I was on my way to my flat, lost in a daydream of a steaming porcelain cup filled with freshly brewed Rosie, when I heard a scratchy voice. It sounded something like “Oi you,” a disturbing phrase at the best of times. I kept walking, hoping that perhaps I’d imagined the hiss in the general rumble of the ‘Neath.
“Pssst, over here.”
There was a gloomy silhouette leaning against a pillar, only just visible in the half-light of the arches. I looked behind me. A rat scurried across the pavement. I could hear the hiss and groan from the Underground station. A tendril of mist curled around my feet. There was no one on the street but me and my unseen assailant.
“Yeah, you,” the shadow whispered. “Is that a mandrake in your pocket?”
I looked down in embarrassment and then realised it was a serious question. I pulled the dirty root out of my pocket. “Yeah, I, uh, it was abandoned, honest.” The mandrake giggled. I tightened my grip but that just made it giggle louder. I needed to find a way to get rid of the damn thing. I shoved the mandrake back into my pocket, trying to mute it with my handkerchief.
“Giggling mandrake, huh? How much you want for it?”
“What I want … ?” I pulled my hand out of my pocket. “It’s not for sale, mate.” I leaned against the opposing pillar. I’d seen a deshrieked mandrake in the bazaar for 16 Echoes. This one was quite a bit louder but it had to be worth a few bob. I could use some readies right about now.
“You play Knife-and-Candle then?”
I straightened up again. Polite murder, that’s what they called Knife and Candle, a game for the most dangerous denizens of Fallen London. I was out of my league. “I don’t, I’m not…” If the shadowy figure had stayed silent, I probably would have dropped the mandrake and run off but luckily the hoarse whisper interrupted my stuttering.
“Tell you what. You give me the mandrake and I’ll tell you how to ambush your way to the top. Deal?”
I swallowed hard. “Deal.”
A perilous and wily lady wearing a stained, red velvet gown stepped out from the shadows. “Hand over the mandrake.”
I handed it over and she smiled. “Lovely.” She lifted her iron top hat and carefully tucked it in. “All right, now listen.”
“Knife and Candle isn’t for wimps. You need to be able to handle yourself in a dark alley. So start off by hanging around Watchmaker Hill and learning from the hunters there. They won’t hurt you and they’ll be happy for the help with the wildlife. No point in playing before you know the practicalities of bringing down someone or something bigger than you.” She gave me a long look up and down. “Everyone will be, I think.”
The ground rumbled below our feet as a train pulled away.
“Then you need to just jump in. You’ll lose. You will lose a lot. But it’s the only way to learn and you’ll just have to accept that. You’ve got one chance to make it work and that’s to guess your opponent’s strategy. But all you’ve got is your fists to start so you’ve got no advantage at all. Just pick on the lowest level person you can find and maybe you’ll get lucky. After a while, you’ll start to recognise strategies and be able to second-guess your victims. You’ll start going up in rank and once you get rank 4, you’ll start to see results.”
She smiled at me like an adder smiles at a field mouse. I think it was meant to be encouraging.
“Rank 4,” I repeated, to show that I’d been paying attention.
“You’ll learn to hunt. That’s important. Choose your victims carefully – in fact, if you can, spy on them and try to see if you can catch them when they are not paying attention.” She waved a steam-driven iPhone at me. “Twitter’s good for that, just watch for them to go quiet. Hunt increases your attack and Stealth increases your defence, those skills will make all the difference in the world to you.”
My head began to pound. I was only understanding half of what she said and she didn’t look like the patient type.
“Look, you start out with nothing, so you don’t care about losing. It’s not like you stay dead. So go out there and attack. If you win, your score goes up. If you lose, well, you can’t get much lower. And if you get lucky, you’ll guess strategies and get a bonus. That’s all it is to start, luck and your dangerous skill. Once you learn to hunt, well, you can gain quite a large bonus just by being patient and choosing your victims carefully. Being watchful will help you there. And if you are shadowy and can learn how to use stealth, well! Then it’s simply a minor gamble that they won’t notice you for an hour or so. Hunt and Stealth will net you some very high bonuses in attack and defence, making it almost impossible for your victim to defend against you.” She laughed happily at the thought.
My nervous smile was beginning to hurt. “Be watchful for hunting and shadowy for stealth, got it.”
She pulled on a pair of gloves and stepped up close to me. “And always remember that style and distinction counts,” she whispered into my ear and I saw the blur of her hand moving towards my chest. I closed my eyes, ready for the knife to the heart. By the time I dared open them again, I was alone.