Work Header

The Changing Habits of the Lateral Thinker

Work Text:

As a long time student of one of the city's great universities, the man who would later be known as "Chang", though he was no Chinaman, was accustomed to frugal living. He was rather more familiar with it than his fellows, for while they subsisted on allowances from wealthy families who paid to keep them out of harm's way until a suitable wife could be found, he scraped out the cost of room and board from a meagre stipend provided by the college itself, a scholarship of little advertisement and little reward.

Though scrimping, the coffers of the university and their unassuming scholarship suited his needs well enough; they covered almost-regular meals and forays to taverns, but never enough for the whores or the races that the sons of gentry who shared his classes seemed perpetually drawn to.

A tall and studious man, he was good-looking in that he was not ugly, and intelligent primarily in that he was not stupid. It was his habit to frequent the libraries by day and the taverns by night, ably dividing his time between the dissection of ancient societies and the creation of modern enmities depending on the hour of the clock.

For Ambrose Gibbons, though barely quarrelsome, was also a student and therefore fellow of the sons of the gentry until such time as they graduated, and as such was disinclined to kowtow to those with more powerful fathers than his. These brittle refusals to temper his tongue had led now and then to brawling, but no especial damage had been caused, nothing had reached more violent heights than that which could be dispersed by calling the proctors to break them up.

It was luck which brought him to the university common room rather than the taverns of the town that night, luck and the prickle of encroaching impecuniousness, as the term wore on and his scholarship money dwindled. The diminished cost of beer laced with boredom and the absence of women within the walls of the university vied with the cost of more varied nights in the town, and in the reckoning it was the lack of weight to his wallet which won out.

The college at which Gibbons bent over fragments of writers long-dead was built after the fashion of many great university colleges dating from times a few hundred years past, an equilateral cross pointing north, topped with a church across the northernmost point and kitchens across the southernmost. At the easternmost point of the cross lay dormitories – for the youngest and most coddled students, and some of the less senior faculty who had yet to receive better rooms – formed the end-stop, and to the west the common room, laundries, hospice, and other unsightly necessities.

The centre of the cross was formed by the great dome of the college library, which although less spectacular than those of some of its sisters, nevertheless featured in many postcards of the city and on the embossed covers of several new guidebooks. Each of the bars of the cross was home to bursarial offices, professorial studies full of furniture almost as ancient as the professors themselves, and strange empty rooms in which experiments had once taken place before the great scientific minds of the colleges had been drawn away to lend their expertise to the Royal Institute.

It was from the far side of the college that he walked; from where Gibbons's lodgings rose up on the third floor of a tall, narrow house that let rooms piecemeal and never seemed to be warm, his route took him through streets where the oven-door air of summer sucked moisture from the river and left it in slimy, sweaty coats over all the cobblestones, between houses which had not been so close together when they were built, and around at least one fountain that no longer contained any water, only the dusty remains of pigeons' nests and a snowdrift of egg shells.

The shadows were lengthening, casting stripes across the college gardens, when Gibbons came to the cloisters door and pulled it open with some exertion. Unlike several of the other scholarship students, in spite of his inadequate rationing, Gibbons was not thin; rather he was not fat. Fat was an affliction that his forebears had run to, and which penurious exercise in climbing several flights of stairs up and down each day and rushing from one college to another (and later one tavern to another) had kept from him by some effort.

The man he was later to become would have been in that moment paralysed by a hunch, perhaps, caught by the pricking of some not-quite-conscious understanding that to progress was to enter a situation from which he could not conceivably emerge victorious. But the man he was later to become was the man he became because he did not pause, and the man he was later to become could have emerged victorious; with the tension between the students at that time, it could as easily have occurred later – a blow to the head, a steak knife in the stomach. The man he was to become felt it meaningless to dwell on might-have-beens even more than the man he was.

For a moment, as he trotted up the stairs to the common room, six in total, even the man that Gibbons was now felt a brief frisson of unease, a shiver the length of his spine.

