“Show me again.”
Jeb sighed and indulged his drinking partner for the evening once more. The man leant forwards, squinting studiously down his nose, his chin resting on steepled hands. The coin glittered in the lamplight as Jeb displayed it between finger and thumb. He reached his left hand around it, grasping at air as he dropped the coin into his right palm. The right hand fell away, the strange mans eyes following it all the time. Jeb offered him his left fist. Opened it. Empty.
“Now show me that hand.”
Rolling his eyes, Jeb quickly flicked the coin into a back palm and held up both hands.
“Gone,” he said, waggling his fingers a little, “Magic.”
“Now you’re just showing off,” he said, picking up his flagon and giving it a tentative sip, “Really. How am I supposed to learn anything if you won’t show me?”
His lip was covered in froth. Jeb didn’t bother to point it out.
“It’s not something you learn by watching,” Jeb told him, “You learn by doing. Here. Your turn, Merlin.”
Jeb slid the coin across the table to him.
“It’s Simon,” he pointed out.
“I know,” Jeb waved a hand at him, draining his pint, “Just do the trick.”
You could tell he was trying. It was plastered all over his face, every move worked out like clockwork. The coin fell in full view of its audience, the left hand more of an afterthought. Warlow could barely misdirect himself, let alone his teacher, and even as he proffered his empty hand in triumph, his eyes still wandered to the other one, checking that the coin was still held in its vice like grip.
“I’m getting better!” Warlow smiled beneath his mop of curls.
Which was true. Comparatively speaking. Jeb gave a noncommittal nod and went to take a drink from his already empty cup. Warlow dropped the coin, the chime of gold against stone turning a few heads, even amongst the din of the tavern. Simon didn’t seem to notice their stares as he bent clumsily to scoop it from the ground.
“Just show me once more,” he said, “I’ve nearly got it.”
“Not,” Jeb jabbed a finger into the slightly sticky surface of the table, “Until you buy me another drink. This might be a hobby for you, but it’s a living for me.”
Warlow raised an eyebrow sceptically. Jeb withered sheepishly beneath his gaze.
Strictly speaking, Jeb had not been practising his craft when their paths had first crossed. No, he had been disappearing items from the pockets of some less than willing volunteers. If he was honest- and Jeb was very rarely honest with himself in the presence of his new esteemed friend- the thieving had come first. Sure, he had dreamed of magic as a child. Which gutter kid hadn’t? But the party tricks had come later, a natural progression of his skills, a way to challenge and amuse himself. After all, to practice coin magic, a man first had to have some coins. He called himself a street performer, which was true, on occasion, albeit mainly when an associate needed a distraction. It was all sleight of hand really. Whether someone gave him his payment, or he took it for himself made little difference in the grand scheme of things.
The brightly coloured and weighty looking pocket of Simon Warlow had been a tempting prospect on that grey, rainy day, and who was Jeb to resist when it had been so easy to reach in and help himself? There had been a little skip in his step as he had rounded the corner and taken stock of his prize. How Warlow had been waiting for him at the next crossroads... now that was a magic trick.
“Look,” Jeb said, “You’ve got to learn to walk before you can run. Show me that palm again.”
Warlow held out his hand, as though Jeb were a fortune teller.
“No,” Jeb rubbed his temples with one hand, “Your palm. With the coin. Yes, like that. Pinch it in the fleshy bit. Ok, now relax your hand. No. No, relax it. Like you’re a human, not a crab. Just... hold it normally. Yeah. There. That’s... no. Well. Close enough.”
“Now?” Jeb swung back in his chair, the wood creaking beneath his weight, “Now you do that. All day. You go about your life as normal. You do it until even you forget it’s there, until you could palm it in your sleep.”
“And then you show me the other one?”
“And then,” the chair fell forwards again with a thud, “You start again with a farthing. Then a penny. And then a grain of sand.”
Warlow considered this. He was older than Jeb, Jeb was fairly sure, from the way that he spoke at least, but even with that look of mild confusion, there was barely a line on his forehead. The worries of the real world had etched a whole street map on Jeb’s.
“You’re joking about the sand, right?”
“Maybe,” Jeb shrugged.
“Well,” Warlow stood, “In that case, I’d best go break some change. Same again?”
The coin slipped. This time, Jeb caught it.
“I’m really not very good at this, am I?” Warlow laughed.
