Choke-Collared: Chapter Two

Quincy and Falak regroup after fetching Vhatair; Falak is fine, but Quincy is rubbish, as he expected. Dark gaslamp fantasy/romance(???).

Chapter One is Here.

Content Warning: graphic discussion of sexual assault, sexual references throughout, ugly trauma, I continue to worship at the altar of vernacular.

There’s been partying on the streets since last midnight, and though it’s for Springtide Revelry just as it is every other year, it feels like the whole goddamn city is celebrating Westyard’s intrusion into Quincy’s life. This is bullshit. The first Revel he’ll be free for in years and he’s got to spend fuming over some nasty ol’ prick? (Some other man, some man who’s got a stone and a half at least over him, even starved?)

It’s pure petulance to be so mad over it. He wasn’t keen on the Revel to begin with. A week long jubilee? Wailing bagpipes, thundering drums, clashing cymbals, and half a hundred different songs all being screamed at the same time? People packed shoulder to shoulder, dancing in the streets? Not precisely his kettle of fish. Not even approximately his kettle of fish.

Knowing it’s petulance is all well and good, but all it’s doing is make Quincy feel both put upon and childish.

Quincy and Falak’s apartment is on the coastwise side of the block, so if he sticks his head out, he can look up and down the waterfront. The streets directly outside the Fountainpool Spa, biggest resort for five hundred miles in every direction and the pride and joy of Beinchann Fountain, are all done up for the Revel, banners and flower garlands and window paintings. No one’s out on the streets or the beach. The tourists are safely ensconced in the resort’s five-story walls, enjoying their genteel celebrations in luxurious isolation. Most all the parties for gutter people such as natives are more centerwise in the city, so if people aren’t at work, they’re there.

With all the people elsewhere, one can appreciate the cobblestones and tall brick facades, the narrow mouths of cross-streets and the long black beach, all strewn with flower petals and broken liquor bottles. Ships from every corner of the empire, and other countries too, pack the resort’s docks. Windjammers, steamers, dhows from the Tekhannu Iddad where Anab’hadj is, jirgin ruwa from Kuashong, all their colors high and bright. Flute playing and some scattered songs, blown coastwise by winter’s last pitiful hurrah, get lost in the call of gulls, the flapping of the banners, the roar of the waves.

A fine sight to be sure. Or at least it was for the first hour of looking. But it’s the same patch of city and coast he sees every day, and identifying ships is busywork if there’s not someone there to talk about it with.

Falak’s across the courtyard cleaning Westyard’s room, that being a perfectly acceptable way to spend the rest of the only day off Quincy’s ever seen her take, apparently. The less said about how Quincy feels about that, the better. Who’s this son of a bitch to have Falak cleaning his room like his servant or—or—or his—the pet name ‘my goldfish’ plays like a skipping record in the hollow between the rock of his throat and his jaw. (Like a set of strangling fingers in reverse.) But Westyard was only being a bastard. Falak is not that sort of girl. She’s sweet and she’s pure, utterly unlike such a man as Westyard.

With Falak gone and busy, he’s got shit all to do. He’s awake the same way a shrew is awake, his bones all jabbing and sawing at the inside of his skin. His tattoos writhe in the skin under the memory of the guard’s hands, his back and chest and thighs alive with phantom squirming, arms tingling from the memory of holding them aloft while the guard took his liberties. His hips itch where the thumbs pressed in, hard into the soft spot right above the bones. Back in prison, he woulda fought, because what could they possibly do? Throw him in jail? It’s different now that he’s got Falak to look after. (Some of those guards got wives. Do they grip their hips the same way when they’re fucking them? Is a woman’s willing body better, or is it all the same?)

(Some of those guards got sons.)

He’s losing his mind sitting around here. What apartment did Falak say Westyard lives in again? Third floor, fifth door on the centerwise side of the hall, he thinks. She said she didn’t want no help, for which Quincy is grateful, catch him doing favors for people who aren’t her when he’s fucking dead. She probably meant it to be as good as a ‘stay home, Quincy.’ But she didn’t say that, precisely. And if she never knows he left…
Quincy goes out to the courtyard, as to climb up onto the roof in relative isolation. He doesn’t bother putting his goggles or mask back on. He only pulls his scarf up over his mouth and nose. It’s no great distance, and he’ll be up on the roof anyhow.

