The Bargain, Kept
by Kyri Freeman
Once, there was a ship owner who called himself Tobias Cantrell. He lived in a port on the west coast of California, which is to say the coast of Hope. He owned seven steamships, ate off Sévres porcelain, and wore Parisian tailoring and silk cravats. As well as being rich, he was healthy, and handsome in the prosperous fashion of his time. Despite all this, though, Cantrell was not a happy man. A frozen core of bitterness sometimes choked him until he thought he would spit out ice. Unknown to those whose society balls he attended, he had left another, failed, business, and another, soiled, name, behind him in a different state. Death and the loss of love huddled in his memory. Furthermore, Cantrell’s great mansion, high on a hill above the bay, was empty, without the grace and laughter of a mate to make it full. This was not for lack of heiresses to set their caps at him. It was because, though it was accounted a crime against nature in those days, Cantrell’s affections were given to men rather than women. He might leave a name, a city, a smoking ruin behind him, but he could not escape that: it lay on him like his skin.
One foggy June evening, Cantrell came home from a long day of underbidding others’ cargoes, threatening striking longshoremen until they blanched and hid behind their placards, and snubbing his rivals in the street. He walked in his front door and nodded to his hall maid, feeling the day’s strain fade now that he was within his fortress walls, thinking of a warming shot of bourbon and dinner to follow. “Sir,” the maid said. “Someone come calling on you, sir. He’s in your office.”
“At this hour? Who?”
“I . . . I don’t know, Mr. Cantrell.”
“What? Don’t you know better than to let riff-raff in here?”
“I’m sorry, sir . . . he . . .” She shrugged helplessly.
“Damn foolishness,” Cantrell muttered, walking into his private study, where the stranger waited. Outrageously, he sat in Cantrell’s own overstuffed leather chair. Unthinkably, he had his snakeskin boots propped up on Cantrell’s rosewood desk. “Who the hell are you?” Cantrell said.
The stranger smiled. His skin looked young, but the expression in his eyes did not. Those eyes were topaz, citrine, amber. His hair was the poisonous red of cinnabar. “I have a business proposition for you, Mr. Cantrell.”
“So come to my office on Embarcadero,” Cantrell said. “And get your damned feet off my desk.”
The stranger sat up, with lithe and liquid grace. Cantrell’s throat went dry. “You’ll want to hear this,” the stranger said. “My name is Nick, if you will. Nick Fallon. I have a mind to invest in your shipping line.”
Cantrell sighed. He thought that he would have to teach his servants better who not to let in the door. “Come see me downtown tomorrow.”
Nick reached into a pocket, pulled out a stack of greenbacks, riffled them with an easy masculine hand, and set them on Cantrell’s desk. They were thousands. There were thousands of them. “Oh,” said Cantrell, sitting down in the chair across from his desk. “I see.”
Nick had a charming smile. “I got in some trouble with my father . . . that was back East. I’ve been sent to make my own way. I want to support free enterprise, and I can’t think of a better prospect for that than you.”
You, he said, not Cantrell Shipping, as if Cantrell himself were the commodity. But Cantrell, who had hated his own father, felt some sympathy. “I hadn’t thought of taking a partner,” he said.
“Well,” Nick said. “But you only have seven ships. Wouldn’t you like to have twenty?”
“I . . .”
“With triple-expansion engines and steel compartment hulls?”
“Well, yes, but . . .”
“And more,” Nick said. “I happen to know that, in between undercutting Miller’s cargo prices and sending your henchmen to thrash that union leader—oh, I very much approve of that, by the way—you visited a coal-passer who had his legs burned off in an engine-room fire. Would you not like your ships to be safe, sir? Never another fire, never a leak or a boiler blast?”
“Is that a threat?” Cantrell snapped. He thought of the Colt revolver, hanging heavy under his coat.
“It is a promise, if you will have it so,” Nick said.
“What makes you think you know what I want?”
Nick reached across the desk and picked up Cantrell’s hand. Slowly, he drew off Cantrell’s white kidskin glove. “I know everything you want. And you can have it all . . .”
“Oh,” Cantrell said involuntarily as Nick’s soft lips brushed his knuckles.
“If . . .”
Cantrell felt Nick’s scalding tongue dart between his fingers, circle his palm. He thought of scandal, blackmail, downfall. But Nick’s eyes were now the color of flowing gold, it had been eight years since anyone had touched Cantrell with more than casual intent, and he lacked the strength to pull his hand away. “If what?” he said, breathlessly.
“Only sign this contract saying I’m your partner.”
