Gearheads – A Short Story

A/N: This is a short story I’ve had lying around for a while. I just posted a related story to the Wenches’ Cauldron blog here: http://wenchescauldron.blogspot.com/2014/07/an-everyone.html. I figured both stories featuring Kaylin should be available, especially since her first story has been such a triumph for me. Hope you all enjoy it, and we’ll get back to talking about writing another time.


 

Gearheads

Kaylin clapped her hand over the boy’s mouth. Her right arm tightened around his middle and drew him close, out of the daylight. She dragged him to the wall of the sewer tunnel and hid there. The boy tried not to struggle, though she could feel his panicked, ragged breathing every time he exhaled against her hand. He tried drawing in more air, and every time the unforgiving grip of her arm around his chest limited his intake. She did not care, though. It would be better for him to pass out than for the gearhead to spot them. She could see the bolt-brain’s face pressed against the rusted grate. The hexagonal screws sticking out from his face clanged against the iron and his glass optics clicked with every unsettling blink of the bronze lids. Sunlight flickered and dimmed as he shifted for a better angle, but he’d never spot them, not where Kaylin hid.

It was the boy’s fault that they had to hide. He had yelled at the sight of her arm, the one that practically crushed his rib cage at the moment. She eased the pressure, just enough to prevent him from wheezing. They waited like that for a long time, her with a hand over his mouth and an arm around his chest; the gearhead with his face pressed to the grate, listening. Even after he got up and left, they waited. They waited after Kaylin’s joints ached from holding the awkward position. Her back had gone numb where it pressed against the wall. She didn’t care. They weren’t going to move until they were sure the gearhead and all the others were gone.

When she finally did let go, the boy did not run away. Instead, he staggered to the other side of the tunnel and sat down. He stared up at her, unblinking. It took Kaylin a few moments before she sat down across from him. The boy looked typical for a scavenger. His face was smudged with grime and he wore ragged clothes. She knew she looked just as bad. He probably had not seen anyone close to his age for a very long time. His gaze kept drifting to her arm, and that was certainly more interesting than her age.

Her old arm had been crushed when a building collapsed. Any normal person would have amputated. Not the gearheads, though. She could imagine how they found her body mangled in a heap of rubble, how they dug her out carefully, like extracting an artifact. A soldier would have passed her over, but the gearheads did not operate that way. They needed to recruit more to their side. Recruitment started with improving the conditions of others around them. They saw her arm as an area for improvement.

Well, improvement was one way to put it.

She flexed the digits of the new mechanism. The cogs and wheels spun. The pistons sunk and pulled depending on what motion she made. Part of her marveled at how the gearheads had attached her tendons to the machinery. Bronze clamps fastened to her muscles and the ligaments. When she flexed, the appropriate pumps engaged to mimic the movements of live tissue. Her cauterized skin stood out sharply against the bronze and copper. She clenched the finger-like cogs into a fist. No wonder the boy had screamed when he saw her. She looked just like one of the monsters.

“Is something wrong, gearhead?” the boy asked in a mocking tone.

Kaylin glanced over at him. “I’m not one of them,” she said.

The boy laughed and slumped back against the wall. “You sure look like one,” he said, echoing her thoughts.

Kaylin turned away from him. She crossed her arms then uncrossed them as her skin came in contact with the metal arm. She felt the need to rationalize herself to the boy, if only to prove she was still just as human as him. “Why would I be hiding down here if I was a gearhead?”

The boy shrugged. “They don’t really make sense to me. If someone put bolts in their head, you’d figure they’re not all there.” The boy paused for a moment, obviously waiting for a response, but Kaylin ignored the comment. “So, what’s your name?” he asked.

“Kaylin.” She waited a few moments before returning the favor. “What’s yours?”

“Mark.”

Kaylin nodded and looked down. She had been trying to fold her hands together, but when her fingers came into contact with the bronze digits she stopped. Instead she glanced at the tunnel ceiling and listened. She heard nothing. “You think they’re all gone?” she asked.

Mark shrugged. “Who cares? More will be back later.”

