Will be available at other sites soon. I’ve been swamped today so instead of a blog story post, I’m going to post the first two chapters of Gears. Here you go!
My name is Marbrey Small, but my vision has always been large. By hard work and study, I got myself off the street and built a business from the ground up.
Now my magic is changing and mechanical people are beginning to look like you and me. Others have claimed it is my fault, but can I be blamed for things out of my control?
My lover is trying to protect me from the fallout, but even a duke can’t fight back against the magistrate all alone. This is my story of how a street rat became a duke’s lover and the beacon of hope and hate.
“I never met an obstacle that couldn’t be overcome with the proper tool.”
Jonathan Torren – Gear Master’s Diary
Warmth woke me. Not the burning heat of a roaring fire, but the soothing, comforting press of bare skin against mine. The unexpectedness of it jerked me awake and sent me tumbling out of bed. I hit the dusty floorboards with a hard thump and lay there while my sleepy brain tried to piece reality together.
“You all right down there?” Duke Justin Lear’s handsome face appeared above me. Lips that had traced every inch of my body last night turned traitorously up at my misfortune. A duke shouldn’t have a mouth made for sin and mischief.
“Yeah, yeah. I’m fine.” I met his eyes with forced nonchalance. Justin had only stayed overnight a few times. I could still pretend he was unaware of my zombielike shamble before I’d had at least two cups of strong tea.
“Are you going to stay down there?”
I gave an indignant sniff at his amusement. “Yes, I think I am. The mice are better company than my current lover.”
“Ouch.” Justin granted me a sleepy smile. “Whatever can I do to win you away from your unworthy swain?”
Climbing to my feet, I ignored his extended hand. Instead, I offered another sniff and fought back a sneeze. “I must refute your slander. Mr. Grey Mouse is a fine fellow, despite his propensity to steal my crumpet crumbs.”
Justin roared with laughter. “You are quick-witted even half asleep, little wren.”
He often called me wren. He claimed it was because of how I introduced myself. Months ago, my foolish infatuation for a man far above my station had me gifting him one of my mechanical birds. A follow-up introduction from Oss set the stage for our current bed-sharing.
Memories from my dream diverted my attention from the sexy man in my bed. “I’m going downstairs. I think I’ve solved my design issue.”
“Are you certain I can’t lure you back? I’m sure I could occupy that busy mind of yours.” Justin’s seductive grin almost had me sliding back between my worn bedsheets.
Iron resolve, and a hard deadline, helped me resist. “While you are tempting, Your Grace, I promised Mr. Fernhan that I’d have his gift finished in time for his son’s birthday next Sunday.”
Justin’s sigh could’ve powered a sailing ship. He waved a hand at me, shooing me away. “Fine, go be a genius. I have another hour’s rest before I have to rise.” His fond expression warmed me greater than the summer sun. Foolish sentiment perhaps, but an ex-street rat doesn’t often get to bed a duke, and I was going to savor every second of our relationship while it lasted. My ridiculous heart had little hope of surviving the eventual ending of this affair, but maybe after twenty or thirty years I could rebound.
“You do that.” I pressed a quick kiss to his forehead, then rushed away before he could destroy my shaky resolve.
After my first cup of invigorating black tea, I took my second cup with me down to my basement workshop. In all the city, this was my favorite place. A long wooden table covered one side of the room and supported my latest creation. The rest of the space held bins filled with metal and wood and a small path to walk between them. Examples of my work covered the far wall. I tried to keep a sample of each invention, but some, like Oss’s bunny Amalia, couldn’t be replicated. I had no intention of building another rabbit. As it was, I couldn’t explain Amalia’s odd abilities.
Since we opened the gate between the City of Keys and the City of Magic, my personal power levels had increased. After unexpectedly animating a few of my mechanical creatures, I now wore gloves while working. I couldn’t chance my project coming to life and causing havoc upon me or my customer.
