Cloudy Climes and Starless Skies (A Prosperity Story)
My dearest Dil,
I fear our lifestyle does not lend itself well to the marking of dates or rites of passage, but I cherish the night on which I first told you my story. Of my birth in Canton and my life in England, and how—at last—I escaped from it to the skies. Of my father’s attempts to make me his, and my struggle to make myself my own. Of airship and auroras, the flying pirate city of Liberty, and how I became who I am.
I’ve tried to write it all down for you as best I can, so you may share it with me again whenever you wish.
This title comes with no special warnings.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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When Shadowless makes slip in Temperance, Byron Kae searches for a present for Dil. They don’t like being ashore—everyone stares, and skytowns feel enclosed with their jumble of platforms and people—but at least they have no need for care on the narrow beams and swaying ladders. Byron Kae can’t remember ever being afraid of falling, even when they had another name, before they became who they are now. They could fly, if they wanted, but they’re already wary of the way people look at them. The way Dil had once, though he doesn’t any more. Hasn’t for a long time.
Dil can’t hide anything. Byron Kae used to wonder how he ever made much of a cardsharp until they saw him take four airmen for everything at Calumny. They had expected cold eyes and composure, like everyone else around the table, but Dil had laughed and glittered, and lied with his whole face. And, afterwards, they’d all had to run. Once they were flying, sky-safe and far beyond pursuit, Dil had put his arms around Shadowless’s neck, breathless with his own wickedness, and Byron Kae had felt the heat of him, and his fast-beating heart.
Sometimes, oh just sometimes, on hot days, they fly even higher, where the air is thin and the aether is close, and the sun drenches Shadowless in sticky gold . . . and Dil takes his shirt off. He’s so very different from the wan, hungry-eyed boy they’d gathered bleeding from the ground in Prosperity. The boy Byron Kae had nearly lost to fever, to Ruben Crowe, to a falling world. He’s a little bit piratical now, with his longer braids, and the wiry muscles that pull and shift beneath his smooth, dark skin, but when he smiles his shiny, dimple-bracketed smile, he’s all Dil. His feet are always light upon Shadowless, and Byron Kae tastes the heavy sweetness of his sweat where it falls sometimes upon the deck.
Jane, of course, always knows exactly what they’re up to, emerging dishevelled and disgruntled from her cabin to put a stop to it with a few sharp words. Makes them blush. Like the time she glared through a haze of opium smoke, and told them, “When I desire someone, I fuck them. It makes life so much simpler.”
But Byron Kae can’t see how it would make anything simple at all.
It’s been turbulent up in the blue since Prosperity fell. The kraken are restless, the airnavy patrols the skyways, and the skytowns are subject to increasing scrutiny from the authorities below. What has always been a transient life now feels fragile in other ways, and even basic resources are scarce. Books are almost impossible to find. As a commodity, they fall between the cracks of precious and worthless, and wanting them becomes its own trap. Some men would call this weakness. Certainly the pedlars, salesmen, and storekeepers must, for they always drive a hard bargain, and Byron Kae isn’t very good at haggling. Dil would probably be horrified if he ever found out the cost of his ragged, little library, but Byron Kae puts no price on his pleasure.
They dread the day they run out of books, or Dil’s interest wanes. The end of starlit evenings, full of words and Dil’s laughing. He likes mysteries and romances best, speculating endlessly—Jane would say interminably—about what he thinks is going to happen next and which characters are going to get together, as if he has, at last, discovered all the friends his life has lacked. He wept for hours over the injustice of Vanity Fair, and “princock swells what were too far up their own arses to see folk is just trying to get on in the world and shouldn’t be subject to arbitrary moral punishment.” That last bit was all Ruben. It made Byron Kae miss their friend and hurt a little at the same time.
The only book in Temperance is Hard Times, and Dil is going to hate it.
But Byron Kae buys it anyway in exchange for one of the opals strung through their hair. It’s a sad-looking, water-damaged volume, bound in olive-green cloth, with the original purchase price of five shillings rather mockingly inscribed in gilt upon the spine.
