If only she’d been born a man…A man in Whitechapel had choices. He could take up a trade, or theft, or even join some of the rookery gangs. A woman had opportunities too, but they were far more limited and nothing that a gently bred young lady would ever aspire to.
A mere six months ago Honoria Todd had owned other options. They hadn’t included the grim tenement that she lived in, hovering on the edges of Whitechapel. Or the nearly overwhelming burden of seeing her brother and sister fed. Six months ago she’d been a respectable young woman with a promising job as her father’s research assistant, hovering on the edge of the biggest breakthrough since Darwin’s hypotheses. It had taken less than a week for everything she had to be torn away from her. Sometimes she thought the most painful loss had been her naïveté.
Scurrying along Church Street, Honoria tugged the edge of her cloak up to shield herself from the intermittent drizzle, but it did no good. Water gathered on the brim of her black top hat, and each step sent an icy droplet down the back of her neck. Gritting her teeth, she hurried on. She was late. Mr. Macy had kept her back an hour at work to discuss the progress of her latest pupil, Miss Austin. Scion of a merchant dynasty, Miss Austin was intended to be launched upon the Echelon, where she just might be fortunate enough to be taken in as a thrall. The girl was certainly pretty enough to catch the eye of one of the seven dukes who ruled the council, or perhaps one of the numerous lesser Houses. Her family would be gifted with exclusive trade agreements and possibly sponsorship, and Miss Austin would live out the terms of her contract in the extravagant style the Echelon was acclimatized to. The type of style Honoria had once lived on the edges of. Before her father was murdered.
Church Street opened into Butcher Square. On a kinder day the square would be packed with vendors and thronging with people. Today only the grim metal lions that guarded the entrance to the Museum of Bio-Mechanic History kept watch. The city wall loomed ahead, with the gaping maw of Ratcatcher Gate offering a glimpse of Whitechapel beyond. Fifty years ago the residents of Whitechapel had built the wall with whatever they could lay their hands on. It stood nearly twenty feet high, but its symbolism towered over the cold, misty square. Whitechapel had its own rules, its own rulers. The aristocratic Echelon could own London city, but they’d best steer clear of the rookeries.
If Mr. Macy found out Honoria’s address, he’d fire her on the spot. Her only source of a respectable livelihood would vanish, and she’d be facing those damned options again. She’d wasted a shilling tonight on a steam cab, just to keep the illusion of her circumstances intact. Mr. Macy had walked her out before locking up the studio where he taught young ladies to improve themselves. Usually he stayed behind and she could slip into the masses of foot traffic in Clerkenwell, turn a corner, and then double back for the long walk home. Tonight his chivalry had cost her a loaf of bread.
She’d disembarked two streets away, prompting the cab driver to shake his head and mutter something beneath his breath. She felt like shaking her head too. A shilling for the sleight-of-hand that kept her employed. It didn’t matter that that shilling would keep her with a roof over her head and food on the table for months to come. She still felt its loss keenly. Her stockings needed darning again and they hadn’t the thread for it; her younger sister, Lena, had put her fingers through her gloves; and fourteen-year-old Charlie…Her breath caught. Charlie needed more than the pair of them combined.
“’Ey!” a voice called. “’Ey, you!”
Honoria’s hand strayed to the pistol in her pocket and she glanced over her shoulder. A few months ago she might have jumped skittishly at the cry, but she’d spotted the ragged urchin out of the corner of her eye as soon as she started toward Ratcatcher Gate. The pistol was a heavy, welcoming weight in her grip. Her father’s pistol was one of the few things she had left of him and probably the most precious for its sheer practicality. She’d long ago given up on sentimentality.
“Yes?” she asked. The square was abandoned, but she knew there’d be eyes watching them from the heavily boarded windows that lined it.
The urchin peered at her from flat, muddy-brown eyes. It could have been any age or sex with the amount of dirt it wore. She decided the square jaw was strong enough to name it a boy. Not even the constant rain could wash away the dirt on his face, as though it were as deeply ingrained in the child’s pores as it was in the cobblestones beneath their feet.
“Spare a shillin’, m’um?” he asked, glancing around as though prepared to flee.
