The zeppelin thundered through the sky, the clouds parting like the Red Sea before it, the wind cutting through the air and causing each vertebra in my spine to turn to ice as I stared out from the side of the zeppelin - dubbed The Iron Wing - pulling my frayed coat tighter around me as the dull hum of chatter filled my ears, the scent of copper and mist tickling my nose. People were jam packed onto the airship, clustered like groves of ants in the tight spaces, jostling each other in attempts to cross the deck and look over the side through the sky. They called loudly to each other; their voices buzzing in excitement as they pointed to the vast city looming ahead of us, just barely visible through the thin veil of clouds. Pendulum. The city was clockwork, gears of injustice and malice ticking sluggishly beneath the ground; the chime of the city ringing out with lies and treachery. Tightening my thread bare cravat around my throat, I turned from the side of the ship, pushing my way through the cramped maze of people, gentlemen staring impatiently at ticking clocks, a gloved hand on a perfectly polished cane, ladies seated on plush seats dipping into their purses and dabbing at their powdered faces with lace handkerchief, each intricate stitch a façade on their meticulous mask. I gripped my hand tightly around the Altyera pistol in my pocket, delicately fondling the trigger as though it was a fragile bird nestled within the fabric of my coat, a thrumming, frantic beating heart with feathers for bullets. The pistol never left my side, practically melded to my fingertips whatever dark alley or rooftop I strayed to. I considered it bad luck to let it out of my sight. To walk underneath an airship was considered bad luck now as well, and I clenched my jaw, acidic frustration writhing through me as I remembered, the copper tinged wind stinging my eyes as I made my way across the deck. If Pendulum was shrouded in clockwork, gears ticking ominously beneath the surface of lies, then the other cities were the echoing chimes of Pendulum, split off from it almost a century ago to take their own place in this kingdom of clouds that the Uppers called their home. Umberpoint, with all its shining machinery, copper and brass welding, students walking to and fro in the finest universities the city had to offer, and in the kingdom of clouds, Umberpoint was the true ruler when it came to the surpassing technology and machinery crafted by most meticulous of hands; Noxwatch, with its sprawling and finest architecture, workers balancing on bridges and looming towers as they carved stone with their bare hands and metal, with gold filigree and pearl gates crafting the sidewalks, it was no wonder that Noxwatch was indeed a glittering jewel in the crown that were the cities. Ivorymire was home to the finest engineers and mechanics, many undergoing training in the shining academies, responsible for a glorious array of complex machines that ran their city, gleaming with success and prestige; and Cinderwall, a vast towering complex full of secrecy, and where the more shifty sorts made their shelter, technojackers, various gangs and assassins ran riot in the city over run in smog and crawling metal towers reaching the cracks in the sky, and finally, to complete the enigmatic mix of the floating cities was Embergarde. Sprawling with vegetation, flora and fauna bedazzling the landscape, rich soil that grew the finest crops, and the fields and market places teeming with life and rosy faces, Embergarde made a name for itself in all that was nurturing and abundant. However, for the outer cities varied and wonderful qualities, Pendulum still towered above the rest. It was as large as all five of the cities, with a teeming population that constituted of filthy rich merchants and owners of sizeable establishments, as well as peasants and ordinary civilians that were resigned to a life working the mines or churning away the days in the larger than life warehouses. The few that were lucky enough to run some semblance of a business were so heavily taxed that it seemed laughable that they managed to pull enough dough from the plate to survive. Divided into twelve sectors lead by twelve Sector leaders in turn, it was no great surprise that they were like the chimes of a clock; deep, hollow and echoing like empty bones. Pendulum was like a coin, one side was steeped in riches and finery, glistening buildings and brass gears connecting the city together like a great machine, stagecoaches clattering through the finer parts of Pendulum, past the theatres that housed grand plays, past the Emporiums stocking goods of all array that glittered like the morning sun, but must not be mistaken for gold, for they were usually not. And for all the control that the Sector leaders had gained over the years, they still were not satisfied. Still they sought to control all they could. One city to govern was not enough for their greedy fingers and latching eyes; for they fixed their maleficent gaze on the five shining cities in the sky and began to plot. They began to whisper, and to connive, weave their webs, for they were spiders that sought to entrap anything they could into their web, cocooning them in a web of lies, and then swallowing them hole even as they realized they had been ensnared by glittering threads of malice. And so they struck, like a bolt of lightning that twisted and writhed through the sky, a violent storm of assault. Hundreds of people had been reported missing in Pendulum eighteen months prior, simply sucked out of existence, leaving gaping holes were they once were, and people clung to each other in hopes that they would not loose the ones they had remaining. There had been senseless riots in the streets, business and churning warehouses forced to close as people poured out, protesting strikes as they rushed the houses and rampaged through the city, full of fury and fear as they shouted for truth, as they shouted for answers that were not given to them; and the city came to a grinding halt for the next week as the riots continued day and night, the streets lighting up the dark night with people carrying fire lit torches into the town square, yelling and clustering every empty space that there was in the street as they demanded the cause of hundreds of people disappearing from the city. It was after the fifth day of the people fighting, collapsing onto the streets in exhaustion, their faces streaked with tears and smoke from the