The trick isn’t hitting it. The trick is in knowing how hard to hit it.
Perhaps I should explain what I mean. To do that, I need to tell why I was in Sarge’s flat early that morning.
Sergeant Edwish Balden used to be in the police force, but he got struck in the wrong place by a crossbow bolt during a raid. Now, he can’t walk. He’d been one of the good ones, and all Copper Cove gave him for his work and his sacrifice were a small pension and a powered wheeled chair. The chair was a nice thought, but it broke down two or three times a year, and when that happened, he was house-bound.
Sarge has a neighbor who looks out for him. When the chair breaks, she gets a message to the staff at Henry’s Crossing. They pass the message on to me when I go in for a cuppa, and I go round and fix it for Sarge.
It was the same problem that it had time before last—a gear in the motor was sticking. The last time, a drop of oil had worked, but this time I bit the bullet and replaced the gear. It would cut into my profit from the job, but it was worth it.
I closed up the chair and recharged the tank, drawing dwimm from the magosphere and infusing it into the water. I stood up, wiped my hands, and said, “That should do it, Sarge. Give it a go.”
Sarge nodded as I wheeled the chair over to his couch. He lifted himself up and swung into the chair, careful not to disturb Darjeeling, who was lying on the armrest as she slept off a big bite of raspberry kringle. He settled in and tapped the start button on the left armrest.
We could hear the faint whirring as the gears started to move, but the wheels didn’t budge. “Thought you said that would do it, Miles!” Sarge said.
“Cogs and gears,” I muttered. I moved behind the chair, knelt down and touched the back. My quick sensing didn’t feel anything out of place. The damn thing should have worked.
This is where the hitting came in. I was guessing that all the chair needed was a good hard smack. I let my sensing flow through the chair as I pulled my biggest wrench from my toolbelt.
I tapped several spots on the back lightly with my forefinger. When it hit one spot on the left, I nodded and held my finger there. I hoisted my wrench and carefully swung it at the spot, trying my best to hit it just hard enough. Too hard, and I’d knock something loose and have to start over. Not hard enough, and I’d have egg on my face.
The wrench struck the chair, and the gears roared to life. Sarge had to hit the off button to keep the chair from rolling through the door of his flat. “What the devil did you do to this?” he said, trying to hold back a grin.
I stood up, spun the wrench around in my hand, and stuck it back in my toolbelt. “What do you think, Sarge?” I said. “I fixed it.”
I should have charged Sarge more. Ms. Higgins, my landlady, raised my rent last month, and it seems like everything gets more expensive every time I go to the store. Life in Copper Cove.
However, I’d read in the Courant that the city council still hadn’t voted on the latest proposal to raise pensions. Sarge, and a lot of people like him, were having to make what they had do more. I knew he had to give up a few small things as it was to get his wheeled chair repaired. It would be cruel to pressure him into coughing up a few more coins.
Sarge, as he always does, tried to slip me a little extra. As I always do, I made him take it back; he had given Darjeeling a bit of his kringle, and that was enough of a gratuity. I woke Darjeeling up, and as she curled up on my shoulder, I said goodbye and headed out of his flat and down Becker Street to get something to eat and a cuppa at Henry’s, and see if anyone else needed my services today.
I’m Tabitha Miles, and I’m an independent crafter. When someone in Copper Cove has a machine, big or small, that has to be fixed, and they don’t want to go through the guilds or can’t afford to, I take care of it. The guilds call me a “renegade”, and want me and others like me to join them, but I’m not interested. There are too many regulations and too many fees, and I hate their dress codes.
I wear button-down shirts, grey herringbone tweed trousers with bracers, boots with short heels and a flat cap that matches my trousers. I like how I dress, and I don’t care what anyone else thinks about it, and I’ll be damned if I ever get forced into wearing a skirt. Look at the ones that the women who work for the guilds are required to wear. I’d rather wear something with some bloody pockets, thank you very much.
I was born and raised in Copper Cove. It was one of the biggest cities on the Crescent Sea, but it first rose to fame some fifty years ago. Following the discovery of how dwimm could be diffused in specially-treated water to create magical batteries, the city’s crafters began to create devices and machines that were amazing, useful, and only occasionally deadly. Early working arrangements and rivalries led to the founding of the two guilds, the Clockwork Consortium and the Fellowship of Brass, that wound up in an uneasy alliance that controlled the building and maintenance of those devices in the city.
In theory, only those who were properly certified members of the guilds were supposed to repair their devices. In practice, enough people distrusted the guilds, or couldn’t afford them, to keep independent crafters in business, as long they did so quietly. It didn’t make me rich, but it paid the rent and kept me in tea and scones, so I was content.
It was a cool afternoon, and I was glad I had worn a light jacket as I walked along. It only partially covered my tool belt, but most people were too distracted by Darjeeling to notice it anyway. It was a rare day when someone didn’t notice Darjeeling when I was out, and I would get stopped from time to time and asked about her. I would let children pet her, as long as they did so gently; she had never bitten anyone, but I didn’t want to take that chance. I tried not to be annoyed when they referred to Darjeeling as a “he”; I would gently correct them. If they tried that with me, though, all bets were off.
I was heading towards Progress Street, one of the city’s oldest, winding through Copper Cove from northwest to southeast. The flats that lined the streets in and around Progress Street were old, and in many cases had had more floors added to the original structure. This gave the streets a charmingly overgrown feel, with some buildings reaching almost across the street. The lampposts appeared to bend to squeeze in. The lines that carried the dwimm that powered people’s devices were strung among the flats and lampposts like the web of a gigantic and somewhat tipsy spider. As always, pigeons battled for the best spots on those lines.
