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Equinox

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He wouldn't go so far to say it was his favourite season, but those weeks around the autumn Equinox had much to recommend them. The lengthening nights. Mists and fog to cloak his movements and muffle his steps. The gentle bite to the air that had the Watch patrols lurking in doorways and lighting braziers. Haunting the last few balls of the social season, as the nobility carefully packed away their jewels and finery and withdrew to their country estates until Wintertide. He was never one for festivals, but he would never deny the Equinox had a charm all of its own.

There were drawbacks, of course. The windows and ledges and rooftops all sprouted garlands of leaves and branches, studded here and there by crow feathers and sprays of berries, and bats carved from wax, and every so often a curl of gold thread sparkling amid the reds and oranges and fading greens. It made for prettier decoration than the greying muck and grime that clung to every surface in the City, but still it all had to be stepped around and over as he picked his way through all the clutter the good cityzens left strewn across his path. Worse still were the carved pumpkins. At least they were easily spotted and avoided, but the glowing candles within ate away at the shadows, and threatened to set his cloak alight if he lingered too close.

The prize was worth the inconvenience. Set out on each windowsill amidst all the gaudy decorations were the offerings left out to appease the Trickster. Marzipan and chocolate, and sugared biscuits. Brightly-coloured exotic fruits that could never grow within a hundred miles of the City but were shipped in by great merchant clippers from the South Seas. The offerings in Dayport and Auldale were richer and brighter, without question, but even the meanest Old Quarter hovel might boast a saucer of crusts sprinkled with a little sugar.

Garrett didn't strictly need to visit each house to pick through the offerings so kindly left out. If he so chose, he could steal from any sweetshop and fill his pockets to overflowing any night of the year. But something about it being this night, and of snatching treasures out from the clutches of an old god tickled that same something in him which took no small delight in arranging unconscious houseguards into compromising positions. It added a certain extra spice to the whole affair that just couldn't be replicated by robbing a bakery.

The house was like any other in Dayport. Ostentatious and over-elaborate, like every other project Eastwick got his hands on. Newly-installed steam pipes wound through and between the terraced houses, offering both easy attachment points for his grapple, and a network of spider-webbed shadows against the limestone brickwork that disguised his silhouette from any rare soul who might happen to look up. None of them were functional yet, of course, giving him no fear of accidentally burning himself from clambering over hot metal. He doubted the Keep would be much more than scaffolding and girders for years yet. The Baron might talk of progress, but everyone knew just how slowly progress moved in the City. Just like the rumours he’d heard of the Baron banning the old gods and demolishing the chapels. Nothing would come of it.

A sheltered corner of the balcony offered him a convenient place to sit out of the wind while he picked through the leavings from the last few houses. Biscuits and toffee would easily keep and were stashed away in one of the extra bags he’d brought for tonight, but the gingerbread would disintegrate if he left it much longer. He swung one leg over the stone railing to sit astride with his back to the wall as he licked sticky crumbs from his fingers and watched the clouds scudding across the face of the moon.

“Are you the Trickster?”

Garrett froze. A small figure swathed in a hooded bathrobe far too large stood at his elbow to peer up at him. Bright green eyes swept him up and down and he caught himself reaching for his blackjack. Stilled himself, willing his fingers to relax. He couldn't hit a child. Children were more fragile, the margin between hard enough and too hard far too slender to risk it.

He never heard a door open; how could he have missed that? A glance to one side traced his escape; a leap to the roof garden across the mews, throw the grapple against that ornamental tracery, then up and across the tiles and away. But fast as he was—and he was fast—all it would take was one scream from the child and he’d have crossbow-wielding guards on his tail. Or dogs. He hated dogs.

“Where are your horns?”

Any words Garrett might have mustered died in his mouth. He stared at the child. The child stared back at him. Offered him a friendly smile. “Mama said the Trickster has horns. Did you have an accident?“

He nodded, too dazed by the question to come up with anything better.

“I bet it was the Baron. Mama said the Baron's going to chase you away, and all your friends too.”

Garrett wrapped his fingers around of his sack of treats. Eyed his escape route one more time. “Shouldn't you be in bed?.”

“But I wanted to see you!” The child bounced excitedly. The scuff of feet against the balcony tiles struck him just a fraction wrong. Too hard and brittle for shoe leather. A faint clicking against the tile that almost reminded him of ... claws? “Did you like the gingerbread? It's my favourite.”

“I … yes. I liked it.” He slowly swung his leg over the railing and felt around with his foot for the ledge below, not daring to take his eyes off the child.

The child laughed. A sudden, sharp sound that had Garrett cringing. A shutter banged, somewhere nearby but out of sight. The hood slipped back to reveal tangled copper curls. Something about the way they swung in the breeze reminded him of the leaf garlands draped across the stonework on the house across the mews.

“Enjoy your offerings, little trickster.”

The child grinned at him, mouth opening wide to reveal somehow too many teeth. Pointed teeth. Garrett snatched up his sack and launched himself across open space for the roof garden opposite. Grapple teeth bit solidly into the ornamental tracery, and he was gone. Nothing but soft footfalls disappearing into shadow.

He didn't dare slow until he was streets away. Ducked into the shade of the nearest chimney stack and breathed, deliberately slow and steady until the ringing faded from his ears. No sound of pursuit. No raised voices. No dogs. He hated dogs.

He shuddered. Maybe raiding the sweetshop on Grandmauden wasn't such a bad idea.