Charlie had always dreaded the holidays, especially Christmas. It was the time of year when people most wanted to pretend to be happy, which meant that his line of work was in high demand. Once, he had been used to donning a mask and faking whatever a buyer wanted from him that night, but now he was out of practice.
It had been three weeks since he had crossed the threshold of the Pen gang’s hideout and told his old boss, Faulkner, that he was back because he needed money. He remembered how Faulkner’s eyes had lit up at that.
‘And you shall have it,’ Faulkner had said, a triumphant look on his face as he leered at Charlie from behind his mahogany desk, his chin resting on his steepled fingers. ‘As much as you can get. Just don’t forget my cut, understood?’ His eyes had already returned to his ledger, signalling that the deal was done. ‘Off you go to your work then, Charlie, like a good little boy.’
Bracing himself against the chill of the northern wind, Charlie tucked his hands under his armpits and fought to stop his teeth chattering. Perhaps it had been a fool’s hope, but when he had turned his back on his old life, he had thought he would be leaving this kind of work behind him for good.
He bent his head against the flurries of snow biting into his skin and set his jaw, fuming silently to himself as he pictured the face of the man who had turned him out into the street earlier that night. At least he no longer felt numb. His anger kept the worst of the cold at bay. It was better to feel something than nothing. As long as he kept putting one foot in front of the other, it would not be long before he reached the Spike.
He had not known the man’s name. He never knew their names. He had been a businessman, maybe, or a politician. Charlie had been waiting on his usual patch when a fancy black car driven by a chauffeur with fancy black gloves had pulled up alongside him. Lounging in the back seat had been a middle-aged man in a fancy black suit. The hungry look on his face had been one that Charlie was intimately acquainted with.
They had driven around the city for a while, streetlamps drifting by beyond the tinted windows. There had been champagne glasses, filled and then emptied. The car had been warm, its lights over-bright compared to the darkness of the winter night outside. The cream-coloured leather seats had been smooth to the touch. Somewhere along the way, Charlie had lost track of what was being done to him.
When it was finished, they had pulled over, and Charlie had been kicked out of the car. He had scrambled around in the slush of the gutters, desperately stuffing the notes that had been tossed out after him into his pockets before the wind blew them away. He remembered the smirk on the man’s face as the car drove off. He had kept his eyes fixed on the red taillights until they had disappeared into the night. It was likely that, whoever he was, the man had forgotten his face already. But Charlie knew from long years of experience that he would never be able to forget any of it.
When he finally made it back to the hideout, Charlie lashed out at the metal door with his foot. ‘Let me in, already,’ he called up to the lookout, who he knew would be stationed above, hidden in the shadows on the balcony. ‘It’s freezing out here.’
‘Maybe I will.’ Marko leant over the iron railings, a lopsided grin on his face. ‘If you can pay the toll.’
Charlie frowned up at him. ‘I’ve already given Faulkner my payment for tonight.’
‘Yeah, that’s right.’
‘Well, Charlie, the boss isn’t in right now, and I don’t trust you.’ Marko rested his arms across the railing and cocked his head to one side, as though curious to see what Charlie would do next. ‘You want to get past this door, you deal with me.’
‘I’m not giving you a cent.’
‘There are plenty of other things you could give me.’ When Charlie’s frown deepened, Marko rolled his eyes. ‘Use your imagination.’
‘Go to hell,’ Charlie snarled, shoving his hands deep into the pockets of his jeans as he stalked off. ‘I’d rather stay out here and freeze to death.’
‘Be my guest,’ he heard Marko shout after his retreating back. ‘Who knows? Maybe you can find someone else to keep you warm tonight.’
Charlie wandered around for a while in the snow with his teeth gritted, letting his feet carry him along the familiar routes of Faulkner’s territory without giving much thought to where he was heading. Eventually, he reached St Nikolai’s, the huge medieval cathedral set right in the heart of Penumbra.
Even standing in the plaza outside, Charlie was bathed in the glow of flickering candles from the service. The delicate fluting of choristers singing in a language he did not understand drifted out into the night air. He could not enter that place, but still found himself filled with an aching sadness to be standing there listening to them alone.
Shivering in his thin, short-sleeved t-shirt, Charlie turned his back on the cathedral and let his gaze travel across the plaza. A group of ragged-looking men and women were gathered around a large marquee tent a short distance away. Long tables were ranged under the canopy, and the smell of hot food was enough to entice Charlie a couple of steps closer.