The courtyard between the apartment blocks is just like the ones they have in Anab’hadj. That’s what Falak says, anyway. All Quincy knows about Anab’hadj separate from what she’s told him is obelisks and harems. It’s not a big enough courtyard for a whole obelisk, and if there’s a harem somewhere they’re doing a bang up job keeping it hidden. There’s a fountain, though it doesn’t run, and the floor is patterned tile, though it’s very chipped. An old al-Wadi man sits on one of the low benches next to the fountain, smoking a hand-rolled cigarette and petting his cat. Mr. bin Karna, Quincy thinks, who plays dominoes with Ibrim bin Jimil whose name is on the deed to this place even though his wife, Mrs. ban Ibrim, owns it in truth.

Mr. bin Karna inclines his head at Quincy as he passes, and the cat twitches its bobbed tail, paws neatly tucked beneath it. Neither starts when Quincy scales one of the privy houses, though whoever’s in there cusses up a storm in a mishmash of Glasreord and al-Wadi. Quincy is up on the roof of the privy before the Glasreord man who spooked comes out, newspaper crushed in one hand, trousers held mostly closed in the other. Poor bastard doesn’t think to look up before he shuffles backwards and slams the door shut again.

Lots of people never look up. It’s endemic, really. Why have tall buildings if you’re not gonna look at ‘em? None of Quincy’s business, he supposes, and though he does like getting into things that aren’t his business, he’s got more pressing matters at hand.

The walls are easy to scale, coving and casements providing very conveniently spaced holds. It’s four stories up and no rope or harness, but Quincy ain’t afraid to fall. He never has before, as evidenced by his continued internal monologue. And buildings, for all they are quite steep, tend to be a little less pernicious than scree slopes and crumbling drystone the likes of which one finds in the wasteland. All you’ve got to do is get up where you’re headed before you chance to look down.

Quincy pulls himself up onto the slate-tiled roof and rolls onto his back, takes a second to look at the sky. The far horizon is tinged pink, the clouds stained orange on their bellies since the sun is still rather low. It’s warm. Not as warm as it will be, but warmer than the prison. A thousand times. He closes his eyes, lets it seep in. (Lets it replace the memory of the dark and the icy seawater that has to be pumped out of the belly of the hulk.)

Damn him, he was only in there just a little bit…! Talk about childish. He’s nineteen years old, not nine, and he’s been a man for years now. (His memories of being a boy are spotty at best. His childhood was easy, it was soft, so the prison—the Pit—wore the memories to near nothing. Nothing but he ghosts, like pencil marks on a page.) He pops himself on both cheeks a few times to shake out the mopes, and climbs up to the roof ridge so he has something flat to travel across.

There are far more chimney pots on the centerwise block than on Falak and Quincy’s. Lots more rooms, narrow ones, with a single foot-wide awning window that don’t even go up all the way for each. Mrs ban Ibrim rents them out for ten shillings a room, mostly to the sailors who work with her son Rakesha. And such men as Westyard, apparently. He slides down the pitch of the roof, gets caught by the wide stone gutters, and peers down the row of narrow windows. Indeed, one is open, the shutters thrown, and Quincy can hear Falak singing.

Her favorite song is this sad-sounding ballad, about the inconstancy of the moon compared to one’s wife, who is dead of childbirth or a chill or somesuch tragedy. She’s on the chorus now, all warbling high notes to the rhythm of her floor-scrubbing. He had the room right; third floor, fifth door. There’s separate eaves above each window, wide enough for him to perch and listen. He swings down from the roofs and drops from the first two eaves in the column before coming to rest above the correct window.
Quincy risks a glance into the room. Falak has pushed a thin mattress and rickety iron frame up against the wall to give herself room to work. Her back is to the window, so Quincy is able to look around before ducking back up out of the way.

