Read The Great Game Online

Authors: Lavie Tidhar

Tags: #Fantasy

The Great Game

Praise for Mr . LAVIE TIDHAR
"Lavie Tidhar's The Bookman is simply the best book I've read in a long time, and I read a lot of books."
James P Blaylock
"An emerging master."
"The Bookman is without a doubt the most enjoyable, fascinating and captivating book I have read in a long time."
"Fast paced adventure with tons of sense of wonder. I loved the author's style and I found the book's narrative energy high with smooth transition from one episode to another. Just big time fun,
The Bookman
is highly, highly recommended."
Fantasy Book Critic
"Kim Newman, Alan Moore, Lavie Tidhar: what do they have in common? The answer is a superb ability to throw the actual history of the Victorian age up in the air alongside the popular fiction of that era and allow the whole lot to fall down together in new and interesting shapes."
Cheryl Morgan
"A steampunk gem. Fantastic."
"A boisterous mix of steampunk, Victorianna, mystery, travel story, thriller, adventure, partly coming of age story. And it pays homage to fictional and real persons who belong to the Victorian era. It brims over with allusions and cameos. This is steampunk in 3D! Highly recommended from the bottom of my heart."
Only The Best Scifi & Fantasy
By the same esteemed author
The Bookman Histories
The Bookman
Camera Obscura
The Tel Aviv Dossier
(with Nir Yaniv)
An Occupation of Angels
Cloud Permutations
A Dick & Jane Primer for Adults
The Apex Book of World SF
The Great Game