The corner of Becker and Progress was a popular spot for buskers to perform, and I stopped at a corner to hear one of my favorites, Zoe, play for a moment. A ginger with a sharp smile and a sweet voice, Zoe had been an independent crafter until she discovered that she was more gifted with her vocals and her ukulele than she was with a wrench and pliers. She was finishing up a cover version of “Steam Punk Girl”, and I joined the small lunchtime crowd in applauding.
Zoe saw me and waved me over. “Good afternoon, Zoe!” I said with a smile.
“Halloo, Tabitha,” she said as she petted Darjeeling. “I’ve got a bit of news for you. Do you remember Genevieve Stanbury?”
“Of course. What’s the word on Genny?”
“She died this morning.”
“Cogs and gears,” I said slowly. “What happened?”
Zoe shook her head. “They found her in her workshop. I don’t know more than that, but the police think it was likely an accident.”
“Bloody shame,” I said, and I meant it. Genny had taken me under her wing and found me jobs when I had started my crafting career. She was always generous with her time and knowledge.
Zoe strummed her ukulele. “I’m sorry, Tabitha. I thought you’d want to know.”
“Thank you, Zoe.” I dropped some shillings in her ukulele case. “Lift a glass for her tonight.”
“I’ll be sure to.” She tipped her cap. I tipped mine in turn and started away, my mind filled with memories of Genny.
Progress Street was crowded that afternoon. There were the horse-drawn cabs, carrying those who were better off to meetings or trysts, and omnibuses for the working class, pulled along their tracks by teams of specially-bred moa. A motorcar drove past, trailing steam from its tanks of dwimm-infused water. People hurried by me or strolled along, some wearing their finery, some the robes or uniforms of their position, some whatever they could afford or happened to be clean. I could see trolls, hired for construction or hauling jobs, heading for lunch. A trio of policemen marched along, two humans and one dwarf, their eyes seemingly everywhere. An elvish wizard stood to one side, watching the crowd with a mix of amusement and contempt, as people stared at his green robes and brass-trimmed staff.
There was a small group of men in red and gold uniforms on one corner, and when I saw them, I tried my best not to be noticed. Their outfits marked them as members of the Fellowship of Brass, one of the two crafter’s guilds that held most of the power in Copper Cove. If it involved clockwork or dwimm, one guild or the other almost always had a hand in crafting it.
The Fellowship had a store on that corner, and across the street from them was a store operated by their rivals, the Clockwork Consortium. Both stores sold much the same merchandise, the inventions that had first appeared over the last half-century. Some, such as iceboxes and teakettles, were life-changing and affordable for many people. Others were still out of reach for all but the rich, such as motorcars, or were not so practical, as was the case with the telephone.
The stores could be found all across Copper Cove, and that rankled me. The design of the items the guilds sold was, in many cases, basic and uninspired. I knew that it was one way they kept the prices down, but there was no style involved. No imagination. It was frustrating to see, and one of the reasons why I try to bring a bit of flair to anything I craft.
As I reflected on this, I stopped and smiled as I came within sight of the Ticking Tower. It’s actually named after some dignitary only remembered now by historians, a bloke named Grimes or Graves or something who was obsessed with time. He designed the tower, but died before it was completed.
The tower is over 100 feet tall, four sided, with a giant clock on each side. The clocks are identical, but the facades that surround the faces are all different, each showing off a different aspect of life in the city many years ago. I love being able to look at and sometimes study the facades, to see the detail and the lovely blend of form and function, and reflect on the thought and craftsmanship behind that.
I have similar thoughts when I look to the south of the city. Copper Cove doesn’t have the same amount of airship traffic as other cities do, mostly due to the strong winds that blow in from the Crescent Sea, but there are still several dockings every day. The terminal has five towers, all of different heights, where the airships dock. Many of those ships are beautifully crafted and decorated, but there’s beauty in the simpler and starker ones as well, in their ability to take flight and leave the ground behind.
Atop each tower is a sculpture of a winged woman, each holding a beacon high above her head. The legends of the early days of Copper Cove tell of the valcyr, who came from the mountains to defend the young city from an invading goblin army. Historians have argued for generations about whether or not the valcyr actually existed, but even if they were figments of various imaginations, they made for gorgeous statues.
I’ve lived in Copper Cove my whole life, and no matter how much the city may have changed, I still find myself surrounded by inspiration. I always wanted to be a crafter, and I’m reminded of that every time I see airships or the valcyr sculptures or the Ticking Tower. They thrill me, and they give me the hope that someday, I’ll create something that people will remember after I’m gone.
Darjeeling chirped softly into my ear as I resumed my walk. “Are you hinting at something, my sweet?” I said to her. “We’ll be getting lunch soon, and then back to work on that commission—”
I stopped as the commotion reached my ears. I glanced down Progress Street and saw the suit of plate armor marching slowly along. Behind it were a group of elves, dressed even more garishly than most, arguing over whose fault it had been that the myrmidon was out of control rather than doing anything about it.
Myrmidons were automatons crafted from armor that had once been worn by elfin heroes, with the purpose of serving as bodyguards for nobles. However, many elves had no feel for crafting, and rogue myrmidons were common. They usually caused no harm…unless they happened to be stampeding down a city street at lunchtime.
