I stepped out into the cold and shivered. Snow blew around me in whirlwinds that blocked my vision, and the fall was so thick it appeared to be night. I headed toward the main street at sort of a limping run, anxious to get home and light a fire. I suppose, in retrospect, that I should’ve paid more attention to where I was going, but the snow was so thick that it was hard to see, and I was turned around with no idea where I was. It wasn’t like I wasn’t familiar with Sangeron. I was. But in the white out, I couldn’t see, and familiar landmarks became strange creatures lurking in the gloom. Even the streetlamps were darkened by the snow, and shop windows only gave the faintest of light.
I stumbled and nearly fell, but someone grabbed my arm and kept me on my feet. I squinted into the darkness but couldn’t tell who it was that had hold of me. I snatched my arm away and took off running. I tripped over something in the street and landed hard. I felt the warmth of blood on my knee, but I wasn’t concerned about that. Someone had grabbed me, and I needed to get away.
The voice barely cut through the wind. It was a deep voice, one I thought I knew, but I still didn’t care. My only thought was to get home, if I could figure out where home was.
I slid in the snow and stopped. I turned, ready to fight. But there was no need. The person chasing me in the snowstorm was my brother-in-law, Rupert. He came toward me, his hand holding his top hat to his head. His scarf blew out behind him, and his coat tails twisted in the wind. A grimace plastered across his face, not softened in the least by the snowflakes in his black beard.
“What the hell are you running for?” He stopped and scowled at me. “I’ve been chasing you for four blocks. Where are you going?”
I looked around, frantic, and forced myself to breathe. “I was heading home. I got lost in the storm.” I pulled my coat more closely around me and shivered. I wished I’d taken time this morning for a scarf and hat, but it hadn’t seemed necessary. I knew better. Sangeron in the cold months was always unpredictable.
“You’re going in the opposite direction from that place you call home,” Rupert replied. He looked at my ragged coat and blowing hair and lifted his nose just a fraction higher. I knew he was comparing me to Matilda, everyone always did. “And you never showed up today.”
I stomped my feet to stay warm and stared at him. “What are you talking about?”
Rupert stomped his feet and brushed snow from his coat and beard. “Matilda said you were starting work at my office today. Did she not come by your…home…this morning?”
I brushed my hair back and shook some snow off my clothes. “Yes, she came by. Yes, she mentioned a job at your office. No, I didn’t want it. I want no part of biotics.” The snow was slowing, and I was able to see where I was. “Now, it’s cold, and I’ve had one hell of a day, so I’m going home. You have a good evening.”
“Why must you always be so difficult?” Rupert sniffed. “This is a good opportunity for you, and, regardless of your opinion, adding biotics to people is good money.”
I shrugged and gave him my best ‘I don’t give a damn’ smile. “Sorry. I have my own life to live. Have a good night.” I didn’t give him a chance to say more.
My flat was warm and cozy. After a warm bath and a cup of tea, I was feeling a bit more secure. I still had to go to the Steam Whisper later that night, snow or no snow, but, for now, I could relax and sleep. At least, that’s what I thought.
Thoughts of the ba’soray demons and what Elbert had told me raced through my mind. I could see the thoughts, almost like they were twitterflies in the forest, converging on me and scattering when I tried to catch them. Doubts filled my heart and settled into my gut like some of Madam Cora’s cookie experiments, and Elbert’s words kept coming back to me. Someone wanted me dead, and the only person I knew was my sister. My twin sister. Sure, she thought I was a failure. Sure, she disapproved of my choices. But did she disapprove enough to kill me? All of a sudden, I wasn’t sure.
“Stop this,” I told myself.
But ‘myself’ didn’t want to listen. The light ceased to shine, and it was time to go to work before I had a chance to sleep.
The Steam Whisper was quiet. One of our most loyal customers, a man who claimed to work in trade from E’ma Thalas, sat in the back corner nursing a Nutty Fluffy. He came every night, regardless of the weather, to sit alone and brood. His bowler hat sat on the table beside him, and his coat was thrown over the back of the chair. A clean, white shirt buttoned high on his neck, and his hair and beard where clean and neatly cut. While his appearance stated that he was just who he said he was, Bramwell and I often wondered if it was true. After all, the Steam Whisper wasn’t in Woolhope. It was down in Black Hallow, not the worst of neighborhoods, but not somewhere you’d expect to see a prosperous businessman.
“Was wonderin’ if’n you’d make it tonight.” Bramwell leaned against the bar, his pudgy chin quivering when he talked.
