Heya! This is part 2 in an ongoing, collaborative story I’m writing with my readers and fans. Every week or so, I send out a story installment that ends with a choice. Readers vote for the direction the story takes. If you missed part 1, you can find it here.
Without further ado, here is the continuation:
Lin waits until the kid draws even with her hidden nook then steps from the shadows.
“Better to go hungry,” she says in a low voice.
Owell whirls, soles skidding on the cobblestones, and nearly loses his grip on that worthless hammer. He stares, wide-eyed, into the shadows, but his gaze slides right over her. She sighs. Not only is he out past his bedtime, he’s as observant as a bucket of dead eels.
Lin steps all the way out of the doorway before he finally sees her. Of course, her Edge didn’t make it easier for him—long as she sticks to the shadows, not even the Emperor’s maggot-bait protectors can spot her. But she doesn’t give away her hiding places by talking to them, either.
The kid has the gall to grin when he realizes it’s her. “Pig lickings, you’re hard to follow. Thought I’d lost you.”
Pig lickings? What kind of bumpkin is this kid? “That would be because I don’t wantto be followed.” Though come to think of it, even though she slips like smoke through the alleys… He did manage to track her this far. How?
Just dumb luck, she thinks. If she hadn’t heard him approaching, she’d have been three streets away and ready to deposit the package—not to mention, pluck some fine merchandise for herself. And meanwhile, he’d either be bumbling in the dark or tasting the heavy end of a protector’s cudgel.
A faint wrinkle forms between the kid’s brows. “Hey, what did you mean, it’s better to go hungry?”
“Rat meat. Tastes like it came out of the back end of a horse.” Unfortunately, she speaks from experience. But those days are over. Now that she’s got the gold ear cuff and her Edge, prospects are fine indeed.
“Rat meat…?” he asks, shuffling in confusion.
She rolls her eyes. “That’s what you’re doing, right? Hunting rats?”
Owell blinks, looking like the bird his parents must have named him after. “No, I—”
“The sack’s a dead giveaway. All the hunters use them. Spot a nasty rodent, snap the bag over it and hit it with the hammer until it stops moving. Repeat until you have yourself a dinner.” She pauses, planting a fist on her hip. “But you’re missing the string.”
“You gotta have a string to tie their tails on. Otherwise, how do you plan to carry them back to cook? You are planning to cook them, right?”
She pastes on a horrified expression. “Fur, fleas and all? Raw?”
“Listen!” he says, punctuating the word with a shake of his ratty sack. “I’m not hunting rats. I saw what you brought to Lovely’s. All that food. Silverware and stuff. I came to help you.”
She shifts her weight to her other hip, arches an eyebrow, and looks him up and down. “I don’t know where you got the idea that I needed help. Go back to Lovely’s. I work alone.”
His eyes widen, and he holds up his sack and hammer, pleading. “You haven’t even asked about my skills.”
“Your boat will sail tomorrow or the day after. You’ll spend a few weeks hating mildew and wet wood and the darkness of the hold. And then you’ll start your new life. Somewhere far from the Empire and its protectors. Trust me. Go back.”
“Listen, kid. This isn’t a negotiation. Either—”
She slices off her words when a crunch penetrates the alley. A shadow moves into the opening, blotting light from the waterfront. Empty eye sockets. Rotten kid got her all distracted, and now they’re sunk. The Empire’s rotted guards do not just move on when suspicion crawls into their maggoty skulls.
The protector lays a hand on his cudgel. The darkness hides his face, but she doesn’t have to see his eyes to imagine them peering. Searching the alley’s confines. Dead-flat and emotionless. The kid will never get clear of one of the Empire’s prized enforcers.
She shoves Owell into the doorway alcove, pushing him hard against the warped wood, and clamps a hand over his mouth.
She waits until he nods understanding then melts away from him. The protector takes his first heavy steps down the alley. The wet air has slicked his metal armor. Lantern light glistens off his shoulders. He grabs a torch and advances. Her Edge goes razor-sharp, and she hears the breath hissing in and out of his nostrils.
“Well, lookee there! It’s a protector,” she calls.
Lin whirls for the far end of the alley and the darkness where warehouses crowd closer. Near the corner where another narrow street opens to the side, a stack of crates hides in shadows against the wall. She shoves the stack with her elbow, wincing at the crack of wood against bone, and sends the boxes crashing down.
When his thudding steps are near enough that she’s sure he’s beyond the kid, she hangs a hard right down the next street. The damp on the cobblestones makes her feet slip and skid. If not for her Edge, she’d be down on her rear for sure, and up on the gallows by dawn. Still might go that way if she doesn’t keep her head.
At the next alley opening, she ducks into the shadows of the eaves. Slides along the wall with quick, shuffling steps. Looks over her shoulder.
The protector matches her move. Jogs into the narrow corridor. Stomps forward.
He can’t see her, though. She hurries forward, silent as a ship in the fog.
As she approaches the next intersection, she slaps a mental map of the district over her thoughts. She needs to lead the protector away from Owell, and she can’t draw attention down on her mark for tonight. Rot. It’s going to be even tougher to get her job done now. Stupid kid.
She’s about to round the corner onto the next street when a whistled tune pulls her up short. One of the district’s roving lantern-bearers steps out from a nearby alley, bathing the street in light.
Blow holes! The protector is less than twenty paces behind her. Double back, and there’s little chance she can slip past him. She runs frantic eyes over the wall, looking for a downspout or gaps in the siding she can climb. Nothing. The lantern bearer draws closer. Soon, light will spill over her.
Readers had a choice. Should Lin :
- Sprint down the street away from the lantern bearer. She can probably outrun the protector if there are no more surprises. Unfortunately, there are almost always surprises.
- Draw her dagger and start back toward the guard. Protectors are hardened fighters, trained for years in the capital and unwavering in their loyalty to the Emperor. With her element of surprise, though, she can probably score a blow that will slow him enough for her escape. Probably.
The results are in! It was a tighter race this time, but with a bit over 60% of the vote, readers have chosen option 1. Lin will try to run.
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