The common room had a low, unpainted ceiling in which thick wooden beams sunk into the terracotta-coloured plaster delineated the shape of an arching vault that had since been filled in. The flagstones echoed the warmth of the ceiling and, were it not for the stove which had been placed in the once-vast fireplace and the armchairs – not modern, by any means, but clearly the elderly cast-offs of donating families and not museum pieces after the manner of the hall itself – it would have been easy to mistake the place for some medieval dining hall.

At this hour of the evening – before the summer sunset, but late enough that all but the most determined studiers had abandoned their carrels – the common room was crowded with students; it had the peculiar distinction of being more like a gentleman's club than a tavern, for in a tavern there would be soldiers, thieves, scar-faced navvies, a good deal fewer waistcoats in that particular hue of lemon yellow, and women. Women were contraband upon the college grounds unless they wielded a mop and duster, and for this reason Gibbons was usually content to waste a little more of his mean funds abroad in the taverns.

There was tension in the air here, palpable among the towsled heads and the pomaded ones, and as he slipped into the room, several of these heads turned to watch him. It was as if something had been said just before he entered, as if some line had been drawn, and their cautious eyes were watching to see which side he would take. If that were the case, then the balance of the factions must be very delicate indeed, for his opinion had never before carried much weight.

Fighting erupted among the students before he had time to note what could have started it. Somewhere further into the common room a drink was knocked to the floor and then, almost as if by some strange mechanism, as if the brawl were part of a orrery that some tipsy finger had set in motion, as inevitable as the fall of a dropped coin, first fists and then furniture began to fly.

Gibbons, being possessed of a perfectly good mind, knew that the best he could do was to escape the fray as soon as he could, lest the proctors arrive and fulfil the need to pick a scapegoat by choosing him (for they would never presume to blame someone whose father might take umbrage and have the wealth and solicitors to make life unpleasant for the college's component parts), but the action was not as simple as the urge.

The door by which he had entered was obscured by grappling students, kicking and punching ineffectually at each other, pulling each other's waistcoats with a great deal of shouting and insulting of each others' lineage. Gibbons ducked to one side to avoid a couple of boys barely out of their teens who lurched past him, plucking at collars and shouting curses that would have seemed laughable to the sailors in the taverns he'd frequented the night before. As he turned, bumping his back against the wall, he came up against the shoulders of a fat student wearing a cravat that made him appear as if he was being slowly throttled, and tried to weave around him, his eyes on the exit.

Instead of making a smooth transition from his place near the ancient walls of the hall, he was bumped by a brawling threesome, shoved by two bickering would-be fops who were both already burdened by the kind of complexions that spoke baldly of gout in their future, and eventually tripped by an unseen calf. As he groped to keep his balance, Gibbons seized upon a handful of embroidered cloth and jerked himself upright.

"Take your hands off my coat, you greasy oaf," snarled a voice which, from its pitch and pace, was clearly more used to drawling.

Gibbons had been intending to let go of whatever he was holding and make a dash for the door before the proctors came and issued one of the scholarship students with a hefty fine and a staff to the back of the neck, but the voice inflamed his stubbornness until he clenched his fists tighter in the silken embroidery, steadying himself.

"Are you deaf or merely indolent? I said take your hands off my coat."

The snarling young nobleman had a sharp face, with a pointed chin and green eyes that held a light which seemed neither sober nor sane. Gibbons tightened his hold further in contravention of good sense. "You could always say please," he said, forcing himself to smile politely, "or does your father's purse not extend to buying you manners?"

"My father's purse extends to making sure paupers and insolent whoreson wretches like you are flogged and summarily hanged for their wagging tongues," sneered the mad-looking nobleman with the excessively embroidered coat, as around them shouting and flying furniture reached a feverish crescendo. Gibbons found this reaction quite disproportionate to the crime. "Take your hands from my coat or I will have your hands taken from your wrists –"

Gibbons thought he could do little but laugh in the face of such deranged pomposity. His back was against the wall, his hands caught in an expensive coat as if sewn there, and he was still laughing when the riding crop slashed across his eyes.