few remaining warehouses, that the Sector Leaders had finally stepped forward to bring some semblance of order back into the city, raising their delicate hands for silence, stoic Official Guards flooding onto the streets and placating the people, pulling them away from each other and throwing the glowing fire torches to the ground where they burnt brightly for but a few moments on the cobblestone and then sunk into a smoldering pile of ash and defeat, the citizens breathing heavy and harsh as a Sector Leaders weaved their lies and their false promises into the air, mingling with the heavy night sky, the harsh and unforgiving faces of the Official Guards that were a poor substitute for law enforcement lining the streets in perfectly symmetrical lines, their jaws clenched and their fingers tracing the trigger of their Coglar guns with a battle fueled lust that was not quiet ready to be filled. They had promised to find the people, to find the sources of the disappearances, they placated the people with voices as delicate as gossamer thread and copper wire, so convincing and heartfelt that the citizens fell back into order, murmuring and whispering into the stark night air as they vanished off the streets and into their houses, the warehouses and mines once more whirring to life as the people of Pendulum waited each day with breaths held as they waited for answers to pierce through the thick smog of lies, hands coated in coal dust and the grinding noises of the cold factories taking them back into their arms. Cries of relief had poured through Pendulum a fortnight later, as the people suddenly appeared back where they had been taken, confused, dazed as they stumbled and were found by desperate families and relatives who had not given up hope that they would see them again. They had shouted with utter joy as they caught them in their arms, questioning them about where they had been and only receiving confused, befuddled answers in shock as they collapsed onto beds into fitful slumbers, awakening in the dim gloom the next morning, peppered with questions once more, but shaking their head as they realized that they remembered nothing of when they had been gone, their memories completely wiped over like grime being washed from a glass window and being thrown into the gutters to wash away. All was well again, it seemed, even if their memories had been stolen. Truth had been claimed, and loved ones were returned into the arms of weeping families who clutched at them like they might shatter into a thousand pieces. For but a few weeks, all was well in the city of Pendulum. And if the citizens thought that what they had just experienced was terrifying, what was to come would scale on the mayhem of atomic convulsion; shaking Pendulum to its core and bringing it to its knees like a wounded solider. Airships had come careening out of the sky, scorching the atmosphere as the passengers on board screamed, clutching at anything to save themselves as they made impact with the ground, reducing the surrounding area to a smoldering pile of charred wood, smoking canvas and people running in every direction, the peoples faces streaked with terror, children and mothers screaming as they found their husbands and fathers buried among the ashes. Steam trains had derailed, throwing themselves off the tracks with absolutely no cause and smashing through shop windows, through the back of warehouse entrances, some even hurtling through the air and colliding with the air as the metal havoc ripped through the air and embedded themselves in the ground, the passengers on board flung from their carriages and spread around the city like bait for carrion prey. It was utter madness. The city once again screeched to a halt, warehouses growing quiet and the streets of Pendulum abandoned as civilians struggled to restore Pendulum to at least a shadow of its former glory; and after six months of continuous repairs that echoed day and night, metal being towed away and ground being refilled; warehouses and various establishments being built by recruits called in from the cities of Ivorymire and Noxwatch as they fought to rebuild the city of Pendulum, hauling brass, copper and gears high into the air to restore Pendulums national treasure, the clockwork tower that stretched up towards the sky and was visible to every eye that lived in the streets of Pendulum.
The wind cutting through the sails of the airship brought me to, the steel of the side of the looming airship cold and biting even under my gloved fingertips as I finally spotted Venice from across the ship, tucked halfway in between crates of various cargo and piles of passengers luggage, her head lulling in place as she sat there in a place of slumber and I snapped my fingers in front of her face, wisps of hair catching in her collar as she suddenly grumbled under her breath, sitting up and lifting the brim of her water sodden cap to glare at me, her bright eyes fixing me with a look that told me I was an intruder on her peaceful rest. Still glaring at me, she clicked her tongue sharply in her mouth to show displeasure, and cracked her neck to the side to satiate her muscles that had no doubt been stuck in that position for hours since we had left the port in Noxwatch to venture to the city of Pendulum. I rolled my eyes at her, rapping hard on the wooden crates next to her and nudging her foot with my polished boot and jerked my head at her as an order to stand. “Snap out of, Venice, beauty sleep’s over. Better check your pockets.” I said, chuckling dryly and folding my arms over my coat, polishing a button absentmindedly as she firmly tucked her hair behind her ears, folding her lips into a thin line as she dug her hand into her pockets with a concentrated look spreading across her face – nose wrinkled, mouth pursed to the side, one brow lifted as her eyes squinted and then brightened as she pulled out a sack that bulged expectantly and she shook it around, shooting me a smirk and I glanced at her, pulling on my gloves more tightly, giving them an audible snap as a few people brushed past us, heels and steel boot caps clicking against the deck of the ship, the sails furling around us as I grabbed Venice’s arm, towing her with me through the lanes of people that choked up the deck with their incessant chatter and smoky breaths, mouths puffing on cigars and men with untrimmed beards working the sails chewing tobacco ruthlessly as they effortlessly tied rope knots with ruddy fingers.