The sound of the knocker on my front door had me setting down my work, then sprinting back upstairs, hoping to stop the noise before it woke up Justin. Gasping for breath, I opened the door to discover my charwoman, Janet. She greeted me with a bob halfway between a curtsey and a bow. A fine layer of dust from the street dirtied her skirts.
“Mornin’, sir.” She flashed me a glance through her lashes. “I wasna sure if you would want me to come by today.”
“Why wouldn’t I?” Janet came every Tuesday like clockwork to fight back the spider webs and do my laundry.
She bit her lip and shifted uneasily. “Cuz of the rumors, sir. I thought you woulda heard them by now. My cousin Sissy heard them from Darla who’s datin’ Pete, the duke’s footman, you know.”
“No, I didn’t know.” I could already feel a headache building. Janet drank in gossip like a drunkard downing a bottle of ale. “What are you talking about?”
“Oh.” She set her metal pail of cleaning materials down. It clanked loudly against the cobblestones increasing my growing pain. She ignored it, busy straightening her crisp apron, then squared her shoulders and tilted up her chin. “Your sweetie is expectin’ an heir any time now. They say she is fixed to pop within the fortnight.”
My stomach swirled a queasy tidepool of black tea and cream. A startling contrast to the chill crawling across my arms. I cleared my throat. “Wh-who is he having the baby with?”
This wasn’t my first round of betrayal, and it wouldn’t be the last. That didn’t stop the poisoned knife from stabbing deep.
I’m going to kill him.
Janet fiddled at the ringlet lying on her shoulder. “I didna hear a name. I figured it was one of those posh ladies flutterin’ ‘bout him all the time.”
“Yes, it probably is.” Before my lava hot rage could erupt, I stepped back into the hall to open the battered secretary I kept in the entryway. I scooped a few precious coins out of the jar I kept inside, and then I handed them over. “Thank you for the information, Janet. Could you come back tomorrow? I have some things I need to take care of today after all.”
Like kicking my cheating lover out of my bed.
Janet nodded. “’Course, sir. Same time?”
“Yeah.” I cleared my throat. “I mean, yes, that would be fine.”
It was difficult to speak over the lump in my throat. I had known I couldn’t keep my duke. I wasn’t an unrealistic dreamer. He had family responsibilities to uphold, and I couldn’t exactly give birth to the next duke or duchess of his bloodline. However, I would’ve appreciated a warning, a note, some preparation before I was cast aside. That he still felt comfortable lounging in my bed while he waited for his heir to be born shattered the fragile trust I had extended.
She patted my arm. “Let me know if ya need an alibi,” she whispered with a wink.
As soon as the door clicked shut behind her, I stumbled to the parlor. Tears building, I threw myself down on the couch. Maybe I should try Oss’s approach. Stab first, then ask questions. Betrayal, sharp and bitter, crushed my chest.
“Marbrey, love, are you all right?” Justin’s melodious tenor rolled across me like thorns pricking at my soul. “I thought I heard someone.”
“You did.” I straightened my spine and sat properly. Channeling my inner Oss, I tilted my chin up and prepared for a confrontation. My shy nature vanished beneath the blood-boiling fury coursing through my veins. “My charwoman just brought me some unexpected news.”
I curled my fingers, fighting the temptation to throw the lantern next to me at his stupidly handsome face.
Justin joined me on the couch, snuggling in close as if he had the right. “What news did she bring that she couldn’t stay and clean after?”
I rubbed my sweaty palms across my thighs. “Oddly enough it was about the upcoming birth of your heir. I had no idea that you were expecting a child.” I pulled away from his touch and stared him down.
“Marbrey, please let me explain!”
I jumped to my feet. “Explain? How can you explain away that you planted your seed into some woman? I know we didn’t make any promises to each other, but I thought I meant enough that you would warn me before you tossed me aside.” I paused to take a deep breath. It wasn’t in my nature to screech like a barn owl. I preferred calm and sensible conversation, neither of which this topic ensured.
“I was going to tell you.” He dared to stand and try to pull me into his arms.
