Excerpt from The Artificer’s Knot: The Return of Gouger Nebb

Excerpt from The Artificer’s Knot: The Return of Gouger Nebb

Excerpt from The Artificer’s Knot: The Return of Gouger Nebb

Here is a 1500 word excerpt from an early draft of The Artificer’s Knot, wherein our young protagonist is unwittingly saved by notorious mob boss Gouger Nebb.


Despite his earlier notions of suicide, Ran resisted being thrown off the bridge, grabbed the steel cables and held on with a fanatic’s grip. The Watch officer shoved him, struck his legs, his hands, his head, and yet something made him hold on. It seemed when it came down to it, he wanted to live.

How long this went on he didn’t know. Then it was gone. Without warning the brute was off him. No, not entirely without warning. He heard some commotion in the distance, then nearer. A scuffle of some kind. Ran dropped to his knees, hard against the stone of the bridge. Wiping some of the blood from his eyes, he saw three other men take hold of the officer. One struck him several times, though not with such ferocity as Ran had suffered.

“Why, good evening, Captain Oddley! Fine night for a stroll, innit?” The man spoke in the old upland accent of the northeast country thought died out long ago. “Now I know I may be getting a touch batty in my dotage, but I do distinctly recall a certain agreement, a detente if you please, ‘twixt myself and your beloved Auntie Cord, do I not? And according to that understanding, I do believe this end of the bridge lies incontrovertibly within my harmonious domain, does it not?”

Now it was the officer who spat blood onto the pavement. “Wordy as ever, ain’t you? Your little cockroach there crossed from the other side, from our side. I saw it.”

“Well then you shoulda stepped on ‘im there, eh? You don’t come into my house and start shite.” The man took something long and sharp and, with the speed and skill of an expert chirurgeon, opened the tiniest slice along the officer’s cheek. Just enough to leave a scar. “Now there’s so you remember it. Go and tell Cordelia what you done to earn it, and don’t let me see you in my garden again.” Not quite so proud now, the officer got to his feet, turned, and walked back across the bridge into the darkness. The three men laughed.

“Nicely done, boss.”

“Oh, thank you kindly for that thoughtful and substantive critique of my performance, Harrol. I’ll lay me down to sleep with a smile tonight thanks to that.” The man handed the blade to his companion and looked down at Ran, who still knelt weak and bloody. He was past middle age, with thick graying mutton chops and mustache and a bright orange swatch of silk covering one eye. “You, you can piss off. Much though I appreciate you provisioning the opportunity to remind the competition o’ their place, I can’t have transients marring the views of my territory.” The three began walking towards the end of the bridge, opposite the way the officer had gone.

Ran staggered to his feet, every cell in his body throbbing with pain. “W-wait.”


Ran stumbled after the trio, after the man who’d saved him. “Please, wait. For fuck’s sake stop!

They did stop. The leader turned back, regarded him with a mixture of amusement and irritation. “Well now, that sounded distressingly close to an imperative. You know what that word means, little cockroach?”

Ran nodded. “Yeah. It’s a…an order.”

“And do you know who I am?”


“Then I’ll bless you with a gift. I gift you the story of how you spat orders at Gouger Nebb and lived to tell about it.”

“Nebb…the gang boss?”

The man walked slowly back toward Ran. “The very one, boy. Take the hint and be off. I won’t tell you again.”

“But…” Ran took a cautious step forward. “You have to help me. I got nothing!”

“What’s that to me? I ain’t no charity house.”

“You saved my life, let me…let me repay you! I’ll do anything.”

The man Nebb laughed. “I got no use for drunken mudlarks.”

“What about…a Journeyman Artificer?”


Ran awoke to a throbbing head, a vaulting stomach and cold shock. Worse than all these was not knowing precisely, or even vaguely where he was. Only that someone had tossed a bucket of icy brown canal water over him, and he instinctively curled up into a pathetic little ball of hangover. “Argh!”

Laughter, and a searing bright light from above. “Wakey wakey young cockroach. Time to see if you can scurry.”