“No pick pocketers here. At least not with fingers still intact.” She chuckled somewhat darkly, pulling her coat further up her neck, a few stray wisps of hair escaping her cap that she’d all but pulled over her forehead, her eyes darting about somewhat nervously, her finger adjusting the bird pin stuck onto her shirt as though she was trying to comfort herself, her other hand most likely clutched around the Altyera pistol that we’d been given upon initiation into the Fireflies. The Fireflies had started out as a whisper of rebellion in the night, people who were equipped with street smarts and refusing to accept the Disappearances and the horrific calamity that had stung Pendulum as mere accident. They had met together in one of many of the abandoned factories that dotted the landscape of Pendulum, arguing furtively in the cold, metal rooms, eyes cutting into each other as they went forth and gathered information, as they spied and came to conclusions, piecing together information as one pieces together a puzzle piece, and they were missing the last shard that needed to slot into place. They called themselves the Fireflies, because like the so called glowing creatures, they also would glow, thousands of them lighting up the night sky so that everyone would be forced to realize the truth. They reasoned within themselves about the strange disappearances of the people; their memories wiped and having no clue as to where they had been or what happened to them when they were snatched away, of how only a few days after their miraculous return, the horrific tragedy had occurred, leaving Pendulum careening and bleeding with brass wreckage. There had not been an airship malfunction in over a century, so that was when they came to the all too clear confusion that these two events were connected in some way. Who was powerful enough to arrange this sort of wide spread event, something that would affect an entire city? The Sector Leaders of Pendulum. The very people who were supposed to lead and govern our city with a benevolent hand was bringing it to its demise, for reasons that were startlingly unapparent. I had a past that I didn’t sit too well with, my former occupation being a technojacker that slunk around the five cities doing shifty work for whoever would pay me enough Gunts deemed worthy for the job. Technojackers were not fondly looked upon by most of- the population, but there were the few that employed our shifty skills, and I had become a rather well known technojacker in said community. I did not claim such a high and lofty title of my own accord, only after sneaking around in the shadows for what seemed like years, had my work slowly gained credit in the sly world that was full of technojackers striking deals left and right without blinking an eyelid – even if it meant harming the innocent – as long they were given the hefty sum that paid so well, there was nothing to throw a wrench in the gears. I still fought to keep my fingers, albeit slippery with moral ambiguity, on my compass of good and evil, only taking jobs that would not result in the harm of another innocent. When I did take lives, it was with great regret that I did, striving never to let my finger touch the trigger recklessly if I could help it. However, after the great catastrophe that struck Pendulum, jobs became scarce for the technojackers, extremely hard to come by, as most everyone was now caught up worrying about trying to rebuild the city of Pendulum. I had struck two rocks together and come up with no spark, so to speak, when it came to finding work in that order of business. It was during completing what was to be my final technojacking job, that I had been stealthily approached by two shadowy figures, who whispered their proposition to me in hushed tones, glancing about warily to avoid being seen, since the three of us had no business in being where they were. I had been curious as to how they had found me, and I had asked them this, my hand poised on the Televider that I was using as my tool to complete the job, and they merely glanced at each other knowingly before claiming that, “they had their sources.” I had heard rumors of the Fireflies, whispers of the enigmatic force across the grapevine of Pendulum as well as in the community of the technojackers, that they were rising to find answers, to seek, to lure the truth out from it’s hiding place. I had been intrigued by their claims, as this was the first time a rebellion group had ever risen – at least, not ones that lasted for any measurable time or did any severe damage. Of course, there had been the old joking comments about the Scarabs; a group of hackers, mechanics and shifty showmen that had shown up on the plot almost five years ago, claiming to bring a revolution, but that had quickly died out, fading into the smoke and fog of the city, forgotten like the rain that seeped into the ground and became nourishment for plants.
And so that was how I, Tallion Starkven, agreed to join the Fireflies, a band of almost two hundred people of all various professions and trades, as we schemed and searched to find the answer to these two horrific events – the Disappearances, and the tragedy that had befallen Pendulum soon after. I was not exactly admired when I first strolled through the doors of the Firefly base, an old bunker hidden in the midst of the coal mines in the second Sector of Pendulum, cold metal railings clanging around me, with people shouting across rafters and platforms, busily working away at whatever tasks they had been assigned to do, and lights dotting the floor, guiding the path before me as I was lead to Levi Kingsford, the founder of the Fireflies, given my Altyera pistol that all new recruits received upon initiation and had been quickly assigned to my first mission, where fate had decided to throw me and Venice Rinalov – a highly trained mechanic who had gone over from Pendulum and had completed training at the Yarington Academy of Mechanical and Engineering in Ivorymire. I soon discovered she had an acerbic taste for humor, and paired with her inconsequential sarcasm and somewhat sharp wit, we had quickly discovered our affinity for completing various difficult missions in a manner so quick and efficient that we soon had the other Fireflies murmuring, and Levi summoning us to his office, where he made us official partners. We switched roles between the classic Sherlock and Watson at times; an exchange that came in handy at the most opportune times. The ship shuddered as we landed on the ship port, a loud shout breaking through the clamour of the crowd as the crew scrambled across the ropes, lashing it to the side of the decking with clips and harnesses, gesturing wildly at each other, with the occasional an unsavoury gesture thrown by one of them, their suspenders being snapped in angry protest at the crude form of communication. The ship vibrated under our feet as it swayed in the air, the dull hiss of the steam and the grinding of the gears in the balloon above whirring and spraying a rapid wind across the fray of people; and I breathed in heavy the scent of Pendulum: the pungent odour of coal and the sharp spice of the smoke wafting up from the factories and warehouses in the distance, the skyline heavy and jagged under the darkening sky, clouds hanging low with foreboding promises of rain. The streets that weren’t lined with cobblestones were muddy and slushy, the people trekking through it muttering in disdain as it caked the bottom of their trousers and skirts, the muddy shower spraying up onto the