SEV pulled the collar of his secondhand military coat up and wrapped his scarf tighter to block the cold November wind whipping through the streets of London’s Blackside. Sev hated the cold almost as much as he hated the smoke-heavy air this side of the city. Victoria had the slums cut off in 1861. Just before the death of Albert. In whispers they called that period the great spiral. Sev didn’t get the reference, but he understood the intent. The queen’s mum died, and things started to go wrong. Now it was 1865, and Sev slipped in and out of the throng on King Street. He’d been following the man in the stovepipe hat for a few blocks, blending into the shadows to observe his prey. The once-crimson military jacket he wore was almost black with wear from years on the street, but that suited Sev just fine. He knew what it felt like to get noticed. It hurt more often than not, and Sev’d had enough hurt for two lifetimes.
The man Sev trailed was tall and oddly built. His arms seemed too long for his body; his legs towered, but he moved with mechanical purpose. He wore goggles beneath his stovepipe hat and had a beard as black as night to match his clothes. Sev had been watching the man for more than a week now and was completely intrigued by the dark man’s strange errands. Something about the man’s movement seemed wrong. Sev couldn’t explain it, but he knew to trust his instincts, and there might be money in it for him if he told the right person. Sev needed money if he ever wanted to escape Blackside, and he desperately wanted freedom. He’d heard stories of the colonies and how someone with strength and determination could make a living despite the circumstances of his birth. If there were even a chance that was true, it was a chance he was willing to take. The man looked toward the shadows that hid Sev, and Sev pulled his newsboy hat down to shield his eyes. He looked in the window of the bake shop, feigning interest in the window’s contents. Glancing at the emerald-green eyes of his reflection, he pushed his too-long burgundy locks behind his ear before he allowed his gaze to dart back to the dark stranger. He waited for the gangly man to turn the corner before leaving his perch to follow.
Sev had grown up on these streets. His parents emigrated in 1845 like many others during the potato famine in their homeland, and Sev was born a few years after. He could barely remember how happy he’d been as a small child with his family. Although he remembered being branded like it was only yesterday. Funny how the pain could remain so vivid while the contentment faded so easily. Sev escaped after four years of hellish labor and horrific circumstances. Freedom should inspire pleasant feelings, but when he thought back to that day in 1861 when he’d escaped and took Lord Fervis’s eye, his chest tightened with guilt and regret. Sev barely remembered his mother. She’d died in Fervis’s factory when Sev was scarcely nine.
The city was more of a mother to him now, and he knew her streets, could dash along them without thought and know exactly where he was at any given time. Sev prided himself on not being seen. The skill was born of necessity: trying to avoid detection by the Coal-Eaters, Scotland Yard, and Fervis’s Footmen, Blackside’s own police force. Sev spent more time in shadow than in light and excelled at remaining unnoticed. It kept him alive. He stole some things he needed, sold information to get things he couldn’t, all the while trying to set something aside for his escape. Not to mention trying to stand up for the factory orphans, making sure those who tried to take advantage of them met with unfortunate accidents. If only someone had been there for him and his siblings. It wasn’t an ideal existence, dashing from shadow to shadow and avoiding observation, but it beat living in the workhouses and factories like Fervis’s Auto-Matic Cobblery, which sprang up in Blackside, and which Victoria was rumored to have encouraged. Sev would rather die than return to a place like that, and he had no intention of dying. The young Irishman knew, without a doubt, after what he’d done, showing his face anywhere near a factory would be a death sentence.
Sev wasn’t sure if the queen’s intentions were good when she established London’s factory district, and he didn’t care. It was what it was, but as soon as the filth the industries spewed into the air started to encroach on the affluent portion of the city, she’d commissioned giant fans to be placed along the division, keeping the filth in the air over the filth in the streets and away from the nobles and high society. Sev paused on the edge of a roof, hitching up his oversized trousers, reminding himself to tighten the bracers on his shoulders. He regarded the stranger beyond the toes of his boots, which he’d mended more times than he could remember while desperately keeping a lookout for a new pair. The thought brought memories of his father, and Sev swallowed against the swell of feelings still strong after so many years.
