The Sampling: The Traitor and the Thief

Gareth Ward

An excerpt from Gareth Ward’s debut steampunk adventure novel and winner of the 2016 Storylines Tessa Duder Award, The Traitor and the Thief. Orphan, urchin and thief, Sin, has just been chased through the streets of Coxford by a sinister old man, Eldritch … Secrets, spies and steampunk gadgets abound in this fantastic adventure story!

Chapter 2: Friend or Foe

Sin’s vision blurred in and out of focus and his head throbbed. He’d never given much thought to the afterlife, but he’d expected more clouds and angels and not so many fish. Overhead, a neon-striped specimen drifted past, its flared tail undulating. Sin’s stomach churned and a wave of nausea hit him. He blinked, beads of sweat pricking his brow.

“Here, drink this,” said Eldritch. He eased the rim of a teacup to Sin’s lips. The warm liquid was sweet and flowery but not unpleasant. It was certainly preferable to the taste of canal water that lingered in his mouth.

“It’s Earl Grey,” said Eldritch. “I find most things seem better with a good strong cup of tea.”

“Am I dead?” croaked Sin.

“The simple answer to that is yes, no and maybe.”

His head clearer now, Sin eased himself upright. He sat on a luxuriant bed in a room where the walls and ceiling were decorated with gigantic round aquariums. Teak and polished brass surrounded the tanks giving the impression of portholes in some elaborate undersea craft. His sodden street clothes had been replaced with a set of soft pyjamas. His hand went to his chest; his keeper was missing. They’d stolen from him! Taken the only thing he had, the only thing he cared about. A snarl formed on his lips and he lunged forwards.

With fingers strong as tungsten rods, Eldritch pushed Sin back onto the pillow. “Calm down.” He motioned to the bedside cabinet where the ribbed brassanium tube and leather harness rested.

Sin relaxed. His keeper was safe and there was no way they could have opened it.

Eldritch released his grip and handed Sin a teacup, while expertly balancing his own cup and saucer on his knee. “You need to hydrate after the drugs we gave you.”

Sin touched his neck. The skin where the needle had penetrated was sore and swollen.

Sin touched his neck. The skin where the needle had penetrated was sore and swollen.

“Experience has taught us that sedation saves a great deal of unnecessary aggravation. Please accept my apologies for any harm caused,” said Eldritch.

“You’re the Hunt,” said Sin, his eyes widening.

“The Hunt is a myth we allow to perpetuate because it suits our purposes. It’s a touch melodramatic, but we wanted to see you perform under pressure. We had to be certain you were up to the task. Please be assured that you are now safe. A doctor has examined you and the nurses have given you a good scrub down. I’m afraid due to ‘visitors’ your haircut is somewhat severe, however it will grow back.”

Sin ran his hand over the shaved stubble. It felt odd, but at least it didn’t itch any more.

“You are a guest of the Aquarinomic Hotel, another of Nimrod Barm’s monumental achievements.”

Guest? When a gang member was thrown into jail the Fixer would say they were guests of the King. Sin glanced at the brassanium-plated door with its heavy nautical hinges and spoked ship’s wheel handle. It was elegant and unnecessarily sturdy, unless …

“Am I a prisoner?”

“Good gracious, no. You can choose to leave now, but you will be required to drink milk of amnesia to wipe these events from your mind. That is the ‘no’ option of your ‘Am I dead?’ question.”

Sin took a slurp of tea, the cup rattling in the saucer as he replaced it. “And the yes?”

“A proposition will be set out in full tomorrow. If you accept the terms of the deal, you will have an entirely new life. The Sin of old will be dead.” Eldritch tilted his head. “Although, what we offer is not without risk and it may be that you die for real.”

“Although, what we offer is not without risk and it may be that you die for real.”

Part of Sin wanted to leave now. He couldn’t reconcile this smiling dandy with the man who had harried him across the city. It was like Eldritch was two different people and that made Sin suspicious. Then again, Sin could be charming and kind when it suited his needs, hiding the street thug from view. Perhaps he and Eldritch weren’t too different. And he had to respect the man’s skills. He was a hard case for sure, possibly even tough enough to give the Fixer a run for his money. Yeah, he was scary bad and, unlike the Fixer, he hadn’t hurt Sin. Well, apart from the injection, and that had been the lady. So maybe he should stay. The room had a warm bed and now his head was clearer, the tropical fish fascinated him.