It fell only once, but once was all that was needed; Gibbons threw his arm up as his face exploded in a dark flower of pain, but by then the damage was done. He reeled away from the wall, clutching and tearing at everything that came into his path, groping blindly for the door. He must have looked terrible, for every time he collided with someone there was an intake of breath and they were moved out of his way; Gibbons fell down the stairs, blood dripping freely from his nose, choking him as it trickled down the back of his throat. He did not raise his hands to break his fall, but even as he landed in a bruising heap on the flagstones, Gibbons wrapped his arms more firmly around his eyes and bit his tongue as the red-hot sting of the crop's impact seemed to repeat itself on his tender eyelids' skin.

The last thing he heard before slipping out of consciousness, borne on a great tide of disoriented pain, was the sound of proctors' disinterested conversation.

He awoke to darkness and dismal cries. On this first awakening Gibbons could have had no intimation of how many similar wakenings he was to have over the next year, but some terrible suspicion lodged in his mind as he reached instinctively, foolishly, for the source of his great pain.

His fingers met rough cloth, cheap and greasy, of similar texture to the long-past-their-best sheets in his modest lodgings. Here they were wrapped in layers over his eyes and nose – a wave of nauseating pain overcame him, and Gibbons's hands dropped abruptly from the "bandages". He knew enough now that he could lie still, his hands curling and clawing against his wishes by his sides, writhing over the bed in an intricate dance of pain.

Gibbons lay back, his head cushioned by what even in his weakened, aching state he knew must be no more than his own folded coat; the pauper's bandages and the horrific groans and coughs that echoed about him without end confirmed his fear. Gibbons's meagre scholarship's remains had been insufficient to secure his place in the university hospice, and he languished in the poorhouse sickroom, alone and blind.

In that first dark awakening, pain jack-knifing through his head like the chimes of the university church tower's great bell, able only to discern his predicament through the reverberating cries of pain from others he might once have deemed beneath him, Gibbons felt more pity for himself than at any moment before or after in his life.

He lay and wept as silently as he could, each fresh gout of tears soaking his bandages afresh, sticking them more intractably to his wounds. The salt water stung him viciously, and with each tear it became harder not to join his fellow-patients in crying out.

Gibbons had no means to judge for how long he lay in near-silence, choking on self-pity, before the exhaustion of his torment claimed him and dragged him back into merciful unconsciousness again. It felt like an eternity.

He woke again in the clutches of unnatural cold, grasping at his shirt and winding it around him, plucking at the stiff woollen blanket with its rough-edged hem, turning and turning as best he could without touching his face either against his hands or the coat that served as his pillow.

And time passed.

The sneering face of his nameless attacker remained seared across his aching eyes for the weeks that he lay in the poorhouse sickroom, smarting and blinded. In these dark moments Gibbons came to examine a number of philosophical points regarding the nature of seeing, which he might well have developed into a formidable treatise on blindness had any faculty member been keen to discuss them with him. But none came: no professors, no peers, no women, and not even a charitable whisperer from the nearby chapter of St Judist nuns graced him with kind words.

And so it was, trapped by his blindness, that Gibbons lay in silence as well as all-enveloping darkness, his breath stifled by the scabs inside his nose as collapsed tissue began to clot, heal, and scar. He knew that many a mystic strove for such limitless solitude, such release from worldly concerns and the distractions of the flesh. In the endless dragging moments in the sickroom with bandages swaddling his face and only the faint echoes of his own movements for company, Gibbons wished he could give it to them instead.

His mind was far from the pensive pool of tranquil contemplation those Eastern mystics had dreamed it would be; the face of his aristocratic attacker plagued his mind's eye, along with the burning thought that his ugly dismissal would be the last thing that Gibbons ever saw.

And in truth, though he might be silenced by pain and the absence of replies, he was far from plunged into the peaceful contemplation those fatuous monks might have envisaged, surrounded only by the cool echoes of his own breath. Gibbons sweated and shivered and choked on curses in the intimate cacophony of similarly afflicted and poverty-stricken patients, each man trapped in their own private but wholly audible hell. In the slightest concession to the temperaments of the poor and unwell, the women, at least, were on a different floor.

And time passed.