The dark man dashed down another alleyway, and Sev skipped along the rooftop following the man’s every move. He loosed the first few buttons of the double row that led down his jacket despite the chill night. The garment beneath was filthy, and he longed to switch it out for his other shirt awaiting him in the small hideout he maintained above the Royal Museum.
Sev’s ability to avoid detection allowed him to pass easily above or below the guarded lines between Blackside and Fairside. He didn’t have much, but he aspired to something more. He managed to slip from his attic hideout into the museum from time to time and had forced himself to learn to read, sort of; he still had a bit of trouble. His thoughts drifted to Henry, the owlet he’d nursed back to health a few months ago. They shared his attic room. Some other streeters, kids who lived as he did, had killed Henry’s mother for food, leaving the tiny owl orphaned and alone. Sev couldn’t allow the tiny creature to starve to death and had saved the little owl chick. Henry hadn’t left Sev’s nest since.
The dark man ducked into Curtis’s Mercantile, and Sev paused, watching from above. He observed the tall man purchase an odd variety of items: cloth, metal, coal, gears, food, water, and oil. The man didn’t leave with the items, and Sev assumed they’d be delivered later. To where? he wondered.
He’d watched the man speak with an eclectic group of people throughout the week as well: the nobleman Sutherland; the criminal, Midnight; a prominent madam; three floor foremen from various industries; and a duchess. Sev tried to piece the connections together but could spot no obvious correlation. The stranger dashed ahead once more, and Sev lost sight of the man. Sev cursed and forced himself to run faster, turning the corner only to find an empty wall. The dark stranger was nowhere to be found. Sev scanned the alley for any means of egress but detected none. He dropped to the ground. Nothing, he thought. He’s just gone. Sev removed his hat and scratched his head. Someone shouted from the alley’s entrance, and Sev scrambled up a drainpipe onto the opposite wall.
Ten minutes later, Sev dropped into an alley that fed onto Cheapside. The street used to be primarily a produce market until Victoria cut Blackside off, making Cheapside the center of commerce for the entire east side. Sev picked his way down the street past the stalls and tents, looking for Montcour’s cart. The Frenchman had sold Sev the arm-mounted crossbow he never traveled without. It was one of his most prized possessions, along with the cutlass he had won in a poker game against someone who may or may not have been the pirate Parr a few years ago, just after Sev had escaped Fervis. Sev always carried the simple but well-made sword and the hidden crossbow. The young Irishman searched for the Frenchman, who’d emigrated after the Crimean War, just before Victoria ordered the evacuation of the lower classes from the west side. Renee Montcour had a variety of clockwork mechanisms of various quality and questionable acquisition. As Sev walked east, he searched for the Frenchman’s stall and found it somewhere just beyond King Street as usual. The cart expanded into a traveling storefront with a tatty awning. Sev sidled up to the cart, now open for business, and inspected Monty’s recent acquisitions. None of the pieces interested Sev, and he sighed. Montcour appeared from behind the curtains at the sound.
“Monsieur Sept,” he said in greeting. “It is so good to see you again.” The man’s accent remained thick, and it had taken Sev some time to get used to. It didn’t help that the man spoke faster than an auction house master of ceremonies.
“Monty, how are ye?” Sev asked, his Irish inflection still detectable. Though he’d grown up in England, he’d spent his formative years in the company of his countrymen. Most of the workers at Fervis’s Cobblery were Irish as well, and Sev had adopted his home country’s inflection as well as his people’s inherent stubborn disposition.
“Bon,” the Frenchman answered. “What are you looking for today, mon ami?”
“Have y’found any o’them clockwork pistols yet?”
Monty sighed. “Non. Unfortunately zhey’ve been very difficult to acquire. No one who has zhem is willing to part wizh zhem.” Sev nodded. He hadn’t expected Monty to have them. “Is zhere anyzhing else you might be looking for?” Monty inquired.
Sev considered the question before asking, “Have ye had any dealings with a tall man in a stovepipe hat?” Sev waited as Monty scratched his chin. “Black beard, goggles,” Sev added.
The Frenchman nodded. “You speak of Monsieur Kettlebent.”
“Kettlebent.” Sev repeated the name, even more intrigued than before.
“Oui,” Monty confirmed. “He has purchased several items from moi.”
Sev contemplated the Frenchman’s words. “Anything of interest?”