They settle down with it that evening, and make it to chapter three before Dil starts bristling.
“Coketown,” he scoffs. “Cos that ain’t obviously supposed to be Gaslight.”
Byron Kae once made the mistake of telling him that Dickens had spent three months working at a blacking factory at the age of twelve, thus cementing him in Dil’s estimation as “a whiny prick what don’t know what he’s talking about. Three months, my arse.”
It doesn’t take much longer before the misery of it all gradgrinds them both down, and they give up.
“’Tis like he don’t see ’em as people at all.” Dil has his head in Byron Kae’s lap, spilling braids and smiles and careless heat. “Just cogs in his Great Social Message or what ’ave ye.”
Byron Kae wants to touch him. Always, but particularly now, at the edge of day, on the cusp of night, in this time that is theirs. They imagine him sun gilded and star limned, a burnished man, and feel the curve of his spine as he shifts on the pillows he has strewn across the deck.
“Perhaps that’s the intention?” they suggest.
“Yeah, but it don’t make him no better than what he’s talking about. That ain’t no reformer zeal. ’Tis hypocrisy, is what.”
It’s a fair point. “I’m sorry, Dil. I didn’t . . . There wasn’t—”
He startles and pulls away, and the loss of him stirs the sails, and ripples through the rigging. “I didn’t mean nowt.” Cross-legged now, and facing Byron Kae, he looks at them, stricken. “’Tis still a princely gift.”
“There’s little value in an unread book.”
Dil reaches out and takes Hard Times from their unresisting hands. “Before you, there was only ever unread books.”
Byron Kae isn’t sure what to say. Dil sounds oddly serious, and they’re mortifyingly distracted by the way the light gleams on his eyelashes. Dil is not unfamiliar with his assets, nor ashamed to use them, but right now there are no flutters, no dimples, just Dil’s steady gaze.
“Thing is,” he goes on, “these ain’t the stories I want no more.”
“Fuck me sideways with a—” Dil scrabbles against the deck, and just about manages to avoid being thrown into the mast. “Is that krakens?”
“N-no. Just . . . aetherflow.” They blush. The wind dies, and Shadowless calms. But Byron Kae’s heart still beats too hard. “I understand. We . . . we’ve read a lot of books and—”
“It ain’t about the books,” Dil cuts them off abruptly, and then tugs a bit sheepishly at a braid. He has a way of concealing uncertainty behind boldness that Byron Kae rather admires. He acts when most would hesitate, laughs when others would not, and takes, in general, too many chances. He goes on more gently, “Thing is, I want a different story. I want yours.”
Byron Kae feels his attention like heat. Like a touch. It fills them with fear and a kind of sweet, sharp hope that is—if anything—just as painful. “Mine?”
They look at their hands, at the rainbows on the tips of their fingers, and feel the pulse of aether beneath their skin. That’s their story. “I . . . I wouldn’t know how to begin.”
“Popular opinion suggests, beginning’s a good place.”
That makes them smile, and they don’t even try to hide it. Dil makes it easy to smile. “I thought you hated all that, um, nonsense about ‘what your father was called and where you was squeezed yowling out your mother.’”
He’s so proud of his words, and grins to hear them coming back to him. “Only when I ain’t got reason to give a fuck.”
“Well, I’m honoured to be worthy of your . . . fucks.”
They just about manage to say it without blushing, and it’s worth it to hear Dil laugh. “I meant,” he says, “with books and shit. Nowt more depressing than settling in for six hundred pages and then stagging straightwise the hero’s four years old or sommat, and ain’t going to do anything interesting for ages.”
“I suppose some readers might say it helps them really get to know a character.”
“Mebbe. But life—” Dil glitters wickedly “—is lived in media res.”
His mouth forms the Latin a little too carefully. Byron Kae hears Ruben. “Then what does my past matter?” they ask.