Taken to it like a fish out of water, Jeb thought to himself. He was beginning to suspect that the fault did not lay in his teaching, but in Warlow’s apparent inability to wear his own body. Jeb held out the gold piece for him.
“Keep it,” Warlow said, “Payment for your time.”
Jeb screwed up his face.
“You don’t owe me. It sounds dirty when you put it like that.”
“Keep it,” Warlow repeated, closing Jeb’s hand around the coin, “And I’ll have back what you pinched from my pocket on the way in.”
How does he always know? Jeb wondered, as his friend tottered to the bar.
They left the tavern a few hours later, both a little worse for drink. Jeb was certainly drunker than he would like to admit, as he usually was when Simon was footing the bill. He would be dead under the table before Simon’s wallet gave out, the man himself probably still nursing his first or second pint.
“The point is,” Warlow said, as the wound their way down a street that was getting noticeably narrower and darker, “The point is-”
But Jeb never did find out what the point was. Because at that point, a man stepped out from an alleyway ahead of them, a small cudgel slipping from his sleeve and into one gloved hand.
Jeb swore. He didn’t need to turn around to know that the man’s friends would be there. Simon had a way of attracting attention, and Jeb had been too careless in the pleasant alcohol haze to notice that they had been followed.
He could shout. Fat lot of good it would do them, what with the watch not bothering much with this side of the river, but he could. It might get a laugh at least. All he needed was a few seconds...
“Gentleman, surely there’s been some misunderstanding,” Warlow began, raising his hands in a placating manner. The thugs snickered.
...a few seconds to get to the knife in his boot-
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you, sonny,” said a voice in his ear, the breath warm and sticky and laced with spirits, “Now we’re just going to straighten up, nice and easy like. Wouldn’t want you to cut yourself, would we?”
Jeb did as he was told. The sliver of steel stayed pressed into his abdomen, hard enough to draw blood. Someone helped themselves to his flick blade.
“‘Ere. Look at this,” the third man said, “He’d got a little toy.”
“And what was a nice boy like you going to do with a thing like that?” the knife twisted a little, “Now I know you ain’t got nothing worth having, so we’re just going to stand like this whilst your friend here hands over everything he has.”
“Else it’s kneecaps,” says cudgel.
“Yes,” the voice hissed in Jeb’s ear, “‘Else its kneecaps’. Edgar here is quite the poet, don’t you think?”
“Enchanting,” Jeb grunted.
He had another knife, obviously, though getting to it would be interesting whilst he still had his limpet friend on his back. A swift crack to the jaw might shake him, but Jeb didn’t like his chances, even with the brass knuckles he kept stashed in the lining of his coat pocket. He would have to be quick if he didn’t want to see his own guts. Better to just let them take what they wanted. Jeb looked across at Warlow, eyes bulging, urging him to just hand the money over.
“Now see here,” Warlow protested, as the man with Jeb’s knife approached.
Jeb hissed between his teeth and offered up a silent prayer to any God foolish enough to be watching over them. Warlow was going to balls this up and get himself killed. He was going to have to make a break for it and figure out the rest from there.
Jeb drove his elbow backwards into the man's chest with all his adrenaline-fueled might. The arm buckled a little, but not enough, and Jeb felt a warm slit open up along his side as he dashed free. There was a satisfying crunch as his fist met the knife pincher’s nose. Edgar’s cudgel was swinging towards Simon now, but the idiot was reaching out for Jeb, seemingly oblivious to the murderous poet. Someone got a glancing kick in on the back of Jeb’s knee and he stumbled, falling towards the dirt-
A hand on his shoulder. A snap that was far louder than it had any right to be.
The world blurred. The street folded in on itself, as though the city itself were scooping the pair of them up in it's palm. Making them disappear. Moving them unseen. Dropping them in it's pocket for safekeeping. Reappearing them elsewhere.
-and landing on cobblestones. Jeb waited for a few seconds before attempting to pick himself back up.
“You alright?” Warlow asked, pulling him to his feet.
“Yes,” said Jeb. Then he staggered to the nearest wall and threw up.
“Better,” he said, “I didn't think you lot were allowed to use that sort of thing around people. Not that I'm complaining or anything...”
“We aren't allowed to use it on people,” Simon corrected him.
“But you can use it on me?”
“I could drop you back there, if you like.”
“No,” Jeb said firmly, “I’ve had enough sorcery for one day, thanks.”
