Gabriel's City: A Tale of Fables and Fortunes
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For spoiled young aristocrat Colin Harwood, the port city of Casmile is a buffet of easy pleasures. But when he steps into a pub brawl to help a dangerously outnumbered young man, he is drawn into the seedy underbelly of the city the young man calls home.
Gabriel is a cutpurse and a knife for hire, practically an urban legend. His vision of Casmile is touched by a strange combination of faith and madness, driven by fairytale logic and a capacity for love that he often must suppress to survive. He’s always worked alone, but when a dashing dragon who calls himself Colin saves him in a bar fight, he pulls Colin into his world.
Gabriel’s city is nothing like the refined, socialite existence that bored Colin senseless. Colin finds adventure and excitement there—and maybe even love. But with his layers of finery stripped away, nothing remains to protect him from poverty or danger—except Gabriel. So he must choose: go back to the civilized young man he once was, or fly free as Gabriel’s dragon.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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Part I: Autumn
Colin fidgets, wondering how much longer this dinner party can drag on. The rest of his table has just burst out in politely scandalized laughter at someone’s prettied-up version of a bawdy gaming house joke. He’s had enough lectures on how these people are his peers that he could recite them back to his father word for word, but compared to the company he’d rather be keeping, they remain excruciatingly dull.
At least he’s had the fortune to be seated across the table from Captain Darius Westfall of the city guard, who’s a falcon among finches if Colin ever saw such a thing. His blood’s common, to judge by his tan skin and black hair, and his features are too sharp to be truly handsome. Likely he was never invited to this sort of party at all before he was appointed captain. Colin smiles at him.
“What about you, Captain?” he asks. “You’ve been so quiet. Surely you must have some entertainment to offer.”
“I would hate to give offense,” Captain Westfall replies. His voice is smooth, carefully free of any trace of a dockside accent. “I’ve no fit entertainment to offer such polite company.” He reaches for his glass of wine, and there are raw scrapes on his knuckles.
“But you must have stories to share,” Colin persists. “I expect your line of work gives you no end of exciting tales.”
“Master Harwood,” Madame Hewitt says, her lips pursed. “That’s not decent conversation for young ladies, and you should be ashamed to encourage it.”
The only young lady in their immediate circle—Julia Mear, one of the more tolerable girls of Colin’s acquaintance—rolls her eyes. “Don’t keep all the fun to yourself.” She glances sidelong at Captain Westfall. “I promise not to faint away in horror, no matter what you say.”
Madame Hewitt harrumphs disapprovingly, but Colin grins. When his sister is old enough for society parties, he’ll introduce her to Julia. They’ll like each other.
“I cannot refuse, then, if the lady would make me such a promise.” Captain Westfall smiles at Colin. “What sort of story strikes the gentleman’s fancy?”
Colin says the first thing that comes to mind. “Tell me about Gabriel.”
The captain laughs, low and rough, but Colin imagines there’s a ferocity to it and shivers in anticipation of the tale. “No wonder your mother worries about you, if you’re keeping company with the sort of rogue who tells stories about Gabriel.”
“I heard of him from Sebastian Dunsmuir,” Colin protests.
“I hope you don’t think that’ll make me retract the statement,” Captain Westfall says. “He should still know better than to talk of such unsavory things with well-bred young gentlemen.”
“But clearly he doesn’t, and I do hope you don’t, either.” Colin leans forward, elbows on the table. “Sebastian made it sound like Gabriel doesn’t really exist. Is that true?”
“There’s something in Casmile that goes by that name,” Captain Westfall says. “I’ve seen what’s left of men who run afoul of Gabriel, and no matter how prettily you plead, Miss Mear—” here the captain looks over at her, and she blushes; really, he’s quite the showman “—you won’t get me to describe that horror in polite company.”
“You make him sound like a monster.” The servants are coming around to clear away the dishes from the meat course; Colin waits until the table’s bare between them before he goes on. “It’s hard to believe you’re not simply toying with me.”
Captain Westfall takes a sip of his wine, amusement clearly written across his face. “He may be a man. He may be an excuse, a bogeyman blamed for the crimes no reasonable man wants to confess.” He leans back in his chair so the serving girl can set the last course in front of him, stewed late-season berries bleeding into thick cream. “I’ve heard grown men swear he enjoys the favor of the Green Lady—and not only in battle, if you take my meaning.”
Madame Hewitt flinches. “Captain!”
“That’s perverse,” Colin adds before he can help himself. Arhon, the Green Lady of the Grave, is the eldest of the Fates; Colin’s not entirely sure he believes in them, but if she does exist, then the idea of anyone seeking her rotting embrace is grotesque.
Captain Westfall doesn’t look at all contrite. “My apologies,” he says with a self-satisfied smirk, as though he’s just won a hand on an outrageous bluff. “Madame Hewitt is right after all. I have no conversation fit for civilized company.”
The rest of supper offers no scandal to match the captain’s outrageous assertions, and Colin’s attention wanders. When the party adjourns from the dining table to the ballroom that takes up the back half of the house, Colin hangs behind and slips off the other way when his father isn’t looking.
The Ashfords’ butler is sitting up in the front hall, still on duty because of the party. He starts out of his chair when Colin comes toward the door. “You are leaving, sir?”
Colin nods, reaching into his pocket. “Should my father—should Isaac Harwood come looking for me, tell him I’ll make my own way home, and he needn’t wait.” He presses a half shilling into the man’s hand—he can’t use cut coin on the gaming tables anyway—and adds, “Don’t hunt him down to tell him. Let it wait until he’s searching for me.”
“As you wish, sir,” the butler says, and Colin is fairly sure he only imagines the reproach in the man’s tone.