“It don’t matter a damn if you don’t want to tell me. But I kinda want to know stuff about you.” Dil sounds so unexpectedly solemn, so unexpectedly uncertain, before he continues with characteristic avarice, “All the stuff.”
Byron Kae hides their smile this time so Dil doesn’t think he’s being laughed at. But, truthfully, they like to be the subject of his wanting. “Of course I want to tell you. I’ll tell you anything.”
“’Tis sorta interesting to me sometimes cos I got no clue about myself that way.” He settles back into Byron Kae’s lap, stretching an arm into the last of the sunlight so that it glides over his skin, honey-gold and mellow. “Parent’s could’ve been anybugger. Though I got some inkling one or both ’em weren’t perhaps entirely white.”
Byron Kae traces a fingertip down Dil’s forearm, a pale shadow, chasing the sun. They tremble a little with the pleasure and the presumption of it, but Dil just closes his eyes and makes a deep, rough sound at the back of his throat. The truth is, Dil is full of hungers. Greedy for words and skin and the open sky. They imagine too easily how he might respond to other touches. The way he might move, the things he might say. His sly, graceful hands knowing all the secrets of Byron Kae’s body.
“My father,” they tell him, “is Lord Wolfram.”
A blade-swift silence.
Then, “Ooh lah-di-dah.” Dil’s contempt for what he calls the nib folk is instinctive, but at the same time tinged by a kind of hopeless envy. Byron Kae finds it comforting to wonder sometimes whether Dil was truly in love with Ruben, or simply with the kind of life that would create someone like him.
“It’s a very minor title. He’s a navy man. An admiral now.”
“So, you’re a . . . a—” Dil’s eyes open, and there’s hurt gleaming in the darkness of them “—lord or . . . lady or what ’ave ye? This . . . flying about, then, ’tis just a hobby?”
“No.” Too sharp. Too certain. Heat and aether rushes through them. “This is who I am.”
“You ain’t no Wolfram?”
“That will never be my name. I’m not . . . not legitimate.” Such a strange word to wear. “I’m just me.”
Dil smiles up at them. “Ain’t no ‘just’ about it. But how you’d figure Lord Wossname for your dad? Being a by-blow and all.”
“I was politically embarrassing.” Byron Kae wonders how to explain. “And Lord Wolfram always claims what he believes to be his. Whether he values it or not.”
“Reckon I know the type. Dice roll any kinder for your mam?”
“I don’t know. She passed away when I was very young. I don’t . . . I don’t remember her at all.”
Those early years, before their mother died and after, are all in fragments. Too many different people and too many different places. Too little understanding. All muddled in a sensory haze: the scent of blood and chrysanthemum tea, red-sailed ships with watching eyes, a square white house on a hill, not like the other houses, a garden with silver water and golden fish, the sun slipping shadowless across a different sky.
“Well,” offers Dil cheerfully, “leastways you ain’t got nowt to miss.”
They try to smile, not knowing what to say.
“How’d she die?”
Touch is suddenly the wrong thing. Dil is too much, too much heat and skin and curiosity. They push him away as gently as they can. Stand and let the wind catch their hair, shake the feathers and the beads, stir the tails of their coat.
Over by the rail, the sky is everywhere.
“She killed herself. When the war ended and my father didn’t come back.”
Dil moves like a cat, so they don’t hear him. But they feel him in the shifting air, the ripple of his footsteps. “Why?”
“Shame? Grief? Loneliness? I have no answers.” Shadowless is warm beneath Byron Kae’s hands, as familiar as their own skin, pulsing with aether and power. “I heard . . . I heard she was his housekeeper, while he was in Canton. I don’t know if he made her promises, or if she loved him; if she was desperate, or if she simply wanted a different world. I just know she . . . I just know I was alone, and nobody knew what to do with me. Where I belonged.”
Dil pushes up under their arm and wriggles and wriggles until he’s right there, tucked between Byron Kae and Shadowless. He has to lean back a little to meet Byron Kae’s eyes, his body pulled into lines at once both tough and yielding. The scent of sun and sweat is all over him like the last of the light.