It’s a crowded room, even with the bed out of the way. Squashed between the far wall and where the foot of the bed would be is a tiny rolltop desk, its matching stool shoved beneath it. In lieu of a bedside table, Westyard has a iron-banded canvas trunk, on which Falak has stacked the rest of the cleaning supplies and the boteh shawl she usually wears between her apron and skirt. The potbelly stove in the corner has a dinged up copper kettle and a ceramic pot on it, and the bottom door is partially dislodged, the chimney patched with tin.

Falak comes to the next verse of the song—stops in the middle of a line, the purred low note cut off between two syllables. Ah, ought to have known. Quincy leans forward, so that when Falak sticks her head out the window and looks up, she meets his eye.

“Hello, sweet,” she says. Her cheeks are red, and hair sticks in black whorls where it has worked its way from under her coif. Her veil is coming loose, too. “What are you doing up there?”

“Havin’ a listen.” He grips the edge of the eave and drops down, hanging there eye level with Falak for a minute. “Can I come in?”

She moves the feather duster and now empty, but still strong-smelling vial of bleach out of his way, and holds the window up herself so the casement stay doesn’t get in his way.

“I have got a lot done in not so much time,” Falak boasts, gesturing to the wet floor and walls. “It is not so bad! I am getting very fast at cleaning.”

Quincy tries to keep silent and nod, but annoyance slams hard into the back of his fake apathy, sweeps it away entirely.

“Where’s W—where’s Mr. Westyard that he can’t clean his own room, then?” He can’t stop himself from asking, but he manages to scour off enough of the animosity that it’s practically neutral. If Falak can scry the truth, which of course she can, she makes no sign of seeing it.

“Oh, he went to beg Kaldraegh Ironwharfs for his job back,” she says.

The master of the boilermen? Well, it makes sense that Westyard works at the resort. He ought not be surprised, everything around here revolves around the Fountainpool Spa, to the point that it lends the people their surnames. Even less surprising is that Westyard must go on hand and knee to wheedle employment back. Master Kaldraegh is a notoriously flinty type, and would have no compunctions about kicking a jailbird to the curb.

“Hope he’s good at begging.”

“Your hope is wasted,” Falak says, “Vhatair is not a man who enjoys being made humble.”

What man does? Quincy manages the nod this time, and takes up one of the towels.

“You want some help?”

Falak smiles, as she makes all expressions, with her whole face. The white lightning scars crinkle. The faces she made in the prison were shadows, and this is the sun. Quincy almost preens beneath it.

“Come, let us be fast. Neri will probably want us to go on a celebration this evening,” she says.

Quincy doesn’t bother hiding his aghast noise. It’s not that he don’t like Neriette Fountainpool. She’s a genuinely enjoyable woman and he admires the sheer amount of money she makes leveraging that. But he’s looking forward to going out and celebrating with Westyard, in a public place that will doubtless be noisy and crowded, about as much as one looks forward to having a tooth pulled.

Ugh. Probably not the best metaphor, considering how sensitive his childish ass is being about where he and Falak spent sunrise. The scar-filled holes where his front teeth once were twinge in protest.

Between the two of them, this narrow little room is dried and rearranged in no time at all. He doesn’t feel like he’s done anyone but Falak a favor. She works too hard otherwise to be grubbing about by herself like some man’s maid on her hands and knees. Leave the hand-and-knee abasement to Westyard. Kaldraegh will probably give him a job at starting pay after a little grovelling and sniveling. It’s the type of man he is. Same as the bat-faced gaoler’s assistant, same as the handsy guard. There are precious few sorts of men.

He walks alongside Falak on the way back to their apartment. He shouldn’t have bothered with the climb, honestly. Ought to have known that Falak woulda spotted him. No sense in letting either of their talents go to seed, he supposes. He carries everything, the bucket hanging from one end of the broom, which he braces over his shoulders. Falak’s cough is a little worrying, but it’s only the bleach, and the poor ventilation. While Quincy hangs the towels, reeking of bleach and stained by ten months of dust, on the clotheshorse, she goes to their room and washes up at her corner washstand, still hacking.