sides of various corner stores, the windows that were caked with grime being cleaned by a shoddily dressed worker, face pulled taut around their face as they scrubbed the windows arduously; only to have to make the same motions again a few moments later when inconsiderate passersby would again kick up the muddy path, sending a spray of the filthy grime towards the window and the worker. “It’s a wonder you haven’t had your fingers chopped off with all the pockets you dip into.” I remarked sardonically, glancing at her from under the brim of my hat, indulging in a sly wink as I was no stranger to the fact that Venice had grown accustomed to reaching into the pocket of an unsuspecting merchant and removing a Gunt or two. “They have more than they need.” She had retorted when she saw me staring at her with an arched brow after I had spotted the mischievous act the first time, and she flicked the coin up in the air and I had smiled to myself when I saw her slip it into the pocket of a worker on the side of the street, pretending as if she’d merely stumbled in her passage. “Please, you hack security firewalls. You’re no Saint Paul yourself.” She chuckled in mirth, flicking the side of her cap in the form of a crude gesture that was typical here in Pendulum, and then shoving her hands deep into her pockets as we made our way down the gangplank, the wooden beam sagging with the weight of hundreds of people teeming around us, loud clanging from hammers in the distance melding with the shouts and hollers from the city squalor around us; and I inclined my head as I heard the distant pluck twangy pluck from a fiddle no doubt being held in the hands of an anxious busker – a penny for the supper earned on the street was not fondly looked upon, especially by the Sector Guards, and if said busker didn’t keep a sharp eye out, would most likely be removed and heavily fined, so the pluck was but a tentative chord that mingled with the bitter frost of the air. “Don’t insult me, Venice – I was getting ready to be put in a cathedral window.” I retorted, allowing myself a cynical hoot under my breath, a puff of frost passing my lips as I took another breath of the smoggy air of the city, walking shoulder to shoulder next to Venice as we entered the tightly packed tunnel, cigar smoke seeping into the air, the distant rattle of a coin being dropped, hasty limbs that tried to push past me being quickly withdrawn as they realized that they were going to get stuck. We finally exited the tunnel a moment later, breaking into the city streets with the sky that was now drizzling with rain, hundreds of people walking by on the crowded streets with long trench coats dragging across the cobblestones. You could spot the well to doer’s by if they had umbrellas or not; and I could hear the low peals of Pendulum’s clock tower tolling out the midday hour, however the absence of sunshine in the sky made it seem much later in the day. A few street vendors were clustered in the opening of alleyways and thin roads, their stalls laden with various goods such as Pendulum’s weekly newspaper – The Weekly Chimer – as well as leather satchels, perfume bottles with the scents that were well known in Pendulum – Rainfall Rose and copper Sardony – and they dealt furiously with the occasional customer as they dug into their coin purses and dropped into the hand of the vendor with a sharp tip of the hat, an almost wordless exchange that was only noticed by the sharpest of eyes. Venice only gave acknowledgement with an understated snicker as she rubbed her hands briskly together, trying to bring warmth to them and I instead concentrated on the reason why we had made the journey out to Pendulum in the first place – to infiltrate the Annual Admissions meeting; attended by every Sector Leader in Pendulum, the towering dome building that would officiate the meeting loomed barely visible in the distance by the constant churning of smoke, heavy fog and drooping clouds that brushed the skyline of Pendulum. We were tailing two of said Sector leaders: Mr. Lester Redway – a charming, naïve gentleman in his late thirties with a deep burgundy cravat and a navy trench coat studded with gold buttons that gleamed under the light from the lamp posts that lined the street; Leader of Sector Six, located on the east side of the clock tower – and Mrs. Arabella Whyting, Leader of Sector seven, north west of the clock tower – a high strung, aristocratic genteel woman drowning in lace and silk, with brass finery adorning her collar and a cluster of pearls settled on her pale, thin collar bone; a lively face with a semblance to a strutting pelican, her glinting eyes settling upon the Admissions Building in the distance with a highly satisfied smile settling on her face, and I gave a low grunt of disgust in my throat at their pomp and grandeur as they waited heralded on the platform that stagecoaches would pull up to. I turned back to Venice after a moment, spotting her just a few steps up ahead where she was looking anxiously through the crowd, her dull red coat turned up against her pale skin that only had the faintest smudge of axle grease on it from where she had been sleeping at the foot of the cargo that was being shipped over from Noxwatch, her bright flashing eyes scanning the crowd, with the slight nuance above her eyebrow indicating worry and I caught her eye, a flicker of relief eclipsing her eyes for a brief moment before she scowled as she strolled languidly towards me as we neared the depot of the ship departing gates, a man practically snatching people’s tickets out of their hands as he lifted a pair of spectacles to peer through them, assuring they weren’t counterfeit, tugging at his handlebar moustache as he waved through them through and gestured impatiently to the next passenger that was milling at the head of the line. “Right,” I said sharply, glancing up at her from where I had been examining my pocket watch a moment earlier, watching the needle tick almost sluggishly across the pristine face. The time was 12:12 p.m. on the dot. I took that as a sign. Double numbers meant good luck, and I was going to carpe diem, as one would say. I wouldn’t let luck slip through my fingers on any day, especially not on this Wednesday afternoon, “We use the tickets, nothing else. No funny business. I should be checking your sleeves for any tricks you may be hiding up them.” I said derisively under my breath as the Ticketmaster loomed further up ahead, eyeing each passenger that stepped up to the deck with a steely look, lifting his spectacles carefully with a shaky hand to inspect the wrinkled red ticket that was clutched in their fingers. Venice looked at me staunchly, a half smirk lifting her lips as she made a great show of pulling away the cuffs of her sleeves to show me that there was nothing hidden there, snapping them back into place for effect, and I swatted her hands away as she let out a muffled snigger, repocketing her hands and pulling out her ticket stub held somewhat reluctantly between her two fingers. “Funny business? "Venice's eyes flashed indignantly, placing a hand on her hips, and the other still hand holding tightly to the ticket, which she waved mockingly in my face before curling her lip into a sardonic smirk; her eyes flashing with mirth. “I wouldn’t dare." I gave a malignant snicker, arching my brow and snapping my ticket between my two fingers; the feeling of wrinkled paper, slightly tinged with the smell of soot barely noticeable under the leather of my gloves. “Please – you’d eat a dare for breakfast.”
