased rapidly with every tour he accomplished.
If Bridge’s kill count had startled Th, he didn’t show it. ‘Ultimately it doesn’t matter how many people you have killed, sorcerer, only that you can kill whoever stands before you, and I can’t die. I won’t allow it.’
‘You seem to have misunderstood how the modern Watch works…’
Bridge was interrupted by the blade of Th’s sword. It cut through the air like a blur but struck nothing. The space where Bridge had been standing less than a second before was now empty but for the ageing sword, the magician having moved out of the way like a whisper. Th swung again and again, a constant blur of steel and fury, but every strike was without luck. Bridge didn’t even need to move fast to dodge the blow, he just folded through a variety of poses at an almost leisurely pace.
The dance continued for almost a full minute, Th swinging and Bridge dodging, until the magician finally committed to the fight. The dance had moved them around in a half circle, and Bridge had noticed he was now with his back to the cage. I saw his eyes flick to take note of this, and I knew that what Th had said had been true. Magicians can do accuracy when they need to, but it requires more concentrating than a combat situation usually allows.
Combat magic, pure and proper combat magic, is frightening. I’d never actually seen it used before, and I had assumed it would be similar to the emotional maelstrom that Bridge had levelled at the man who had stolen his wife all those years ago. But combat magic is much more pure than that, which is what is so frightening about it.
The pure fury that can come from any emotion distilled into magic can create something you expect magic to be: flashy, colourful, explosive. Combat magic is refined, taking only the best cuts of every emotion, every feeling and condensing it into a single powerful force. In this case, Bridge summoned a small sphere that shimmered with a crimson light and drove it into Th’s face.
I had expected an explosion or something, at least some nice crackle effect like lightning, and this was probably why I wasn’t magically gifted. Refined magic doesn’t do effects as they waste energy, it takes all that potential waste and forces it back into the spell, keeping it pure and powerful. So powerful, in this case, that when the sphere vanished Th’s head was gone. No gore, no spurt of blood, just a space where the head had been. The sword dropped from the dead fingers and clattered on the wooden floor, closely followed by the body itself.
The fighting between the underlings was still going strong, but Bridge ignored it for the moment. He picked me up with one hand and hoisted me to my feet. ‘Didn’t expect to see you here,’ he lied.
‘You’re a watchman?’ I replied weakly.
‘Yes. Have been for a few years now,’ Bridge said. ‘Before I even knew you, I think. I’m not entirely certain, my memory has been giving me a bit of trouble recently.’
‘That can happen as you get older,’ I said.
‘Indeed. For instance, I can’t remember if I invited you along on this trip to help open this cage,’ he murmured, eyes glittering. ‘If I had, that would certainly explain your presence here. A valued locksmith would make perfect sense in this sort of situation, don’t you think? Of course, if he had arrived a little early then he might have taken it upon himself to be a hero, got into a fight he couldn’t win.’
I leant in and lowered my voice. ‘What are you doing, Bridge.’
He responded in kind. ‘Keeping you out of jail. Sometimes the law can be best served by allowing the right kind of criminal a little leeway. How else do you think you’ve avoided prison recently, with everything I know? I have plans for this city, and plans for you which currently intertwine. You would do well to follow my lead.’
A whole host of things crumbled and collapsed inside my head at that moment, things that I could only briefly acknowledge at that moment. Was it true? Had Bridge been the one to keep me out of prison? If so, did that mean I wasn’t as good a thief as I thought I was? Was I just a fraud, someone’s pet project allowed the illusion of success to keep me cosy? It would all weigh me down later, but right now I was too busy to dwell.
I detached myself from Bridge and hobbled over to the cage. Behind me I heard Bridge cast another spell, and the fighting ceased immediately. I didn’t look round.
The children in the cage were younger than I had thought, if any were over seven then they had skin a dowager would kill for. They stared at me with big eyes full of tears, the same eyes that professional beggars spend years learning to perfect after having forgotten that they used to come naturally. They watched as I started to fiddle with the lock.
It wasn’t hard to pick. Locks are simple devices really, and it’s all in the wrist anyway. A few flicks of the wrist and the door clicked loudly. I pulled the door open noisily and was instantly hit by a flood of youth. Every child in the cage, at least twenty of them I realised, slammed into me and my damaged ribs, forcing me to the ground. I’d never been attacked by children before and I wondered what to do.
Then I realised that it wasn’t an attack, they were hugging me. They thought I was a hero, which was an odd state of affairs to be honest. They had heard everything I had said to Th, and everything he had said to me, but at the end of the day he had been the one who locked them in a cage. Things are very black and white to children, very simple.
My ribs, however, were still black and blue, and the weight of twenty children was more than a little uncomfortable. I tried to scream, but the excited children were hugging me too tightly and painfully to let any air in or out, and before long my only option was to pass out.
I awoke with a face full of beard. Bridge had been staring at my unconscious form, it seemed, and I had chosen that moment to wake up. I sneezed his beard out the way and sat up sharply, nearly bashing my head on the magician’s chin. I scanned the area quickly for any signs of the children, but they were gone. My ribs pulsed happily at that.
‘I suppose you have some question for me,’ Bridge said from behind me.
‘No,’ I replied without turning. ‘Everything makes perfect sense. You’ve been playing me for years. Keeping me as a pet, your own little conversation starter at parties. “There’s this guy I own who thinks he’s a thief!”, then everybody laughs and you have a nice canapé or two.’
Bridge sighed. ‘You don’t understand -‘
‘I understand enough.’
‘No, you don’t. The city doesn’t work, it’s stagnated and has started to sink back into the filth it’s worked so hard to escape. It has become so used to the normal rules of society that it has forgotten what to do when they start to give diminishing returns. The politicians can’t think anymore, so I’m going to do it for them. You are part of that, part of my plan to rejuvenate the city.’
‘So you trick me into letting some children out of a cage? You hardly needed me for that,’ I snarled.
‘It all makes sense in the grand scheme,’ Bridge replied calmly. ‘Eventually you’ll see what I mean.’
I did my best to storm out of the building and through the giant hole in the wall he had blasted. It’s hard to storm with two broken ribs and a cut leg. Still, after a ludicrously long storm, I made it to the breach and stepped out into the night.
From the darkness I heard Bridge shout. ‘I’m still your friend, Leander. Remember that!’
I ignored the captain of the Watch and set about hoisting myself onto my cart, still faithful parked in the alleyway between the museum and the other building. I reached down into the hole in the centre and fished out the diamond. It was still there, untouched and undamaged. The Watch were clearly more interested in the safety of the children than the witterings of a museum security guard, and hadn’t even bothered to begin the search yet.
I stared at the diamond for perhaps too long. There was a code, I had to return this in a few days. But then, that was a code that thieves followed, wasn’t it? Was I even a real thief anymore? It’s not the taking that makes someone a thief, but the not being caught. If my numerous successful escapes were all the result of one undercover watchmen pulling strings, then could I legitimately claim to be a thief? Probably not.
And with that in mind I took the diamond home, with no intention of ever returning it.