Chapter 4a

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She didn’t react. Maybe she hadn’t heard me. I said her name again, louder, and touched her shoulder.

She screeched. Grabbed my arm and flung me from her. My body slammed against the brick. I couldn’t breathe. 

Another shriek—hers, I thought. Her fists grabbed my hair, yanked my head down. My cheek scraped against the rough brick surface. 

“It’s me!” I yelled. “Minx. Stop it!”

My hat went flying. Felt like a good chunk of hair went with it. Pain sizzled along my scalp. Howling, I dug my fingernails into her wrists. 

She grunted, but didn’t let go. Just rammed my head into the wall again.

I flailed, slapping her face. My fingers found her ear. I pulled and twisted as hard as I could. 

She screamed and finally released me.

I stumbled out of her reach. My head throbbed. I put my hand to my stinging cheek, and it came away smeared with blood. I’d felt sorry for this haybag? “What the hell is your problem, Delphine?”

“You,” she said, panting, hand cupped over her ear, “are a gammy bitch.”

“And you are a bloody criminal.” I retrieved my fallen hat, jammed it on my aching head, and refastened the remaining hat pins. “And crazy, to boot.”

“I should have known when your cog-brained friend started on about thrunge plates that you were up to something.”

“Yes, well, at least we weren’t up to anything illegal—like, I don’t know…performing sub rosa at some cheap penny gaff theater.” 

“Stow it, Minx. I don’t give two bits what you think.”

“You might care what Master Fenrey thinks—or Dame Fairchild. I’m sure they’ll be interested to hear that their star apprentice has been breaking the law for the last three years. I wonder what Nadine will say to that?”

She drew a quick breath. “Don’t you dare use her given name.”

We all knew Delphine worshipped Nadine Fairchild. I was about to be cruel, but someone who had just tried to beat me up shouldn’t expect any mercy. “Why not? Oh, that’s right.” I gave her a sticky-sweet look of sympathy. “Nadine is mentoring you. You’re not actually friends with her like I am.”

She glared at me like an angry sewer alligator. Then she tilted her nose in the air. “Even if I were, I wouldn’t address her so informally. I have too much respect for her.”

“So much respect that you risk ruining her reputation with your little side job? Blimey, I’m sure Nadine will be totally flattered.”

 Her chest heaved. “You don’t have any idea what’s going on here.” The hopeless tone had returned to her voice.

My sarcasm left me. “I know enough. And I care too much about Nadine to keep it from her.” 

We stared at each other. I could feel the fury rising in her. 

“I care too!” she screamed. 

She lunged for me again. I beat her hands away from my head.

She heaved her bag at me. I twisted to the side to shield myself. It slammed into my shoulder. My hat tumbled to the cobblestones again. 

Her arm slapped around my waist, dragging me in front of her. I stomped on her foot and yanked her arm. She grunted. Stumbled. 

Using her arm for leverage, I threw her agains the wall. Her body thudded, and she gasped for air. 

“You’re crazy.” Panting, I pinned her arms to the wall as best I could. 

Her arms flailed, her hands scrabbled for a fistful of my hair. “You—” Squealing, she wrenched free and grabbed my head again. “—don’t understand!”

I punched her side, but her corset didn’t give much.

“More important things—” She shoved my head down. 

Pain shot through my neck. I cried out. 

“—than..a stupid acting job!”

I clawed at her hands and face. “God, Delphine. Let me go!”

I couldn’t stand up, so I threw myself at her. We tumbled into a pile of discarded crates and boxes. She still wouldn’t release me. I grabbed a nearby crate lid and slammed it at her face. It connected with a dull slap that made me feel sick to hear it.

With a sharp cry, she dropped her hold. I scrambled to my feet and pulled out my pepper-spray gun. Pointed it at her. 

“Stay away from me, you crazy haybag.” My breath came in labored puffs, restricted a little by my harness.

She didn’t try to get up. Just curled onto her side, moaning. “He’s coming…” 

I lowered the pepper-spray gun and glanced around. No one was there. Then I realized Delphine was crying again. Had I hurt her that badly? I hesitated to get too near. My head ached and I felt a little dizzy.

“Who’s coming?”

She just sobbed harder. 

“Good grief.” Shoving aside my fear, I crouched next to her and shook her a bit. “Stop blubbering and tell me what on earth is wrong with you.”

Her face was reddened, and welted scratches criss-crossed it. “The Peacock.” 

The serial killer—the one that had murdered three of the empire’s best actors so far. “What about him?”

Suddenly, I was all fought out. I stood again, scowling, and held out my hand to her. She took it, and I pulled her to her feet. I even offered her the handkerchief Benjamin Pierce had given me earlier. She scrubbed at her eyes and wiped her nose.

Her breath came in shuddering gasps. “I…heard someone talking. Tonight. She said Dame Fairchild is the Peacock’s next victim.”

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So...cat fight and devastating news. What next for these two? How are they going to protect Dame Fairchild? And how are they going to explain all the scrapes and bruises from their fight? 

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