Quincy pushes the whole apparatus closer to the stove with one foot. Then he goes to hover in the doorway clutching at every scrap of patience to keep himself from speaking. It’d be indecent to not give her a chance to stop coughing, indecent to blindside her with this while she’s got her shirt off and her hair loose from the work. Indecent, he reminds himself as the words bubble behind his black fangs. He watches her bared shoulders shake with each cough, watches the water drip down her face in the scratched, discolored mirror. She must notice, as she notices all things, but she continues, seemingly unhurried, without drawing attention to his stare. She’s always been good about that.

Finally, she buttons her shirt back up over her stays, and begins re-braiding her hair.

“Yes, my dear?” she asks, making eye contact with his reflection.

“You never said the money was for a gaoler’s fee.”

Truthfully, he never asked what the damn sterling was for, he just went out and nicked it. Nicked it and got the shit kicked out of him by the Watch, all for Westyard. (Quincy Fountainpool is no man’s fool, not since he was a boy, and he does not like to be played. That Falak had no intention of playing him does nothing when his ribs were splintered and his remaining teeth rattled in his jaws, and all for some other fucking man.)

Falak’s face goes all hard and pinched for a moment. She turns and meets his eye, for real this time, hands raised in a preemptively conciliatory gesture. She drops them, though, as she crosses the room to take a seat on the bed. He doesn’t join her, not yet, too busy girding up for whatever explanation she’s about to give him.

“I am sorry that I didn’t tell you about Vhatair,” she says after a moment,

“Bit of a nasty shock, him.” Quincy drops into a crouch, braces his elbows on his knees and his chin on his knuckles.

“Yes. Please, though, do not be mad at me. I thought that you would stew on it, and come to any number of conclusions, and it would only make you upset. And it was not as though I could take you to the prison to clear things up. So… so that you would not be upset, and could be happy, I kept it from you. I was not meaning to hurt you, just to make sure you were happy, that is true.”

It’s not really a lie, is it? A gentle omission. Practically a kindness, when she frames it that way.

That’s bollocks first up, but Quincy makes himself swallow down the anger. It’s over and done, it’s over and done, there is nothing that can change it. And it was well-meant, weren’t it? That’s got to mean something. Falak never does anything to hurt him. Not on purpose, anyway, which is a far better job than anyone else has ever done.

(This anger does nothing. It woulda served in the yard, and he’d have cut a man’s throat for daring lie to him over something as incredibly vital as ‘there is a man waiting in prison for me and he is a violent scumbag, might keep your eyes peeled for that.’ But here it’s useless, worse than useless, just bile corroding the inside of his throat, just another twisting brier vine snaking out about his ankles.)

(What shall he do? Cut Falak’s throat for daring to have friends?)

“What sort of man is Westyard?” What a desperate, pathetic questions to ask. She won’t be able to say he wasn’t duly concerned, though.

Falak bites her lip, looks away. That’s. Not great. That is what Quincy would even commit to calling ‘goddamn ominous.’

“Vhatair… because I am friends with him, there are many avenues and opportunities open that I would not have. He… he has enabled me to accomplish things. Things that, here, on my own, I could not do. So I am grateful for that.”

She leans back on one hand, brings the index finger of the other to her mouth so she can chew on that instead of her lip. Back and forth her teeth go, worrying the skin, a motion Quincy zeroes in on despite himself. Loses himself in the minutia of the action so he can ignore the nagging bad feeling at the back of his head, the anger that somehow will not get the hint to piss off.

“He is not a very nice man,” Falak admits, almost a whisper. The volume picks right back up as she insists, “but he is not bad to me, if that is what you are concerned about! If he was…”

She raises both hands. Light arcs between her fingertips like an aurora, and her pupils flare bright as candles until the light fades.