The wind had picked up around us, blowing the fog that sunk around the city skyline over the crowd, obscuring the store fronts and melting into the cobblestone road that lead through the first Sector of Pendulum. Venice gave a throaty chuckle before tipping her hat cynically at me. “And served on a silver platter too.” People were cramped around us like moths surrounding a lamp post, rough scratching of fabric and limbs unsettling me, and I fingered the tips of my gloves to calm my beating heart, gears and cogs of my lungs scraping in retaliation to the scene around me and the looming knowledge of what we were about to do. Every rustle to my side, every hushed whisper, every slight nuance in the crowd had me on the edge of my seat, so to speak, as my eyes darted to and fro keeping an eye on the clustered crowd around me as we moved ever closer towards the ticket booth. On the streets behind the ticket booth, a few stragglers were stopping by to stare at the incoming passengers, a few of them pointing up at the airships docking behind us; voices laced with a harsh undertone of disgruntlement, the curl of their lips as they shook their heads, wiping their soot and coal stained hands onto the front of their frayed clothing before vanishing back into the fog and the crowds of people that threaded themselves through the streets of Pendulum like they were sewing a fine gown. From across the docking that circled ship port, a young girl appeared out of the crowd, a head of messy brown curls with a lopsided red ribbon tied haphazardly around her neck; anxiously knotting a handkerchief together with bone pale hands as she leant down to shakily fasten her boot laces together before standing up, peering into the line of people that moved closer to the toll booth, no doubt waiting for someone. A brother, or perhaps from the way she kept distractedly smoothing down the front of her brown skirt, and toying with the ribbon at her neck, a sweetheart. Perhaps he’d been travelling, or perhaps he’d gone to find work in one of the other cities.
Before I could continue my musing, she vanished back into the mulling of people, the clatter of shoes on the cobblestone road like the sound of tinkling hail. Street vendors still shouted their various ballads to bring in sales and most of them had a crow on their shoulder, ruffling their feathers as their beady eyes took in the people, a soft cawing coming from their beak every so often as they hopped from said vendors shoulder to the street, where they would peck for a few stray crumbs before returning to their rightful place. I tightened my hand into a two-fingered fist – the subtle hand gesture was said to ward off the bad omens that crows carried with them. It was fitting for the city. Crowded with crows, bad omens; although I wondered that they did not yet leave while Pendulum seemed to be safe and well once more. That told me only one thing. The crows warned us. With bad omens in their wings; and shadowy knowledge in their eyes, they showed us one thing. Pendulum was rotting. Like a nest full of spiders protecting a corpse of a dead bird for food, Pendulum was turning foul at the very core. Out of the conglomeration of the crowd I could see Redway and Whyting still standing on the platform where a procession of stagecoaches were making their way through the crowds and clattering over the cobblestones, their wheels churning and the steam powered gears that moved the coach hissing, creating a melody with the rain that spattered on the gleaming windows of the coach. Despite there only being a tentative drizzle in the air from the sprawling clouds above; Lester had produced a jet-black umbrella and had snapped it up into the air, shielding Mrs. Whyting from the little spatter of drizzle that was barely dusting the air. I arched my brow in amusement as I saw that Mrs. Whyting was fawning over Mr. Redway with great gusto, her delicate fingers brushing against his neck as she whispered something in his ear and he turned a startlingly bright shade of scarlet as Mrs. Whyting tipped her head all too innocently up at him; her shapely upturned nose high in the air as she impatiently adjusted the curls in her elaborate cacophony of a hairstyle. One could say the Sector leaders certainly lined their waistcoats in gold and wore their rubies around their neck, so to speak.
I tore my gaze away from the questionable doings of Lester and Redway, smoothing the collar of my coat so that it sheltered my neck from the assault of the chilly wind; the sound of the Pendulum clock tower in the distance tolling, low pealing that seemed to send monumental sensations through the air, and another airship roared overhead, the shadow of it eclipsing the ground for a moment and I couldn’t help but tense at the sound of it. Venice’s face had gone taut as she’d lifted her head to the sound of the airship, her jaw stiffening and her finger touching her bird pin fastened to her collar before she visibly relaxed as the airship disappeared into the foggy clouds above us, the sails of the ship becoming hazy as the clouds surrounded the hull and drank it in. Leaning over to Venice, I eyed my pocket watch again casually before snapping it shut again and lifting my gaze to Venice, her bright eyes framed by sooty lashes flickering in the misty air as she gave me a side long glance, tucking a stray strand of her wispy hair back into her cap and tightened her own ragged coat around her slim form.
