Chapter 2b

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After supper, Thea and I hurried back to our small room high up under the eaves of the theater. We were lucky enough to have a room with a sloped dormer and a window. It looked out over the jagged, sooty skyline of Aldwych, the capitol city of the Mercian Empire. We had placed a trunk under the window, and in my quieter moments, I loved to sit there and watch pigeons strut across the carved stone ledge outside. Sometimes, Thea or I pocketed a bun from supper and cracked open the window to toss crumbs at the birds. There was something mysterious and soothing about the smoke curling from hundreds of chimneys, and at sunset, the brick buildings glowed red and orange. One by one, the windows across the city lit up with the cheery glow of gas lamps. It was in the evenings that Aldwych was at its best and most magical. 

And most dangerous. 

We helped each other out of our apprentice uniforms—the fitted white blouses and long skirts pinstriped with purple and red on a tan background. I slid off my petticoats and boots. Thea untied my corset for me, and I sprawled on my narrow iron-framed bed in my drawers and chemise, enjoying the luxury of slouching. 

“What should we wear?” Thea flung open our very simple, very small oak wardrobe to study its contents. 

“I’m not sure. We don’t even know where we’re going.” 

None of the apprentices had a lot of extra clothing, aside from our uniforms. Many of us were orphans, and those who did have families were usually quite poor. The apprentice program supplied us with basic necessities: two sets of uniforms, underclothing, personal care items, bedding, as well as a small monthly allowance—thanks to some wealthy donors. Wealthy patrons also donated unwanted or worn clothing. The costume department put apprentices to work remaking and repairing these items as part of their training, and then the new outfits were sold very cheaply in a special shop just for apprentices. Most of us became quite creative in coming up with new ways to use the outdated and made-over clothing. We could never hope to keep up with upper class fashion, but I thought our style was every bit as charming and much more original. 

Thea had more money than most of us. Her parents both worked in a theater in the empire province of Gaul. They were so busy, they tended to forget they had a daughter in the capitol city. But on occasion, they would remember, feel guilty, and send money. Thea always shared with me when that happened, so we had built up a surprisingly good wardrobe despite being lowly apprentices. 

“What does Delphine usually wear when she goes out?” I said at last.

“Oh. Good thought.” Thea flipped through the bustled skirts and gowns on wire hangers. “She never wears anything fancy. Usually, it’s dark, simple. Sturdy boots.” She grabbed a few items as she spoke, and draped them on her bed. “Boring, sorry to say.”

“Maybe so, but probably sensible if she’s walking far, especially through the tunnels.”

“Did you just call her ‘sensible’?”

“Momentary coggle-brain—I’m better now.” I picked up a black poplin skirt that I had made over to have five drawstrings running the length of the skirt. Each could be left flat to wear the skirt long or cinched up so it could be worn as a bustle over another skirt. If I cinched it up to the top of my boots, it would be easier to walk in, and I was already wearing black stockings. I paired it with a close-fitted black and white striped blouse, and my favorite black leather underbust harness. 

Thea chose all brown: flounced skirt, leather overbust corset, and a smart little jacket. Both her corset and my harness had compartments added to hold a few of my special gadgets—a luminescent compass, a pepper-spray gun, and a tiny electric torch. The torch was bronze and shaped in the form of the goddess Diana. She held a white globe over her head that contained the light bulb, and it could be switched to full power or to a pale glow like moonlight. I loved it because it was both functional and beautiful.

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