Tarnished Knight - By Bec McMaster


“Right this way, guv.”

The boy hurried ahead of Rip, his roughened boots churning the snow and mud to sludge. He kept darting a glance over his shoulder, fully aware of exactly what stalked behind him.

John ‘Rip’ Doolan strode through the cold streets behind the lad with his hands thrust into the pockets of his heavy coat. The fingers on his left hand kept twitching, trying to stir some semblance of heat into the limb. Of the right, all he could feel was the heavy pull of the hydraulics in his forearm as the mech hand flexed. Rough work. Rookery work. But it served its purpose. Though the aristocratic Echelon that ruled London city considered him less of a man because of it – less than human – he couldn’t run this line of work without two feasible limbs.

Jem Saddler paused at the intersection ahead, blowing into his cupped palms. The work-chafed fingers struck through the end of his gloves. The boy’d lost one the year previous, when the biting cold came in. Not uncommon in Whitechapel, where flats and tenements slumped against each other like slatterns on a winter’s night, seeking warmth against the bitter chill. Few here had coin enough to keep the fires burning all night and from the neat little slash that gaped in the fabric beneath the boy’s arm, the coat had once belonged to someone else. Clothing was hard to come by too, except for the more enterprising.

Rip’s eyes narrowed as he surveyed Petticoat Lane and the alleys off it. The ever-present ropes that slung between the upper stories of the alleys were bare of the ghostly flap of laundry. Fire burned in a barrel on the corner and a pair of dollymop’s huddled around it, warming their hands. One of them eyed him warily, a frozen little smile etching itself onto her lips. Coin was coin, but he knew what he looked like. Wouldn’t be the first time a trollop hoped he walked away.

“You’ve done your bit,” Rip said, turning to Jem and pretending he didn’t notice the whore’s sigh of relief. “Ought to wait ‘ere though, case I need you to run a message for me.”

Jem held his palm out, his narrow chin tipping up with a faint tremble as he stared Rip down. He could have left once his message had been delivered but the lad’s palm hadn’t been greased yet.

The action was presumptuous but Rip tugged a pair of shillings from his pocket and flipped them toward the lad. He knew what it was like to be starving at that age. It were the sort of thing a man never forgot.

Jem’s eyes widened as he saw how generous Rip had been and he gave a grin, the shillings disappearing like magic. “Aye, guv. I’ll stay.” He glanced at the narrow laneway that ran between buildings. Liza Kent’s place. There’d been no sign of her in three days and Jem had done the right thing in tracking him down about it. “Thought ‘er old man might ‘ave given ‘er the touch-up, but no sniff o’ ‘im either.”

“Liza’s flash gent touch ‘er up much?”

It weren’t none of his business but the hair on the back of Rip’s neck rose as the darkness within him stirred. Memory reared its ugly head; his mother staggering back into the stove as her pimp laid into her with his fists. Rip had been small then, powerless. He wasn’t powerless anymore, and there was nothing he despised more than a man who raised his hand to a woman.

Jem must have sensed the slither of darkness inside him for he swallowed. “No more’n usual, guv.”

Easy. Rip squeezed his eyes shut and forced the yearning hunger in him to subside. After six months of living with the hot, gut-twisting clench of it, he was starting to recognize what set it off and how to avoid that.

Becoming a blue blood with their unnatural thirst for blood wouldn’t have been his choice, if there’d been one. Six months ago though, a vampire had torn his throat open and half disembowelled him. He could remember the hot-wet splash of his own blood as pain washed through him like brandy-soaked flames. Lying on the roof, his heels drumming on the tiles as he coughed wetly into the night. And then his master, Blade, leaning over him with a desperate whisper. “We’re gonna give you me blood. The virus might keep you ‘live long enough to ‘eal your wounds.”

He knew what it meant. Blade had