Most of the crowd were able to get out of its way, but I saw that one elderly woman had fallen to her knees and dropped her cane. She was having trouble getting to her feet, fumbling for her glasses as the myrmidon headed straight towards her. “Cogs and gears,” I muttered as I reached for my toolbelt.
I always carried the usual tools, but I also had a few specialty ones that I would bring with me from time to time. I hadn’t dealt with myrmidons before, but I had one tool with me that worked with devices that had gone out of control—a Tucker’s Reverberator, which bore some resemblance to a giant bronze filigree clothespin. I yanked it off my belt and sprinted towards the myrmidon. “Halloo! Tin head!” I shouted.
The myrmidon didn’t pause, which came as no surprise; it was probably crafted to ignore insults, especially my rather poor one. The woman on the ground looked up at it, mouth open, frightened beyond speech.
I jumped in front of the myrmidon as it stretched out an arm. I slapped the reverberator on its hand. As it raised its other arm to strike, I tapped the button on the reverberator and backed away quickly.
The myrmidon paused as the Tucker’s Reverberator started to shake, softly at first, then harder and faster, with an oddly tuneful hum. It dropped to its knees as bolts began to work loose. I crouched down to shield the elderly woman.
With several loud pops, the bolts that held the armor together flew off; I had to dodge one that shot towards my head. The myrmidon loudly collapsed in a pile of gears, screws and pieces of armor. The onlookers applauded, murmured appreciatively, and in one case grumbled over losing a bet.
I retrieved the old woman’s cane and knelt to help her up. “That worked,” I said to her with a grin, quietly thanking my lucky stars that it had. “Are you all right?”
“What have you done?” We both glanced down the street at the elfin noble that was marching towards us in a whirl of petticoats and parasol, followed by a quartet of nervous attendants. I recognized the oak and thorn crest on their robes from the Courant. I had managed to wreck a myrmidon that belonged to Lady Gladiola Greenbrae.
“Your pardon,” I said politely as I stood, “but—”
“It’s ruined!” Lady Greenbrae screeched as she pointed at the pile of parts. “My beautiful myrmidon!”
“Yes, that was the point.” I yanked the reverberator, and the gauntlet I had attached it to, away from one of the attendants. “Someone was about to get hurt.”
“How could you do this? Who’ll protect me now?”
I glanced at what was left of the myrmidon as Greenbrae’s entourage started to gather the pieces. “You could always hit the crooks with a forearm or a breastplate.”
Lady Greenbrae pointed her parasol at me. “I have had enough of your jokes, you impudent brat!”
“And I have had enough of arrogant, self-centered, heartless nobles!” I snapped. “Here!” I tossed Lady Greenbrae the gauntlet. “You might need this,” I added with a smile.
She snarled as she stormed off, her entourage hurrying to catch up. My smile faded as I turned to check on the old woman and saw the two men in blue and silver robes walking up to me. “Tabitha Miles?” one said.
“Oh, what now?”
The man who had spoken pointed to himself and his companion. “Ridley and Troutman. We’re with the Clockwork Consortium. Are you aware that you’ve violated the Wells Act?”
“For using a reverberator on a runaway myrmidon?” I snapped.
Ridley shifted nervously. “I’ll need to ask you to come with us—”
“Sod off!” I pointed at the guilder. “I’ve saved this woman’s life! That’s far more important than your bloody rules!”
Ridley looked at Troutman, then at the crowd that was watching us. I could see his face contort as he did the mental math and realized it added up to letting me be. “You’ll be hearing from us,” Ridley said as he walked away.
“That’s just lovely,” I said to myself, rolling my eyes. It had been some months since the guilds had been after me for unsanctioned crafting, but now I would have to be somewhat more careful as I went about town.
I felt a hand on my arm. “Young lady?” the woman I had rescued from the myrmidon said.
“That was so brave of you to step in. Thank you.” She smiled.
I blushed and tipped my cap to her. “My pleasure,” I said. She set off down the street, and I resumed my walk to Henry’s Crossing.
There’s a chain of tea shops that sprang up here a few years ago called the Pot Perfected. The name is complete rubbish. They brew their tea in giant vats made by the Double-C, and they use the cheapest leaves they can find, and the resulting brew is flavorless at best and swill at worst. They have decent sconces and tea cakes, but that hardly makes up for it. Still, they’re all over the place now, and the Double-C guilders and the Brass fellows swear by them.
Not me. I have some taste. That’s why I stick with Henry’s Crossing in my little corner of town. It’s not the classiest neighborhood, but Henry’s is a lovely tea room, with plenty of tables and the best damn cuppa and pastries you could ask for. I wouldn’t go anywhere else even if they didn’t give me a discount.
About that…a few years back, just as I was starting out, I fixed their boilers and ovens and charged them a lot less than the guilds would have. The owners struck a deal with me—I would handle maintenance on their equipment, and they would give me a discount on all my tea and food. They don’t even me make pay for the newspaper.
I popped in and placed my usual order, a sausage sandwich and a pot of Travers’ Rise And Shine, their strongest tea. Amee, the immaculately dressed sprite who worked at the counter, nodded as they passed the order to the kitchen. My favorite table, back in the corner, was open, so I took a copy of that morning’s Copper Cove Courant and sat down to read and wait for my food.