And this time, touch isn’t wrong at all.
“I won’t never leave you ever,” Dil promises, with all the certainty of his maybe nineteen years. “Cos we belong on Shadowless now, right?”
Whose mouth forms the shapes of untaken kisses when he stands so close and says such things.
“Y’know—” Dil eases himself onto the railing “—why don’t you start it properwise?”
He’s framed by Byron Kae, the horizon at his back, with only trust to hold him. “Like this?” they ask.
“Exactly like this.”
For a moment, there’s nothing. Nothing but the wind and the shadows and the first few snail-trails of starlight over the darkening sky.
Then—for Dil, and Dil alone—come words.
The truth is, Dil, I don’t begin with two people.
I begin many years ago with two empires: one celestial, one industrial. My father was dispatched to China sometime in the 1830s, to support the chief superintendent of trade in securing British interests in the Far East. I was born in Guangzhou—Canton to the Europeans—in 1839, in the Thirteen Factories. I never saw the interior of the city itself—it’s forbidden to the fang-qi, which is the name the Celestials have for foreigners. I believe it means “outlandish devil” or something very similar. But my only real experience of Canton—which, I believe, some of the airmen called the city of boats—was passing through it as I left the Celestial Kingdom behind me. I was fourteen, and Lord Wolfram had decided—or been required—to claim me.
I was taken to Hong Kong shortly after the war—early in 1843, I think. I don’t know for certain, I’ve had to construct this history from papers and fragments of other people’s memories. Before my father’s summons came, I lived behind the white walls of Headquarters House in the care of the general officer commanding. He was . . . not unkind. But so much of life was distant to me: something on the horizon, shown to me in pictures, or written about in books, caught on the edges of conversations between strangers. It was not until my return to Canton, standing on the skydock, waiting to be taken to a place called England, that suddenly everything was real: life in all its ugly-beauty-truth, the junks and the lorchas, the sampans and the lantern-strung flower barges, all jostling with the European clippers on the muddy brown waters of the Pearl River.
Lord Wolfram had sent an airship because it was too close to typhoon season and the seas might be treacherous. We left at first light, when the whole sky was flame. Oh Dil, you’ve never seen a sunrise, or a sunset, til you’ve been in the East. I’d watched from my windows, but this felt like the first and only one I’d ever truly seen. My last, most vivid memory of Canton: slashes of gold and scarlet falling in searing benediction over the river, the mountains, and the jumble of curling, ochre-tinted roofs.
I . . . I’m sorry, I don’t think I’m telling this well. It’s very confused.
Naw, ’tis all good. I just like listening to you talk. I’m kinda fuddled though. Cos I don’t know nowt about no war, and I think you said you was born in thirteen factories which is like seriously hard-core.
Oh dear . . . No, the Thirteen Factories is the name of the foreign quarter in Canton. The buildings aren’t actually factories like in Gaslight. They’re warehouses and trading posts, with apartments above. They were built so close to the river that I saw them as the airship was leaving. They reminded me of where I had lived in Hong Kong, strange and square and regimented. I had envied the other houses, so brightly coloured, with their curving roofs and ornamental dragons. The airship captain pointed out the New English Factory, where he said my father had most likely stayed.
The place where I was born. Where my mother died.
But I remember nothing, almost nothing, and nobody ever spoke to me about it. They talked to each other, whispered sometimes, and the major general wrote a lot of letters. That was how I knew she was dead. They called her a poor woman, but they didn’t say it kindly.
She had been waiting for him. At the end of the war. Watching out for his sails on the horizon. But he never came back. I don’t know if he’d ever intended to.
Sometimes I think there must have been something of love in it. Something like love anyway. The first thing—indeed, the only thing he said to me—when I arrived in England, before he locked me away behind high walls and wrought iron gates, was that I looked like her. It’s a strange thought, Dil, to know you look like someone you’ve never seen, and hardly anyone remembers.