But when he caught sight of the soldiers dressed in Elysian uniforms, milling around black armoured vans stationed at the edges of the plaza, he stopped dead in his tracks. His hands clenched in his pockets, Charlie ducked into the shadows, his eyes lowered. None of the soldiers appeared to have noticed him yet, and he was not about to give them the chance to.
Then he ran into something solid.
‘You need to watch where you’re going, kid.’
Looking up, his mouth suddenly dry, Charlie found himself face to face with a tall, wild-haired soldier. He was frowning, but his tone was not severe. Although his dark eyes lent him a serious look, Charlie guessed that they were likely to be close to each other in age.
‘Are you all right? What’s your name?’
‘Charlie Carroway.’ He was too cold and exhausted to supply a fake name in time.
The soldier flashed him a small smile. ‘Are you hungry, Charlie?’ he asked, indicating a table nearby, laden with rolls of bread. ‘Come over here and have something to eat.’
Charlie took the bread roll the soldier offered him and put it straight in his back pocket. He was busy thinking about the fastest route he could take to get from St Nikolai’s to the Karbher Quarter, and how he could leave the bread somewhere for his family to find without being seen, when he realised the soldier was watching him intently.
‘You’re not going to eat it?’
Charlie shrugged. ‘I’m not hungry.’
‘Would you rather have something hot? Come with me, I can –’
‘No, I –’ Charlie cast a wary glance toward the plaza, and the other soldiers. ‘I don’t want to go over there.’
The soldier followed his gaze, then regarded him steadily for a while, his expression thoughtful. ‘You're going to turn into an icicle if we're not careful,’ he said at last. ‘Here, take my coat.’
‘You don’t need it?’ Charlie asked, as the soldier shrugged off his long wool coat and handed it to him.
‘I have another one at home,’ the soldier said, stifling a yawn and folding his arms across his chest. ‘I’m getting out of here soon, anyway – it’s getting late. So,’ he added, in what Charlie assumed he thought was an offhand voice. ‘Why are you out here on your own? Do you work around here?’
‘In a way,’ Charlie said, pulling on the soldier’s coat, still pleasantly warm.
‘Are you really not going to eat anything? You need to take care of yourself, you know.’
‘Well, have this too, then. For later.’
Before Charlie realised what was happening, the soldier had pressed another roll of bread into his hands. He flinched at the unexpected touch, his body taut, but the soldier’s grip was stronger than he anticipated, and he could not get free.
‘Your hands are freezing,’ the soldier murmured, his eyes scanning Charlie’s face with renewed concern. ‘Aren’t you cold like that?’
‘I’m used to it.’
‘Sure you are.’ Without hesitation, the soldier tore his own gloves off and handed them to Charlie. ‘Take these. You can keep them.’
‘Why are you –’ Charlie was fumbling with the scarf the soldier placed around his neck.
‘Your fingers are numb, I bet. Here, let me help you.’
‘I don’t …’
When he glanced up at the soldier’s concerned face, his brow furrowed in concentration as he tied the scarf carefully around Charlie’s neck, Charlie’s words died on his lips. The snow had started falling again.
‘Do you have somewhere to go tonight?’ the soldier asked, his voice soft and hesitant.
Charlie lowered his eyes, heat rising to his cheeks. ‘Y-Yes.’
The soldier nodded and took a step back. ‘All right. In that case, get inside and keep warm.’
Wrapping the soldier’s long coat around him, Charlie returned to the streets. A heavy weight had settled in his chest, and he had to blink to clear his eyes. He did not know why he had lied, but, for some reason, Charlie found he could not bear the idea of the soldier thinking as badly of him as he did of himself.
The snow was falling steadily now, and the worst of the wind had died down. But the night was growing colder every minute, and the streets were deserted and still. There would be no more money to make that night.
Sheltering under a bridge, Charlie turned his collar up against the cold and let his eyes slowly close. The young soldier’s face swam into his mind. He had met a kind stranger tonight. But there was nothing more to it than that. He would never see him again. He did not even know his name.
Shame clawed at his insides, a sick feeling burning in his stomach, as his thoughts turned to his family. They would never know what he was doing for their sake. He would not return home until he had all the money they needed to clear their debts. No matter what it cost him, he would do it.
‘I thought you said you had a place to go.’
Startled, Charlie looked up to find the soldier from St Nikolai’s Cathedral standing over him.
‘It’s as good a place as any.' His limbs aching, Charlie was unable to meet his eyes.
‘You can’t stay out here.’ The soldier had dropped to one knee, his voice gentle. ‘You’ll freeze.’