Kaylin nodded and took a moment to study Mark. He had to be one of the first children she had seen in years. All the others had either died in air raids or been sent to live elsewhere. Kaylin was probably one of the few who did not get sent away at the start. Her parents could not afford it. Now, at fifteen, she felt older than fifty.

“Well, it seems like the front has moved on,” said Kaylin. She stood up and stretched her legs. “I’m going to find some food if you’d like to join me.”

Mark nodded and they set off for the sewer exit. Kaylin climbed up to the surface first before waving to Mark. He followed after her, and once his fingers closed over the opening, she leaned down and pulled him up the rest of the way. They sat on the street for a moment and looked around.

“I can’t see a thing,” Mark said. They both looked around the ruined town. Nothing moved.

“Good,” Kaylin said. “Hopefully that means we’re alone.” She stood and dusted her ragged clothes off. Mark stepped ahead of her and took off. “Where are you going?” she asked.

“Where do you think?” Mark turned and waved her onward. “Keep up, now. I hate being out here.”

Kaylin shook her head and ran forward. Mark was similar to other kids living in the rubble. Well, the rare few she met at least. He followed the same instinctive rules that guided her, the first being to keep low and to keep moving. In fact, she had been trying to catch a boat across the river when she got caught in the last raid. It was the only reason she delayed seeking shelter. Boats ferrying civilians were a rare occurrence. The attempt to catch that one had almost killed her. It should have killed her. Instead, she woke up on a lab table with a new arm. After that, everyone had avoided her. No one opened their doors to her. No one would feed her or show her even a glimmer of kindness. No one except the gearheads.

Mark glanced back at her. “You okay?”

“Yeah,” said Kaylin. She shook her head and followed Mark down one of the wider streets. They walked clear of the town. Mark led her down a nearly-faded path that looked more like a game trail than a walkway. “Where are you going?” she repeated.

“You’ll see.”

The trees on the outer edge of town looked charred if not completely burned. The fighting had probably taken place somewhere nearby. “You sure it’s safe, Mark?” she asked.

“Sure is. No one knew about it except me and my mom.”

Kaylin expected the burn damage to recede as they moved deeper into the woods, but evidence of the battle still surrounded them. The ground looked treaded upon, and none of the footprints rested on the path. The vegetation looked torn as if bullets had whizzed through. “Mark.”

The boy looked back at her. “What?”

“This was a battlefield.”

He looked at the torn earth. “So?” Kaylin sighed and followed after the boy. She watched her step carefully as they moved farther into the trees. After a while they made it to a clearing. The wear on the earth was not so bad, but tracks remained pressed in the dirt. “Here we are!” he declared. Kaylin glanced around. Most of the foliage remained undamaged. The green, jagged leaves looked familiar, like some plant one of the other scavengers had urged her to pay attention to.

“And what’s here?” she asked.

Mark walked over to one of the bushes and grabbed a branch. “Look.” He lifted up, exposing the round, red berries growing underneath. “They’re still in season,” he said. Mark picked one and popped it into his mouth. “They’re prefect.” He picked another one and held it out to Kaylin. She reached out with a hand until she saw the bronze gleaming in the morning light. She pulled back and reached out with her left instead. He placed the berry in her palm and she ate it. The small berry tasted better than she could have imagined, like red wine, or what she thought red wine should taste like. She had gone a very long time without food.

“That’s amazing,” she said. Kaylin approached the nearest bush and began gathering berries. A lot remained despite the obvious use the path had seen. Troops usually scavenged the areas clean when they moved through or torched any resources. She stopped gathering berries and looked down at the earth; it was dark and moist, packed down and freshly turned.

Dirt sprayed everywhere. Metal screeched against metal, then the high, pained cries of Mark followed. Kaylin turned and saw the boy tumble to the ground, a large animatronic spider attached to his calf. He screamed and clutched at his leg, eyes wide in terror as the metallic pincers sunk through his flesh and anchored to the bone. The eight needle-like legs clenched around his calf. “Kaylin!” he yelled. “Kaylin, help!”

She rushed to his side and knelt down. “I’m here,” she said. “I’m here, don’t panic.”

The mechanism clicked as the pincers locked into place. Scatter spiders. Of course the gearheads would plant them around the food. Only the army or scavengers would go for wild resources. Mark’s howls pulled her from her thoughts. “Get it off me! Get it off!”