“Got your eye on Mrs. Whyting?” I murmured; tucking the pocket watch back into the lining of my coat as I auspiciously observed them still on the platform, Mrs. Whyting still fawning mercilessly over Mr. Redway, her lace gloved hand resting firmly in the crook of his elbow while she gave a little laugh that reminded me somewhat of the sound a sea gull might make.
“No, she’s not really my type, to be honest.” She said in a matter of fact tone, giving me a sly glance as she carefully wiped away a smear of coal dust from her neck, frowning at her fingers for a moment before thrusting them back into the comforting warmth of her coat, albeit threadbare. I bit back a bemused snicker and instead arched my brow at her in a disparaging manner, tapping my gloved fingers together and fixing her with a shrewd gaze. Venice relented, moving closer to me and gave me a nudge in the shoulder before gesturing subtly with her head, lifting her chin in the direction of the coach platform, rain now slicking the metal decking and Mrs. Whyting lifting her skirt up with a look of abject horror on her delicate face, coughing into a lace handkerchief before tucking it back into her tasseled silk coin purse that was hanging off her elbow. “I see her. Redway seems to think she’s the bee’s knees.” Venice gave a low chuckle in the back of her throat, her eyes narrowing in bemused disbelief of the exchange between the two; Mrs. Whyting apparently the master of manipulation what with her delicate whispers and girlish giggles that would float through the air toward me and bit my ears like a pair of cutting knives. “I don’t think that her knees are the assets that he’s admiring – correct me if I’m wrong.” I bit back another smirk as Venice wrinkled her nose at me, her knowing glance told me that my words had been understood. Venice rolled up the sleeves of her coat, revealing her dark green shirt that had been hastily grabbed from the clothing robe back in Noxwatch, and flicked up the collar of her coat, the fur lining nestling comfortably at her neck before giving me a scathing look, her lashes looking decidedly sooty against her cheekbones as she curled her lip at me. “Well, aren’t you just charming.” “How observant of you." I'd wanted – as well as thought prudent – to make good use out of the cloaking devices that the Firefly lab workers had been working on back at the base in Noxwatch. Getting into tricky places would have been an easy feat, however, using them to complete the entire mission was too good to be true. Not only were they difficult to use at best, they were the first newest models, and susceptible to malfunctioning when least expected. The final reason why I’d been secretly pleased that no cloaking devices were to be used was merely the thrill. The thrill of a risk, of an adventure, of having to plan and scheme and connive. In my previous years of being a Technojacker, that was something about the job that I’d come to crave, that was what I enjoyed immensely about doing what I did. The rush of adrenaline that flooded through me when in the middle of completing a job was thrilling to me, and after leaving that behind for the Fireflies, I’d missed it. The thrill of risky adventure.
A steamcoach rattled dangerously close to the crowded line of passengers that were swarming about in the tightly compacted metal gating that prevented us from venturing out into Pendulum until our tickets had been thoroughly examined. The low, shallow hiss of the steamcoach whistled through the air in time with the bustling hustle of the streets, the wheels of the coach turning methodically and precisely as if under instruction from a hidden metronome that ticked away. The bronze exterior of the coach gleamed under the wet slick of the rain, the windows shining from the glow of the lights from the street lamps and the rain running down the surface of them, catching the prisms of light and scattering onto the murky puddles of the road. The copper Covol spanning its metal wings sat proudly, if not austerely, on the top of the curved coach roof; its half open jutted beak catching rain and the light inside and standing out against the stormy clouds that possessed the sky above us.
“Tickets!” The man at the ticket booth was the one to yell this in a harsh tone that broke across the thrall of people as they dug into bags and pockets and purses, arming themselves with the thin strip of faded red paper that had allowed them passage onto The Iron Wing. I allowed myself a brief look back at the docking platform, where several other large air ships were now being anchored and numerous crew sporting heavy boots and strapping suspenders scurried to and from the side planking carrying wooden crates and large metal shipping containers between themselves, loading them into various side bays where sharp looking gentleman waited with bored faces and an official looking document in hand, who were no doubt the recipients of the various cargo. The one nearest to us was a gargantuan ship with a gracefully curving hull and the stern and stem of the boat cutting like the fierce edges of a cliff face, the steel cords connecting the gondola to the large balloon that floated atop it with the name of the ship – this one being The Copper Falcon – etched elegantly along the side of it, crew attending to various places on the ship, scuttling like hives of ants as more cargo was unloaded. Most of the larger airships carried cargo that was imported in from all the other cities that resided in the sky, Noxwatch yielded planks of wood, slabs of stone and other construction tools in exchange for a hefty shipment of coal and Tungsten, an impressively strong element that was only mined in Pendulum but that was highly sought after for it’s strong resistance to corrosiveness and electricity, as well as being ridiculously difficult to penetrate. Ivorymire relinquished barrels of Vetrine oil – which was useful from anywhere to cleaning, to oiling leather boots to keeping the clockwork machinery running smoothly, - as well as hundreds of gears and cogs that were used to build most of Pendulum’s steam coaches and power the equipment in the various warehouses that were operated in the twelve sectors that made up the abounding city of Pendulum. Umberpoint had little to offer in the way of loads of cargo, so the exchange was mainly new technology that had been under development and that the leaders of Pendulum were willing to pay more than a few Gunts to get their hands on; Embergarde was the most proud of its bountiful offerings, being the only city to supply a wonderful and fresh array of all kinds of edible produce, fruits of all varieties, root and vine vegetables, and thousands of vials full of honey, wickerdew – another sweet natural substance produced by curious little black and emerald green beetles; a thick yet light syrup that was delicate and spice filled in flavor – as well as all manner of elaborate and exotic breads, meats and pastries made by the most meticulous and crafted bakeries that dotted the small city of Embergarde. Cinderwall was more furtive about their trading, preferring to send over ambassadors in the dead of the night sky that was only pierced by a handful of stars and exchange goods furtively at a select meeting place by the few traders and warehouse managers that decided it fit to purchase from them. Venice and I finally reached the front of the line, and I couldn’t help but reach surreptitiously for my pocket watch again and flicking open the lid to stare at the time, looking around with an anxious gaze to where I could see a few other’s had joined Mr. Redway and Mrs. Whyting on the platform. I allowed myself the pleasure of a muted chuckle as I saw that the other would be passengers were not amused by the two Sector Leaders display, and that Mrs. Whytings elaborate framework of a gown was taking up nearly the entire rain slicked platform. We both handed our tickets over to the wizened old man, his patched-up cap slanting over his spectacled eyes as he took our tickets with wrinkled hands and gave a low grunt in his throat as he turned the tickets over, looking at them closely before raising his wiry eyebrows and peering at us over the rims of his smudged spectacles.
