I’m doing an Old Races short story project throughout 2011. This project will deliver 6 Old Races short stories to its patrons. This, “Falling”, is the third story, and is a story of Biali in 1890s New York. This story has been delivered to the patrons who have thus far subscribed, and I am now pleased to offer you a little ol’ teaser for it.
The Old Races Short Story Project patronage window is now closed.
“Get in the ring and lose the fight. Make it look good. Can’t have anybody suspecting.”
No one ever does. Futile words, a waste of breath. Nearly a waste of thought, and gargoyles rarely bothered with wasteful things. But there was no fight Biali couldn’t win. Not against humans. Every fight he lost looked good, and no one–not even the short, putrid-breathed manager he collected scant dollars from after the matches were done–had any idea he threw all of them. All but the few he permitted himself to win, usually against broad-shouldered blondes. None of them had the wheat-pale hair of his old rival, but then, none of them had Alban Korund’s strength, either. Beating the pulp out of look-alikes was cold comfort, but at least it was comfort.
Tonight’s bout was against a stocky Italian, hardly taller than Biali himself. He was missing two teeth and his nose sat askew, bulbous end mashed to one side. He’d never been pretty, but there were women who liked the rough edges fights brought out. Or at least women who could be paid to say they did, and for most fighters that was enough.
Not even the highest-paid doxies in the city looked at Biali without flinching. The left side of his face was scarred, eating his eye and flattening the cheek. It was nothing to the ruin of his gargoyle face, but he never let humans see that. Rarely looked at the marks himself, knowing all too well that they looked as if his very bones had been chiseled away. Or bludgeoned, more like, the weight of one corundum fist changing the shape of his hopes forever.
He wore his scars belligerently. It helped in the ring, frightening some men, making others bold. He didn’t need the help, but there was no reason to try harder than necessary. Not when he fought humans. And he had no real use for mortal women, but their caught breath, their sliding gazes, stung him every time. Gargoyles were less taken with the physical form: stone chipped and wore away with time, and the wreck of his face was only age hurried along.
The Italian was in the ring already, snorting like a horse. Big slabs of marbled muscle on him, the solid stuff that would barely ripple when he took a hit. Biali might look like that someday, if all he ever had to fight again were feeble humans. The manager shoved his shoulders, hurrying him toward the fight, and because he played at being human, Biali moved. A few heavy steps into a ring made up of wooden slats and sweating men, dirt under all their feet. He could dig his toes in and become unmovable, win it that way, but then he would have to stop fighting.
And the fight was the only thing worth living for.
He let the Italian make first contact. A blow to the chin, hard enough to knock a man out. He saw it in the Italian’s eyes, too, that he should have staggered, and gave a thin uncompromising smile. Fear and anger burst to life in the Italian’s gaze, and for whole minutes there was nothing but ducking and jabbing, fists slapping against flesh. A bell rang. The Italian kept coming. Biali let him, took another hit that should have doubled him, and saw fresh anger erupt across the Italian’s face. Then the Italian’s manager was on him, hauling him back. Biali shrugged, returning to his own spot across the human-lined corral. Sweat and shit and animals and beer: they all stank, and no amount of washing got rid of the stench.
Perfume, though, disguised it. Perfume, but no man would wear that. Not here, anyway, not among the ranks of dock workers and street cleaners, not where a hint of effeminacy would get him killed. That was for dandies in the hothouses, for well-dressed young fops living life large as progress rolled on. Their kind would be killed, too–or at least beaten and robbed–down here in alleys and waterside warehouses.
It had to be a woman. A woman, where none would be welcome. A woman escorted by the sort of fool who would bring one here, and from the scent, she was beyond expensive. She smelled rich, like she hadn’t been bought. The perfume was delicate, unlike what whores wore, and through the noise of betters and backers, silk shifted against silk. Humans would never hear it, but any of the Old Races would. A cowbell clanged, harsh flat sound as out of place as the woman’s perfume. The crowd was moving, jostling, shouting, and finally broke apart enough to give him a glimpse of her.
Amber skin, black curling hair, large dark eyes. A free woman of color. Well, they were all free now, but the phrase lingered. Petite and curvy, or petite for a gargoyle, at least. Tall enough for a human woman, but it wasn’t a human woman he was reminded of at all.
The name left his lips in an unvoiced whisper: “Hajnal.”
It wasn’t her. Couldn’t be her. He knew it; Hajnal had died centuries ago. But whenever he saw a woman like this he forgot, just for a moment. Forgot, too, that he’d lost Hajnal long before she’d died. Both remembrances always came back like a mule kick to his heart. He hated them for reminding him of her. Hated them for flinching when they looked at him, as she never had. Hated them for being human, when she had proved mortal too. Hate was easier.
She looked his way. Her brow furrowed, then smoothed, and she lowered her eyelashes. Less than a nod, but nothing coquettish. Just a greeting before the crowd closed and took her away again.
The ground shook, lumbering footsteps. Biali ignored it, still scowling into the crowd. Her scent lingered, but she was gone, not even a hint of what man she’d been with to give him a lead to follow. Behind him, the manager barked, “Fight!” and the thundering earth resolved into sense. He turned away, facing the ring again, and the Italian was there with a fist full of steel. It hit with a shattering boom, and Biali…