“You’re bleeding,” Warlow pointed out, with the tone of an exasperated dog owner. It wasn’t his fault, Jeb reminded himself, he didn’t mean anything bad by it. That was just good breeding for you.
“I’m fine,” Jeb sniffed, “Just a scratch.”
He looked across at the man who had saved his life. His friend, he supposed. He felt slightly guilty that Warlow was much more likely to say that out loud than he was.
“I still don’t get it,” he shook his head.
“It’s very simple,” said Warlow, purposefully oblivious, “Knife goes in, blood comes out. A doctor could tell you.”
Warlow knew full well Jeb’s feelings towards doctors. He was trying to wind Jeb up now, to drive the conversation away from where it was obviously going.
“Not that. You.”
“Yes, you! Coming down here all high and mighty,” Warlow had started to walk now, as if that would get him out of this, but Jeb followed, “Taking a man out for a pint instead of giving him a good hiding for picking your pockets. Trying to learn gutter tricks when you can do anything you want with a click of your fingers.”
“Well, I don’t know about that...” Warlow scratched the back of his head with one hand, gesturing vaguely with the other.
“Not the point,” said Jeb, “I’ve met fops before who decide they want to try slumming it. They come here, make a scene, have some fun, get in trouble and then they leave. They forget about us. You?”
Jeb faltered. Struggling for the right word.
“I’ll take that as a compliment.”
“What’s it all about, Warlow?” asked Jeb as they left the alleyway and continued their way along the rivers edge, “Why come here?”
Simon sighed and shrugged, his long slender hands dropping to his sides. His skin was so pale that they almost glowed in the faint moonlight- those hands that could summon lightning from the sky, or conjure riches from the earth, or capsize a ship at sea with nothing more than a wave. They were dangerous hands.
“I’m not very good with these, am I?” Warlow said, feeling Jeb’s stare and splaying his hands in front of him, “Never have been. Never had to be, really. Sometimes it takes learning to do something the hard way to appreciate what you have.”
“Well that’s bullshit,” Jeb told him.
“You know,” Simon rolled his eyes, “You really are impossible sometimes.”
Jeb stopped and crossed his arms. He looked expectantly at Warlow. Behind them, the stars glittered on the rippling surface of the water. Simon sighed and thought for a moment.
“The city is broken,” he said at last, “What’s the point in having power when I can’t do anything? When I don’t even understand the problem?”
“You think you can fix this place?” Jeb raised one eyebrow.
“No,” Warlow snorted, “I’m not that naive. But...”
He stared out over the river towards his own city, the marble arches and ornate towers standing proud and magnificent. The buildings around them sagged in embarrassment at the sight.
“I’d like to try and help at least,” he said, looking flustered, blushing a little.
Jeb nodded a few times, mulling this over. The pair carried on in silence for a while. The bridge that marked their separate ways grew nearer.
“You know...” Jeb said, considering slapping a hand on Simon’s back, but not quite knowing where to put it, “You’re alright, Warlow. Still a toff, but... one of the good ones.”
“You still won’t call me Simon?”
“Nope,” said Jeb, giving a wave as he turned to go his own way, “Not till you stink like the rest of us.”
A small sigh behind him.
“Goodnight, Jeb,” said Simon, watching his friend go, “Take care.”
Jeb walked alone in the dark. He lifted his shirt, inspected his wound. It was shallow. Wouldn’t even leave a scar, which was a shame. Scars were good for stories. Girls liked them, even if the stories weren’t true. Especially when the stories weren’t true.
He looked at his hands- dry and calloused with fingers short and fat like sausages and nails thick and hard as slate. He clicked his fingers experimentally.
He remembered doing the same thing as a child. He remembered cold stormy nights spent shivering beneath a bridge, the stench of sewage and the scuttling of rats keeping him awake until dawn. He remembered clicking his fingers until his skin was red raw. He remembered wishing, wishing with all his might that something would happen, that he was different somehow, that the world had made a mistake. That he had power.
What would he do with Warlow’s power? Nothing good, he knew. Certainly not waste any time fixing this place. His only thoughts as a child as he had struggled to grasp that unattainable talent were of getting out. When you were all you had, you saved yourself.
He snapped once more, listening to the echo fade without note and allowing himself a small smile.
You learnt the hard way, he supposed, or you didn’t learn at all.