I jerked out of reach. “When? After it gave its first squalling cry? Or maybe when it was old enough to question your absences from its mother’s side?”
He winced, convincing me I was right. He had never planned to tell me, at least no time soon.
“I didn’t want to upset you. You can be sensitive about such things.”
“What things? The fact I’m not a woman and can’t give birth? I’m aware of that fact. I knew you wanted an heir, but I thought you’d be honest with me, not wait until I was informed by the charwoman!”
Justin loomed over me. His hands fisted at his sides as if he wished to throttle me for my impertinence. “I don’t know why you are acting like this. The baby won’t have any impact on our relationship. We can still go on as we are.”
I deflated and sank back onto couch. He couldn’t have hurt me more if he had stabbed me with one of Oss’s daggers. “You are right.”
“I am?” His flashed me a relieved smile.
“Yes. It’s obvious there is nothing to salvage between us. Gather your things and get out.”
Justin kneeled before me, close enough to touch but smart enough not to. “Marbrey, don’t do this. I love you, but I need a child to continue the dukedom. I can’t let the line die out. There are only four Lock Lords and if there isn’t anyone to take our place, who is going to create new locks? We can barely keep up with demand as it is, along with running the city.”
I sighed. “I’m…” I pressed my lips together and fought back the words begging him to stay. My latest foray into romance lasted approximately seventeen weeks and three days before ending in a flood of tears and fury.
Now, staring at the traitorous creature who had cracked my fragile trust along with my heart, I understood Oss’s occasional foray into homicide with perfect clarity.
“Marbrey, love, she means nothing to me.” Justin’s words fanned the fading embers of my anger back into a towering inferno.
“Do you think it makes it better if you call me love, then dismiss me in the same breath? Love involves trust and two people talking before they make big decisions, like having a baby. Especially when it is with a person not in the relationship.” I blinked rapidly, holding back my tears. He didn’t deserve the satisfaction.
Justin smoothed down his already perfect hair. “This doesn’t change anything between us. What can I say to make this better? I can’t lose you.”
I wanted to punch his pretty face. “You are bringing another person into this world. It will have an impact on our life whether you want it to or not.” Or it should. So help me if he pushed his child off on nannies—forget the knives, I would cave in his skull with my favorite lamp.
Justin boldly placed his hands on my knees. “Inheritance can only be passed through my bloodline, and we both know Oss would gut Hawthorne if he even looked at a female.”
“Let’s not blame Oss for your shortcomings!” I snapped. Better to channel my anger than allow heartbreak to destroy me.
I have never envied a woman the trials of childbirth, but a female could give Justin what I could not. Not only an heir, but the means to silence the critics who considered his relationship with me an end to his bloodline. Unfortunately for Justin, understanding doesn’t necessarily breed forgiveness. I hated being the last to know anything, especially when it involved me.
“And who was the lucky woman you decided was worthy of bearing your heir?” Might as well get the bad news all at once.
“Why do you want to know?” Justin’s forehead crinkled as if he couldn’t understand why he wasn’t winning this battle through faulty logic and repetition. “I contracted with her before we met.”
I wouldn’t put up with him stalling. “Who is she?”
Justin stood up to pace. He flailed his arms around as he walked, his entire body a picture of frustration. “You have to understand. I didn’t do this to hurt you. I don’t want to lose you over this.”
I didn’t have to be psychic to know I wasn’t going to like his answer.
Justin stopped his infernal walking and let out a sigh. “Minerva,” he confessed.
Bile stirred in my gut. “Minerva Grace?” The dark-haired lady had both political and monetary power within the Lock Lord circles. A direct contrast to my less-than-stellar standing.
She also hated me.
“Yes, that Minerva.” Justin took a deep breath before speaking again. “I know you don’t get along, but you hadn’t met before we made our agreement. Once she gives birth, she will be gone. She already signed a contract regarding her responsibilities to my heir. After he is weaned, she will be moved into the lodgings I’ve procured for her, or return to live with her mother, it matters not. She won’t be involved in the child’s raising.”