I shrugged and pulled my coat closer around me. The snow was now halfway to my knees, and the short skirt I wore did nothing to ward off the chill. Though the brazier was burning, the warmth didn’t reach too far from it, and I shivered. “Yeah. I made it.” I scowled at him. “Though why you think I need to wear this outfit is beyond me. Most of these guys can’t see straight after their first drink, so why bother?”
Bramwell chuckled and slapped the bar. “Well, I can see just fine.”
I rolled my eyes and turned my attention back to the room. “I can see we’re hopping tonight.”
Bramwell sighed and picked up his rag. He gave the bar a couple of half-hearted swipes then gave up the pretense. “The snow’s getting’ kinda thick, and most folks won’t wander out in it if’n there’s no need.” He glanced over at our lone patron then back to me. “I suppose you can head on home if you’d like. I doubt there’ll be enough coin to pay you tonight anyway.”
I sighed. “Bram, you know I have to work.”
He shrugged. “Suit yourself, but you’ll be workin’ for free unless more folks come in.”
I pulled my scarf up over my face and thought about it for a moment. It wasn’t a long walk home, and the coin I’d lose really wasn’t that much.
My musing was interrupted by a frigid blast from the door. I turned to see Elbert enter on the heels of three others, some just like the ones I’d dealt with the night before. So much for going home. With these three, there’d be plenty of work and coin.
The men ambled over to the table next to our patron and plopped down. The man gave them a look like he’d scraped them off the bottom of his boot then turned his attention back to his drink. The four ignored him and laughed at some joke one of them, probably Elbert, had told.
I sighed again and took off my coat. I handed it to Bramwell to put in the back room and approached the table. I raised an eyebrow at Elbert, asking if these were some I needed to be careful about, and he nodded. “What can I get for you?”
“How about ten minutes in the back room?” This one was tall and broad with deep green hair and a metal plate on one side of his head. His beard and mustache were ragged, and it looked like bits of his dinner were still lodged in them.
“Sorry, sweetcheeks. Ten minutes ain’t long enough.” I winked at the others at the table then asked again, “What kind of drinks can I get for you?”
“We’ll take Nutty Fluffies all around, and the guys will each have a hit of Bleeding Grim,” Elbert replied.
“All righty, then.” I turned and made my way back to the bar to give Bramwell the order and stood there while he prepared the drinks. I felt someone behind me and turned, all my senses on alert.
“These are more of the ba’soray,” Elbert whispered. “The nest must be huge. If you can get out of here, go.”
“I can’t,” I hissed. “The minute you people came in here, I was stuck.”
Elbert cursed under his breath. “Fine. I’ll get them stoned and out of here as quick as I can. Hopefully, I won’t have to kill them and can find the nest.”
“I could always leave and let them follow me,” I suggested.
Elbert shook his head. “That won’t find the nest. I have to get to whoever is sending them out to stop them.”
I shrugged. “All right. I’ll stay here until you guys leave.” I glanced back toward the table. “The three of them seem a little brighter than the others.”
“They’re recently infected. The ba’soray haven’t had time to damage their brains.”
“Could whoever is sending them out be getting people infected?” I asked. “I mean, can they be controlled that way?”
Elbert thought for a moment then blew out a frustrated breath. “Yeah. They can be. If that’s the case, then there isn’t an actual nest. Someone’s got a bunch of these things in a cage somewhere and is putting them into people.”
“Sounds like fun. How will you find them?”
“In a city this size, I might not.”
“Oh, goodie. That’s all I need.”
Elbert started to say more, but Bramwell placed the drinks and hits on the counter. I loaded my tray and headed to the table with Elbert behind me.
“Here you go, guys,” I said. It took all my effort to keep the smile on my face. My hands shook, and I felt the beginnings of pure fury begin in my guts. Who the hell was sending these things after me? What did they want? But I didn’t know, and the only person who could help me was a Shadow Walker I’d just met.
“Sure you won’t join us?” This one had dark brown hair and eyes that shown yellow. His left hand was mechanical and whirred as he picked up his drink. I watched it with disgusted fascination and shook my head. I could understand replacing a limb that was lost in an accident, but to voluntarily remove a part of the body and replace it with machine was something I couldn’t comprehend. It was…creepy…unnatural, and the idea that my twin sister did this to people was almost more than I could stomach.
I froze and looked over at Elbert. He’d taken one sip of his Nutty Fluffy and pushed away the glass. The other three at the table had already downed theirs, each of them adding the hit of Bleeding Grim to the drink. My eyes widened as realization hit me. Elbert jumped to his feet and grabbed my arm, I’m assuming because my face drained of color. It felt like it did.
Elbert steered me to the bar and plopped me on a stool. “What is it?” he whispered.
“I think I know who has the ba’soray.” Tears formed in my eyes, but I refused to let them fall.