The fever raged through him like an urban fire through the poorest quarters of the city; until he'd seen one with his own eyes, watched the vermin scatter and jump, hurling themselves forward in a tide of brown fur, he had believed the professors when they talked of regular summer fires cleaning the areas of "rats". When that first exodus of rodents passed him in the street, leading him to flatten himself against a nearby wall in disgust, the truth became clearer; his professors meant what they had always meant, that any person not of noble birth or strained purse might very well be a rat for all they cared.

The fever raged through Gibbons and turned his thoughts this way and that, like a weathervane in the face of an indecisive wind. It stripped the fat from his muscle and his muscle from his bones, and burned away forever the softness of his cheeks, the rounded quality of his face which had given him if not attractive looks then at least muted his ugliness by a degree in the absence of harsh bones.

The fever seemed to burn through his brain, his good will, and his sense of an ordered universe, though in truth he would have been hard-pressed to think of a time when he had believed in such a thing. Most of all, the fever ensured that Gibbons remained trapped in his poorbed, that he retained his invalid state for far longer than he would ever have thought tolerable, and that there was no chance of his ever returning to the halls of learning he had once occupied.

And time passed.

When Gibbons was finally able to open his eyes it was an experience so meanly gratifying that he merely sighed and went back to sleep, thinking, if he thought at all, that it was surely a delusion brought about by lack of water.

He opened his eyes again to the low light of evening; the days had drawn in and grown chill and he had not had the opportunity to leave his bed, only turned and occasionally sponged to remove the worst excesses of fever sweat and vomit. His eyes, though, were weak and watery and unaccustomed to the business of seeing, and it took him until the evening round of the few nurses in the place before he was able to focus them well enough to divine what he was seeing.

The effort of such feats as nearly every other man in the city performed without thought a thousand times every hour exhausted him so thoroughly that he slept for another day.

His third sighted awakening brought with it a flash of fear; if he was not, as he had come to assume, confined to the sickroom of the poorhouse until such time as he finally died of his injury or associated infection, then what was to become of him? He might return to the university, but they would not take him after so long an absence; he might appeal to his family, but he had none – the source of his trifling scholarship, which seemed now a fortune, was his lack of other resources upon which he might reasonably rely, and the good word of a schoolmaster – and he had yet to learn how well his sight had recovered at all.

Gibbons lay in silence, gradually outlining the shapes of the other beds within sight, slowly differentiating green from yellow, dark dried blood on the empty pallet's sheets opposite him against the fresh red coughed up by the consumptive lying in the bed beside it. He might very well die of starvation in some filthy alleyway, robbed, stabbed. He might take weeks to rot away, stripped of his pride and reduce to grovelling for small coin. Gibbons had never before considered how a blind beggar might live.

But he might not die, and he might not be without hope.

And time passed.

It was not later so easy to account for how he had slipped from the embrace of respectable society.

Perhaps it was the opium, which both fogged his memory of his fall from grace and confused his struggles at the time; his eyes still ached and left in his skull trails of agonising white whenever he tried to read for longer than a fraction of an hour. He was sure that even before his descent to unoccupied rooms with boarded windows, the last of the money from his pawned coat slipping through his fingers like water, those who saw him had begun to address him as "Chang".

Their derision barely smarted when accompanied by a haze of blue opium smoke; one of the ironies of his injuries, which rendered him artificially Asiatic, was his frequent recourse to basements and closed rooms in the part of the city in which real Chinamen (none of them called Chang) plied their lethargic wares. These men at least knew he was not one of their own, although in truth any man equipped with eyes at least as good as his or an ear for the accents of the world would soon reach the same conclusion.

Nevertheless, "Chang" he remained to the wags of the city. The first time he answered to the name not with a snarl but with as close as he could come then to good humour, he wondered at how a man's mind might adapt to almost any circumstance, given time to grow a protective scar over the initial wound. It was doubtless aided by the presence of opium in his skull when a fellow-traveller on the blue smoked airways spied the scars beneath his dark glasses and made the quip, this acceptance. But in that narcotic moment he could feel some false epiphany, the understanding that he was free to wield any weapon used against him as a weapon against the wielder, and that these weapons included words.

