But there’s still a war in Afghanistan. It turns out that there are some things you can change, when you’re building a new history, and some things you…well, can’t.
Oh, and it’s a comedy. Think Terry Pratchett or Douglas Adams, if they’d grown up on a steady diet of George RR Martin. (Yes, people die. This is the new normal for fiction. Get used to it.)
Priorities, Thaddeus thought. Gold was nice. Life was better. Time to do what he did best.
He turned and bolted, feeling a swish of air as the dagger passed through the space he had just vacated. A moment later he was through the door and in the warren of tiny, confusing alleys that together made up the dock district of Old New London.
The sun was nearly gone. Sensible people were heading home, and people of Thaddeus’ sort were not yet out. Thaddeus chose a direction at random and plunged off as fast as he could, weaving through the crowd of laborers and merchants of the petty sort. Behind him, the door to the tiny shack, really little more than a pile of planks coaxed by a trick of the carpenter’s artifice into believing it was a storeroom, banged open.
Run now. Think later.
The dock district was a tangle of lanes and alleys, some of them little more than crevices between rows of warehouses. It hadn’t been built so much as thrown up. The engine of commerce was constantly arranging and rearranging the architecture, and many of the pathways seemed more like accidents of urban geography than anything intended to conduct traffic.
Thaddeus saw an opening between two buildings on his left, completely deserted. He darted through it and flattened himself against the wall. His pursuer flashed by the opening, a blurred shape in the failing light. Thaddeus exhaled slowly. That should buy him a few moments.
He crept carefully down the alley, cursing his shoes. The hard soles, so practical for walking down broad, well-paved streets, slapped on the rough cobblestone. Even a blind rat could follow him, Thaddeus thought.
The passageway opened up into a wider space, with alleys heading off in all directions. A young girl, perhaps in her tenth year, looked up at Thaddeus with an expression of suspicion. She was dressed entirely in rags.
“D’you have a shilling, mister?”
Thaddeus paused for a moment, panting. “No. I don’t have a shilling. I should have a lot of shillings, but I don’t. Listen, there’s a bad man chasing me. Which way should I go?”
She looked Thaddeus up and down appraisingly. “That’s a rum qab y’ got.”
“I ken your qab.” She held out her hand. “Give it t’me.”
Thaddeus looked around wildly. He could hear feet pounding down the alley toward him. He took off his top-hat and handed it to the girl. “Which way do I go?”
She examined the hat with a critical air. Thaddeus felt his hands curl into fists.
“There,” she said, pointing. “That way.”
“Thank you, little girl. Don’t tell the bad man where I am, okay?”
Thaddeus ran down the alley she had pointed to as though all the legions of Hell were behind him. Not that there was much difference between that and one person hell-bent on murder behind him. Past a certain point, it stopped mattering how many people were trying to kill you.
The alley extended barely twenty yards before it ended in a rough brick wall. Thaddeus stopped. The girl had sent him down a dead end. Refuse-dumps lined both sides.
Behind him, he heard a voice, glutinous and sibilant. “Little girl, have you seen a man run this way?”
“Maybe,” she said. “D’you have a shilling?”
“Oh, yes. I have a shilling for you,” came that slithery voice.
There was a pause. Then, “He’s that way. Down Ambush Alley.”
Thaddeus felt his heart freeze in his chest. “Oh, you impudent little urchin,” he thought to himself. He flattened himself against the wall, as far in the corner as he could get. The refuse-dumps were almost empty and offered little cover. He crouched in the deepest part of the shadow, holding his breath.
A shadow loomed in the far end of the alley, a man-shaped hole in the fading light. He was nearly silent. It was easy, when you have the proper footwear. The knife gleamed in his hand.
Thaddeus held himself still. The shape glided closer. He willed himself to melt into the shadow.
Another step closer. Another. The man was cautious, wary of cornered prey. Closer.
Thaddeus exploded out at him. The man reacted almost instantly, the dagger thrusting up and out.
Fortunately, there is a world of difference between “almost instantly” and “instantly.”
They crashed into each other. The dagger flashed and gleamed. Thaddeus brought his foot up. The hard metal tip collided hard with a particularly sensitive portion of the man’s body.
The man fell, eerily silent. The dagger skittered across the cobblestones. Thaddeus leapt past him, heading back the way he had come.
The child was still standing where she had been. Thaddeus’ top-hat sat on her head, nearly covering her eyes. She looked solemnly at him. “D’you have a shilling now?” she asked.