Venice and I gave each other nervous glances, looking anywhere except at the old man before he cleared his throat loudly and handed us our tickets back. I wasn’t going to keep it as a souvenir, but despite that I gave him a firm nod as I tucked the ticket back into my pocket and glanced side long at Venice as she kicked up a few stray stones and let them clatter over the road before pulling her cap over her forehead again and then tucking the ticket back into her coat pocket. He waved us toward the gate looming tall behind us, the metal scraping against the cobblestone road as we finally entered the clustered streets of Pendulum, the noises louder than ever, people dropping no courtesies as they milled about us, a few of them even stepping on our toes as they hurriedly rushed past us. Street vendors still clustered the street, clanging on bells and clanging pots and pans to get peoples attention; the racket infesting the crowd and adding to the raucous sounds of the city as we weaved our way between the muck of the citizens, passing stores with doors being banged shut loudly, shadowy silhouettes of figures just visible in the smeary windows of the store which were being attended to quite well by the rain, the stenciled letters boldly proclaiming their name and the manner of goods they had on sale. Looming apartment buildings shined proudly in the rain, the windows lit up by lanterns or flickering candles in the room behind it; revolving doors allowing people entrance and door men standing by with stoic faces, their silver buttons gleaming against their properly brushed navy velvet coats, their tall hats adorned with tassels and hands covered by crisp white gloves as people filed in and out of the building that stretched along the main street in Sector one of Pendulum. The rain drizzled on me, my face feeling the icy chill of the water as it grabbed stray strands of my hair and settled contently upon the leather of my gloves, our boots methodically sloshing through the puddles that gathered in the potholes of the street, and I held my hat firmly onto my head as a steamcoach thundered past us with surprising speed, rolling up to the coach platform that we had been making our way towards, intent on following Redway and Whyting with the purpose of infiltration. Just the thought of it sent a delighted shiver through my veins as I imagined the rush of adrenaline through me and the quiver of adventure that would stream through my veins.
“All aboard, anyone?” I directed the question at Venice as I watched the steamcoach that had passed us a moment ago roll up to the platform where a set of steps smoothly slid out from the coach and lifted until it reached the platform, where Mrs. Whyting stepped onto them gingerly, all the while clutching to Mr. Redway’s hand as he opened the door and gave a bow – mock or real, I couldn’t tell – as Mrs. Whyting disappeared into the coach, her skirt only vanishing after she’d all but yanked it in the coach, struggling a few times with the hefty folds of her gown. I saw Redway mop his hand through his hair with a look of subtle desperation as he twiddled his thumbs on the top of his gold tipped cane before the skirt finally disappeared into the coach. The coachman, who sat up the front of the steam powered vehicle, his only job being to guide the coach down the busy streets, breathed deeply with a look of exasperation on his face as he glanced down at the busy street before finally pulling out onto the road, the crowd immediately clearing for it’s passage. It’s slow amble down the street allowed for us to follow it, albeit at a quick pace, having to push our way through particularly crowded sections of the streets at oft times. The stagecoach was still making its way slowly through the close-knit crowd that rushed to and fro on Bracken Street – the main street in Sector one of Pendulum – and as we quickly weaved our way through the crowds our hands tightly gripping at the cold metal, Altyera pistols curved and smooth under my hands like polished glass. I caught glimpses of Covol birds on the roofs of stores and shoddily built houses, their long wings drooping with black feathers across the metal tiling, their long elegant, ink like talons scraping across the metal piping as they slunk down them, staring into the crowd with their sharp eyes and constantly half open beak before slinking down an alleyway leaving a spray of water behind them as they flicked their wings into flight.