That sort of bluster is all well and good, Quincy supposes, but he’s pretty much certain that, push come to shove, Falak can’t kill a man. She’s a gentle girl, and kind. He can’t imagine her turning herself to a blade. Westyard would have to push her pretty far into a corner to get her to bite, as all cornered creatures eventually do, and for a creature as patient as Falak, who knows how far that’d be? Yelling? Threats? Him laying hands on her? (His hands on her hips and his tattered lips pulled back in a sneer, the same sneer all such men have with something they want to take under their palms?)

Falak’s got a well of patience for Quincy so deep it punches through clear to the other side of the world, and he’s a devil, no mistaking. It’s probably easy for Falak to summon up patience for men such as him. Even men such as Westyard.

He sighs and rubs his eyes.

“Just askin’, then.” Like as not it won’t end this, not for real, but Falak is good about letting things drop. She’s good about everything. (Everything except hanging around weird gross men.)

She beckons him closer, and now he feels like he can sit next to her, lean heavily into her side with his head on her shoulder, his arms around her ribs like a cage unto themselves. Though she must have sweat then washed away the camphor oil she dabs on her neck and jaw, its scent fills his nose anyway, sharp and pleasant. She pulls back his hood and cups the back of his head.

“My Quincy. You do not worry about me, love. I will worry about you. Okay?”

She says that all the time. It’s pure delusion, but sorcerers always have weird beliefs, don’t they? Falak had already talked herself into it by the time she reached out to him, he thinks.

He’s barely settled and comfortable before she turns to kiss his forehead, and claps her hands.

“Alright, you must wash up too. Neri will be here soon and you should might as well be dressed then.”

Ah. Yes. He had nearly allowed himself to forget. Quincy almost grits his teeth, but pressure against the cut he gave himself on the tram hurts like buggery and he isn’t quite upset enough about the upcoming horror show to ignore that. Give it time, he thinks, I’m certain I’ll reopen it before the night is done.

He’s only got one other set of clothes, but they’re cleaner than these, and if it’s a celebration, he should probably strive to not embarrass the ladies. Barely has he gotten his overshirt buttoned up but there’s a genteel knock at the door, and a low-pitched, cooing “Hallo, Falak and Quince!”

Falak doesn’t bother fully fixing her veil before she hustles to the door. She doesn’t open it with flourish or nothing, but Neriette makes a dramatic entrance nonetheless. Maybe that’s a skill one picks up in brothels, like numbers and sucking dick and making good conversation. She comes in in a flurry of foamy white skirts and colorful blue and green ribbons, like a wave cresting on the rocks, and takes a seat in one of the mismatched chairs at Falak’s kitchen table.

“You must have been up before sunrise to go get Vhatair,” she says. Ooh, goody, she’s gonna launch right into talking about him, is she?

“Yes, but it was not bad, my Quincy was there with me. It is a horrible place, Neri, that our Vhatair was in.”

“Well, that’s what he gets, great stupid bastard, he should have been more careful! You musn’t feel so bad, Falak dear, it’s his own stupid fault. And to have you paying his gaoler’s fee… if he doesn’t kiss your little feet while we’re out tonight, I will be greatly offended,” Neri declares.

All of Quincy’s ill humor dissolves in an instant, and he goes to put the kettle on for her.

Falak likes it less than he, her mouth twists into a pout, but apparently it isn’t worth the commenting. She pulls up the other chair and rustles in her shawl for her matchbook. Neri takes it with gracious thanks and lights one of her long, spicy-smelling cigarillos. Immediately, her good posture dissolves, and she sprawls like a starfish in the chair, on hand on the table, the other resting across her belly.

“Ugh, damn me for a bleeding-hearted fool, how is he?” she asks.

Falak blows a sigh through her nose and runs her fingers along the path of her lightning scars.

“Skinny,” she says, “and his face has more scars now, too.”

“Mother of the sea. Soon he’ll have no face left at all. One would think he’d stop getting into so many bloody fights.”

