Readers Decide: Episode 1, Part 1

Part of a fun collaborative project, I’m emailing my reader group every week or so with story installments followed by a chance to vote for what happens next. We’re having a great time with it! Here is the first installment followed by the readers’ choices:

The fog off the harbor tastes like rain. Frigid damp sinks through Lin’s clothing. She pulls her cloak tighter and ducks into the shadows between warehouses. It’s a good night for work like this, but rotten corpses it’s cold.

Drops of condensation fall from the buildings’ eaves and splatter on the cobblestones as she slips through the alley. Ahead, the waterfront crouches in the fog. Every hundred paces along it, lanterns stand in warm pools of light. Deceitful light. Nothing good waits for people like her if they get caught in the cheery glow.

Lin’s hand trembles as she pats the satchel at her side. She grits her teeth, annoyed at her sudden cowardice. It’s not like there’s anything hard about this particular target. She scouted the building top to bottom during daylight, peered in the windows like a gawking Atal brat. Foreigner holdings are the easiest marks in Hajinal Port, and this storehouse is no different.

So why can’t she shake the feeling that something is off?

“Because you’ve had too many easy scores lately,” she whispers.

She’s been leaning too hard on her newfound Edge. The unexpected quickness. The uncanny hearing. Eyes that pick out details when it’s darker than inside a pig’s stomach. She pinches the little gold cuff that clamps the cartilage on her upper ear. Take the cuff off, and she’s a clumsy thief stealing half her food from the compost heaps behind the Atal mansions. With it on, she’s a moving shadow. Liquid grace. Able to slip into warehouses where Atal and foreigners store goods worth more than a whole harbor’s worth of tin scrip.

Lately, she’s made more than enough surplus to start paying back her debt of gratitude to Lovely and her safehouse. A year ago, she never would have imagined it. Not that Lovely asked anything of her. It’s just… Lin doesn’t take charity. That’s part of why she’s still here.

While Lin’s standing there wandering through her memories and wondering what’s got her nerves jangling, a crunch echoes down the alley. A footstep, about a block back.

Lin’s pulse surges as she melts into a doorway. The wood behind her is splintery and warped. A rusty hasp and heavy padlock secure the door, but given the state of the building, she can probably get in by prying the lock from the door frame.

The footsteps get closer, and she pulls out a dagger, starts working the tip under the plate holding the lock to the building.

“Lin!” the newcomer hisses.

What in the…? A boy hurries down the alley, head twisting, eyes darting. He’s got a sack clutched in one hand and a carpenter’s hammer in the other. His eyes pass right over her.

Lin sighs. She recognizes the kid now. About thirteen, maybe fourteen. He arrived at the safehouse yesterday, tagging behind his parents but trying to act like it was his choice to jump on the underground river. When she dropped off a sack of oats and a rattling case of silverware she’d snagged from an Atal storage shed, Owell took note and pestered her with questions until she escaped out the kitchen. He must have spied her this evening when she stopped by the roost she keeps out behind Lovely’s. Lin rarely sleeps in—or even visits–the same refuge two nights in a row. Just her luck that it’s not the protectors who caught up with her for breaking the rule. It’s an annoying Prov kid waiting at Lovely’s to be smuggled out of the Empire.

He doesn’t know she’s here. She’d like to hope he’s smart enough to turn around before hitting the waterfront. The protectors love their curfew. But they love it even more when an idiot Prov decides to break it. She doesn’t need the added task of dragging this kid back to safety—her job must be done tonight. No choice, no arguments. Not if she wants to keep working Hajinal. It’s not that late yet, but there’s no guarantee the fog will stick around, and a half moon is due to rise.

But corpse’s rotting fingers, Owell is probably as stupid as he seems. That sack and hammer… the little flea probably wants in on her work. She can’t think of another reason he’d be chasing after her at this hour.

What should Lin do?

  1. Stop him before he hits the lights of the waterfront. Maybe she can convince him to get back to the safehouse on his own.
  2. Let him keep walking. If things go really bad for him, she can always tell Lovely. Owell wouldn’t be the first kid the woman has rescued from the gallows. 

And, the winner is, with just a little over 70% of the vote: #1

(this also means that almost 30% were good with leaving poor Owell to his fate. You cruel people 🙂 )

Next installment out now! Click here to read it!

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