The trap clicked again and began ticking. She had a couple minutes before the shell of the body exploded bits of shrapnel everywhere. The gearheads had designed it specifically so that the victim would kill others by limping off to get help. “I can do this,” she said. She reached for the loose plate on the spider’s backside, but her cog fingers scraped against the metal uselessly. “I’ve disarmed these before.” She reached with her left hand instead and pried off the plating. The mess of springs and cogs inside were designed to be temperamental. If she yanked stuff loose at random, the device detonated early.

“Kaylin, don’t leave me,” said Mark. His face was white. He was probably going into shock. “You gotta get it off me.”

“I’m trying, shut up.” She needed both her hands. That was the problem. Kaylin reached with the metal arm and pinched one of the main cogs still with her mechanical fingers. The wheels halted and the pistons slowed. Usually she stopped the cogs with her left hand, but she did not trust the next task to the metal digits. She reached in with her normal hand, gently pushing aside several springs until her fingers found it: the smallest piston in the machine. She pinched it closed and listened to the slow whine of the steam building up. All she had to do from here was unhook one spring with her right finger. She extended her pinky; the joints groaned. The metal would not flex to the side far enough. The spring lay just out of reach. As much as she tried, she could not get it to hook, just brush against the cog. The seconds slipped by. She knew she had run out of time. She let the piston go and withdrew her hands.

“Did you fix it?” Mark asked. His chest heaved as he gasped and fought off mounting panic. “Why’s it still attached?”

Kaylin could not look him in the eye. “I can’t do it,” she said. She flexed her fingers. “This arm… the fingers don’t work like my old ones.” She stood up.

“Kaylin.” Mark reached down and grabbed the pincers. He tried to pry them loose. “Kaylin please don’t leave me.”

“I’m sorry.” She stepped back. “I have to go.”

“Don’t leave me!” he yelled. “Don’t leave, you hear me?”

She turned and ran.

“Kaylin!”

She did not stop. She made it out of the clearing, deep into the forest. The spider detonated with a clang that reverberated through the air. She raised her arms instinctively, though nothing could harm her at this distance. Mark’s screams ceased.

For a while, she fought the urge to scream. Things always happened too fast since the war started. One minute, everything was fine. The next, everything was blown up or mechanized. Both sides had a way of ruining things.

Her stomach growled and she did scream. Why didn’t the gearheads just replace her stomach? Or her heart? Maybe they should have bolted her brain, too. She raised her hands to rub her face, but jumped when the cold metal of her right hand came into contact. The metal was always there, always reminding her. She had contemplated chopping it off, had contemplated worse. She was a coward, though. She wanted to see this war out, and in that moment her stomach ached with hunger pains.

Kaylin looked back toward the clearing and set out for it. When she returned, she dared not walk on the bare soil. She kept her eyes on the ground and cut a wide path to the back where the berries remained. As carefully as she could, she reached out and plucked one of the berries from the bush with her mechanical hand. She held the food in the sunlight and examined it close. Red glinted off the berry’s skin. She ate it anyways.

Chapter Two: The Break

In the spirit of keeping you all privy to my writing process, I’m going to post chapter 2 up here as well as revisions when they happen. I feel like it is insightful to watch a fellow writer go through the motions of creating a work. As of now, I still do not have much of a plot in mind. I’m writing into a blinding void, it feels like. Some stories are like that. You have no idea where they will end up; you just have to keep going.

Chapter Two: The Break

She did not get to spend the money on lavish things. She tried, but with no success. She stood in the market, morning dew glistening off stalls as the sun rose, and all she could bring herself to approach was the food cart.

This one stacked bread loaves high up along with tumbling piles of fruit. The myriad of colors whetted her appetite more than anything else: red, orange, green, they all lay there like gems in the morning light. Elissa fingered the pouch tied at her waist. She had stashed her leathers in exchange for a shirt a trousers and had washed up before braving the streets. With a little work, Elissa looked like a plain citizen.

She untied the coin pouch and approached the cart. The vendor looked up at her with a sleepy expression. She kept her attention focused on the fruit and kneaded the pouch full of silver. “Can I help you?” asked the vendor. Elissa looked up at him.