I have no idea what a Courant is, or why the founders of our local newspaper named it that, but I still read it every day. Just not the first half or so, which is loaded with sleazy journalism of the lowest order. Stories about unsolved murders and sensational crimes, the latest puff pieces on the guilds, the doings of royalty in excruciating detail…feh. They’d been covering the new railroad line that was being built from here to Thorn Harbour every day for the last four months. I was getting sick of reading about it, and I loved everything else about the railroad.
But once you fight your way past all that nonsense, you get to read the real news they slip in. What the city council is doing, or not doing, to help the people they were elected to supposedly assist…the latest store or crafter to be pushed out of business by the guilds…another family having to move because rents were too high or because the landlord wanted to get more out of some naive guilder who was new in town. The Copper Cove Courant hid those stories away, but they were told, and once in a while they even did some good.
Darjeeling woke up once the tea and sandwich were brought to me. She unwound herself from my shoulder and stepped down on the table, moving carefully to one corner, looking up at me with her big round eyes. I rested my chin on my hands as she flicked her bushy red-furred tail and chirped hopefully.
“You little moocher!” I said, shaking my head as I tore off a corner of the bread and handed it to her. She took it and started nibbling away happily as I scratched her between her pointed, white-tipped red ears.
The porter I had met two years ago said that Darjeeling was a khala, a species native to Ranjina, a country that was many days sail from the Crescent Sea. She had somehow stowed away on his freighter, and had worked her way through half a carton of pineapples before she’d been caught. The porter had stopped the representative of the merchant’s firm from throwing her to the sharks, but he needed to find her a new home with great urgency, and before I knew it, I had a pet. This was quite annoying as I had just fixed his gyroscope, and I had expected to be paid in crowns instead of a moochy rodent who was prone to overreaction.
After a while, I forgave the porter. Darjeeling was intelligent enough to learn and obey commands, so she could do everything from fetching me a screw that had rolled under a table to dragging my dirty socks to the hamper. She was always good to talk to, even if she didn’t quite understand what I was saying and only answered with a chirp or two. She was a marvelous way to break the ice when I met a fair lady or a handsome gentleman. And when those romances came to an end, as they always seemed to, she was there to snuggle with me and comfort me when I cried.
This was one of those days when Darjeeling wasn’t being cooed over, so as we ate, I could read in peace. There was an article in the paper following up on a story that had run a few weeks ago, on a store that had been almost forced to close following a small fire. It turned out the owner of the building that housed the store had set the fire following a court dispute over the lease. He was now being forced to sell the building, and the merchant was both happy about the news and worried about what it would lead to. I noted the byline credited the story to Sophronia Haverford, which came as no surprise to me. She had only recently started with the Courant, but she’d already made her name as the most energetic reporter there. I liked her writing style; it had plenty of compassion and the proper amount of subtle sarcasm.
Amee came up to my table as I finished the article and silently set a plate with a blueberry tart down in front of me. I thanked the sprite as they withdrew, and glared at Darjeeling as she crept towards the tart. “Cheeky, aren’t we?” I said. She gave me a guilty look; I sighed loudly and broke off a small piece for her.
As Darjeeling nibbled, I noticed that there was an envelope tucked under the plate. I glanced around to ensure no one was watching before I opened it.
I read the note, nodded to myself, and dug into my tart with haste. It would have been impolite to keep Master Rostall waiting.
The older dwarves of Copper Cove lived on the outskirts of the city, some in caves carved into the rocky hills, others in cottages nearby, where they happily complained about their children moving out to work for the guilds. Rostall made his home in one of those cottages, and it had been appointed with all the modern conveniences, a few of which he’d had a hand in designing. He had taken pride in at one time being able to repair all those machines when they went awry. That all changed when he became affected by what he called “the condition”.
His hands had developed a tendency to shake at odd and inappropriate moments. This was not a good thing for a crafter of any sort, for having one’s hand shake when handling delicate or expensive gearwork could damage it beyond repair. Rostall had retired once the condition became apparent, and had started tutoring a few others in crafting. He said I was his greatest success, and I was openly modest and secretly flattered.
In recent years, he had retired from mentoring, but every now and then people still came to him for help with certain projects. He had brought me in for one of them, and was acting as a go-between between us. His note had asked for a progress report on this commission, and he had politely requested that I give it in person, so I had made the long omnibus trip from the center of town to see him.
Rostall was wearing his old crafter’s robes, out of comfort, stubbornness and pride. He had made dwarfish tea, which was flavorful and strong, and I had just poured us both a cup and sat down. Darjeeling was perched on the top of my chair, trying her best not to catch Rostall’s eye; he had never approved of her, and only tolerated her at my insistence. I had politely declined his offer of dwarfish flaxseed biscuits, as I had no desire to chip a tooth on one.
“How is the commission coming?” Rostall said as soon we were settled in place. He was never one for pleasantries.
“I’m making good progress,” I said. “The last frame is almost done. After that, I start the gearwork.”
He nodded and idly stroked his beard. “Are you having any difficulty with any part of the design?”
“No, but…if I can be honest, I wish I could be told what I was working on.”
Rostall took a bite from his biscuit. “Can’t do that,” he said as he chewed. “You know that.”
“But I could make suggestions! I might be able to improve it!”
The dwarf rolled his eyes. “Your client isn’t interested in that. But…”
I leaned forward in my chair. “Yes?” I said, trying not to be impatient.
“You can ask him yourself tomorrow if you wish.”
“What?” I sat up straight, startling Darjeeling. She tumbled off her perch, sliding down the front of the chair back and landing behind me.