“So I just wait here until tomorrow?”

“The hotel is ours. You’re welcome to make full use of its facilities and meet the other potential candidates.”

“You’ve got other street kids like me?”

“Some. We recruit from a variety of sources and you may find it helpful to meet the more scholarly candidates.” A smile twisted Eldritch’s lips. “You could do a lot worse than befriend the young lady in the opposite room.”

Sin nodded, but his thoughts were elsewhere. “Are there any more of the Fixer’s crew here?”

“No. We select from across the gangs and no more than one from each.”

With no turf and no bosses, Sin wondered how that would work. Badly, he suspected, but not for him – he could hold his own against any of them.

“There is only one Cast-Iron Rule.” Eldritch drained his teacup. “You are to be in your hotel room between the hours of ten in the evening and seven in the morning. We will not tolerate the breaking of this rule.”

Sin stretched against the soft down pillow. “Keeping me in bed isn’t going to be the problem.”

Eldritch patted him lightly on the shoulder then walked to the door. “I’m glad I found you. There are clothes in the wardrobe and the dining room really is top-hole.” He let himself out, whistling a cheery ditty as he went.

The moment the door closed Sin reached for his keeper. Six numbered rings encircled the top of the brassanium tube. He rotated each ring to align the numbers into a combination seared into his brain: six, two, three, one, one, five. With the faintest of clicks the keeper’s lid sprang open. Sin reached inside and retrieved a torn photo. It was ripped from the bottom of a larger image and showed a young woman in a white coat, her belly gently rounded. This was the lady he believed to be his mother. Despite her smile, her eyes were tinged with sadness. As if she knew her unborn child would grow up strong and capable but alone. He turned the photo over and looked at the single word written in faded ink: Eve. With the tip of his finger he traced the writing then slid the photo back into the keeper and secured it closed.

He turned the photo over and looked at the single word written in faded ink: Eve. With the tip of his finger he traced the writing then slid the photo back into the keeper and secured it closed.

The newness of his pyjamas made the buttons difficult to undo, so after loosening a few, he pulled the top over his head and tossed it onto the floor. He checked the straps on his harness then buckled it around his torso, feeling the reassuring tightness of the leather against his skin. The Fixer had given him the keeper when he’d first joined the gang so he could run secret messages across the city. As he’d moved up the hierarchy, his duties changed, and so now he used it to keep his most precious treasure safe. He slid the tube into the holder and placed his hand over the leather, pressing it into the gap between his pectoral muscles. Feeling whole again, his only clue to his past secure, he opened the wardrobe.

Sin gawked in wide-eyed wonder. The wardrobe was crammed with garments from Walters on Turl, Coxford’s finest tailor. He’d scurried past the shop on many occasions, avoiding the burly yet finely dressed security guards who ensured the likes of him never harassed their well-to-do customers. Choosing what to wear was going to be a dilemma; he’d never owned more than one outfit.

He pulled a garish Italian silk shirt from a hanger and slipped it over his broad shoulders. The fabric tickled, feather-like on his skin.

He strutted the room in expensively woven suits, tweed jackets, boating blazers and all manner of exotic patterned breeches and blouses. However, at heart he was more pit bull than peacock, so he settled for a grandad shirt, moleskin trousers and a pair of rugged trench boots.

Sin’s leather soles squeaked on the polished wood floor as he left his room. More aquariums lined the corridor, brassanium-plated doors interspersed between them.

A short, plump girl in an emerald-green cocktail dress emerged from the room opposite. She smiled at him, dimples forming in her cheeks. “You must be the runner they brought in last night. Everyone’s gasbagging about it. Is it true you nearly gave old Eldritch the slip?”

Sin shrugged. “Dunno, maybe.”

“That’s so danderific. They’re going to pick you for certain.” The girl twirled one of her blonde pigtails. “I’m Zonda. We can be friends, if you like.”