“Zhe usual,” Monty answered. Sev studied the clockwork vendor. Monty raised an eyebrow. “Is he a friend of yours?”
Sev shook his head. “I’ve just noticed him around lately. He’s a bit odd.”
“Oui,” the Frenchman confirmed. “Odd is the word.”
“Aye,” Sev agreed. “Well, keep an eye out fer them clockwork weapons.” Sev tossed his acquaintance a coin despite their lack of transaction.
“Oui, Monsieur Sept.” Monty scooped up the money. “You will be zhe first to know.” Sev tipped Monty a salute and melted back into the current of bodies.
Kettlebent, Sev thought. At least now he had a name to go with the face. He’d heard the name spoken in whispers but had given no importance to it. He had much to think on now, but it was getting late, and he felt exhausted. It wouldn’t do to be on the streets at night, not these streets. The crowd eventually thinned, and Sev would be too conspicuous. He decided to visit Waverly on St. John Street Road at the Bacchus and Tun. Sev knew he could scrounge a decent meal after giving Monty his last coin. His afternoon of trailing the mysterious Mr. Kettlebent had stoked his appetite, and his stomach growled in agreement.
SEV slipped around the side of the pub to the back door. “Psst, Waverly,” he hissed. He rapped his knuckles on the doorframe. “Waverly.” Sev waited for his oldest friend, remembering a time when these streets were not so familiar. He and Waverly had met at Fervis’s and when they’d escaped, they’d spent many a day outside of public houses similar to this one, both hoping to make a few coins selling bits of clockwork and other baubles they’d foraged from the dockyards. They’d been so young, but they weren’t afforded the luxury of the naiveté of that youth, watching one another’s backs as much as they could. Sev had feelings for Wave that he’d tried to explain to his friend once unsuccessfully. Since then he was content to remain friends with Wave, even after his old partner was taken in by the owner of the B & T. Waverly had been working in the kitchen ever since, performing odd jobs for room and board.
“Sev?” The boy stuck his dark-haired head out the back door.
“Aye, Wave,” Sev answered. “How are ye?” The kitchen boy slipped out the door and clapped Sev on the shoulder.
“Good, my friend.” Waverly wiped his hands on his apron. “What have you been up to? Avoiding notice?” Before Sev could answer, his stomach interrupted with a loud complaint. “You need to eat,” Waverly guessed.
“I hate t’bother ye, Wave.” Sev shuffled his feet as he spoke.
“Nonsense.” Waverly waved off Sev’s embarrassment. “What’re friends for? I’ll see what I can scrounge us up. Wait here,” Waverly said as he slipped back into the pub. Sev sorted through some garbage and fished out a few crates and a barrel. He used the castoffs to fashion a makeshift table and took a seat on one of the crates.
Waverly reappeared a few moments later with a tray and placed it on the barrel lid. Sev’s mouth watered at the sight: a half loaf of bread, some cheese, a couple of partial sausage links, and two mugs of ale. Sev whistled. “Ye’ve brought us a feast.”
Waverly shrugged. “Eat up, friend. You look hungry.” Sev obliged, tearing a piece of the bread and dipping it into the ale to soften it. Waverly sipped from his own mug and watched his friend eat. The kitchen boy produced a knife and sliced the cheese and the sausage. Sev gratefully scooped the slices up with a bit of bread, gobbling the food happily. Waverly smiled and touched the hand Sev wasn’t using to feed himself. Sev paused, regarding his old friend. He put the food down and sandwiched Waverly’s hand between his own.
“Thank ye, Wave.” Sev spoke around a mouthful of food before he released the other boy’s hand and tucked back into his feast.
“When was the last time you ate, Sev?” Instead of answering, Sev shrugged. “Days?”
“Two,” Sev confirmed.
“Why don’t you try to find a job like I have?” Waverly leaned back on his crate, sipping his ale. It seemed to Sev the pub owners were the only ones still making a decent living in Blackside outside of the factories. Apparently the Ministry of Invention hadn’t come up with a way to steal their livelihood yet.
“Freedom,” Sev answered and drank his own ale. “I’m me own master. If I have t’go a few days without eatin’, I’m willin’ t’suffer that.”
Waverly chuckled. “Damn Irish.”
“Spoken like a bloody Brit.” Sev smirked. Waverly scowled at Sev’s remark until both young men broke into easy laughter. “Rule Britannia.” Sev chuckled and raised his mug.
