Part 1: Samuel
Father wasn't coming home. She'd come to that conclusion over the last few weeks when no word came. Her loyalty and devotion to him made her choice clear. She would continue to take care of the shop. It was the least she could do.
She finished her bookwork before climbing to her feet to head up to her room and bed. The endless tabulations and bookkeeping he'd always done. Closing out the accounts for the end of the month had kept her working late into the night.
Much to her surprise, there was a knock at the door. She turned slowly, hesitant. A visitor at this late hour was certainly suspicious.
She checked the pistol that always resided at her hip. Without having to look, she verified that it was indeed loaded. With another quick, practiced motion, she checked for the hidden dagger hilt nestled amongst the bones of her corset. The steel blade would be used only if needed.
With a sigh that made the flame of her lamp flicker, she went to the door. She unbolted the lock, pushing the door open just enough to let in the light of the dim street lamps.
"Can I help you?" she asked, courteous, as father would have expected. Keeping up appearances was part of her duty to him.
A painfully thin, worried looking young man stood before her. "Miss, I have a message, but may I come inside, please?"
"Surely what ever it is, you can tell me from the doorstep at this ungodly hour," she snapped.
He glanced uneasily behind him. '"Miss," he whispered, "I'm being followed, please..."
She grabbed him by the wrist and yanked him inside, slamming the door shut behind him. In a flurry of motion, she locked the door and slid a brace in place before turning on the boy. The time had come. She could feel her heart pick up its pace in anticipation.
"Whoever is following you,” she hissed, “you led them here.” With that, she thrust him up against the wall, fingering the hilt of her knife with her free hand. “You’d best have a mighty good reason I shouldn’t push you back out on that curb for whatever fate awaits you there.”
He shook his head, wide-eyed. He was pale, filthy, his lank hair plastered to his head. A young thing, likely an orphan, and she couldn’t help but pity the boy. Hands trembling, he held up a paper wrapped package. It was small and battered, and fit easily in the palm of his hand.
“This, Miss-Miss Claire... You are Miss Claire?”
She nodded, eyes narrowed.
“Then this is for you. Please take it.”
It was hardly the answer she’d demanded, but she took the offered box and released him. In the next instant, she’d pulled her knife free of its hiding place, bringing the tip of the small, yet razor sharp steel to kiss the flesh of his neck.
“Don’t move,” she ordered, “or this knife will find your neck again, but not so tenderly.”
There was writing on the packaging, faded and smudged, yet the hand was recognizable even if illegible. “Father...” the whispered word escaped her lips before she could still herself. Fingers trembling in anticipation, she tugged loose the string binding the parcel together.
The wrapping fell away, revealing a small, well-made box painted in his signature blue. Along the top there was an intricate carving, accented with gold paint to create a beautiful clockwork design. She flipped it open and the tiny brass hinges made no sound, well oiled and perfectly made. Everything he created was perfection. As impressive as those details were, it was what lay within that was the true marvel.
To most who laid eyes on it, it looked to be little more than a pocket watch — a beautifully made, treasure of a pocket watch--yet only a pocket watch.
Claire knew better. What she held was the culmination of her father's work and studies. This was the holy grail, the sorcerer's stone, ambrosia. He had named it the Chalice, and within it was supposedly the secret to eternal life, or the harbinger of doom for all mankind.
She held the box gingerly, hesitant to touch the thing. Had he really succeeded during his time in the orient? Why had he sent it ahead, while he still stayed behind in that far off, godless country? She sighed heavily, and lifted the watch-like device from where it was cradled in velvet. Testing the lining, she found what she was after; a faint crinkle of paper. Relief washed over her as she tugged the paper loose from where it was hidden, and placed the sacred object back into its bed.
She flipped the box shut, and set it down gingerly on the table. She pulled out a chair, and with her free hand, motioned to the one across from her. "Sit boy. I need a moment to read this."
The kid nodded and obeyed, pulling the rickety old chair out from the table with an irritating scraping against the floor boards. Claire shot him a scathing look before proceeding to unfold the note. It had been folded multiple times to fit so securely in its hiding place, and she hoped it would still be legible.There was cross writing, and she groaned. Reading was not one of her favored pastimes, and the overlapping text was not easy to decipher. She set at it, mouthing the words as she read. As she did so, she fingered the finely carved box. By the end of the letter, she was clutching it tightly, her jaw set.
She looked up, eyes ablaze. “Boy.” The kid, who’d sat silently through all of this, pulled his eyes from her white knuckled hand to meet her gaze.
“Y-yes?” he stuttered.
"What's your name?" she asked. She could tell he wanted to drop his gaze to the table, to avoid her eyes, but he held firm. So he wasn't a coward, she could work with this.
"Samuel, though everyone just calls me Sam," he responded.
"Alright, Sam. Here's the deal. I won’t throw you out to the wolves you brought to my doorstep, but you must help me."
It wasn't much of a deal, and they both knew it. Yet, there was no choice in the matter. He nodded.
"Come on then." She stood, pocketing the box and the treasured device of her father's legacy. He followed her dutifully down to the workshop, a flickering candle the only light between them.
Once there, she lit the oil lantern hanging in the corner and snuffed out the candle. The room, more fully illuminated now, was a mirrorball of reflections and polished surfaces. Most of it was clockwork, fancy, but not practical. Some, though were truly valuable, efficient works of craftsmanship. She watched his eyes light up as he stared around him, the gleaming surfaces drawing his gaze around the room.
