Rotting cockles littered the alley from end to end. To make matters worse, Lucien already regretted abandoning Em in the street with Solly. Circumstances had dictated immediate action, but it would take more than bravery to fix this insufferable city. Even so, to walk away and not look back…
What would that take? A special kind of cowardice? Or strength?
A rat darted between his feet. Before he could react, it disappeared down a drain as if its sole purpose was to vex. Like the man who’d agreed to meet him at the strike of nine and was nowhere to be seen. Yet another reason to hate Forsham.
So much for a city that touted itself as progressive. In the years since Lucien had arrived, everything he’d achieved had slid backwards. Factories spanned entire neighbourhoods. Workers were used as fuel for a single, ravenous machine.
“Mr Boreau!” The trader emerged from the shadows; well dressed and amply fleshed, eyes dulled from a life of dissipation. “Apologies. I was rudely detained.” Three rough-looking men accompanied him. He lit up his fingers and proffered two tickets. “Adjoining cabins. Lockable. If they’re not to your liking, there are buyers who’ll snap them up.”
Lucien glanced at the tickets and tried not to look too eager. No doubt they’d cost more than he could comfortably afford.
“Very well,” Lucien said. “Four silvers.”
The trader whipped the tickets from his grip. “You do realise Cornica is nine thousand miles away; not nine hundred. The fare is five whole silvers. Either that or take your chances in a powerhouse.”
“When does the freighter depart?”
“First thing tomorrow.”
Lucien had expected all manner of problems, but nothing as pressing as this. “You’re having me on. I’m serious, man, when’s the next one?”
“Three months wait. Or maybe forever. Rumour has it, tomorrow’s will be the last.” The trader’s eyes flashed with as much guile as manipulation. “Times are no easier in Cornica. Your queen despises our powerhouses. Trade between our countries may well be—” He swiped a hand across his throat. “Severed.”
Feeling more hamstrung than cheated, Lucien handed over five silvers and pocketed the tickets. He had a quarter silver left.
At the workers’ district known as The Edge, the streets were half-lit, half-ruined and all stagnant. Fog wreathed the lamplights, casting oily shadows onto the rutted dirt below. Tenements sprawled either side, their limed-brick walls as soulless as warehouses.
Lucien crossed the road towards the two-roomed lodgings Em shared with her father. Its unlit window did not bode well. As he made his way up the dark, musty stairs, he tried to conjure finger-light but his skin magic was too depleted. His deeper heart magic shifted, threatening to spark. Reeling it in, he hunkered down to wait for Em in the hallway by her door.
Footsteps came and went. A breeze sighed up the stairs. From somewhere nearby, a man and woman loudly discussed a ruined meal.
What if Em had paid attention to Solly’s suggestion to take up the fight? Nothing good would come of that. Lucien shook his head, knowing all along that a night such as this would catch up with him. He’d always admired Em’s independence. Encouraged it even. Now he feared it would drive them apart.
His teeth clenched at the thought. He’d do anything for this woman. If only she’d allow him.
After what seemed an age, footsteps rattled up the stairs.
“Sweet Fate, for once let Papa be asleep,” she muttered. “Don’t let him be—”
She neared the landing and froze. If he were a thief, Lucien could have knocked her flat.
“You shouldn’t be prattling in the gloom like that.” The harshness in his words came as much from worry as fatigue.
She exhaled sharply. “You shouldn’t be lurking without a light.”
“Can’t be helped.”
“Where’s your candle?”
“Same place as yours, I gather.”
Any other day the two would have kept up their banter until one of them burst into laughter. Instead, their words remained clipped and angry. The thought of what he planned made his voice stick in his throat.
Em opened the door, struck a match and lit her new-fangled oil lamp. She turned and faced him, eyebrows raised.
“I’m very well, thank you,” he said wryly. “How about you?”
“As good as can be expected.”
She hung her cap on the nail by the closet. The kitchen with its beaten metal tub, open shelves and wooden table were as clean as always. Beyond it, the curtain that screened her bed had been left undrawn.
He inclined his head towards her da’s bedroom. “Is he home?”
Em folded her arms. “Can’t hear him snoring, so I suppose not.”
Lucien had not seen her so irritable. He knew it was tiredness, but he was tired too.
