Chapter 5a

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The jangling bell on our mechanical alarm clock woke me three hours later. Even opening my eyes was torture. I could have gleefully thrown the whole mess of gears and cogs through the window, but it would cost me an entire year’s worth of pocket money to replace. So instead, I groped for the brass lever to silence the alarm. On the other side of our night table, Thea rolled over in her bed and groaned.

Six o’clock in the blasted morning. The newly-dawned light barely filtered through our west-facing window. I struggled to sit up, my muscles already stiff and sore from my night’s adventures. I would have given anything for a hot shower, but there wasn’t time. I had to be at Nadine’s apartments in an hour.

“When did you get back?” Thea mumbled, sliding back her cotton sheet with one foot.

“About three.” My voice was rough as the rubble in the utility tunnels.

“Sorry I was asleep. I just couldn’t stay awake anymore.”

I staggered out of bed and limped over to our washstand. With a turn of the brass faucet handle, I filled the basin with cold water to wash my face. We didn’t have hot water in our rooms, just in the shower rooms down the hall. 

“It’s fine,” I said, splashing the water on my face. My skin felt tight and the scrapes and scratches stung a little. I’d have to come up with a believable explanation for how I’d been injured. 

“Did you have any trouble?”

“No.” I felt badly for lying to her. I wanted to tell her about the Peacock’s threat, but it seemed wrong to say anything before we talked to Nadine. 

After cleaning our teeth and washing up, we helped each other dress—stockings, petticoats, corset, striped skirt, crisp white blouse, button-up boots. I pulled my hair back and pinned it into a simple bun. I was just too tired to do anything more.

I explained away my scrapes by telling Thea I’d stumbled in the darkness of the cavern under the theater. She was still too sleepy to question it.  

I wished we could wear our carpal cryptoaethergraph transceivers, but such devices were strictly not allowed during training hours. I wouldn’t have a chance to talk with her again until the afternoon because our schedules were too different. Hopefully, she would forgive my little fibs once I could explain what had really happened last night.

When we were dressed, we hurried from the apprentice wing toward the dining hall. I made some hasty excuse about skipping breakfast to check on a project due later in the day and gave Thea an airy kiss on her cheek. 

Then I hustled through the maze of corridors to the other side of the theater where the company members and Theater Guild staff lived. Many of them were heading to breakfast as well. As I passed, I felt them staring at my scraped face. 

I hated feeling like a curiosity. 

Welcome, Ladies and Gentlemen, children of all ages! Presenting Professor Cornelius’ Carnival of Curiosities

A sick twinge twisted inside me. I shook my head, a bit impatient with myself. After three years, it was still never far from my mind. The images, the memories, the feelings—they weren’t as strong as they had been at first. But always there, like a devilish shadow. 

“Thrunge plates, Miss Mellor?” The silkily dark voice hummed close to my ear.

I half shrieked. Jumped, and nearly slid on the polished marble floor.

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