Nick brought out a contract written on old-fashioned parchment. Cantrell tried to read it, but Nick unbuttoned his cuff and softly kissed the inside of his wrist, and the letters blurred. It did not matter. He knew what he was signing as he fumbled with his left hand for a pen, and scrawled his name. The gas lamps all went out, leaving a waft of sulfur on the air.
“Come . . . come upstairs,” Cantrell said. “Now.”
Nick naked was bronzed, slim, and wounded. A charred slash on his left shoulder discharged bright fluid. “It’s nothing,” Nick said. “My brother’s souvenir.” He would not let Cantrell touch it. When the fluid dropped on Cantrell’s bare skin, it left stinging blisters behind.
When Nick entered him, Cantrell saw falling fire. He thought his body turned to molten steel, and could not tell if that were pain or ecstasy. He moaned and whimpered and clawed Nick’s satin skin, and Nick’s shared breath cried out, and Nick’s slim fingers clutched. At last, they slept embracing.
Cantrell Shipping became the wonder of the state. Its ships were sleek and fast, and they never wavered in heavy seas, nor did their engines ever give way, although they steamed faster than all the other ships on the Pacific. Each bore a red and black ensign at her foremast, a phoenix ascending.
There was nothing uncommon about a partnership. So few remarked when Tobias Cantrell announced his business alliance with young Nick Fallon, understood to be a gentleman from the East. Society gossips noted that Cantrell and Fallon often appeared together—but who would go into business with a man he disliked? A few of Cantrell’s oldest crewmen gazed at Fallon’s sharp handsomeness and winked at each other; felt the multiplied gold in their pockets, and kept their winks to themselves.
For ten years, Cantrell dominated the California shipping lanes, and beyond. His steamboats carried cargo to Seattle and Cathay, to Liverpool and Vera Cruz. He rebuilt his mansion, and bought racehorses, whose jockeys all wore silks of red and black. At every formal ball the matrons pushed their daughters to his side and Nick’s. Both danced, and smiled, and made no promises. Cantrell, who had been sleek before, grew sleeker and more prosperous and bright-eyed with every passing year.
Once, a rival, jealous of Cantrell’s success, tried to slip aboard one of the steamboats and set a charge of dynamite against her hull. The city police found him wandering the docks, hair and eyebrows scorched, babbling of hounds with taloned paws and foxfire eyes. “Tain’t natural,” he blubbered, sucking blistered fingers. “Tain’t right, that ship!” But he had always been an unsteady man.
“But can you never reconcile with your family?” Cantrell asked one night, as they lay in his four-poster bed. “I would go back and see my sister, if I thought the Revenue Service wouldn’t clap me in chains.” As he said this, thinking of the sister he had not seen in eight years, he realized that his icy bitterness was gone, melted away.
“Not unless I were transformed,” said Nick. “Not unless someone were willing. . .oh, it doesn’t matter.”
“Shhh.” Nick’s burning amber eyes made Cantrell’s head spin, and he sighed.
And ten years passed.
They had only been apart for a day, but Cantrell ran to Nick and embraced him as if it had been a year. His hand brushed the wounded shoulder blade. Nick hissed with pain. “Mind your hand, Toby!”
“I’m sorry,” Cantrell said, winding his fingers in Nick’s blood-red hair.
“It’s nothing,” said Nick, and perhaps there was a tincture of regret in his gaze. “I have enjoyed these years, you know. Better than you can ever understand. But now. . .”
Cantrell felt a sudden weakness in his knees. He clutched at Nick to stay on his feet. “What . . .”
“I’m sorry,” Nick said, and the pupils of his eyes were portholes to unimaginable depths. “It’s time.”
“It’s only been ten years!” He leaned on Nick, feeling the fever warmth. “I thought I had more time. I thought . . .” The part of his mind that dwelt on compound engines and tons of coal had not, after all, endorsed his signature. That part was gibbering now.
“I know,” Nick said, “but needs must . . . well, you know the phrase.”
The world whirled. Cantrell’s eyes dimmed. He clung.
“It will not be all pain,” Nick said. “I have ships for you. Black frigates set to sail hot airless winds. Guns of metal forged beyond the sky. Unsleeping crew, still dressed in shrouds, with stitches through their noses. Toby, I will make you the Admiral of all my fleet.”
“Can I ask . . .” Cantrell said through numbing lips. “One last thing, love . . .”
Lips scorched his brow. “A longer span of days? Perhaps . . .”
“I wish your wound were healed.”
The Light ascended like a conqueror’s cry.
Kyri Freeman lives in the Santa Cruz Mountains of Northern California. A survivor of graduate school in History at UCLA, she now writes and is working toward a Library and Information Sciences degree. Kyri is currently seeking representation for a first novel, entitled Wayfaring Stranger. Her short fiction has also appeared in Ideomancer.
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