Shaking violently, Charlie made no attempt to stop the soldier pulling him to his feet. He felt strange, his thoughts slow.
‘Charlie?’ The soldier’s voice sounded far away, as though it was calling him from sleep. ‘Charlie, stay with me, everything will be –’
When Charlie returned to his senses, the soldier was supporting him to stay upright. ‘Where am I?’ he asked in a small voice, squinting under the bright glare of a porchlight, and raising a hand to shield his eyes.
They were standing in front of a blue door, most of which was taken up with a huge wreath, the frosted panes of glass covered almost entirely by dark leaves. Beside him, the soldier was fishing a set of keys from his pocket.
‘You passed out, so I’ve taken you back to my place. You can stay here tonight.’
Immediately alert, Charlie stared at the soldier, wide-eyed. ‘You want me to stay the night?’
‘Your lips are turning blue,’ the soldier said, his voice low and troubled as he unlocked the door. ‘Let’s go inside.’
Feeling horribly self-conscious about the holes in his socks, Charlie followed the soldier’s lead and took off his sneakers by the door. But, whether he did not notice or did not care, the soldier said nothing about it. Instead, he hung his coat and scarf on a peg when Charlie passed them to him. Charlie thought the soldier looked as though he was about to say something, when another voice sounded from further along the hall, making them both start. Light spilled out from a doorway.
‘Vasya, is that you? Can you look over these figures for me? I need a fresh pair of eyes.’
‘Before that, Alexandra, I need to –’
‘Oh, and will you listen to me practice my speech for my father’s Christmas party before you go to bed?’ A teenage girl dressed in pyjamas and fluffy slippers appeared in the hallway, a laptop balanced in her arms and her hair tied up in a messy bun on top of her head. ‘I need you to tell me what you think of –’ She glanced up, her mouth falling open slightly when she saw Charlie. Then she blinked and collected herself. ‘And who’s this?’
‘His name is Charlie. He’s staying in my room tonight.’
‘Oh, really?’ One eyebrow arched, she turned back towards the kitchen, a knowing smile on her face. ‘Can I make you a cup of tea, Charlie? We have chamomile, or lemon and ginger – whatever you like.’
‘Uhm …’ Charlie shot a nervous glance at the soldier, who ran his fingers through his hair with a sigh. ‘No, thank you, I –’
‘It’s this way, Charlie,’ the soldier said, indicating a door at the end of the hallway. He led them into a small room that contained a single bed, a desk littered with papers, and a narrow wardrobe.
‘Are you sure this is all right?’ Charlie asked, perching on the edge of the bed, and twisting his fingers as he watched the soldier hastily tidying up the desk. ‘Your roommate won’t mind?’
The soldier, still standing, now with an empty mug in his hand, shrugged. ‘Don’t worry, she thrives on this.’
Charlie nodded, running his teeth over his lower lip, and settled further back on the bed. ‘What should I do now?’ he asked, forcing himself to keep his voice casual. He could not get a read on this soldier, and he knew from experience how unpredictable they could be.
‘You just get some sleep,’ the soldier said, heading towards the door. ‘If you wake up during the night and need anything, I’ll be on the sofa. Sleep well, Charlie, I’ll see you tomorrow.’
‘Oh … all right then,’ Charlie stammered, sitting bolt upright. ‘Th-Thank you.’
The soldier smiled. ‘My name is Vasco, by the way,’ he said, closing the door behind him.
Charlie sat there for a while, stunned. Vasco really had brought him home, and was letting him stay the night, and seemed to expect nothing from him in return. A tentative smile broke out across his face at his luck. Then a hushed voice in the hallway pulled him from his reverie.
‘Yes, but where does he come from?’ Alexandra asked.
‘I don’t know, but it’s way below zero out there. I couldn’t just leave him.’
‘He’s not a stray puppy, Vasco. You can’t adopt him just like that.’
‘But he’s all alone,’ Vasco said, sounding pained, ‘and it’s nearly Christmas.’
‘He’s even younger than us, I think.’ A troubled note had crept into Alexandra’s voice. ‘Where are his parents? Where does he live? What’s stopping him from just going home?’
‘Alexandra, I don’t think he even has a home …’
There was a long pause, and Charlie strained to hear anything through the silence.
‘Fine,’ Alexandra said eventually. ‘He can stay – for now. But we need to come up with a better plan in the morning, agreed?’
‘Agreed,’ Vasco said. ‘I knew you’d understand.’
Alexandra released a soft breath. ‘Maybe this is what they call the Christmas spirit.’
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