“What made you run off?” she asked.
“The powerhouse will kill you,” he said, sidestepping the question. He almost reminded her about Rosie, but her pained expression told him it was too soon for that.
“If I only had myself to support, I’d stop submitting this minute.”
“Where’s your da now? At the tavern? Plastered?”
She turned her back, added fuel to the hearth and prodded it into flames. “He’s my da.”
“You’re a grown woman. He should let you go.”
“If he wasn’t so sick, he would.”
There was so much Lucien needed to say, but how to start without ruining it? Granted, Em’s father had lost his wife nigh on a year before, and then his job soon after that. Enough to drive anyone to the bottle. Even so, dithering wouldn’t help, unless the ditherer actually planned to end up in a graveyard.
“Em,” he began, “if you’re cross about the way I left you on the street, I’m sorry. There was no time to explain. Not with Miss Flood pestering us. I had to meet someone.”
Em looked up, her eyes accusing. “Who? Criminals?”
Her gaze searched his. “I’m sure you had your reasons.”
She put on the kettle, served up some bread, cheese, pickles and a bowl of stewed fruit. They talked about work, about designing and the unlikelihood of earning enough for apprenticeships. He was almost ready to bring out the tickets when familiar footsteps rose from the stairwell. Damn. Something or someone always interrupted them.
“Em?” a gravelly voice slurred. “Em, are you home? I forgot my key. Em?”
“Sweet Fate, don’t let him be too drunk,” she said.
Lucien reached the door first. He opened it to find Em’s father gripping the stair rail and smelling of things no teetotaller would want to see. Lucien caught him before he fell, then steered him to his room where he collapsed on the bed in a boneless heap.
“He’d be terribly hurt if he knew you’d seen him like this,” Em said.
“I don’t think anything could hurt him right now.”
Em sniffed. “He needs time.”
“I’m sorry,” Lucien said softly. “I didn’t mean it like that.” He wanted to smooth the worry from Em’s forehead, embrace her, keep her safe. Instead, he took her hand.
“I can’t leave him in this state.” She pulled away, snatched up a bucket. “I’m going to clean him up.”
She hurried downstairs to the boiler room; Lucien followed.
Em had half-filled the bucket before realising the gas had gone out and the water was cold. “Fate’s Blue,” she said, banging her fist on the tap.
Lucien plunged his hand into the bucket and jolted it softly with heart magic. It felt good to let it out. How dare mages insist he not use it! Magic was his prerogative. Not theirs.
The water fizzled. Hot, but not boiling.
“Ouch.” He withdrew his hand. The skin was red, but not enough to blister.
Em lifted the bucket and tipped its contents onto the flagstones. She flinched at the rising steam. “What were you thinking? If someone comes in and sees…”
Lucien laid his fingers on her arm and plied her with as much well-wishing as he could manage, but this soon after the powerhouse, his skin magic was barely there. He hoped it would be enough to soothe her.
“Get some more water and see to your da. We need to talk.”
“Talk?” she said irritably. “After that session in the powerhouse? After hearing Rosie die? I need time to think, not talk.”
“Em, we must leave while it’s still possible. I can’t protect you here, but I give you my word you’ll be safe in Cornica.”
She heaved a sigh, rubbed her forehead with the back of her hand. “Leave Papa? You know I can’t.”
“He can share my cabin. You can have the other one for yourself.” He smiled. “Or else we can marry on board and he can have it.”
She stared, speechless. He leaned in to kiss her.
Em stepped back. “Lucien, I’d marry you this minute, but no good will come of fleeing.” She lifted her chin. “I’m thinking of joining the Groundists.”
Lucien fought hard to not scoff. Right now, she looked barely capable of walking let alone fighting. “The Groundists are disorganised, weak. It’s only a matter of time before they’re beaten.”
“Our survival depends on our ability to rebel.”
“Now you’re sounding like Miss Flood.”
“That’s because she’s right. I didn’t want to face it before. But after Rosie, how can I not?”
“So,” he ventured, “if I offered you a ticket to Cornica tonight, if I told you it was our last chance to leave, what would you do?”
“I’d ask if you’d lost your senses. I’d tell you to flee on your own if you must, but heart magic will be denied us wherever we go. In Cornica, would anyone teach commoners how to wield it?”