“And if you have a girl?” I scratched viciously at the back of my neck, trying to ground my emotions. A habit Justin despised. Right now, I couldn’t find a reason to care about Justin’s likes or dislikes.
“There are no laws banning a female from being a Lock Lord, or Lock Lady in that case. It has been done in the past. Although whomever my daughter marries will have to take her name.”
I folded my arms. “And you don’t plan on having a spare heir?” With the high infant mortality rates, most lords tried for at least two children. To only have one and hope it survived childhood was the height of folly.
Justin cleared his throat. “Not right away.”
My spirits plummeted. “You’ll have to hope the baby doesn’t inherit her temperament,” I taunted. The one time I met Minerva Grace, she sniffed at me as if I were a pile of dung she longed to scrape off Justin’s shoes. My fondness for her didn’t increase when she subsequently flashed my lover a coquettish smile, then tried to drag him from my side. She failed, but I still remember the scheming light in her eyes. Now that I know she was pregnant with Justin’s spawn, her behavior made far more sense than mild jealousy. No legalese would stop a pregnant woman with a marriage glint in her eyes.
I was outmatched.
“Like I said, she will have little to do with the child once it is weaned.”
Poor delusional fool. Despite what he might think, they would share an emotional connection through their child. For all that he was hailed as a political genius, he showed little sense when it came to his personal life.
I was an excellent example.
“I think it’s time for you to go,” I blurted out. No sense in dragging our relationship through its final funeral dirge. Justin and I might not have been a grand romance, but I had trusted him with my heart. It proved to have been a bad, but not irrevocable, mistake. After he left, I planned to crawl back into bed and stay there for the next month, or until Oss came to haul me out.
“Wren, be reasonable.”
“I’ve lost my reason along with my heart. Just leave.” I lacked the spark of true fury. He had stolen my fire.
Justin straightened his waistcoat, then brushed imaginary dust off the shoulder of his bespoke suit with a flick of his lean fingers. His outfit probably cost more than my building. I forced my attention to the cobweb trailing across the corner of my parlor window, and away from memories of what else those skilled, elegant digits could do. He was too handsome for my shaky resolve.
He cleared his throat. “I can see you aren’t ready to discuss this like civilized gentlemen. When you wish to speak rationally, send me a message.”
“I am being rational. My daggers are still upstairs.” They were a particularly fine set. Last year’s birthday present from Oss.
“Did Octavius teach you how to throw them?” Justin’s voice took on a nervous edge.
It might be petty, but it brought out the first smile from me since we started this conversation. Octavius Septimus Stalk, also known as Oss, might be a mean fucker, but he was also a good friend, and the lover of Justin’s brother Hawthorne. Oss had a vicious reputation with his blades, well-earned and constantly practiced.
“Yes, he did.” A cold smile curved my lips. I dared to glance over to admire the pleasing pallor of Justin’s tanned skin.
“I love you, Marbrey. Please remember that.”
“I’ll remember that I heard the news of your baby’s impending birth from my charwoman because you have no spine,” I spat. I might not be the best choice for a duke’s lover, but until now, I had been his choice.
Justin’s expression went from pleading to stern. “You knew about my family obligations when we first got together. I can’t set them aside to follow my heart.”
“Well, good thing I never asked you to. I’m not expecting you to abandon your family, but it would have been nice if you had told me before I learned it from someone else.” I’d stated and restated my complaints for the past hour, and I was tired to the bone.
“But it happened before there even was an us.”
I sighed and rubbed my forehead. “Justin, please leave. I can’t deal with you right now.” I could only hold back my tears for so long, and he didn’t deserve to be an audience for them.
“I’ll await your message.” His cold, stiff voice struck me harder than a slap in the face.
I lifted my chin and met his gaze. “You do that.” Let him wait forever. The sorrow from this failed relationship would haunt me for my remaining years, but I would retain my dignity at all costs.