I used to search for her in the mirror. Perhaps my eyes were like her eyes, or my hair as dark as her hair had been, but it’s easier to see him. In Hong Kong I knew I was fang-qi. And in Gaslight, in my father’s home, I was fang-qi still. Lady Wolfram screamed the first time she saw me.
As for the war, I don’t know much about it. I think, like everything else, it was about trade, and English merchants smuggling opium into Canton. I know there was a blockade—several blockades—and that Lord Wolfram was in command of the British fleet. I sometimes wonder if he had always expected, or perhaps intended, war. His own ship—a breathtakingly beautiful Blackwall frigate called the Victoria—
What’s that little smile all about then?
N-nothing. I mean . . . well . . . you’ll see.
Aww, you pricktease.
I don’t mean to be.
’S’okay. I reckon the best stories kinda do that. Sorta seducing you along with ’em, giving up their secrets one by one.
I-I’ve forgotten what I was saying.
Your dad’s ship.
Oh, yes. You see, the Pearl River is very shallow, and the current flows east to west, so it’s difficult to traverse. But Lord Wolfram had secretly commissioned a ship from Gaslight, a vessel of steam and iron and will he called the Nemesis. She was a lot smaller than the ships of the line, with a shallow draft, and she could navigate the mud flats and sandbars in defiance of even the wind. The Celestials called her a demon, for wherever she went, there followed flame and smoke and thunder.
The war ended in a treaty that pleased nobody. Reparations were paid and strictures lifted, and the island of Hong Kong ceded to Her Majesty’s government, for its position, I think, though the British thought it little more than a barren rock, and a handful of fishing villages. I was taken there in the care of the major general, though I don’t remember how it was arranged. I suppose they didn’t know what else to do with me. Perhaps it was only meant to be temporary, but Lord Wolfram had other wars to fight, and so I stayed behind. An afterthought, waiting for something I didn’t understand.
For ten years, Headquarters House, an island on an island, was my whole world. A makeshift, ramshackle world, taking shape around me. When I first arrived, there was only a single road leading from the waterfront, a scattering of buildings hastily constructed from matting and wood, and some of the British officials had to be accommodated in tents. I don’t think they were very pleased about it. But Queenstown and I . . . we grew together, through fire and flood and fever, and by the time I was old enough to know a little of myself, and my place in this changing, self-creating world, I could stand on the veranda of the house and see shops, taverns, post offices, brothels, hotels, barracks, a police station, a thriving community. A part of my landscape at once so close and so distant, like the emerald slopes and pearlescent, pink-edged mists of Victoria Peak, which I saw every day, but never visited.
As I got older, there were tutors, though they never stayed with me long. There was a missionary, I think, and an old navy surgeon. I met some of the Celestials too, traders mostly, or pirates, seeking new opportunities in this new place, who had grown accustomed to foreign ways. We spoke in English, or sometimes the pidgin they used in Canton, because it was forbidden to teach Chinese or Manchu to fang-qi. Sometimes I’d meet visitors to the major general, usually the wives of diplomats and administrators. What a pretty girl, they’d say, or what a handsome boy.
But wasn’t you lonely?
I . . . I don’t know. I suppose I must have been, but I’m not sure how I knew how to be. On clear days I could see all the way to the bay, and now I’m afraid it sounds a little odd, but I watched everything and everyone, and I thought that was my place, somehow. My part to play. I saw the ships come in and depart again, I saw the people who stayed, and the people who left, the ones who lived their lives by routine, and the ones who didn’t. It was closeness of a kind.
I only really began to understand loneliness when they took me to Gaslight.
I hated it there. There was nothing to see, just the walls of the estate, and the heavy sky. Everything felt enclosed and empty at the same time, mansions that would stand, unchanging, for centuries to come. And I was frightened of the wide-open streets where all footsteps echoed. I couldn’t sleep, that first night, knowing how easily evil spirits would find me in such a place. I saw them drifting over the cobbles and gathering round the house, mournful and malignant, with tattered robes and curving fingernails, and their hungry, empty eyes. Or perhaps I slept in spite of my fears, and only dreamed, because suddenly I found myself in an unfamiliar bed, in an unfamiliar darkness, screaming.