Rostall sighed very faintly. “The person who commissioned you wants to have a few words with you in private. He contacted me yesterday about this.” He pointed at the table, his finger starting to tremble. “That envelope there has all the information you need.”
“Except why he wants to meet me, I’ll wager.” Darjeeling stuck her head in my lap, and I absently scratched her between her ears.
“Don’t ask too many questions!” Rostall said. His voice held a touch of annoyance, though there was no way of knowing if it was because of me or the shaking in his hands.
“Yes, sir,” I murmured.
“This is too important for both of us. Just be polite and fill him in as best as you can.”
“Good.” Rostall picked up his tea cup as his shaking subsided. “Are you sure that pet of yours doesn’t want some biscuit?”
I could see Darjeeling cringe. “I’m sure,” I said.
It was one of those unfortunate moments that I’m convinced happens only to me, no matter what anyone else says. The omnibus was half a mile from my stop when it had derailed. Most of the other passengers had chosen to wait for it to be repaired, but I was in a hurry, so I started to walk to my destination.
My mind was awhirl as I went along. Part of it was concerned about the unexpected meeting, and part was already reviewing the progress I’d made on the commission and figuring out what the next step would be. Which is why I didn’t realize what was about to take place until it had already started.
I’ve mentioned the Double-C and the Fellowship, how the two guilds tried to keep control over all things mechanical in Copper Cove. What I may have forgotten to mention is how they handle people like me who won’t work for them.
They persuaded the aldermen that crafters who hadn’t received proper training—meaning guild training, complete with certificate, membership badge and a lengthy fee schedule—shouldn’t be allowed to operate in the city, and that getting caught doing so would mean a hefty fine for the offender. The police objected at first, pointing out that their handling this was a waste of time better spent going after criminals. The guilds smoothly agreed to take over enforcement of their proposal, by performing a citizen’s arrest on anyone they caught and bringing them in. With that settled, the aldermen soon passed what became known as the Wells Act.
I’d been caught, dragged in front of a judge, and fined once, some years back. I’d made it a point since then not to get caught again, since the fine for a second offense would destroy my savings. After that incident with the myrmidon, I knew I should try to be more alert when on the streets, to keep my guard up.
That afternoon, though, my guard had snuck back to the barracks for a quick nap, and I had let my brain wander. I didn’t realize something was amiss until I felt Darjeeling straighten up on my shoulder. She started to chirp loudly. “What now?” I said, with a trace of irritation from having my thoughts interrupted.
I glanced back, and then I started to run.
A net was flying towards me. The inside was mesh, but the frame was aluminum chain, lightweight and flexible, and each corner had a small propeller that rotated fast enough to carry the net. I could see the tiny Double-C craftmarks, and I realized who they had sent after me. Not again, I thought.
I heard mocking laughter as I ran. I saw a guilder leaning against a lamppost on a corner, wearing blue and silver, holding a wand that she was using to control the net. “Good afternoon, Miles!” Claudette Elgin, the Double-C’s top enforcer, said with a smirk, her eyes gleaming with excitement and more than a touch of lunacy. “I was so thrilled when I heard that you’d been violating the Wells Act!”
Elgin and I had disliked each other from the day we met, which made it no surprise that she’d volunteer to bring me in. “They’re scraping the bottom of the barrel for enforcers, aren’t they?” I shouted as I made a sharp turn.
“If it was an ale barrel, they’d find you there. What do you think of my Netralizer?”
I raised an eyebrow as I bent to one side, the net flying past me. “That’s quite the odd name.”
“Unique device names are my trademark!”
“I thought your trademark was blowing up research laboratories.”
“Shut up, Miles!” Elgin snapped. She still had a sore spot about that.
I spun out of the net’s way and ran past a startled troll. “I mean, I’d have been fired after the first one. You blew up three and somehow got promoted.” Technically, it was a demotion; Elgin had been a promising researcher before her knack for laboratory destruction became apparent.
“And I’ll be working in the lab again when I bring you in!” Elgin waved her wand like a conductor who had had one too many whiskey shots between the third and fourth movements. “They’ll have to take me back once they see what this invention of mine can do!”
“Does it put out lab fires?” As the Netralizer swooped down again, I jumped aside, grateful that Darjeeling was too frozen with fear to move and distract me.
Elgin chuckled. “Stand still, will you? I want to wrap this up before supper.”
“Why? You have a stove to wreck while you’re putting the kettle on?” I broke into a run, and saw that the net was trailing me, barely a yard behind. I sprinted straight at Elgin and the lamppost.
“You little wretch!” the enforcer snapped. “You’ll be crying a different tune when—”
I stopped just short of Elgin and threw myself to the ground. Carried by its momentum, the Netralizer flew over me and hit Elgin, wrapping around her and the lamppost. The propellers swung about, entangling her further as I stood. “Looks like this wraps everything up,” I said.
“You—you—!” Elgin shouted, struggling against the net as I plucked the wand from her hand and tossed it aside.
“Sorry to make you late for supper,” I said with a mocking grin. “Have a good evening.” She began to swear rather impressively as I walked off. I might have stayed to taunt her some more, but I was already late. I couldn’t keep Neil waiting.
The Crabby Kraken is my evening establishment of choice, and with good reason. The beer and the food isn’t top-notch, but it’s good enough, and it’s cheap. There’s plenty of room, the staff is tolerable, and the stools are comfortable. And it still hasn’t caught on with the guilds, which meant that my fellow independent crafters and I could eat and drink and chat in peace there.