“What…?” There was something familiar about that voice.

“Aw, don’t tell me you done forgot about last night already.”

Last night. Slowly the images reformed out of dark oblivion. A bridge. A man in a uniform. Fists and blood, then… “N-Nebb?”

“Hey, a shiny penny for the clever lad!”

More laughter. Ran looked up, squinting in the sunlight filtered through a dirty window. Two men glared down at him with barely contained hilarity. One was most familiar, lean, leathered and scarred with a band tied over one eye. This one was lime green rather than orange—or had it been pink last night? Now a skull worked expertly in silver adorned the silk where the eye would be. Nebb had a whole collection of swatches, it seemed. The other man, barrel-chested with curly black hair and sunken eyes, might’ve been there last night, Ran couldn’t remember. “What am…I mean, what did I…?”

“Don’t you remember? That’s a bloody shame, ain’t it Harrol?”

The other man nodded. “A travesty, boss.”

“As it happens, you swore your everlasting faith and undying fealty to humble ol’ Nebb. To serve and obey me until your last breath.”

“I did?!”

Nebb shrugged. “Well, not in so many words. But whatever. Even lowly parasites such as m’self wouldn’t hold a drunken wretch to them words. You’re free to go if you want, no charge for the room.” Nebb crouched to come to eye level with Ran. The stench of cheap tobacco wafted all around him, threatening to turn Ran’s stomach inside out. “However, bein’ the conscientious and diligent observer of human nature that I am, I’d dare to venture that you got no place to go. Would ol’ Nebb be right about that?”

Ran fought through the aftereffects of the dragon piss and the beating, felt the danger radiating off the man concealed not in the slightest bit by his cheery words. Ran had the distinct impression of being a fly caught in the clutches of a particularly amoral young boy, teetering on a knife’s edge of either being fed sugar or having his wings plucked off for entertainment.

Ran drew back a bit, cleared his throat. “Could…could I please have some water?”

Nebb and his toady laughed again. “You ain’t had enough just now?”

“Water…fit to drink. Please.”

Nebb nodded with a smile. “Harrol.”

The other man sneered. “What, you want me to fetch water for this little—”

Nebb shot his gaze back at the man, his smile turned to a ferocious snarl. “Is there any possible universe, my dear Harrol, in which my intention of exactly that thing was not catastrophically clear?”

Harrol glared back down at Nebb a moment, then uncrossed his arms and stalked out of whatever room Ran was in. Nebb turned back to Ran. “You see the types I have to put up with? Course, when one runs a criminal gang one can’t exactly recruit from the top o’ the barrel, can one?”

“Um…yes. I-I mean no. Sir. Boss. Erm—”

Nebb chuckled at Ran’s discomfiture, his mood swung once again from fury to joviality. “Relax boy. But I still ain’t got an answer to my query, which is usually fatal. Have you got anywhere to go?”

Ran sighed, clutching his quivering guts. “No. I, I thought I might have one yesterday, have a job I mean, but it fell through. Then I burned whatever bridge I mighta had to any other cause I couldn’t keep my temper.”

“A man after my own heart. So, how does a Journeyman Artificer with all them fancy papers people put in picture frames and nail to the walls fall so low as to be Captain Oddley’s night entertainment?”

Harrol returned with a tankard of what Ran hoped was drinkable water, held it down just far enough that Ran had to stretch upward to get it. A quick sniff revealed no obvious adulteration, and he gulped greedily. “Well,” he said between coughs, “you see, I didn’t, er, exactly, formally, technically get my papers—”

“So you lied to me?” Nebb’s eye bulged.

“No! Well, not completely.”

“Oh pardon me, not completely! Exactly how much of a complete lie do you think Gouger Nebb is inclined to accept? Half? Three-quarters?”

“One tenth! Less! Please, lemme explain.”

Nebb stood to his full height, looming over Ran still curled up on the floor. “I think you’d better. And it better be good, else you may indeed have one last place to go—the bottom o’ Shale Street Canal.”