“Seven, the luck of the Irish,” Waverly toasted his friend. Sev snorted and drank. “Sev,” Waverly continued, his tone turned serious.
Sev held up a hand as he chewed and swallowed. “Don’t,” he advised. “Truly, Wave.”
“I still feel awful,” Waverly admitted.
Sev remembered the time they had shared a bunk Waverly purchased in a public house with some coin they’d pinched. The young Irishman blushed at the memory of attempting intimate affection with his friend.
“We’re mates, Waverly,” Sev confirmed. “Best mates. Ye don’t need t’dwell upon it. I don’t.”
“You’re a better man than most, my friend,” Waverly observed. Sev finished up the scraps Waverly had gathered, slipping a bit of sausage into his pocket. “So what have you been up to?”
Sev could tell Wave was attempting to change the subject. He smirked as he answered, “A special project, I s’pose ye could call it.”
“Really?” Wave leaned in, curious.
“Have y’ever heard of a man named Kettlebent?” Sev sipped his remaining ale.
“Kettlebent?” Waverly repeated. “The name sounds familiar.”
“I’ve been followin’ him,” Sev explained. “He’s very strange. I can’t figure him out.”
“I wish I could help,” Waverly offered.
“I appreciate that.” Sev nodded. “If ye hear anything, ye’ll let me know?”
“Of course, my friend.”
“That meal was fantastic,” Sev stated.
“That was hardly a meal, but you’re welcome.” Waverly smiled. “I’ll let you know if I hear anything about this Kettlebent.”
“Ye’re me best mate, Wave. Thank you.”
“I could probably get you a job here,” Waverly offered once more. “If you want.”
Sev considered the offer seriously before he shook his head. “I can’t,” he confirmed. “A Public House is too, well, public,” he explained. “And I’m too used t’bein’ me own boss.” Waverly nodded and opened his arms. Sev hugged him happily. “Thanks, mate.”
Waverly squeezed Sev firmly before allowing him to slip back into the shadows. Sev stood on the roof, watching Waverly gather the empty mugs and dishes. He remained until his old friend disappeared into the kitchen of the Bacchus and Tun before he spun and dashed off.
Sev considered Waverly’s offer as he headed west toward his roosting spot. He was tempted. With regular work, Sev could save up enough money to book passage on a ship to the new world, purchase the permits and paperwork he’d need to travel, and still have a bit left for room and board once he reached Victorica, within a year or two.
The colonies had won their independence before Sev had been born but when the Royal military started utilizing the steam-powered strong suits, Victoria decided to retake the newly formed United States. She allowed them a certain measure of autonomy but their taxes still traveled across the ocean to England. Many Blacksiders had emigrated to Victorica as it had been renamed, and many still had dreams of moving to the new colonies and escaping the oppression of London. Sev shared that dream and regular paying work might allow him to reach that dream sooner.
It’ll never do, he thought. After his experience with Fervis, he knew he wouldn’t be able to take orders from someone. Even though Sev knew Waverly’s boss wouldn’t beat or touch him, the trauma he’d experienced in Fervis’s workhouse prevented him from taking regular employment, as well as the fact that Fervis’s men and the real authorities still sought his capture. Sev stuffed his hand into the pocket of his coat, touching the bit of sausage he’d saved for Henry and pushing the memories of that time away. He’d had to deal with too many deaths in that place, and Sev still blamed himself for them. Sev stopped a block away from the Line. He could already hear the giant fans along Gray’s Inn Road. Sev leaned against a post until he was satisfied no one paid him any attention before he slipped away to scale the alley wall.
Once Sev reached the roof, he dashed forward and leapt from building to building. The structures stood so close together in the crowded streets he could easily jump from one to the next. He paused, watching the Coal-Eater on the roof across the street. Steam whistled from the scuffed, red gear-suit he wore as he paced along his post. The armed guards used to be called Red Coats until they were outfitted with Wrathsbury’s Patented Steam-Powered Gear Suits. Now folks called them Coal-Eaters or Steamcoats. Some of the kids called them Steamies as well. The man turned away, the gears of his suit grinding noisily. Needs oiled, Sev thought. After taking the opportunity to leap across the street, he grabbed the lip of the roof on the other side and dangled from his hold as he listened to the guard’s heavy, metallic footsteps. When they faded slightly, Sev scrambled onto the rooftop past the fans into considerably clearer air. He took a deep breath as he dashed along the much more expensive roofs than those he’d followed the dark stranger over through Blackside.