I scanned the crowd as I walked into the pub. It was the usual sorts, and thankfully no one had started a fight yet. Several other crafters I knew were sitting around a table that was covered with empty plates and beer mugs. “Miles!” one of them, an older man with a thick beard and thinning hair, shouted. “What happened with you and that myrmidon?”
Word does travel fast among crafters. I tapped my Tucker’s Reverberator. “It had a bad day, Jules.”
“A shaky story if I ever heard one!” Jules chuckled and hoisted his beer. I find it best to ignore Jules’ puns, so I settled for rolling my eyes as I made my way to the bar.
There was a tall, scrawny young man with a pointed goatee balanced on a stool there, still wearing his red and gold work robes, nursing what I hoped was his first pint. The stool on his right was empty, so I walked over, quietly climbed on it, and tapped his shoulder.
His eyes widened as he straightened up. He looked at me and groaned softly. “Must you always do that?” he said.
“As long as you keep reacting like that, yes.” I chuckled as Neil shook his head.
I admit it was an odd friendship, a renegade crafter and a member of the Fellowship of Brass. But Neil Farndon and I had known each other since childhood, and we had decided long ago that we weren’t going to let a little thing like guild regulations ruin our nights out.
We both had parents who were in the Fellowship, his mother and my father, and we were expected to follow in their footsteps. Neil did so, but mine was a different story.
Mama had died young, and it took a toll on Papa. He had started to question many things, including the way the guilds operated. By the time I was old enough to start my apprenticeship, Papa had had enough; he quit the guild and started to teach me everything he knew. After a few years, he realized that I now knew more than he did and asked Rostall to take over my training.
Soon after that…well, sometimes, all the problems of life catch up to you at once. They did to Papa. He’s resting next to Mama, and every now and then I go to the cemetery to pay my respects.
Neil was my one constant during all that, even when he joined the Fellowship. He had been moving up in the ranks, from apprentice to journeyman to junior designer. He was good, but he was also unconventional, and some of his ideas were starting to get resistance from his superiors.
It had been some days since I’d last seen him, so we got caught up over our dinners after drinking a silent toast to poor Genny Stanbury. “Oh, come on, Neil!” I was saying as I added more vinegar to my chips. “It’ll just be for a few days!”
“Sorry, Tabitha. I need that Carriger’s Calibrator.” Neil reached for his mug.
I pouted. “And this after I let you borrow my best pocket knife.”
“I’ll return it next week.”
“You said that last week!”
“At least I’m consistent.”
“I should tell your mum about this. She’d make you return it.” I grinned. “How is she, by the way?”
Neil glanced away. “She…she’s fine. Thanks for asking. How’s that pesky pet of yours?”
Darjeeling was looking up at him with big, hungry eyes. It was a good thing that she was omnivorous, as it let her beg for food from everyone. “Pretending she’s starving to death,” I said.
Neil shook his head as he sliced off the tip of one of his bangers and held it up. “Come here, you little moocher,” he said with a sigh. Darjeeling took the sausage from him and nibbled it happily.
“You can’t call her a moocher,” I said.
“That’s my job.” I grinned and scratched Darjeeling between her ears. “Speaking of jobs…”
“Same as always.” Neil stared at his plate. “At least while I’m on the clock, anyway.”
My ears perked up. “Doing work in your free time, are you?”
“A secret project. Something I can’t get done at the guildhall.” Neil reached for his pint.
“Not unless you’re going to tell me all about your mystery commission.”
“In your dreams.”
“That’s your best comeback?” Neil half-smiled.
“I save the good ones for the people I dislike.” I grinned and took a bite of fish.
We may razz each other early and often, but Neil and I are still best of friends. We’ve never been more than that, and that was because while I have fancied both women and men, Neil doesn’t seem to fancy anyone. He’s a bit of a loner. That’s why we need each other; I get him away from his work, and he suffers patiently when I whine to him after the end of another short-lived romance.
“But you’re meeting this client tomorrow?” Neil asked.
“I will be.” I stretched. “I’d better get going soon to get some work done on that commission. Wish me luck?”
I reached for my ale, but Darjeeling was standing in front of my mug. She chittered hopefully as she stared at me. “Your turn,” Neil said.
“Darjeeling…” I shook my head and pulled a chip from my plate. “Here,” I said as I handed it to her. “Now get away from my ale.”
She proceeded to sit down in front of my mug. “I think she’s trying to tell you something,” Neil said.
I stood up, reached behind Darjeeling, picked up my mug and took a big swig. “It’s too bad I wasn’t paying attention,” I said with a grin.
It was not too late when I got home from the Crabby Kraken and put the kettle on. The tea was soon properly steeped, and I left my flat carrying the pot and a lantern, biscuits in my pockets, Darjeeling clinging to me as always.
I took the stairs up to the roof and walked over to the old, weather-battered shed. I set my supplies down on the roof and unlocked the door, pushing it open.
My flat is quite small; I can barely fit myself and Darjeeling in there. I needed a second room where I could store my tools and supplies and work on my projects. My landlady had no use for the shed that a prior tenant, a goblin wizard of no good repute, had built on the roof without her knowledge, so I persuaded her to rent it to me at a rate that was only mildly exorbitant.