“Yes,” she said slowly. She pulled the opening loose of the drawstrings and stared down at the silver coins before drawing out two of them and plunking them on the cart edge. The red fruit looked good. Elissa could not remember the name of it, but she picked it up and hefted it, testing the ripeness. “This one,” she said, gesturing to the vendor.

He nodded at her and pocketed the two coins. “Have a good day.”

Elissa retied the pouch of coins and walked farther into the markets. She bit into the fruit experimentally. She could not quite remember the taste. When the tangy splash hit her tongue, she smiled. It was almost as good as she had imagined. Juices ran down her chin and she wiped her face with her sleeve, staining the flaxen shirt a dark red. It looked better that way, she mused. A scrawny girl eating fruit without a care was certainly less threatening than the scrawny thief who had possibly made a fatal error in her career.

The fruit was good, not as sharp a flavor as she would prefer, but nothing would probably wash the bitterness from her mouth. Elissa knew she probably had to leave the city. She was more shocked that the man had let her leave in the first place. Then again, she was not much of a threat unless she warned the people she stole from that the Hand was in possession of the journal.

Elissa shook her head and looked around the major road. People had begun to trickle onto the streets in a larger force. It had been a quiet morning. More people would be better for concealment.

A man walked along the side of the street up ahead. He looked different from the surrounding people, considering he wore a deep, black vest over a rough tunic. Most people learned to avoid those wearing a black vest. It usually meant trouble. His stride was purposeful and he glanced over at Elissa more than once. She held the fruit up to her face and ducked down an alley as casually as she could. If a hand wanted her dead, she needed to speed up her departure.

She clutched the fruit too tightly and the juices ran over her fingers. Elissa tossed it aside into a trash heap and dunked her hands in a rain trap, shaking the cold droplets of water from her fingertips.

Footsteps clacked down the alleyway after her. She refused to look and continued in the opposite direction. Looking back would only provoke an attack sooner. Instead, she took a series of pathways that led to the busiest street of the city. At this time of morning, it was choked with carts and foot-traffic of people setting out for work. Don’t look back, don’t look back. By the gods, did she want to though. People pressed into her. Hands slipped by. She shoved aside the hand of a man who reached for her purse. The hand took hold of her wrist and the man yanked her aside with a wrench that nearly popped her shoulder out of place.

“Hey!” She pulled her arm free and got a better glimpse of her assailant: another Hand, a man in a dark vest. He stared at her with mock confusion, as if he did not know what he had done. She retreated into the larger groups of travelers. The Hands would not risk causing a scene in the middle of the market. It would work better than going to the guards, who would only defer to the authority of the Hand. If she could just disappear, she might live to see the next day.

She followed the flow of traffic leading out of town. It mostly consisted of traders setting out to do business with the outlying villages. That was what she needed to do, get out with one of those trader caravans and dissolve into one of the many villages. She made it most of the way down the main road without drawing attention. Elissa picked a larger caravan and integrated herself with the people. She matched pace, demeanor, and managed to pick up a large sack of something and hoist it over her shoulder. I look just like one of the lackeys, she thought. The contents of the sack shifted: potatoes, she decided. They were hauling produce.

While they walked, she thought up a backstory, who told her to help and why, vague locations that would keep any nosy task managers busy. A motion on the edge of the street drew her sight. Someone pointed directly at her, no one from the caravan, a man standing on the side of the street. Elissa kept walking, sack over shoulder. The man who pointed moved out of her line of sight. She focused on the rear of the wagon again. They moved out from the market and to the opening leading to the town gate. This was by far the most dangerous part. The crowds thinned out in the suddenly wider roads and the market stalls fell away. The traffic still kept up because of the morning rush, but it still felt like stepping out into an open field as a mouse. An owl would most likely swoop down and snatch her up.