He was a good kid, knew his place. Those dirty hands didn't touch a single thing as she led him to her real treasure. Her bike. It was a marvel, this steam powered velocipede. She and her father had spent many long hours on the one of a kind vehicle. There had been other such horseless carriages created, but none on two wheels that had anywhere near the efficiency or speed this machine had managed. It was a thrill to ride, and she’d only done so on occasion when they’d managed to smuggle it out to the farm for a test run.
He trailed behind her, staring around the large room. Paying him little mind, she went about checking her valves gauges. Pulling out her pocket lighter, she twisted a valve and quickly lit the gas nozzle, and made a few more adjustments.
“Sam,” she called, and his head snapped around to her summons. She smiled despite herself. She tapped the pressure gauge near the handle bars. “If this goes above one-fifty,” she pointed to the number, in case the kid didn’t even have that basic knowledge. “While I’m getting my gear from upstairs, you turn this,” she indicated the release valve. She caught his eye. “If you don’t, you’ll lose a hand at best, at worst, the whole place will go up.”
He nodded, those big dark eyes of his nearly rolling with fear.
“And if you survive that, you’ll wish I’d fed you to the wolves. Understand?”
He nodded again.
She smiled. “Good boy. Now stay put I’ll be right back.”
It was a load of rubbish. The engine had many safety mechanisms built in, pressure valves that would take care of any excess before it became an issue. This, though, kept the boy occupied and planted to one spot. The boiler took less than ten minutes to heat, even on the coldest days.
She dashed up the stairs, snagging a saddle back and went about filling it with the barest essentials. After that, she made her way to her room, tying her skirt up around her hips revealing the leggings and calf high boots.
She strapped a pair of revolvers to her belt and grabbed her knife belt. It was a wicked looking article, covered with an assortment of knives of varying length. As she settled it in place over one shoulder, she paused for the briefest moment to trace her fingers over the hilts, feeling for each familiar blade. With a shake of her head, bringing her back to the present, she finished her preparations, pulling on a long, sturdy leather jacket and gloves.
Certain no more than ten minutes had passed, she made her way back down to the workshop. The boy still stood beside the bike, nervously watching that gauge. She clapped him on the shoulder and he jumped.
“Good job kid.” She handed him a pair of goggles, her own sitting on the top of her head, out of place amongst the tumble of curls and little feathered hat pinned there. She’d only remembered its presence when she’d put on the goggles. It’d surely be lost in a matter of moments once they were out on the road, but she didn’t much care.
She mounted the bike and started it up. There was a low chug, chug, chug and a faint whine. She smiled at the sound, her heart beat once again building in momentum. Part of her hoped there would be a chase. She pulled down her goggles after settling her bag and other items in place on the metal beast.
“Okay kid, see that lever on the wall? I’m going to need you to pull it when I get this thing going, then jump on. We’ll see if we can out run these wolves.”
He nodded, all but paralyzed as he stared at her transformation from intimidating shop girl to steam engine straddling warrior woman. The goggles still dangled in his hand.
“You’d best be putting those on,” she commanded and revved the motor, the chugging sound and whistle of steam growing in intensity. “Now, the lever?”
He broke from his paralysis and bolted for the wall, putting the goggles on as he did so. Once he’d pulled it, the door at the far end of the shop cranked open, and she pushed the bike off its stand. Moments later, the boy had climbed on behind her and they were out in the dark cobbled streets. She glanced back to confirm that the doors to the workshop were sliding closed, protecting her father’s legacy, not to mention the years of work she’d put into the wonders it contained.
It was a rough ride, and she only just barely caught a glimpse of their pursuer. A single man, clad all in black. The only thing that gave him away was the glint of the metal adorning his clothing, caught in the dim gas lamps lining the street. He started to run, moving with a slightly stilted, inhuman stride. He was picking up speed, but she knew he was no match for her beloved Velocipede. Along his arms, she caught the all too familiar sharp edged gleam of blades.
She shivered, and opened the throttle. They jolted and bumped along at speeds in excess of what these streets had ever seen or were made for. She prayed that the suspension she’d worked so hard to perfect would hold out. The boy clung to her, a thin, trembling adornment to her back. She could faintly make out his whispered prayers whenever she slowed enough to let the engine idle.
After taking every alley, every detour she could think of, she finally came around to the brothel. Madam Mercy’s house was as familiar to her as father’s shop. She brought the bike around, and kicked at a fairly ordinary looking cobble stone. A clink and then a chugging sound started up, revealing a hidden door.
“Get off kid,” she growled, holding the bike upright as he clumsily dismounted.
Once they were inside the dark, narrow hideaway, she pushed the bike up on its stand and went to the door, glancing out to confirm one last time that they’d lost the black clad man before sliding it shut behind them, engulfing them in darkness. She pulled out her lighter, and gestured for the boy to follow.
“That man, the one you led to me... he’ll find us soon enough.” She shook her head as they made their way up the narrow staircase. “Stay close, and I’ll do what I can to keep you alive.”
“Yes Miss.” His voice quavered, and she knew he was on the verge of tears. There was no help for it. By no fault of his own besides his lowly upbringing, he’d been caught up in something that was bigger than them both.
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bit·ter·sweet: being at once bitter and sweet; especially: pleasant but including or marked by elements of suffering or regret. A collection of short stories I've written since joining Wattpad for various contests, challenges and publications. The...