I paused before I stepped inside. The sun had started to set over Copper Cove, and it was quite a beautiful view from my rooftop. I could see the lights in the windows of the ramshackle flats around me and the newer ones nearby. The sunset’s glow shone on the towers and the Crescent Sea in the distance, and brought out the colors in the steam that spilled from the chimneys and smokestacks. I smiled at the sight, then caught my breath as I noticed how the rays lit up the roof of the new train station.
The rail line had been proposed fifteen years ago, as a way around the sometimes stormy conditions that made boat and airship travel across the Crescent Sea difficult at times. Construction was all but complete; there were test runs scheduled over the next few days, and the Velessan Express was to make its first trip with paying passengers this coming Saturday.
The rail line was to start in Copper Cove and run through the Velessan Isles, Strumbertgeren and the Tirnog Cape before reaching its end at Thorn Harbour. It was the single biggest construction project ever in the cities and islands of the Crescent Sea, and the Clockwork Consortium and the Fellowship of Brass took pride in noting that, even with the difficult conditions and effort required to construct the rail bridges across miles of water, no one had died during the construction.
For all the skill I must grudgingly admit they possess, the guilds have little or no design sense, so I was grateful that the Copper Cove government had supervised the design and construction of the city’s train station. The highlight was the dome that topped the boarding platform, eight stories high, crafted of glass and patinaed brass with copper highlights.
A lottery had been set up for the premiere trip on Saturday; ten winners and their families would get seats on the train along with officials, nobles, other famous people and a handful of reporters. I had entered, of course, and was hoping that I’d win, but I still planned to attend the ceremony if I didn’t. It would be worth braving the crowds and trying to stay awake during the speeches just to get a glimpse of the Velessan Express in person.
I sighed softly to myself. All this daydreaming was not getting my commission finished or keeping the tea from going cold. I picked up my things and stepped into my workshop.
Once inside, I poured myself a cup and sat on my workbench. The blueprints my mysterious client had forwarded to me sat there, showing what needed to be done. I’d been working on this project for the last few weeks, and had been making progress, but I wanted to get some extra work in to impress the client with an early delivery. Rostall had hinted when I took the job that doing so might earn me a bonus, and I had no desire to turn that down.
Darjeeling loved the shed; it had a high ceiling with plenty of rafters and beams, a perfect place for her to climb and jump and stalk the occasional unwary stray insect or small bird, usually without success. As she made her way up, I unrolled the blueprint Rostall had given me when I had been hired and reviewed my work.
My assignment was to create a matching pair of flat aluminum structures. They were to be composed of smaller frames, in triangular and trapezoidal shapes, connected by hinges, gears and universal joints. The gaps in the frames were to be filled in by a very fine mesh. I had to complete some of the smaller frames, then attach the other parts and assemble everything. I set aside the blueprint and my tea, adjusted my goggles and reached for my welding torch.
It was one of those times when the minutes flew by. I was absorbed by what I was doing, so caught up that my tea went cold, not noticing that the sunlight that came in through the cracks in the walls had faded away. I love these moments, when the work is going smoothly and all is well in my little corner in the world.
I didn’t stop until I reached for a wrench and bumped into Darjeeling; she had curled up on the table near me and fallen asleep. I found myself yawning at the sight, and I knew that as much as I wanted to keep working, I did a better job when I was awake. I grabbed my things, locked the door behind me as I left the shed, and headed back to my flat.
My bed may have been small and lumpy, but it was there and waiting for me. I had just enough strength left to change into my pyjamas and settle in. As I did, I found my thoughts drifting towards Genevieve Stanbury. We had fallen out of touch in recent years, and I regretted it now, as memories of our friendship flooded back. I wiped away a tear.
Darjeeling gently bumped my cheek with her snout as she curled up next to my pillow. I smiled and scratched her lightly between her ears. “Good night, my sweet,” I said to her just before I blew out the lantern and closed my eyes.
Under normal circumstances, I’d be disappointed if I went to Henry’s Crossing for breakfast and didn’t have a note slipped to me with my tea. That morning, though, I didn’t mind, as I wanted nothing to distract me from my upcoming meeting with my mysterious client.
There was an article in the Courant about Genevieve’s passing. A police sergeant, one Abner Putnam, said it appeared she had been crushed to death when a project she was working on collapsed, but that the investigation would continue. There were also quotes from an official with the Fellowship of Brass tut-tutting about renegade crafters…and a slight rebuttal from the reporter, who expressed her sympathy for Genny and her family. Once again, I was not surprised to discover that Sophronia Haverford had written the article. I smiled as I set the newspaper aside.
My client had specified that he would be waiting in an alley off Chimera Street, and that I was to come alone. I figured that bringing Darjeeling wouldn’t violate the spirit of that request, so she took her usual place on my shoulder as I finished breakfast and set off.
Chimera Street used to be one of Copper Cove’s more disreputable areas, with run-down flats and a great deal of vermin on two and four legs. However, over the last ten years, several landowners had seen the street’s proximity to guild offices and had bought up the flats, renovating them and chasing away the vermin…and evicting the hard-working residents, forcing them into even less desirable quarters while the guilders moved in. Now, Chimera Street was seen as a shining light of progress, with shops and fancy restaurants and the like, with no mention of the poor souls this development had uprooted.
I tried to keep my disdain to myself as I climbed off the omnibus at one end of the street. It seemed too clean for me, too shiny, and it was almost a relief when I peeked down one of the alleys and saw some trash that the wind had blown in, old newspapers and the like. I had to stop several times as I walked as people cooed over Darjeeling, but I had taken that into account and was still on time when I reached the alley where I was expecting to meet my client.