Honoria’s eyes narrowed and she gave the urchin another steady look. If she wasn’t mistaken, that was a rather fine herringbone stitch riddled with grime at the edge of the child’s coat. The clothing fit altogether too well for it to have been stolen, and it was draped in such a manner that it made the child look rather more malnourished than she suspected he was.
She took her time drawing her slim change purse out and opening it. A handful of grimy shillings bounced pitifully in the bottom of it. Plucking one out with reluctance, she offered it to the little street rogue.
The urchin reached for the coin and Honoria grabbed his hand. A quick twist revealed the inside of the child’s wrist—and the crossed daggers tattooed there.
His wary mud-brown eyes widened and he tried to yank his hand away. “Leggo!”
Honoria snatched her shilling back and released him. The boy staggered, landing with a splash in a puddle. He swore under his breath and rolled to his feet.
“I’ve more need of it than you,” she told him, then swept her cloak to the side to reveal the butt of the pistol in her skirt pocket. “Run back to your master and tell him to give you a coin.”
The boy’s lip curled and he glanced over his shoulder. “Worf a try. Already bin paid for this.” He flipped a shilling out of nowhere and then pocketed it just as swiftly. A stealthy smile flashed over his face, gone just as quickly as the coin. “’Imself wants a word with you.”
“Himself?” For a moment she was blank. Then her gaze shot to the child’s wrist and that damning tattoo of ownership. She tucked her change purse away and tugged her cloak about her chin. “I’m afraid I’m not at liberty this evening.” Somehow she forced the words out, cool and clipped. Her fingers started to shake. She thrust them into fists. “My brother is not well. And I’m late. I must see to him.”
She took a step, then shied away as a hand caught at her cloak. “Don’t. Touch. Me.”
The boy shrugged. “I’m jus’ the messenger, luv. And trust me, you ain’t wantin’ ’im to send one o’ the others.”
Her mouth went dry. In the ensuing silence, she felt as though her heartbeat had suddenly erupted into a tribal rhythm. Six months scratching a living on the edges of the rookery, trying to stay beneath the notice of the master. All for nothing. He’d been aware of her, probably all along.
She had to see what he wanted. She’d caught a glimpse of the others who were part of his gang. Everybody in the streets gave them a large berth, like rats fleeing from a pack of prowling toms. Either she could go of her own volition, or she could be dragged there.
“Let me tell my sister where I’m going,” she finally said. “She’ll be worried.”
“Your neck,” the urchin said with a shrug. “Not mine.”
Honoria stared at him for a moment, then turned toward Ratcatcher Gate. Its heavy stone arch cast a shadow of cold over her that seemed to run down her spine. Himself. Blade. The man who ruled the rookeries. Or creature, she thought with a nervous shiver. There was nothing human about him.
By the time Honoria found Crowe Lane, she was drenched and her cotton skirts clung to her. The rain had finally let up, but the hour’s walk had done its damage. Though little more than a fine mist, the rain had managed to seep through to her skin, leaving her flesh pebbled with cold and her corset tight and constrictive about her ribs. Or perhaps it was the thought of what was ahead causing her shortness of breath.
Before heading out, she’d made herself snatch a mouthful of the fried cod that Lena had burned again. It sat in her stomach like a greasy weight, but she hadn’t eaten for a good eight hours and her knees needed the strength. At barely seventeen, Lena had no innate skill at cookery, but she was often home earlier than Honoria, her shift at the clockmaker’s finished well before dusk started to settle. They’d had their usual strained argument over nothing at all—and everything—before Charlie’s cough had broken the tension. Lena had hurried in to take him his supper and try to get him to eat something, an ordeal Honoria didn’t envy her. But, then, her sister wouldn’t envy Honoria’s task either if she’d known about it. Honoria had slipped out of the door before Lena could ask, not even bothering to change her clothes.
A thick yellow fog was beginning to settle over the rookery. There were no gas lamps here, and she had no flare stick to light the way. At a sovereign apiece, she couldn’t afford one.
Footsteps scuttled in the shadows, but the fog carried every sound, and they might have been next to her or fifty feet away. She wasn’t concerned. This close to the master’s lair, nobody would dare attack her without his leave. For a moment she felt strangely fearless, her booted heels striking the cobbles with a ringing sound. She’d been afraid for so long: afraid of starving to death, afraid the Echelon would find them and drag her brother and sister away, afraid of being attacked in the streets by one of the Slasher gangs—those who drained a person of their blood to sell to the factories down by the wharves. It had worn her out with its familiarity, worn her down. She’d thought she had little fear left.