I think I must have scared the servants half to death. First with my cries, and then my breathless tales—half in English, half in pidgin—of devils and ghosts and monsters. I was summoned to Lord Wolfram’s study the next morning. The way he stood and held himself, he was a man of stone and steel in the pale Western sun. He told me he would suffer ignorance and superstition in no child of his, and that I was never to speak such nonsense again.
“It is not nonsense,” I answered. “It is common knowledge. Evil spirits can only fly in straight lines and cannot turn corners, which is why houses are built close together, and facing one another, with blessings of happiness and prosperity inscribed above the doors.”
Lord Wolfram had the lightest eyes I’d ever seen. They were grey like the world he’d brought me to. “Evil spirits do not exist. Such credulous notions are for women, children, and foreigners.” He reached out and touched my hair, which I’d always worn long. It was not a gentle touch, nor rough especially, just impatient and careless, as if he wasn’t touching a person at all. “And you are done with such . . . ambiguities.”
Even now I don’t know what possessed me to speak to him as I did. I think it was fear, and wanting my hair free of his fingers. “I came on a flying ship to a city lit by artificial suns hanging from the branches of metal trees. I do not believe ambiguities are so easily dispensed with.”
He did not even reply. Simply turned away, and I was handed to the man I would later learn was to be my tutor. Claverslick was his name. We despised each other. He had been in the service of Lord Wolfram’s family his whole life. He was a narrow-eyed, thin-lipped man, neither tall nor short, one of those people the years seemed to have whittled to the coldest, sharpest quintessence of their nature. On that first occasion, as on many others, he taught my father’s lessons with a switch. And when I wept—shock, I think, more than pain, at first—he chastised me for that as well. He said my father would not abide such weakness. I was at once instinctively mortified and bewildered. It had never before occurred to me that tears were shameful.
Yet he always made a point of striking me until they came.
I thought him monstrous, of course, but—looking back—I do not think he derived any pleasure from cruelty, as I know some do. His satisfaction lay in his conviction of righteousness. I wouldn’t go so far as to say he believed he was helping me. It was not quite personal in that way. But I think he saw it as his duty to correct me.
He found much to correct. I’d always been aware, in some nonspecific, ill-articulated way, of being different. But this was the first time I understood that it . . . that I . . . was wrong. And wrong in so many ways. The way I looked, the way I acted, what I said, what I thought. Everything I knew and cared about and liked or valued. I’d never had reason to believe myself particularly stupid, but, oh, I started to believe it then. I couldn’t understand what they wanted from me. I only knew that Claverslick was determined I should behave in a way that would bring credit to Lord Wolfram, and that this seemed entirely disconnected from anything I found natural or admirable.
Every week or so, when he was in England, I would be called to Lord Wolfram’s study, and he would ask Claverslick how I was coming along. The answer would inevitably be that I was doing poorly. At this task they had imposed on me, but not defined for me. And my father would frown and dismiss us. Once I heard him tell someone—Claverslick perhaps, but perhaps not, I don’t think they were confidants—that he would turn me into a decent English gentleman if he had to break me first to do it.
I think it was the second time he saw me that he insisted someone cut my hair. I . . . I am ashamed to remember the scene I caused, no doubt once again proving myself the savage he thought me. He had two footmen hold me down while his valet did the deed, and I screamed and wept and struggled, and uttered phrases—not, thankfully, solely in English—I had no conception I’d ever learned. Afterwards came correction and— Dil, whatever is the matter?
’Tis glimflashy-making, is all. Fucking . . . fucking . . . I ain’t got no words bad enough.
I don’t believe that for a moment. Your command of bad words is exceptional. And it was just my hair. I’m not Samson.
That ain’t the point.