I nervously checked my pocket. Before I had left my flat that morning, I had drawn a quick copy of the blueprints I was using for that project, showing how much work had been done and how much remained. I wanted to make as good an impression as possible, especially considering that might be bonus money at stake. “Darjeeling?” I whispered. “Stay calm. Don’t bother the client.” I hoped she was listening.
The alley seemed empty at first, but as my eyes adjusted to the dark, I could see a man standing at the far end, near a fence and a garbage bin. He was tall and dressed in a long black greatcoat. His top hat was pulled down low, and he wore a scarf over his face so that all I could see of it were his eyes. “Miles?” he said in a voice that seemed to be pitched low on purpose.
“Good day, sir,” I said politely, doffing my cap.
“You came alone?”
“As you requested.” I reached into my pocket. “I have a drawing here that’ll show the progress I’ve made.”
He took the drawing from me with a gloved hand. “I’ll review this later,” he said. “Rostall has kept me appraised of your progress.”
“It’s been coming along smoothly,” I said.
“Will it be finished by Friday?”
I tried not to let any surprise show, though my thoughts exploded with worry. Three days? How can I get it finished so quickly? “I was not aware that the deadline had been moved up,” I said carefully.
“Needs change,” the client said, and there seemed be something in his voice. Nervousness? Irritation? “I may be called out of town, and should that happen—”
He stopped and looked past me. For a moment, I thought Darjeeling was acting foolish, but I followed his gaze and realized what had disturbed him. There was a woman in the mouth of the alley. She had peeked around a corner and was watching us quietly.
My client glared at me. “I said to come alone!” he thundered.
“But—” I stammered.
He pushed past me and ran out of the alley, brushing by the woman who had interrupted us. “Excuse me, sir?” she said, but he ignored her. A cab with no markings was waiting nearby; he ran into the cabin, slamming the door behind him.
I hurried after him, but the coachman cracked his whip. The cab drove off, and I could see my three hundred crowns driving off with it. I clenched my fists, my face reddening with anger and worry.
“Ma’am?” I turned to face the woman who had caused my client to flee. She was dark skinned, with big brown eyes and curly hair that spilled from under her ornate sky blue hat and over her shoulders. She wore an ankle-length, high collared dress that matched her hat, and boots that seemed surprisingly worn. “Is everything all right?” she asked.
I gaped at her for a moment, trying to restrain my frustration. I failed. “Is everything all right?” I shouted. “What do you bloody well think?”
“I beg your pardon?” She seemed less angry than stunned.
“That man you scared away was my client! I’m working on a commission for him! If I lose this, I’ll be out three hundred crowns!”
“Oh dear.” She held a hand up to her mouth.
I folded my arms and glared at her. “What the Hell do you think you were doing?”
“I…” The woman looked down. “I had followed him when he left City Hall. I was hoping to interview him.”
“Yes.” She had a look of regret on her face. “I was going to wait until you had departed to try to talk to him. I was trying not to be seen, but he caught me.” After a deep breath, she continued, “I do apologize. I hope I haven’t cost you your commission.”
“We’ll find out soon enough,” I said. “But why? Why him?”
“It’s for a story I’m working on.”
“A story? What, you write for one of those two-shilling fiction magazines?”
“I should think not!” she said. “Nothing against them, but the stories I write are true.”
“Ah. Perhaps I should introduce myself at this point.” She extended a hand. “I’m Sophronia Haverford. I write for the Courant.”
My jaw dropped. “Cogs and gears,” I said as I took her hand. “I read your articles in the newspaper every day.”
“I’m glad someone does.” She smiled as we shook hands, and when I saw her smile, that was more than enough to erase the rest of my cranky mood.
“No!” I blurted out. “Everyone reads you! I think your writing is marvelous! I…” I paused. “I should let go of your hand, shouldn’t I?”
Sophronia chuckled. “If you’d like,” she said. “But I still haven’t had the pleasure…”
“Oh! Right! I’m Tabitha Miles.”
“Tabitha. That name sounds familiar.”
“Plenty of people named ‘Tabitha’ out there,” I said. I tried my hardest not to blush while wondering if I had ever sounded that stupid before.
“Perhaps—” She stopped and pointed at Darjeeling, who was beginning to wake up. “My heavens! Is that a khala?”
“She,” I said, less forcefully than I normally would.
Sophronia nodded. “What’s her name?”
“May I?” She reached out with a forefinger. I assented, and Sophronia scratched Darjeeling between her ears. “How sweet,” she murmured.
I cleared my throat. “So…”
“You’re about to ask why I sought to interview your client, aren’t you?”
“Well…” Sophronia tapped her chin. “I’m not sure how much I can say, but I do feel as if I owe you for all the hassle I’ve brought upon you. Perhaps lunch is in order.”
I hesitated for a moment. On the one hand, I was concerned that being seen with a reporter could lead to trouble, especially if word got back to Rostall. On the other, it was Sophronia Haverford, and I could likely get a free meal and some fascinating conversation out of it. “Sounds like a fine suggestion,” I said politely.
“Excellent! There’s a Pot Perfected on the next corner.”
I held up my hands. “No,” I said. “Forgive me, but I will not drink that dishwater that they call tea.”
“Do you have another place in mind, then?”
“Absolutely.” I grinned.
© 2017 Robert Dahlen. All rights reserved, except for those protected by fair use rights where you live.