At first he was hired not as a killer but as a duellist. Chang – as he had settled upon, for now – was hardly the finest swordsman the city had produced, but he was, short of a desperate would-be suicide, the cheapest. It was a curious arrangement, for ordinarily no man would allow his challenge to be met by any man other than he who had paid him insult, but as Chang's new, temporary employer explained:

"He is mad and arrogant and old-fashioned – he still favours the rapier long after the world has moved to pistols – and is not familiar with my face."

"Nevertheless, do you think any nobility would be mad enough to mistake me for one of their own?"

"Mr Chang, I think you underestimate the damage syphilis can do to a man's brain."

Chang walked out that first damp morning at dawn, with mist rising from the nettles just outside the city limits and the steaming bulk of a black Friesian behind him. He had never been much for breeds of horse, but when they were that size he could easily remember, for he was made uncomfortable by the breadth of its back, and the purchaser of his services had been insistent that he could not merely walk.

His opponent wore a duelling coat with the pinned-back cuffs and embroidered white tree branches across the breast (the military-moulded fashions which would become so popular had yet to make their mark on the wardrobes of the gentry, then), a self-confident smirk, and a periwig, those being in fashion at the time in some brief revival of French style. The man's second bore a pair of slender scabbards.

The etiquette of duelling had never appealed much to Chang, and while his opponent bowed with a deep, sarcastic grace, he barely inclined his own head; there were compensations in being an outcast, and one was that his imperative to keep up a pretence of manners was removed.

"Will you take the sword?" It was a strange question – he could see no pistols.

"The sword," Chang said. It was the only sensible choice; he had hardly the experience with firearms that a man who could afford their ownership and use might, but fencing was required of him as a schoolboy and as a student. The swords they trained with might very well have been blunt as butterknives and as poorly-balanced as justice's scales, but they were swords, more-or-less.

He was handed an antique duelling sword of finer craftsmanship than any he'd yet handled, perfectly-balanced, and turned back to back with his opponent. This position granted him an exceptional view of his employer, leaning against a frosty tree trunk with reins in hand, his face a studied mask showing neither approval nor disdain. As Chang and the man he had come to fight strode apart from each other, counting, he saw his employer jerk his chin up maybe an inch, maybe less.

In that moment he almost forgot their pre-arranged signal, overcome by disgust that he had become no more than a servant to be instructed without so much as the use of language, never mind good manners. But Chang had not clawed his way away from the gutters and the fate that awaited him there to throw away his first chance at work that involved no forays into the sewers on something like pride, not with the spectre of the blind beggar dogging him like his own shadow.

He turned immediately, dropping into a crouch he had practiced in the attic room that was his current home. Chang thrust the sword upward, through the back of the embroidered duelling coat, through a thick waistcoat, into a shirt, and through, through to the man's viscera.

A noise which Chang remembered from the slow, painful expirations of his fellow-patients at the poorhouse sickroom escaped from the lungs of the nobleman he had just stuck; a gasp wrenched from the depths of his body, and with that the man jerked, and tried to turn.

Chang leaned down on the handle of the sword, levering the length up inside the man's torso. He had no idea how long the blade was, whether the tip protruded or if he was forcing it through guts and other unknown organs toward his lungs; he was barely sure that leaning his weight was the right move. Fencing had covered disarming, swordplay, and etiquette. It had not been so fulsome on the matter of murder.

The nobleman's hand struck weakly at the side of Chang's face, fingers curling and clawing, his arm twisted behind him as he tried again and again to turn, to pull his body from the sword. Chang grabbed at the shoulder of his coat, at the collar, and shoved the man back onto the sword as hard as he could, angling his arm over the collarbone before him and pressing hard against the sternum.

In years to come he would perfect this grisly art, and in years to come the increase in favour for coats with epaulettes would increase the ease with which he tugged those reluctant to die back onto whatever weapon he held, but now in the cold dawn light, his own breath and the dying gasps of this nobleman fogging his dark glasses, he only dug his fingers into the buttonholes and embroidery, and wondered desperately how long it would take for the man to die.