Neri’s close enough company that Quincy leans against the wall near them to observe. If it were Falak’s occultist associates, he’d be off to the bedroom, where he’s out of sight and mostly out of mind, free to listen and peek his head out if he wants to watch. The occultists aren’t that interesting, fully nine tenths of what they say goes in one ear and right out the other, and mostly they’re pale and surreptitious like little white mice. There’s nothing furtive or flinching about Neriette. Watching her talk is an enjoyable activity in of itself, which is probably why she’s so good at what she does.

“I’ve secured a reservation for us all later. Around eighth bell, that should give Vhatair plenty of time to get settled and have a bath and all. And to beg his job back. Damn that Kaldraegh.”

“To him, the sole of my shoes,” Falak grumbles, which is absolutely no small insult coming from an al-Wadi.

“Yes, yes, he’s a cold one. I thought for sure I’d be able to talk him into holding it. After he was done, just the second I started talking, he dropped my money down my bodice and kicked me out of his office. Made me hobble up all those stairs to the back entrance still raw and wobbly-legged. Rouged my nipples for nothing.”

Falak laughs and rests her dark fingers on Neri’s wrist. Though she herself is a very modest girl, she doesn’t flinch away from Neri’s filthy talk. She’s used to it, and it’s okay for women to speak of such things between themselves if they’re close, apparently. Quincy, who also ought to be used to that sort of thing, still turns a little pink around the ears. Lucky for him, Neri doesn’t pay him much mind. She was able to tell from day one that he doesn’t like being the center of attention, and lets him fade into the background unless she absolutely needs him to speak.

“Very upsetting, I am sure,” Falak says. “Where did you do the reservation, Neri? Is it nice?”

“What, for Vhatair? Please. It’s only a little place, but it’s better than a pub, which is where I know Vhatair would try to take you if it were up to him. Do you know the Swan and Cygnet?”

Those are words Falak don’t use every day, or even every year, most likely, so it takes a few seconds for her to get her internal translations squared away. Quincy can tell she’s done because her face lights up brighter than an electric light and she grabs both Neri’s hands, giddy as a schoolgirl.

“The one that is by the river? The one with all the big and evil birds?”

“That’s where it got its name, after all!” Neri laughs and wraps Falak up in her arms, cheek to cheek. “It’s my treat. We three—well, we three and Vhatair, I suppose—shall have mussels and wine!”

Quincy tries for excitement, because who in the actual fuck gets pissy about a free mussel dinner? And in such a place as the Swan and Cygnet? There’s white tablecloths and silver lanterns, and waitresses rather than wenches too. Quincy can’t remember the last time he got to eat at a place with proper tablecloths. And the mussels are supposed to be nice as well. Not as good as the Celestial, nor the Mermaid’s Pearl in the resort, but those places also have three day waiting lists at least. It’d have to be a pretty choice mussel to be worth three days of waiting, but what do Quincy know ‘bout fine dining?
It’s not so bad. Swans in the gaslight, gliding all imperious and, as Falak said, big and evil across the dark water. The restaurant is far enough up the river that it avoids all the industrial waste, too. Yes, there is a slight smell of oil and sewage, but that’s the entire bloody city, and here in Fountainpool, it also smells like sulfur from the Sentinel’s vents and all the hot springs. Not so bad…

Neri leans back in her chair so she can look him in the face, one arm still around Falak.

“I see you back there, making faces,” she chides. “I understand, love. I do.”

Quincy scrubs at his cheeks with both hands, but otherwise gives no response. What, can’t he keep his own face under control?

“But I simply cannot allow you to miss out on this! What, our Quince sitting at home by his lonesome while Vhatair Westyard gets to eat mussels with pretty girls such as Falak and I? I may not be a saint, but I’m no devil, either, I cannot allow such a miscarriage of justice.”

Neri lays everything on thick. Her makeup, her jewelry, her theatrics. But he’s come to appreciate it a bit more. Everyone is entitled their choice of mask. He nods, and she pulls her attention from him again. Quincy slides down into a crouch against the wall, and lets her and Falak’s conversation wash over him, words smeared to meaninglessness.

I bet this dinner is gonna go just fine, no cause for concern.

Chapter Three is Here.

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