Sin didn’t have friends. Life as a cutpurse was hard and you formed an uneasy arrangement of alliances. Measures of who owed you and who you owed. But this wasn’t the streets and Zonda had talked about Eldritch with a familiarity that didn’t come from being chased across the city. Maybe that was why Eldritch had suggested Sin befriend her. She certainly knew more than he did, and that made her useful. He wasn’t sure he trusted Eldritch, though the blighter had gone hard out to recruit Sin and he couldn’t see any reason why Eldritch would lead him astray now. And besides, there was something about Zonda he liked.

“I don’t normally do friends,” said Sin, “but for you I’m going to make an exception.”

“I don’t normally do friends,” said Sin, “but for you I’m going to make an exception.”

Zonda lifted a satin sleeve. “Splendiferous. You may take my arm.”

Sin hesitated. In his world, the only time you took somebody’s arm was to break it, which he suspected was not the social etiquette here. Tentatively, he hooked his arm through hers.

“Do you know where the dining room is? Me stomach thinks me throat’s been cut,” he said.

“Oh, that’s simple; you just follow the fish.”

Peering at the aquariums, Sin scratched his head.

“No sillies, look.” Zonda pointed to a brass plaque, adorned with rows of labelled buttons in the shape of coloured fish. “You just choose where you want to go.”

Sin’s hand hovered over one of the buttons, a green perch.

“That’s the Conserva-Observatory,” said Zonda, “which has smellerificly fragrant flowers. I think we should go for the dining room.” She pressed a blue fish and a mekanikal trout lowered into the adjacent aquarium and began to swim away from them.

“I expect it’s on an ironglass rod which is rendered invisible by diffraction of the water,” said Zonda as they followed the fish.

Sin had never heard of diffraction but he nodded agreement.

“See the way the mouth’s open?” said Zonda indicating the fish’s head. “I think water flows through it driving an impeller that creates the swimming motion. At least that’s how I’d build it.”

“You could make something like that?” “Easy-peasy, stinky cheesy. Now, making one you could travel in under water, that would be difficult. I bet Nimrod’s done it though.”

“No danger. He’d be showing it off in Coxford. The gentry would be queuing up for rides.”

“Maybe.” Zonda tilted her head and smiled. “I’m hoping to meet him. Rumour is he’s here at the hotel.”

The fish reached the end of the aquarium. In the next tank an identical one appeared and continued on its journey. A guppy briefly chased the trout then lost interest. Sin tapped the ironglass and the guppy shot into some swaying reeds. “So we can go wherever we want by following the fish?”

“Sure. But if you get a red herring ignore it. Nimrod’s little joke. You could end up anywhere.”

The peaceful gurgle of the aquariums was broken by a scream and a muffled thump. Around the next corner, a muscled bruiser of a boy pummelled a foppish white-haired weakling. Sin recognised the bruiser as a Red Blade and his fists clenched. The bruiser landed several more punches and the weakling crumpled to the floor.

Zonda raised a hand to her mouth. “How heinous. We should endeavour to offer abettance.”

Sin stared at her blankly. “In English please.”

“I said we should help.”

Sin’s eyes flicked back to the boy who curled in a ball on the floor while the Red Blade kicked him. “Why?”

Zonda’s grip tightened on his arm. “He’s getting hurt.”

“Do you know him?”

“That’s not the point.” Zonda let go of Sin and clapped her hands together. “Desist immediately, you rapscallion.”

The bruiser snorted. His gaze slid over Zonda and alighted on Sin. He straightened, all interest lost in the groaning boy at his feet. “You’re the Fixer’s lieutenant.”

Sin drew level with Zonda. “If this goes sideways, gap it.”

Zonda stared at him blankly. “In English ple–”

The Red Blade charged.

Time slowed. Sin ducked under a wild haymaker punch, slammed his fist into the bruiser’s stomach and shouldered him to the floor.

Time slowed. Sin ducked under a wild haymaker punch, slammed his fist into the bruiser’s stomach and shouldered him to the floor.

Time snapped back. The lights from the aquariums fluoresced, leaking tendrils of colour into the corridor. Sin squinted and swallowed, the sound of the bruiser’s pain sharp in his ears.

“Come on, let’s eat,” he said, stepping over the writhing Red Blade.


Text © 2017 Gareth Ward

Reproduced by permission of Walker Books Australia.

The Traitor and the Thief

By Gareth Ward

Published by Walker Books Australia

RRP $19.99

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