Chapter 20

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The scenery before me shudders and sways in rhythm with the rattling cart. I shift in my seat, struggling to find a comfortable position atop the hard wooden bench. From the driver's seat beside me, Tawny flicks the reins and the horses respond with a sigh, not bothering to increase their pace above a weary plod.

We cross through colourless farmland before the road dips and the stately structures that make up Babel's metropolitan rise up to greet us. Our cart joins the stampede of traffic circling the Tower and I feel instantly safer, despite my proximity to the Madam. The crowd is a disguise better than my patched outfit and dark hair could ever hope to offer.

Though the streets and bridges still teem with people, a surplus of black uniforms reveal that the Enforcers nearly outnumber citizens, the latter of which keep their eyes downcast and their conversations low as they pass the former. Tawny pulls the cart over in front of an abandoned storefront and I hop down, taking the opportunity to stretch my sore muscles.

Tawny swivels in her seat to look at me, "I assume you're capable of making your way from here."

"I'll be fine." I glance up and down the street, adjusting my cap so that it sits lower over my brow. "What time do the announcements start tonight?"

"Six o'clock."

Craning my neck to see between the buildings, I make out the face of the clock adorning the top of the Tower. "That gives me three hours. I'll meet you back here after they're done."

"Just make sure you find me before curfew," Tawny picks up the reins. "I'm not getting caught out here after dark."

"Don't wait for me."

She nods, urging the horses back into motion. I turn in the opposite direction, shouldering my bag and letting myself be swept up by the city. At first my direction is random as I let the sights and sounds of Babel wash over me, taking note of the ever-increasing piles of rubbish that line the streets and gutters. The citizens are hurried, their steps purposeful. I weave in and out of the throng, my ears perked to the various conversations. The atmosphere is thick with tension, people too scared to do or say the wrong thing and give the Enforcers a reason to give them attention. It's clear from the guards' boisterous swagger that they operate under very little scrutiny and I feel myself prickle each time one brushes by me.

Posters of the Runner still line the walls but the old, faded pictures have been plastered over with brightly-coloured replacements. The new posters showcase my image in profile with the words REWARD FOR INFORMATION LEADING TO CAPTURE stamped prominently across it. I rub the bridge of my nose, willing away the sharpness and wishing there was more I could do to disguise my features.

No matter. I only need to avoid detection for a few more days. Seeing myself as the subject of such propaganda only reaffirms that I am heading down the correct path. The Madam may assert her ultimate control over Babel but her actions tell another story.

I'm making her nervous.

Good.

A pair of Techs move past me, heading in the direction of the Tower. I trail them for a few blocks, watching when they enter a store. I briefly consider following them inside, hanging back when I notice the glass vials and other expensive-looking equipment advertised in the window. Several minutes tick by and when the Techs finally re-emerge I opt to remain a full block behind them, catching up again when they stop at a pastry cart. Joining the line of people waiting to fill their flasks at an adjacent fountain, I strain to hear their conversation. At first, I catch only snippets but bit by bit, the buzz of surrounding hubbub fades away and soon I'm left alone with just the pair of scientists.

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