Jem Ratcliffe had been precocious since before he knew the word. He'd lisped his alphabet when he was barely three years of age, as he lay on the couch in the long illness that cost him the strength of his legs and that, when she caught it, took his mother's life. He'd learned to read by the time he was five, pushing his small finger along the lines of newsprint, and asked questions that made his father roar with laughter and grab his bottle to gulp down his gin. Half-drunk, he'd answer with long, rambling tales that, crass and full of bad language, were the closest thing young Jemmy knew to bedtime stories. He lived a dim, grey life in a shadowed, dirty basement flat in the too-aptly named Bone Court. When his father wanted to send him on errands, he devised the rickety wheeled platform where Jem could crouch and push himself about, feeling low as a worm, like a tortoise prised from his shell. He begged and got scatterings of change from passers-by who seemed to disdain even the coins that dropped from their gloved hands. At an age when most children had nothing more serious than common chores to worry about, he scraped together rent for progressively dingier rooms, skimpier or barely edible food, and never had enough to hope for any improvement, desperate to hide his coins lest his father take them for drink.
Wheeling through the street, dodging splashes of filth from passing carriages, he could see the rats scurry behind the rubbish in the sunken area spaces outside the scullery doors, and in grubby alleyways. They moved as he did, and only a little lower to the ground. Their eyes were hot and angry, and they scuffled fiercely with each other. Occasionally a rat-terrier running behind its master pounced on one of them, growling and trying to bark around it as it struggled in the vice of the dog's teeth. Sometimes the fierce shaking broke the rat's neck, and the dog tossed its dead prey aside and ran to catch up to the pedestrian to which the dog belonged. Sometimes, a less experienced dog could not keep hold of its prey, and the rat ran off like quicksilver.
Jem was ten years old when his father sent him to the nearest pawnbroker with a watch-fob to see what he could get for it, for Mr Ratcliffe had a strong thirst and no gin to satisfy it. The door beneath the three red spheres opened directly onto the cobbled alleyway, so at least Jem could get in when he banged on the lower panel with his dirty fist. The pawnbroker, a stout man with snuff spattered down his waistcoat and old-fashioned breeches, laughed heartily at Jem as he joltingly got inside. A glass case stood near the door: inside it was a tangled pile of pawned jewellery and timepieces, along with a few pieces of table serving-ware. A watch-fob with a light silver chain looped back twice, finer than any Jem had ever seen, lay draped across the heap.
Jem was not surprised when his father's fob just made the pawnbroker laugh again. He shook like a suet pudding on a plate, rocking a little back and forth on his seat. Jem bent his head and waited. He knew he'd be for it if he didn't bring back drinking money.
The pawnbroker stopped laughing and coughed a bit, then reached out, bending so far that he looked in danger of falling. His fingertips tangled in Jem's hair. “You look like a good boy.” The man's voice was rough. “Do odd jobs for a coin or two, do you?”
Jem didn't answer right away. His breath caught in his chest, as if he knew what was coming, though he was fairly sure he did not.
“Come closer,” the pawnbroker said, so Jem slid his platform nearer to the man's spread legs. The knobby knees parted farther, and the man bent forward so that his fingers slid to Jem's neck. Jem looked up. “Open my flies.”
Afterwards, the man gave him a whole pound note. Jem bought a cheap flask of gin, so he could keep the change. He considered getting a smaller one for himself, so he could have it before he went back, but he was afraid it would make him awkward and talkative. So he just learned to bear it as best he could. He found the tiny side alley where the street children gathered a day or two after that first time, and charmed them with his darting, comically rat-like movements. He made them laugh and told them about army battles, read them newspapers and serial stories, and soon he was directing them, teaching them to march and drill just like the soldiers in the barracks down by the river.
It was amazing how much better he felt with something to do, people his own age to talk to, and though his father remained bad-tempered and drunken, the boys weren't toffs or anything. They knew most of what he meant when he told them he had to do an odd job. They didn't follow or ask questions. When the pawnbroker gave him the second-hand crutches, Ben carried them back to their narrow alley barracks. Ben and Cad helped Jem get the crutches under his arms and stood him up to use their support. The boys even helped him adjust the crutches to the right length, and caught him when he stumbled.
He taught himself to stand on the crutches, to walk, to swing along at speed until his father's errands to get food and gin took much less of his time. Now he had more hours to read newspapers and work out the battles they described, until he felt he could lead a fighting force, plan their attack or make their defence solid and unbeatable.
And then he met Marco: tall and straight, his eyes and hair dark as a cellar with only a narrow window to the night sky, his shoulders splendid and the muscles on his thighs and arms showing a young lion's strength. He stood like a Colossus in the passage to the street, and at first Jem thought his expression was scornful, as if he thought himself above this scruffy company.
But he wasn't vain, wasn't self-absorbed, wasn't any less sharp and clever than Jem himself, and had wells of self-control that made Jem envious at first and later proud. This beautiful, strong, smart, thoughtful boy, a year his junior, was glad to be his friend and even to show him and his ragged company to his own father, a man whose dignity, bearing, courtesy and—Jem had to call it—wisdom made him seem another, more advanced species than Jem's collapsing father.
When he collapsed for the last time, shivering and moaning his horrors up to the last convulsion in the deepest, most hopeless hour of the night, when all that was left of his mean soul had slipped away and left only a sordid physical mess, where else could Jem go for help but to Marco and his live, strong, kind, wise father, who looked at Jem with knowledge and sweet compassion, as if he had held a drunken maniac in his muscular arms and comforted those last tortuous hours? And he was helped, taken in, cared for, and Loristan even walked in the straggling procession to the pauper's field to lay the weazened corpse to rest.
Jem was in a sort of heaven: he had never understood his father's drunkenness as well as he did now, when he feasted his eyes and fed his adoration every morning and evening, sitting at table with Loristan and hearing his easy talk with Marco. Some days and even nights, Loristan was away doing something he did not tell them about, and the Rat scratched at his arms and sat hard on his restlessness until Marco's father was home again and Jem's addiction was eased. It helped that all of every day he could be with Marco, walking and reading and working to train his memory and his reasoning. At night, he lay on the narrow, worn but clean sofa, looking at the little window full of stars and often a moon, making desultory conversation and imagining wonders. “'Let pass through thy mind, my son, only the image thou wouldst desire to see become a truth,'” he remembered, and sometimes said out loud. He tried to follow the Law of Earthly Living, but too often his mind slipped into a wish of his heart that he was not at all sure was not ignoble. He longed to see Marco bare, in the light, all of him laid out against the sheets and as beautiful as the day.
Later, when the Game was played out and they were in Samavia again, he lay in soft sheets of his own, in his own room, and when he shut his eyes, often found himself back in the cavern with the Forgers of the Sword as they cried out and put their hands in the air or prostrated themselves on the rough stone floor, worshipping the young Bearer of the Sign, the image and reincarnation of their boy-saint Ivor. In a dream he had repeatedly, they didn't just paw at Marco's clothes, they tore them away, bit by bit, pieces falling like autumn leaves, while they eagerly stroked and kissed the luminous skin as it was revealed. Jem watched, reaching out his own hands and hungering for touch. In the mornings after those nights, he found himself sticky and clammy, tingling and still full of desire—guilty, shamed, but wanting still. He took to keeping a towel on the bedside table, so he could clean up a little and not feel so dirty when he met Marco for breakfast under Lazarus' martial eye.
Being precocious, he decided, was vastly over-rated.