Chapter 4b

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Her words enveloped me like frozen steam. My mind felt numb. Then my common sense broke through the sudden ice. It was all rumor. Speculation. If someone knew who the Peacock’s next victim was, they’d go to the police and have it stopped. And anyway, I wasn’t about to let Delphine see she’d frightened me. Not for a second.

“You couldn’t have told me that without trying to rip my head off?” I snatched the handkerchief back and tucked it into my bag. “I can’t believe you’re blubbering over a coggle-brained rumor.”

Before she could answer me, a sharp whistle pierced the air. A tall, bulky figure rounded the corner into the alley and jogged toward us. I inhaled sharply. 

A rozzer. 

I could tell by the gleaming metal and gears protruding from the stump of his left arm. Empress Antonia, long may she rot in hell, made all police and soldiers have an arm or leg amputated and replaced by a mechanical prosthetic that was basically a built-in weapon. The prosthetic also contained a spell that, over time, took command of the rozzer’s soul until he or she was completely under the empress’s control. Rozzers were ruthless and dangerous. 

And one was heading straight toward us. 

I tucked my pepper-spray gun close to me, in the folds of my skirt.

“You there!” He pointed at us with his mechanical arm. “Stay where you are.”

As if we were planning to do anything else? I glanced at Delphine. Her face was blotchy and tearstained, but suddenly pale. I had a brief urge to take her hand. My heart pounded. Rozzers were everywhere, of course, but I’d never before had one bearing down on me in a darkened alley.

At least he was only a police officer—they were never totally overtaken by the spell. Even the empress knew that her police force needed to have something resembling humanity. Once the spell became stronger, this rozzer would be transferred to a military unit. No one needed humanity on the battlefield—according to our gentle empress. 

Delphine stared at him, eyes wide, mouth blissfully silent for once. I thought she might faint. It was clear I’d need to handle this. It was essential that neither of us be connected to the Alchemy Theater. We were too well dressed to be street children or child workers, but not well dressed enough to be Polite Society. We were in the wrong part of town for that, anyway. 

It would be obvious that we were either young working class females, apprentices, or possibly dollymops—street walkers. Letting him know we were apprentices was out of the question—he’d take us into custody until we told him which training program we belonged to. And I preferred not to be taken for a whore. Young employees it had to be, then.

I pushed down my own fear, and willed my mind into action.

“Good evening, Officer. Is everything all right?” I assumed my most innocent, charming expression. The one that rarely failed to get me out of trouble. 

His face didn’t soften. “I heard screaming and shouting three blocks away. You tell me if everything is all right.” He took another step nearer. 

A metallic buzzing filled my ears. My mouth went dry. I forced myself not to step back. We couldn’t admit to fighting—it would be a disturbance of the public peace, and he would take us to the nearest police station and fine us. “Oh it was awful! My friend and I were walking home from our shift, and a man tried to rob us. We fought him off, but he went that way.” I pointed behind us. 

Delphine suddenly returned to life. “Yes, it was so frightening!” She gave a little shudder. 

The rozzer’s eyes narrowed. He stepped even closer. I could barely breathe. I hated for men to stand too close to me, especially men that could hurt me. I eyed his mechanical arm. It had extensions on it that could snap my wrist in two. 

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