“Come lock the door behind me.”
Too tired to fight any longer. I trailed after him to my front door like an obedient puppy. My entanglement with aristocracy was never going to have a happy ending. Better I learn that now than after his fourth heir. Oss might be able to fall into bed and in love with a second son, but I had set my sights too high when I tumbled for a lord and singed my wings.
Our relationship might have gone smoother if Justin wasn’t a duke and I wasn’t an ex-street rat who lived only a few tottering, baby steps from squalor. Our current argument had highlighted the differences between us, both social and economic, in a clearer manner than ever before.
Justin opened the front door. I ignored his forlorn backward glance and slammed the door shut as soon as his heels passed the doorframe. Only after I heard him whisper goodbye and the click of his expensive boots walking away did I free my tears.
Harsh sobs burst from my chest. I collapsed against the door, then slid down to the carpet, shaking. Minutes, hours, I lost track of time as I purged my body of every inch of moisture. Eventually, my throat became too raw to continue.
I had wanted Justin to tell me Janet’s words were unfounded, a product of base lies and unsubstantiated rumors.
No one warns you that when you finally touch a star, the heavens punish you for your temerity.
“Few will understand magic like a Gear Master, for it flows through his soul and out his hands.”
– Gear Master Torren
The next morning, I woke with puffy eyes, a dry throat, and an aching heart. My hands shook as I dressed and washed my face before going to make my morning tea. No reason for the entire city to witness my despair. Word of our breakup would spread soon enough. Quite a few people were about to become far too happy at my expense.
I swiped my palms at my dripping eyes and licked my cracked lips. I was a mess. Damn it.
Stupid of me to have fallen for a duke. Dukes were political animals, not emotional ones. I hated that I’d allowed myself to be ensnared by pretty words and an even prettier face. I had forgotten his true nature.
I rubbed at the hollow ache in my chest.
Banging the kettle onto the stove, I set the water boiling. There was no way I could face this morning without a cup of tea, preferably two, and a bit of food. I might not eat much, but I always had a small bite first thing in the morning, whether it be a slice of toast or a precious piece of fruit.
A man named Spencer had an apple cart near the Tower. In exchange for toys for his daughter, he provided me with a steady supply of slightly bruised apples and the occasional pear. It was an equitable swap that allowed me the luxury of fresh produce my budget couldn’t afford.
I made short work of my tea and toast before taking my second cup down to the workshop with me. Justin had bought me several tins of expensive leaves, and I deserved some recompense for my broken heart. Like most foods, tea had to be imported from another town and came at a premium cost.
A trio of city gardens produced the locally grown food. All three of them had limited access, but for the farmers and their workers who sold their wares for exorbitant prices on market day. Other than the gated gardens, most of our goods came from Green Town. A stupid name, but apt. That city consisted of mostly farms and our main source of trade. Keys traded clothing for cotton, shoes for leather, and so on. I was one of the few who didn’t send most of my wares to other cities. There were enough customers here, and I barely had the time and materials to fulfill my local orders.
Fernhan’s order had been sent off last night during a frenzy of work to battle my broken heart. I jotted down a quick list of my remaining projects, paying close attention to my deadlines. My next order due was for an elderly lady from the Second Quarter who had saved up all her pin money for months to buy her grandson one of my mechanical toys. I must confess I put more effort into her job than any other. It didn’t hurt that she had brought me a tin of excellent homemade cookies as she explained what she wanted. While assembling the pieces, I kept a tight grip on my magic. I worried the toy might gain awareness like Oss’s bunny, Amalia. When I was done, her grandson would have an heirloom he could pass on to his own grandchildren.
After the sixth time my screwdriver slipped and scratched the lion’s flank, I threw the cursed tool across the room. It knocked a broken experiment off the wall with a satisfying clang.
Why had I allowed him this much power over me? Was I so desperate for affection that I let his silver tongue lure me into a web of lies?
“I’m a fool.”
My brief flare of anger left behind a melancholy shell.