It would have been quicker for him to drop to the street, but he would be much too conspicuous. In Blackside he could blend with the other denizens in their worn, sometimes filthy clothes, but no one would mistake him for one of society’s upper crust on these streets. Luckily the farther he ventured into the affluent west side, the fewer Coal-Eaters and sentries he had to worry about. The rich were so confident their fence kept the lower element where it belonged that security was much more relaxed except around the palace proper, and even Sev wasn’t daring enough to attempt to get close to it. Not that he wanted to. He returned happily to the relative warmth of his attic above the museum. Sev smiled when he saw the signature row of columns. He slipped off the roof, then paused in the shadows. Royal guards patrolled the grounds, but Sev knew their routes and patterns by heart, and he waited for his chance and dashed through. There wasn’t much cover this close to the museum, but Sev didn’t need much. He popped the arms on his crossbow, seated his grapple, and fired it up to his window. The grapple-bolt flew, trailing the bit of rope that he used to scale the side of the building.
Excited hooting greeted Sev as he ducked into his little crawl space in the attic and slipped a panel of spare wood over the portal to block out most of the draft. Sev scratched a match alight and touched it to the wick of the gas lamp, filling the little space with a warm glow. The lamp illuminated the cluttered space filled with labeled crates containing items they had no room for in the museum or that had fallen out of the public’s interest. Sev had stacked them to block off his little area, hiding it from anyone who entered the attic from the entrance on the opposite side of the room.
“Evenin’, Hank,” Sev addressed the little owl perched in the rafters as he placed the lamp on a barrel that served as a table. “Got a treat for ye, mate.” He pulled out the bit of sausage and held it up to the little bird. Sev smiled at the excitement in the golden orbs of the owl’s eyes. Henry snapped the sausage up in his sharp beak, passed it to his fuzzy talon, and tore a bit off, then swallowed greedily. Satisfied by Henry’s happiness, Sev pulled off his hat, then ran a hand through his hair as he hooked the hat on a nail. He’d managed to collect a few things over the years: his lamp and a few warm wool blankets, one of which he’d stretched between two posts like a hammock. Recently he’d managed to acquire a small potbellied stove from a woman near the docks. She sold toys, things aristocrats purchased for their pets. This stove was built to warm a doghouse, but it worked just fine for Sev’s purposes. He stoked the flame and threw in two of his last four lumps of coal. “We’ll need more coal soon, Hank.” The owl hooted at his nickname but continued to preen his feathers, now finished with his meal.
Sev peeled off his coat as the temperature slowly climbed in the attic room. He reached out his window, snapped off an icicle, and placed it in a tin bowl that he sat on top of the stove. He removed his filthy shirt as the ice melted and the water warmed. Then Sev retrieved a rag and washed his face and armpits. He dipped the shirt into the remaining water and let it cook while he removed his boots. Sev whistled a tune his older sister, Katie, used to sing when she did the washing back at the cobblery. It comforted him a bit as he removed the shirt from the bowl, twisted the water from it, and draped it over the rafter above the stove. Water dripped from the shirt and sizzled on the stove while Sev climbed into his makeshift hammock. The wool was scratchy but welcome and warm on his bare skin. He leaned over and blew out his lamp before he wrapped the other blanket over him.
Sev looked at all the dusty acquisitions that crowded the small attic room. Boxes and crates were scattered among visible artifacts. Sev saw it as another example of the corruption of his kingdom. He regarded the familiar shards, paintings, and tapestries, wondering what the countries who actually owned these statues and other items considered Britain’s right to the pieces. Sev had used a few of the priceless tapestries to insulate his space, trying to trap the heat. This entire building was a temple to Britain’s arrogance.
Sev listened to the water droplets sizzling steadily slower, like a clock running down. He realized the extent of his exhaustion as his mind wandered to the dark stranger in the stovepipe hat. “What’s his game, Henry?” The owl cooed in response. “Ye’re no help,” Sev whispered just before sleep claimed him.