The evening air is crisp outside the house, and the sky not quite fully dark. Colin takes the first block at a jog, expecting someone to call after him at any minute, and doesn’t slow until he’s out of sight of the Ashfords’ townhouse. Even after that, he tries not to pass too close to the streetlamps, and keeps an ear out for sounds of pursuit.
His father will be angry with him, of course, but right now Colin finds it hard to care. These society parties are barely tolerable when Danny’s around to keep him company, but now, with Madame Sheffield taking the waters in Nothwn for her health and insisting that the entire family go with her, there’s nobody to keep Colin entertained. The other young men are too serious, and the young ladies are all worrying about whom to marry.
Fortunately there’s always an interesting party going on somewhere in Casmile, if you know where to look and have a bit of coin to spare. Colin heads east, deeper into the city, and toys with the idea of going up to one of the Kite Street brothels and hiring himself some attractive company. But the houses on Kite are expensive, at least half a guinea for a tumble, and half a guinea’s worth of silver will buy quite a few hands of cards even if his luck’s awful—and tonight his luck must be good for him to slip out of the party as easily as he did.
He makes his way toward the gaming houses instead, the streets between Alder and Market blazing with lamps and alive with laughter. There’s company to be bought here, too, if he wants it; he turns down a girl in red silk and a boy with his hair in tight Cabirile braids before he’s passed the first block. The Golden Peacock’s doors are open, despite the cool night air outside, and that’s tempting, but Barron owns a stake in the Peacock, and Colin owes Barron rather more money than he cares to think about at the moment. Perhaps if he does well enough tonight, he’ll take his winnings from one of the other houses and go pay down a bit of his debt before he heads home.
The Quartermaster is almost as good as the Peacock, and it’s less likely he’ll run into anyone there whom he owes more than a few shillings. Colin steps into the warmth of the light and the sweet haze of smoke. There are three tables open so far this evening, one for dice and two for cards, and Colin’s spirits lift as he recognizes a familiar face at the far table. There’s even an empty seat to his left.
“Sebastian,” he says as he reaches the table. “Tell me this table’s lucky tonight.”
“Of course it is, darling.” Sebastian smiles in that warm, conspiratorial way that makes him seem almost like a boy as young as Colin, instead of a man twice his age. “You know I only play at lucky tables.”
“I’ll take your word for it,” Colin says as he settles in his seat. Sebastian seems to be doing well, as always; he is sitting at ease, and the rings on his fingers glitter elegantly as he arranges his cards. His coat looks new, a pearly velvet that calls attention to the pale gray of his eyes, and somehow he makes the tousled wildness of his hair—still black with not a thread of gray, despite years devoted to mastering Casmile’s vices—look fashionable rather than sloppy. Not for the first time, Colin thinks it would be a blessing to have an older brother, like Sebastian does, who could inherit the family estate and all its responsibilities.
“And you, Colin?” Sebastian asks as Colin antes for the next round and the dealer shuffles the cards. “How do the Fates find you tonight?”
“Counting my blessings.” A serving girl passes with a bottle of brandy, and Colin motions for her to bring him a glass. “I narrowly escaped dying of boredom just a short while ago.”
“Congratulations are in order, then. That would have been such a disappointing way to go.” Sebastian picks up his cards, rearranges them, hesitates over one and discards another. Colin looks down at his own and tries not to betray his surprise when he discovers two knights and a maiden among his cards. The first hand of the night is almost always a throwaway.
“Wouldn’t it have been?” Colin says. The man on Sebastian’s other side is glaring at them, but he pays it no mind. “Just a terrible waste.” He gives up the pip cards that round out his hand. “Tell me you have some interesting news to share.”
Sebastian pushes two shillings toward the center of the table. “Of course I do. Do you want to hear about Sophia Betteridge threatening divorce, or about the dismal state of the Maiden’s Mercy when she limped back into harbor yesterday?”
It’s no real secret that Henry Betteridge takes mistresses from the slave quarters; that’s gossip Colin could have heard if he’d stayed at the Ashfords’ party. Disasters at sea sound far more exciting. “Was it pirates?” he asks. His newly dealt cards net him the ace of blossoms, which matches up to the maiden and leaves him with the winning hand. A few more like that and he might be able to stop by the Peacock after all to show some goodwill by paying down his debt a bit.
Sebastian nods as he antes his shilling for the next hand. “Up from the islands, apparently.” Colin nudges a coin from his winnings back into the center of the table. “Burnt black as pitch, from what I hear, and fierce as northmen. The Maiden’s captain will likely never walk again.”
The man to Sebastian’s right spares them another irritated glance and gets up from the table, either out of luck and coin or simply out of patience. Colin doesn’t much care; someone else will be along to fill out the table soon enough.
Sebastian leans over and rests one hand on Colin’s back. “There’s a story I’d like to hear out of you too, you know,” he murmurs. “What on earth have you done to get Barron’s attention?”
“What?” Colin asks in alarm.
“If you’re in trouble, you can tell me, darling, and I’ll help.” Sebastian looks so sincere, it’s almost impossible to believe him. “A few of his boys were here looking for you earlier.”
Colin winces. “It’s nothing serious.” If he tells Sebastian his troubles, the entire city will know by week’s end. “I’m touched that you’d worry, but I’m fine. I promise.” He really will have to start paying down that loan soon.
“If you’re certain,” Sebastian says.
“Completely.” Colin reaches for his cards. “Don’t give it another thought.”
Oh gosh, I loved the writing! ...I’m excited for you to meet Gabriel and see what a complex and unique person he really is.
Once I became engrossed, I didn’t register time passing as a I read. Both boys captured my attention. A few times, toward the end of the novel, I caught myself holding my breath.