“Hush.” I growled, raking my trembling fingers through my hair. A brutal tug on my tangled locks helped me focus. A pragmatist couldn’t wallow forever. I was too practical for angst. It was time to stow away my romantic foolishness and focus on paying my bills. Love wasn’t for the likes of me. Should I be pleased or concerned that my love life was more akin to Affie’s, my half-mad street friend, than my psychotic knife-wielding one.
My right eye twitched. I’m worried it might become a regular condition if that damn bird didn’t shut its beak.
A bestial growl rolled up my throat. I had made one of my birds a little too well.
I threw a wrench at the menace. A flutter of feathers and a loud squawk made me laugh. Wait… feathers?
“When did you get feathers?” I admit I liked to make my mechanical beasts as lifelike as possible, but I didn’t have funds for feathers. They wouldn’t last as well as metal ones and were a pain to import. I walked around my bench to get a better look at the creature I had formed from pieces of copper, screws, and wire. At least it had been formed of metal. Now bright blue feathers sprouted across its tiny body. If I didn’t know better, I would’ve believed it to be a natural-born animal.
The gear pattern on its wings dissuaded me from thinking a random bird had accidentally found its way into my basement workshop.
“Great, just what I need, more weirdness.” I picked up the bird and set it inside the metal aviary where I kept my other mechanical messenger birds. A quick peek proved that this was the only one to gain feathers when I wasn’t looking. The others were behaving themselves. I closed the cage, then returned to my workbench. I didn’t have the energy to deal with this today.
Maybe next week or, better yet, next year.
I picked up a small piece of tin I had found jammed between the spokes of a carriage wheel and smiled at its odd shape. Ideas swirled in my mind as I pondered all possible uses. Mechanics I understood. My creations had never sworn bedroom promises nor whispered sweet nothings in my ears only to take them back in the harsh morning light.
I collected bits and baubles from all around. Discarded in gutters, on sidewalks, and sometimes even the occasional trash heap. I happily gathered the flotsam others threw away. Abandoned items, like me, have little intrinsic value. We must create our own worth.
My name might be Marbrey Small, but my vision has always been large. Most people don’t understand the hard shell a soul forms when tempered by a harsh childhood. Children react differently to rough beginnings. Of the two people I know best, Oss turned sociopathic and Affie insane. I consider myself the most moderate amongst the three of us.
Growing up in an orphanage, I bartered my inventions for extra food or to bribe bullies into finding a different target. They were less likely to attack me if they thought I might reward them for their good behavior. Sometimes, cleverness has more power than brawn. The scars along my back are a strong testament of my moments of failure.
My attention returned to the newly feathered bird. What had I done differently to receive this result? None of the others had feathers. A few highborn ladies I had sold to before would appreciate a high-end frippery. Unfortunately, what one had the others envied and I didn’t want to set a precedent of mechanical birds like this one.
Would you have to feed a bird that went from a mechanical to a lifelike creation? I never have before, but magic was changing, mine and everyone else’s. I should ask Oss if he had to feed his rabbit after she turned furry.
“What makes you so different?” I asked the bird. Not surprisingly, I received no answer. Maybe I had given this creation a little more magic than the others.
I often infused my inventions with a trickle of power, enough to give them an extra realistic appeal, especially my birds. If I hadn’t, they would never learn to deliver messages. Highborn ladies bought them to send social invitations to each other. I didn’t trust this trend not to fade along with my income. Next week they could be back to using liveried servants. I already have five other ideas in various stages on my workbench. If I wished to keep my business open, I had to stay ahead of rich ladies’ whims.
My powers have grown stronger since Oss, Affie, and I opened the gate between Keys and the City of Magic, but was it enough to make my mechanicals come alive?
A quick, frantic search around the room proved my fears ridiculous. None of my other creations showed any signs of becoming more. One extra realistic bird could be dismissed as an anomaly and not a pattern. I would keep an eye on the others to make sure they weren’t forming a flock, or swarm, or whatever the fuck a group of metal birds, turned real, were called.