It was strange, too, that the man's second and his servant, whom one must presume was as loyal as most mysteriously were, had made no move to stop him. His dying opponent gurgled, gasped, and twitched, and a slow waterfall of blood – or perhaps it was saliva, he could not see – fell upon Chang's fingers from the man's mouth.

Chang released the sword, which stuck out from the man's back like the mast of a sunk ship from the mud flats of the estuary at high tide, and groped in his pocket for something that might finish the deed faster. Living as he did now in a room which functioned more as a dormitory for a succession of men working and sleeping at different hours of the clock, Chang had come into the habit of carrying about with him any possessions whose removal might inconvenience him or incur especial cost to replace, and in his coat pocket he found a cheap but still sharp straight-razor with which he had only recently shaven.

He flicked the razor open one-handed and pulled the man's chin up from behind, drawing the edge as hard as he could across the place where his throat was exposed above both cravat and starched collar. For a moment, as the blade caught and almost threatened to bend, he was sure that even this would not be enough; the swordsman groaned and gargled his own blood, spluttering showers of red before him even as his coat soaked through behind, and Chang clung on as if riding the proverbial tiger, convinced that if he stepped back some kind of miraculous recovery would occur.

It was only when the man's weight sagged in Chang's grasp as if some greater force had been removed from his limbs that he untangled himself from their lethal embrace; as he leapt back, the nobleman and his ruined duelling coat crashed into the trampled weeds, twitching like a gallows-dancer. Blood fountained from his throat and stained the ground about him, and for a moment Chang only stared at the razor in his hand, as if waiting for it to speak.

In spinning about to see if he had been abandoned by his employer – as he suspected he might – the question of why he had not been stopped was answered. His employer, who had not fled, pointed a modern and military-looking revolver at the dead man's second, sweeping back to point the gun at his servant, then back at the second, and so again in a lazy arc from man to man, as if he might easily shoot first one and then the other.

"Have you finished now?" he asked, as if Chang had been performing some other menial service, such as measuring his house for new furnishings, and not slaughtering his rival in cold blood.

Chang nodded. "I think he's dead."

"Thought isn't good enough, I cannot have him returning to the city with tales of my treachery. Be sure."

Chang crouched in the broken bracken and the frosted ferns and tried to feel along the sweaty red stripe of the man's throat for some sign that he had expired. He felt foolish, surely examining a body for a pulse was insane when all the blood that pumped in his veins had poured from his neck.

"If he would bear tales of your treachery, what about them?" he asked, wiping his fingers on his trousers. He had meant to ask what of him, but reason bit on his tongue and kept the question inside.

"An excellent observation."

There was a shot so loud in the silence of the early morning that it seemed to rip the sky in two, and as Chang took a knee and pressed his hands to the side of his face he found he had quite forgotten to put away the razor, metal clicking against the metal arms of his smoked glasses. He kept his head bowed, smearing cold blood from the razor's edge across his own fresh-shaven cheek, and a second shot came to his ears only a little muffled.

He turned his head to find the servant sprawled on his belly in the long grass some feet away, his head facing the city.

"And you," said his employer, looking down at Chang as he re-mounted his Friesian. "What tales will you bear?"

"None," Chang said, standing.

"I should shoot you anyway," his employer said, but his pistol was inside his coat, not in his hand. The horse flicked its tail patiently.

"Then I wouldn't do any more work for you."

His employer laughed. "Yes, you are a convenient and skilled murderer, and I have a lot of enemies."

He threw down a leather purse; Chang caught it clumsily in the hand which still held the razor, and opened it. Several banknotes nestled inside, large denominations.

"I wouldn’t have given you the nod at all, but you seemed less of a certain bet in the sword fight than I had pegged you for, and I do hate to lose."

"I'm not fond of it myself."

"I can see that."

And with this parting remark his employer left Chang to stand in the scrub outside the city, surrounded by three dead bodies, with what felt like a king's ransom in his hand alongside a bloodied straight-razor, and the beginnings of an idea forming not so much in his mind as in his gut.