To Elizabeth, in love

"When everyone is dead the Great Game is finished.
Not before. Listen to me till the end."
Rudyard Kipling,
Death of a Fat Man
The boy didn't know he was about to die, which must have been a blessing. He was an ordinary boy whose job it was to take messages, without being privy to the contents of said messages. The boy walked along the canal. The sun was setting and in its dying light the observer could see a solitary, narrow boat, laden with bananas and pineapples and durian, passing on the water on the way home from market.
Two monks in saffron robes walked ahead of the boy, conversing in low voices. A sleepy crocodile floated by the bank of the canal, ignored by the few passers-by. It was a quiet part of town, away from the
quarters, and the boy was on his way home, home being a small room on one of the canals, shared with his parents and brothers and sisters, alongside many such rooms all crowded together. The observer could smell the durian from a distance as the boat went past, and he could smell chilli and garlic frying from a stall hidden from view, in one of the adjacent
, the narrow, twisting alleyways of this grand city. Its residents called it Krung Thep, the City of Angels. The farangs still called it by its old name, which was Bangkok.
The observer followed behind the boy. He was unremarkable. He would have been unremarkable in nearly every human country, on any continent. He was small of build, with skin just dark enough, just pale enough, to pass for Siamese, or European, or Arab, or, depending on the place and the angle of the sun, an African. His face was hidden behind a wide-brimmed hat but, had he turned and tilted his head, it, too, would have been unremarkable – they had taken great care to ensure that that would be so.
The observer followed the boy because the boy was a link in a long and complicated chain that he was following. He didn't feel one way or the other about the boy's imminent death. Death meant little to the observer. The concept was too alien. The boy, not knowing he was being followed, was whistling. He was not Siamese or Chinese, but rather Hmong, of a family that had come to Krung Thep from the highlands of Laos, one of the king's territories to the north-east. The observer didn't care a great deal about that.
He caught up with the boy as the boy was turning away from the canal, down a narrow soi. People passed them both but the observer ignored them, his attention trained on the boy. He caught up with him in the shadow of a doorway and put his hand on the boy's shoulder.
The boy began to formulate a question, began to turn around, but never got a chance to complete either action. The observer slid what could have been a very narrow, very sharp blade – but wasn't, not quite – into the soft area at the back of the boy's head.
The blade went through skin and fat and bone, piercing the brain stem and the hippocampus and reaching deep into the brain. The boy emitted a sigh, a minute exhalation of air, perhaps in surprise, perhaps in pain. His legs buckled underneath him. The observer, now partici
pant, gently caught him so that he didn't fall but, rather, was gently lowered to the ground.
The whole thing only took a moment. When it was done the observer withdrew the thing that was not quite a blade, but functioned as one, which was as much a part of him as his skeleton or the cells that made up his skin. His skeleton was not entirely human and his brain not at all, and he was currently experiencing some new sensations, one of which was bewilderment and another being anger, neither of which had troubled him before.
He stopped before the fallen boy and put his hands together, palms touching, the hands away from the chest and raised high, in a
. He bowed to the body of the boy. The voices inside him were whispering.
Having paid his respects the observer straightened. He stepped away from the darkened doorway and into the street outside. The sun had set and it was growing darker and torches and small fires were being lit across the city. He could smell fish roasting, wood catching fire, fish sauce, and the coming rain. The boy had been a link in a chain and now it pointed the observer in a new direction. He walked away, not hurrying, an unassuming man whose face was hidden behind a wide-brimmed hat, and as he turned the corner he heard, behind him, the start of screams.
It was cold and his bones ached; the air smelled of rain. Smith straightened, wiped his brow with the back of one hand, leaving a trail of dirt on his skin. He stared down at the ground, the wide, raised row he had so painstakingly worked to make. He had turned the ground and mixed in fertiliser from the Oppenheims' chicken coop, which he had personally shovelled into bags and carried over, and he had formed these things that looked like elongated burial mounds and planted seeds and watered them and watched them. God, he hated gardening.
  A chicken darted past, leaving sharp little arrowheads in the moist earth of his garden. He threw a stone at it and it crowed, jumping into the air with wings half-stretched, offended. God, he hated chickens too.
  Staring at the garden, he saw his vegetables weren't doing all that well. The tomatoes looked forlorn, hanging from their vines, the plants held up by wooden sticks that seemed to jut out at random angles. The cabbages looked like guillotined heads. The apple tree by the house was surrounded by fallen apples, rotting, and the smell filled the air. Smith glared at the tree then decided to call it a day. Not bothering to change, he left the house, opening and closing the small gate in the fence that enclosed the garden and the house, and followed the dirt path into the village. Other houses in the village had names. Smith's gate merely said, in small, unpolished letters: No. 6.
  A fine, cold day. A good day for staying indoors, lighting a fire, sorting his library alphabetically, or by condition, or rarity. Since his retirement he had enjoyed collecting books, ordering by mail from specialist dealers in the capital, or even from the continent. It was a small, orderly joy, as different as could be from his former life. His lonely farm house, with its small garden and solitary apple tree, sat on its own. A farmer's life, he thought. What had Hobbes said about human life? That it was solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. Hobbes should have been a farmer, Smith thought.
  Or retired.
  Instead Hobbes had been overly friendly with the French, had written
, in which he argued for the return of human monarchy, had been arrested, and was only spared by his one-time pupil, the old Lizard King Charles II, who had arranged for him to go into exile. Died at ninety-one years of age, if Smith remembered his facts. So life may have been brutish and poor but, for Hobbes, not exactly
  He came to the village. A small sign announced that this was, indeed, the village of St Mary Mead and, in smaller letters underneath:
Retirement Community
. Smith sighed. Every time he examined that sign he felt the old, familiar anger return. And every time he hoped, against hope, that somehow the sign would be changed, would declare him free.
  He walked along the high street. The village, like all villages, had a church, and a post office, and a pub. There was no constabulary. The residents of St Mary Mead could take care of their own. Smith smelled the air. Rain. But something else, too…
  A vague sense of unease gripped him. He could smell – not with his
sense but with something deeper, a left-over from his trade days, perhaps – could smell
in the air. He stopped beside M.'s, the shop that sold embroidered tea doilies and lace curtains and, on Saturdays and Sundays, cream teas, and watched. Behind him the curtain twitched, and he knew that she, too, was watching. She had been famous as a watcher, in her glory days.
  But there was nothing much to see. The village, as always, was quiet. The few shops were open, but their proprietors were used to the absence of customers. Outside Verloc's bookshop the ageing Mr Verloc –
but two years younger than him
! – was putting out the bargain bins, filled as always with penny dreadfuls and gothic romance and the like – poor fare for a man of Smith's more refined tastes.
  He shook his head and continued his walk. He paused by the bookshop and nodded hello to Verloc, who nodded back. They had run into each other back in eighty-three, on the Danube, and Verloc still had a small, discreet scar below his left eye to prove it.
  "Might rain," Verloc said.
  "Would be good for the crops," Smith said and Verloc, who knew the state of Smith's garden, snorted in response. "You'd have more luck planting a book and hoping it would bear fruit," he said. Then, remembering his business, he said gruffly, "You want to buy one?"

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