But the caravan stumbled on toward the gates with no interrupts. The caravan passed through, Elissa walking through the gates with them. No one moved to stop her. Still she could not breathe easy. She felt naked out on the field. No tools. No leathers. Keep moving. The caravan quickly branched off the main road for a smaller path heading south. They moved toward the forest, a perfect place to get lost in. Elissa looked around at the smaller group. She estimated thirty people remained, though not all of them likely worked together. The caravan rode into the forest that surrounded town, the large pine trees towering over them at immense heights. It was not the thickest of cover, but one could easily lose themselves within. Elissa had barely ventured into the woods during her stay in the city. She knew a few markers and destination points, but not enough to claim competency.

As they walked on, Elissa noticed some movement farther in the forest. She turned and tried to see what lay out there, but as soon as she shifted her gaze, the movement stopped. One of the caravan members must have noticed her, because the man leaned in and said, “You’ll never catch sight of ‘em.”

Elissa turned and looked at the man. He looked the part of a farmer with his roughly patched up clothes and unshaven face. His eyes held a glint of intelligence she could not quite place, however. “Catch sight of who?” she asked.

“The damn treewalkers, that’s who,” said the farmer. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s nice to have them keeping the nasties at bay, but they’re just a little unsettling, you know?”

“I don’t,” said Elissa. She turned from the man and focused on the road ahead of her once more. The farmer did not notice his dismissal, however.

“See, that’s the thing of it, though,” he said. “They move through this place, completely untraceable thanks to their charms work.”

“But that’s illegal.” She readjusted the bag of potatoes.

The farmer shrugged. “Doesn’t stop them.”

“What about the king’s scryers?”

“They can’t touch the treewalkers.”

Elissa shook her head. “That’s impossible,” she said.

“They found a way though, just saying.” The farmer finally turned away from her and caught up with his friends. Elissa looked back over to the forest. She could have sworn she saw movement between the trees. It should be easy to see them with the trees so widespread. They had to be using charms. And the Hand had not killed them for it.

The cart rolled onward. They had to be close to a town. Elissa slowly approached the edge of the cart and lay down her sack of potatoes. No one seemed to notice. Maybe they thought she needed a rest. Elissa let her gait slow down so she fell behind the rest of the travelers. As soon as they moved a ways ahead, she moved off the path and into the forest, toward where she thought she saw the movement. She expected to see a person behind every tree trunk. Movement kept catching the corner of her eyes. Still, nothing revealed itself. She walked deeper and deeper into the forest, out of earshot of the caravan. When the silence of the forest seemed to press down on her, she thought about turning back. She looked up at the canopy then glanced over her shoulder. She turned to leave.

They materialized from nowhere, three men, all of them dressed as members of the hand. Before Elissa could react, they had her. Two gripped her arms tightly while one other stooped, delivering a crushing blow to her stomach. The wind flew from her lungs and she gasped at nothing for a few moments. As soon as she drew in a lungful of air, however, the onslaught resumed. An elbow connected with her shoulder, forcing her down to the ground while the fist returned to her face. Spots dazzled her vision and her jaw radiated a new pain. Someone kicked her back. The blows picked up quickly and though they tried to make her, Elissa did not cry out.

The man in front of her grabbed her by the chin and the pain spiked from her jaw again. He forced her to meet his gaze and he sneered down at her. “Don’t have anything to say?” he asked.

Elissa did nothing. She looked down and waited. The smack to her face came just as she knew it would. Her jaw felt like it was on fire. She could only hope they would kill her. The next punch came her to chest. She had hoped he would stick to her face, that way she might fall unconscious, but the Hand would never be so stupid when punishing an unruly citizen. She should have never taken the job. Too late for regrets.

One behind her struck the back of her skull. This time she cried out and her sight wavered. Neniton, take me from this world. The god of subterfuge did not reward failures. Still she doubted all the godly might in the cosmos could intervene now. One more punch, and she knew nothing more.

Kalanat

Her arrow hit its mark easily. Usually, the Hand was so careful in their territory, but something distracted them today. It allowed the arrow tip to pierce the man’s heart and startle the other two. They dropped whoever they held and looked around wildly, reaching for weapons. Kalanat drew another arrow from her quiver and aimed, but she was not so lucky a second time. The men dissolved before her eyes, though the last arrow she released skimmed an arm. They ran.