No, I know. But, looking back, I feel a little foolish. It was not so great a violation, but I took it very hard. I think I felt I had so little, it was more than I could afford to lose. I should have been stronger than that. It was just . . . oh, I don’t know . . . difficult, in a manner beyond expectation or anticipation, to be suddenly made a stranger to myself. To find a reflection in the glass that spoke of someone else’s wishes, not my own, and to know that this . . . this distorted simulacrum was what the world would see. I felt beaten in ways beyond the touch of Claverslick’s switch. And I’m so sorry to be telling you all this. It’s not . . . I was young, and—
Nowt to be sorry over. I’m sorry there was times when you was sad, but that ain’t the same as being sorry to know about ’em. And, anyway, being sad ain’t no crime neither. ’Tis like that play what they was doing in Trinity. “She loved me for the dangers I had passed” and what ’ave ye.
“And I loved her that she did pity them.” We . . . um . . . we didn’t catch the end of that play, did we?
Mebbe we can sometime. I reckon that tricksy Italian cove had the hots for wossname too.
Well . . . it’s . . . um . . .
Or mebbe he stays with the gentry mort what loved him for his stories, and the other fella goes with the Florentine. Cos sounded like he liked him when he kept going on about what a proper gent he was, and trying to get him sozzled so they could bang.
I’m not quite sure it ends that way.
Well, don’t you go spoiling it.
I sincerely hope nobody spoils Othello for you, Dil. And please don’t think my life has always been loneliness and misery. It has had compensations that so many lack: comfort, safety, access to the trappings of wealth and power. Had my father not been Lord Wolfram, I don’t know what would have happened to me in Canton. I can’t imagine my mother’s family, whoever they were, would have looked kindly on a half-caste child. Perhaps I would be working for the Hong. Perhaps I would not even have survived.
My time in Gaslight was more circumscribed than it had been in Hong Kong. There were many lessons and many corrections of various kinds. But I soon discovered Lord Wolfram had an extensive library. When I am feeling ungenerous, as I sometimes am, I think it must have been a vanity project. I was the only one to use it. I had never seen so many books, all of them untouched, bound in the same dark-red leather, their pages edged in gold. At first it confused me that my father would possess something he had no interest in or care for. Then it did not.
I suppose I could have devoted myself to the study of improving literature—I recall he had all eight volumes of Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire—and grown into a moral, worthy, and scholarly person, but I’m afraid I much preferred poetry.
You’re a bad ’un.
Oh yes, quite wicked— What . . . what are you laughing at? Don’t laugh at my iniquity. In case you’ve forgotten, I am a pirate. Well, a buccaneer. But anyway, as you see, I was not so very wretched at Wolfram Hall.
Didn’t you have no friends, or sommat?
My time was mostly Claverslick’s, and my father’s occasionally. His son was away taking the grand tour, his daughter was at a finishing school in Switzerland, and Lady Wolfram kept to her chambers. Her health was delicate, her disposition the same. She was beautiful, I think, like a woman from a painting. I only usually saw her on social occasions, exquisite on Lord Wolfram’s arm. The rose gardens had been his wedding gift to her. In the summer months, there would be vases full of them in the entrance hall and the state rooms.
The redness of them used to make my eyes sting. And I hated the way they smelled, sweet and heavy and sour, like perfume, sweat, and death.
Once I came upon her while she was arranging them. I tried to slip away, but it was too late, and she summoned me with a crook of her finger. She was pale, in pale taffeta. I could have spanned my hands about her waist. Her fingers flitted among the roses, restless as wings.
I waited, but she said nothing. I was frightened she was going to scream again.
Eventually she pulled one of the flowers free from its fellows. It was the biggest, the most brazen, and the most sickeningly bright.
I didn’t want it, but I couldn’t see how to refuse. I reached out to take it.
In Canton and Hong Kong, opium was an expected hospitality in upper-class households, so I had some familiarity with its effects. Lady Wolfram’s eyes were almost entirely pupil but for a blurry rim of washed-out blue. “‘The invisible worm,’” she murmured, “‘that flies in the night in the howling storm: has found out thy bed of crimson joy.’”