And yet that familiar hollow feeling pooled in her stomach as she paused in front of the derelict building. The fog eddied away from the roughened brick walls as though something kept it out. A pair of crossed daggers was carved into the wooden sign that hung over the door, the sign that all the Reapers gang wore, proclaiming which gang they ran with.
The Roman denarius that hung around her neck suddenly felt heavy. She knew the words inscribed on it as if they were engraved on her soul: fortes fortuna juvat. The motto her father had taken for himself when his experiments caught the eye of the duke of Caine, catapulting them into the gleaming world of the great Houses and earning them untold patronage.
“Fortune favors the bold,” she whispered under her breath. Then she raised her fist and rapped sharply on the door. They would have seen her coming and sent word, no doubt.
The door swung open. A man filled the doorway, and Honoria took a half step back. He loomed over her by a good foot, a short black beard trimmed neatly over his jaw, and his head shaven. It wasn’t the evil look in his green eyes that scared her, or the scars that dissected his face. It was the heavy bio-mechanic arm that had been fitted to his right shoulder, and the pair of glittering knives at his belt. His entire appearance spoke of violence.
Breathe, she reminded herself, still staring up at him. Just breathe.
As though her stare unnerved him, he gave a low grunt and jerked his head. “Inside. ’E’s waitin’.”
Honoria couldn’t resist a closer look at the arm as she stepped past. The metal spars were bare, the hydraulics clearly defined by the hoses that provided the pressure needed to move it. It was crude work. She’d seen better, a thousand times over, when her father worked for Lord Vickers. There wasn’t even a scrap of synthetic flesh to cover it, though perhaps in this trade it would be more costly to constantly patch it against assault. And it was hardly likely that he could have gone to the Echelon’s blacksmiths or metalworkers. This was a job created in the rookeries.
“Up the stairs,” he muttered. The door closed behind her with a sharp slam. Then the lock snicked.
That nervous little fluttering started again, deep in her stomach. The hall stretched ahead endlessly, the timbers rotted and dusty. Hardly the place she’d have expected to find the master of the rookeries.
To stall, Honoria reached up and started unpinning her hat, with its wilted black feathers and bedraggled scraps of lace. She could have sold it, and the dress she wore too, for both were far finer than her circumstances, but that would only lead Mr. Macy to ask questions. Smoke and mirrors, she thought. Her entire life was an illusion.
“Ain’t got all night,” the doorman said.
The hat finally came free, and she turned and shoved it at him. “I wouldn’t want to disturb his breakfast.”
When he took the hat, as though surprised to do so, she started tugging on the stained leather of her kid gloves. Her fingers were cold and the leather fought her.
The big man gestured up a flight of stairs. “After you.”
Honoria stalked past in a swish of skirts.
The stairs were narrow and dusty. They creaked alarmingly, and she gripped the rail, half afraid they were going to collapse beneath her. There was a landing at the top, and she glanced around, wondering which door to take. Light glowed beneath one of the doors, a welcome sight.
The doorman held it open, yellow light spilling out into the hall, and despite herself, she started toward it hungrily. It had the warm glow of a good fire, and she almost thought she could smell the scent of lemon wax in the air. Which was ridiculous.
“Come in, Miz Pryor,” a man called in an atrocious accent, using the name she’d assumed months ago. Garbled cockney from the sound of it, mixed with a healthy dose of…the upper classes?
She frowned. A peculiar combination, but her ear had never been wrong before. That was why Mr. Macy kept her on. She had a talent for speech and could teach a parrot to sound like a duchess.
The parlor could have belonged in any merchant’s home. Honoria stopped in her tracks, surprised by the polished timber floors and the fine gilt-lined furnishings. In front of the glowing fireplace was a stuffed armchair, shadowing the man who sat within. She caught a glimpse of pale blond hair and the sheen of firelight sparking off his eyes. With the fire at his back, his features were indeterminate and even his build was difficult to define. Nothing but shadows and hints of movement.