“Damn their charms,” she muttered. Kalanat lowered her bow. The abandoned figure slumped forward next to the dead Hand member. Two other archers dropped down from the trees. “And where were your arrows?”

“They had wards for overhead attacks. I guess they did not expect a ground assault.” The woman who spoke approached her. They all wore cloaks dyed a deep green and carried longbows as tall as themselves. “Kalanat, they had someone.”

Kalanat glanced back over at the slumped figure. “A traitor trying to escape the city, most likely.” The three women approached. The figure on the ground was a woman, a severely beaten woman. Kalanat ran forward a knelt down. She reached out and gently touched a shoulder. “Sosux,” she whispered. Her senses flared, briefly extended into the life of the woman laying before her. She turned to her comrades. “Fetch a litter,” she said, removing her hands. “There are too many broken bones to carry her back.” She glanced back down and tried to get a good look at the woman’s face. She reached down and brushed aside the feathery black hair. She was pale, her fair skin marred with fresh bruises from the assault. Her jaw looked crooked, broken severely. As the others ran back to the village, she sighed and pulled her hand from the woman’s face. “You made the Hand very mad, whatever you did,” she said. The small woman winced, though she remained unconscious. Kalanat shook her head. The Hand could easily decide that retrieving this broken woman was worth taking on a few treewalkers. They had to get back to the village quickly.

Those Who Found Elissa: Chapter One

Those who found Elissa

Chapter One

Something tickled a strand of Elissa’s hair. Maybe a spider, she dare not move to brush it away, though when the tickle moved down to her throat she raised a hand and flicked it aside, taking flecks of dirt with. She imagined she was quite covered in it by now, a healthy coating to assist her blending in with the shadows. The night had swallowed her up and her pursuers were none the wiser.

Her thighs ached though, by Neniton did her thighs ache, and her ankles too; she could not move her feet into a comfortable place. One shift against the pebbled ground would give away her position. She raised herself slightly, untensing her muscles for a moment before easing back into the crouch. She had lost track of time. It could not have been more than an hour. Still, that was a long time for three drunk, possibly now sobered men to stumble around looking for her in the middle of the night. She heard them moving, pushing things, shaking boxes.

“Where are you, bitch?” one called out. She hid between the outer and inner wall of an old house. A loose wooden plank hung in front of her. She stared out the knothole at the men. Behind her, sod walls and support beams concealed her. Her right hand cramped from clutching at the worn journal she had taken. She felt the old leather crack and creak against her fingers and tried to breathe a little softer.

“Did she get beyond the wall?” one of them asked. The three dark silhouettes gathered in the center of the square. One of them spat.

“No one has seen her. She’s likely still in the town.”

“We don’t know that,” said another. “Maybe she knows a different way out.”

“No matter. Give the authorities a description of the little rat. Someone will find her.”

“And if they don’t?” one asked.

“I’d rather not think about that.” The three of them stood there, shuffling, swaying. They mumble to one another as they walked away, abandoning the dark square once more. Elissa breathed a little deeper. It was just her and the night again. She waited a while longer, despite the way her legs shook. Finally, she pushed the wooden plank forward on its nail and slid it aside. The fresh air felt so good in her lungs. She unfolded herself as she stepped out of her hiding place, holding back groans of pain when her joints protested. Her legs wobbled, but she had the journal. She sighed and brushed off her dark clothes. The morning dew was already beginning to collect on the cobblestone, though the sun had yet to rise.

Elissa set off in the opposite direction the men had gone. It would take her longer that way, but she would be safe. She stayed in the shadows and side-passages. Thankfully, no one else lingered on the streets that night. She made it back to the patron’s house easily. It was a shabby home, nearly identical to the others surrounding it. Pieces of the roof hung off itself; the windows were darkened. It was designed to not draw attention, placed in a shady neighborhood and surrounded by quiet homes. Elissa had to pause and admire her employer’s discretion. Usually, she took jobs from the wealthy. They often employed her to steal some meaningless trinket from a rival, and then gloated about having it once it came into their possession.