“At least if you keep it to yourself, you won’t be punished. You’ll not end up in prison, feeding it to mages from a chair.”
“At least not yet,” she countered. “Laws change. Who knows what Cornica’s future will bring?”
“Em.” He put his hands on her shoulders and it shocked him to discover how cold they felt. Beneath her coat, she’d worn the thinnest of blouses and camisoles, not at all adequate for a night as chill as this.
“Fate gave us heart magic to help people, not hurt them. Using it to fight will make us as corrupt as mages.”
Em massaged her temples. “Bitter, damn Fate, my head’s throbbing. I can’t argue tonight.” She pulled away, went back to filling the bucket. “I’m going to see to my da.”
As if in sympathy, a strange fearful ache shot through the base of Lucien’s skull. “Mages are killing us,” he said. “Can’t you see?”
“It’s not just them. It’s everything.”
“Em, wait,” he called to her retreating back. “Please, listen.”
Still walking, she glanced over her shoulder. “Not if it means fleeing to Cornica.”
She closed the door none too gently behind her. He wanted to follow, but his words would be as wasted as a day spent in electrodes. Five silvers those tickets had cost! Plus more risk than a Cornican in Forsham could afford. It occurred to him that no matter what he offered, she’d follow her own dream anyway. Even if she knew it was lost. The likes of her did not give up. Nor did they escape.
Back in his own tenement he felt deserted, betrayed. His head ached. Worse than earlier. He shrugged on the Cornican coat he’d not worn for years out of fear of ruining it in a city that was already ruined. Lucien packed his belongings, his mind seething with anger at Em for refusing him, at her father for being drunk, at mages for turning workers into commodities, at Fate for failing to intervene. He left without locking the door and refused to look back. As for The Edge, he’d not miss it one whit. Even its name felt like an insult, as if those who lived there considered themselves to be somewhat less than human.
Lucien boarded the freighter only minutes before it was scheduled to leave. Deckhands bantered in his native drawl. At last, the sounds of home! How much he’d missed them.
Damn this aching head. It made him feel wrong. It made everything wrong, which of course it always had been. He closed his eyes, gripped the gunwales and inhaled the thick, salty air. In a matter of weeks, he’d see his parents again. His three younger sisters would pester him to take them out. He and his cousins would swim in ponds as hot as bathtubs. Compared to Forsham, Cornica was both a paradise and a sanctuary. Despite its lack of progress, he loved it more than he cared to admit.
Deserting Em was as deplorable as forcing himself to fight. What in Fate’s name was he thinking? If he left now, he’d be missing her every minute of every day. Life would be worse than a year in a powerhouse.
Clutching his suitcase, he ran to the gangplank to find it half raised.
“If you jump ship,” a deckhand warned, “there’ll be no coming back.”
Lucien leapt and landed on the wharf still running, still thinking about Em.
There was a checkpoint beyond the docks before getting back into the city, and he feared the guards would hold him up there, perhaps test him for heart magic. Equally possible, they might deny him re-entry. Keeping to the shadows, he wove between warehouses only to find himself back at the wharves where he began. He paused to catch his breath and get his bearings, then struck out towards a gap between buildings, twice tripping on rickety planks.
“You! Foreigner! Freeze!”
The voice came from behind.
A path veering left promised escape, then quickly narrowed to a dead end. Lucien turned.
Two men closed in on him.
Their faces lit up in a brief wash of finger-light. One belonged to a ruffian he’d seen earlier with the trader. The other, a uniformed guard.
He took the tickets from his pocket. “Here.” He tossed them over. “They’re yours.”
The ruffian sneered. “What use are they? The ship’s departed. What else do you have?”
“Only this,” Lucien lowered his suitcase.
“Not enough. What about your wallet? Your watch?”
Lucien’s head throbbed more than ever. He’d not defended himself with heart magic before, but it was never too late to try. Heart thumping, he raised a hand, attempted a jolt, wincing as his fingertips blistered and smoked.
The guard laughed. Lifting a knife, he lunged.
Does Lucien survive the attack? The answer to that is in Chapter Three, which I’ll post in a day or two.
Feature image adapted from image by Davidfoxx (Pixabay)