If I had to pick a name, I’d call them a headache.
“I hope you’re not a new trend. I don’t need the attention. I can’t even imagine what would happen if people thought I could bring mechanical animals to life.” That was one rumor I wanted no part of, even if it did bring me additional business. It was more likely to bring a mob carrying torches than sacks of gold.
I’m still not certain how the mechanical bunny I gave Oss grew fur, and I’ll probably never get the chance to study the phenomenon. I’d love to compare her magic with this bird’s, but Oss kept her close and I valued my fingers too much to take her apart. Oss was a good friend, but I was wisely leery of his sharp, bloodthirsty daggers.
The City of Keys had been in chaos since the event, as people are calling it. Those with a natural affinity toward magic had begun to publicly flaunt their new abilities instead of hiding them like a shameful secret. Unfortunately, envy is an ugly and dangerous emotion, and there had been attacks on magical people and a few businesses burnt to the ground. With the city’s high density, entire blocks had fallen to flame and terror. When found, the perpetrators were given a swift trial, then hung in front of Lock Tower to deter others from the same behavior. Still, panic and dissension inside a walled city was a dangerous thing, and Keys was a difficult place to leave if you couldn’t afford an expensive airship flight or wished to avoid being eaten by the monsters lurking in the desert sands outside.
Shaking off my ill thoughts, I picked up a tiny gear with my tweezers and attached it with an even tinier screw with the aid of a strong magnifying glass. I had abandoned the tricky lion to finish my latest bird. My metallic flock chirped, encouraging me to add to their brethren, or maybe I was projecting my emotions. The blue feathered bird flew closer as if to watch my work and offer its own chirping critique.
“How did you get out of the cage?” Had I not latched the door tight enough?
Shaking my head, I ignored it. Or tried to. I might have to lock it in another room if it didn’t stop that infernal chirping. Designs for a larger aviary flickered through my head. It could prove to be both a containment center for the annoying beasts and an excellent display for my wares if I designed it properly.
Bang. Bang. Bang.
A thundering beat on my front door jolted me from my introspection. I was not in the type of occupation where emergency calls occurred, but I did have a few volatile friends that stopped by at the most inconvenient times.
Worried Oss or Affie had found new mischief, I raced up the stairs from my workshop to the main floor. My shop doors were open from midday to early evening and clients knew not to bother me before then. The rest of my time was reserved for filling orders and sending them out to customers with the assistance of a fleet of street kids. They appreciated the coin and knew better than to steal my goods. Oss made a frightening example of the only kid who dared to fence one of my deliveries. None have tried since. Thank the Lord and Lady for my overly aggressive friend or I would have been robbed blind years ago.
A quick peek through the eyehole revealed a messenger standing on my doorstep.
I yanked the door open, worried something had happened. “Can I help you?”
The messenger brushed a nervous hand down his brass-buttoned jacket. A disturbingly familiar coat of arms covered his left breast in gold stitching. He flashed me a professional smile and handed over a thin vellum envelope with my name on the front, scrawled in a sloppy hand. “This is for you, sir.”
“Thank you.” I pulled a coin out of my pocket and handed it over. I always kept a few for moments like this.
His eyes brightened at the unexpected windfall, small as it might be. “Thank you, sir.”
“You’re welcome.” I ducked back inside and slammed the door shut. After engaging all the locks, I headed for my sitting room.
Only Oss’s familiar handwriting stopped me from flinging the envelope into the fire. I cracked the seal and pulled out a single piece of paper.
Come for tea. One o’clock.
I flipped over the note, but there wasn’t any other information. Which either meant Oss had something to share with me that he didn’t want a messenger to possibly read, or he had talked to Justin and wished to hear my side of the story. Oss was a master of information gathering and wasn’t above using his friends to further his knowledge.
I groaned and went to get dressed.
You didn’t turn down an invitation from Oss, not if you enjoyed keeping all the blood inside your body.