She shook her head and ducked down the side passage, a small patch of dirt between the two houses. Her hand searched along the rough wooden paneling until her fingers slipped into the catch. She stopped and pulled the false panel aside. She slipped into the revealed space and closed herself into the darkness. The passage was small; she stooped and felt ahead blindly as she descended into the basement. She finally caught hold of a curtain and pulled it aside. She stepped into the false wardrobe and opened the door, revealing a small, well-lit room. The basement held an assortment of candles and little else. A table lay in the far corner with two chairs. Her employer sat in one.

“Welcome back, shadowbird,” he said. The man dressed in plain trousers and a cotton shirt. He kept his beard well-trimmed, though not immaculate, and his hair was always presentable. On the whole, he made a completely unremarkable merchant. Though Elissa would be a fool to think him just that.

“I have it,” she said, ignoring the handle. She walked over to the table and waited for the next move.

“I know you do. You wouldn’t be foolish enough to return without it,” he said. The man stroked his beard lazily and watched a candle’s flame. The light caught the copper strands as his fingers wound them.

Elissa dropped the journal on the table. Her fingers ached as she flexed them, free of the burden at last. The man gestured to the chair opposite him, but she remained standing. “They searched for a long time,” she said, remembering the frantic shouts as the men had overturned the market square looking for her.

“Of course they would,” said her employer. “You would too if it were yours.” He reached out and laid a hand on the journal cover. He smiled and felt the grooves her hand had left in the leather before he hooked a finger under the flap and opened the journal. He turned the pages slowly, almost daring Elissa to look. She kept her gaze firmly planted on the table’s surface. She had no desire to be caught any more in this man’s business. “Ah, you did well.” The man readjusted himself and bent over the table to better study the pages. He pressed a finger to the page and traced the path of the lettering. “You don’t have any idea what’s in here, do you?” her employer asked. He stopped tracing and looked up at her.

Elissa shrugged. “It wasn’t my place to look.”

Her employer chuckled. “My blind little shadowbird,” he sighed and continued reading. “Perhaps you should have looked.” This time, Elissa could not help looking at the ink blots on the page. She could not make out words, but she knew they were not prose. No, he was reading a list.

“What does it show? Supplies? An incantation?” she asked.

The man shook his head. “Even better.” He shoved the notebook toward her. The ink blots took shape. “Names.”

The list was long, tightly packed with the short scrawl of people’s names, signatures, and little tallies written in the margins. “Whose names?” she asked.

“Traitors,” said the man. He closed the flap of the book. “Illegal practitioners, dangerous people.” The information chilled Elissa’s core. If she had just given a list of names to a Hand, she had killed every person on it.

“And to what purpose do you intend to use this list?” she asked. That was a mistake. Elissa usually enforced a rule: never know the ends to an employer’s means.

The man laughed. “You know what we intend to do.”

Elissa shifted. She stepped away from the table. “You can’t kill all those people.”

“Of course we can,” said the man, waving a hand. “We do it already. You know this.”

She looked down at the journal. “I’ll take it back.”

“I doubt that,” said the man. Elissa looked back at him. Her fingers twitched. He stared at her for a long while, as if challenging her. “You won’t do it,” he said. “You’re a thief. What use are morals and scruples to you? No, the book is safe with me.” The candles flickered. The room smelled strongly of moss and dirt. “You don’t know these people. You don’t care.” She stared at the journal as if it might burn. Her heart beat in tempo with the crickets outside and in the walls.

“You’re right,” she said. “I don’t.”

The man smiled and patted the worn cover of the journal. “Smart girl,” he said. He pulled a small pouch from his vest pocket and dropped it on the table. She heard the coins jangle from within. “Your payment, as we discussed.” He picked up the journal and stood from his chair. “Do not come back to this place,” he said as he walked toward the stairs. “You will find nothing.” His feet thumped up the wooden steps, disrupting the discourse of the crickets.

Elissa remained in the room even after he left the house: the damp, mossy basement of an unowned home. She breathed in and tasted bitterness. Then, she took the bag of coins, the new leather crumpling in her grasp. She tied it to her belt, not bothering to count. The purse felt heavy. She glanced at the stairs then back at the secret entrance she had been instructed to use. Elissa sighed, blinked, then moved to crawl back up the narrow tunnel out into the night once more, where the crickets sawed and the stars whispered of her treachery.