Children scurried through the side streets and alleyways, playing games of tag and Fight the Clodhopper up on the platforms that rimmed the two or even three storied buildings, their ragged boots clattering loudly on metal slats above me, their tinny, gruff voices piercing the foggy air as children with battered caps and unruly curly hair ran through the streets of Pendulum. A few of them sat upon the roof, their rough legs slipping and sliding over the rain slicked metal roofs, their hair curly and wet from the rain, sitting there laughing and whispering to each other as a girl with a faded blue pinafore tugged a boys bright red hair teasingly, and he let out a sharp yelp before swatting her with his cap. My heart leaped in my chest, fluttering anxiously like a bitterbug as I saw a few Sector Officials with steely faces and brass shoulder pads weaving through the crowd, sending the children in alleys scattering and cats slinking back to their places on the roofs, letting out obligatory hisses and snaps, their fur standing on end and their tails waving back and forth infuriated in the air. The cats were the protectors of the children around here, and I knew this because they gathered them up in their arms, their spry and wiry limbs wrapping around them comfortingly, scratching their ears and peeking out between chimneys and platform galleys to glare at the Sector Officials.
“You’ve got the Shrouds, don’t you?” I grabbed Venice’s arm mid stride, passing a loud talking group of dingy looking coal workers on their precious break, smoking home-made cigars, their stubbled faces matted with streaks of coal dust, their hair ratty and greasy as water for hair washing was a bare luxury, and there was no point to them washing it anyway, since it would only go back to its former state as soon as they went down to work in the heavy, hot coal mines. I didn’t allow myself to dwell on conditions for the workers, as well as the unfair pay rate and harsh working hours. There would be time enough later for that. At this moment in time, our mission was clear. This was our first step to restoring the rotting core of Pendulum from the hideous clutches of the Sector leaders. “Have a little faith in me, Tallion. What do you take me for, forgetful or something?” she asked archly, her tone betraying infuriation even as her lip curled in a half smirk as she patted the heavy brown canvas bag hoisted around her shoulder somewhat affectionately, and then turning her attention to the stagecoach still ambling on in front of us, her hooded eyes flickering with a hint of worry and I felt a coil of a spring trap in my own stomach as we continued through the crowd, the rain having settled down to a dull drizzle now and the distant chugging of the coal and tungsten mines in the distance as workers filed back to their respective holes in the ground. “You’re lucky that’s not on my list of what I take you for.” I chuckled lowly, the faint sprinkle of rain dusting my cheeks calming me for a moment as I glanced up towards the sky, catching a glimpse of an airship disappearing into the veil of fog and clouds, its steam engine whirring faintly in the distance as I continued to stare, half entranced and half terrified of it as my throat became dry like a chaffing field of wheat burned by the hot sun. Venice looked like she was about to fire off another distasteful comment served with a pinch of attic salt when I glanced back at her, brushing carefully past two merchants who sat in the balcony of The Fire Rose Tavern, a place mainly frequented by the merchants and traders, sitting their in the low lamplight and red velvet curtains adorning the staircases and wooden pillars; a glass of scotch by their hand, a hand of cards or a copy of The Weekly Chimer, their brows furrowing in contempt as they read the paper and discarded it on the cluttered table with a look of disdain.
“So, you mean to tell me that you want to attack the stagecoach, impersonate Redway and Whyting,” I gestured to the bag at her waist that contained the Shrouds, a powerful piece of technology that the Fireflies had been lucky to get our hands on, and that allowed us to masquerade as any other person, “knock them out, lock them in the back of the steamcoach trunk and then waltz in to the Meeting, with a massive explosion going off behind us – you know, for dramatic effect?” Venice adjusted her cap on her head, a stray strand of a dark curl escaping and wisping at her neck before fixing me with a sardonic gaze, her eyebrow arched and toying with the fingers of her leather gloves. “If you want an explosion, go catch us some dynamite. Or,” she said with careful innocence, her hand brushing her jaw in thought before her bright eyes fixed upon me again, “we could not set everything on fire. What a grand idea!” she finished, her eyes and voice wide with sarcasm as she spun around to face me quickly before falling back into step next to me, and a gust of wind chilled me for a moment as a Covol flew low over us; his steady, high chime echoing above us before he disappeared into the junction of two bisecting roofs. I growled under my breath, brushing off the chill and shoving my hands in my pocket with a scowl distorting my features. “You never let me have any fun.”
We followed the steamcoach for a few moments more, watching it weave and clatter down Bracken Street; and I allowed myself to take another look around at the crowd milling all around me, a thousand different lies, a thousand different truths that made up the citizens lives. We passed a steamcoach livery, a few coaches chugging into the bays and mechanics scrambling to clamber inside and crawl under the coach, loud clanking and scraping sounds coming from underneath and a few lads fiddled with the wheels, pulling out vials of Vetrine oil and polishing the screws with a cloth and a dousing of said oil. It was the best thing to keep the steamcoach wheels running smoothly. They were the only vehicles that hadn’t crashed through the streets of Pendulum, scattering citizens and leaving stores and apartments in smithereens of ash and metal as people lay in heaps, rain pouring down as a mourning for them from the low hanging clouds. Instinctively, I pulled my coat tighter around myself, wrenching away from the thoughts of mangled metal and dripping water. “Tallion – they’re turning into the Allern Alley, just past the cobblers store,” she said lowly, her voice tingling with a mixture of excitement and nervousness as I watched the coach disappear into the fog that winded down Allern Alley, a single lamp post shining out onto the street and illuminating the swinging metal sign that dangled from the front of the Cobblers Store – Evans’ Buckles and Repairs was the name it donned – and I felt my heart escalate to the heavens and then drop swiftly to the core of the earth as we edged towards the opening of the alleyway, pressing against the wall and watching as it rumbled down the cobblestone alley that was lined with a muddy pathway, the wet mud splashing onto my trouser legs and boots. I noticed a split in the alley, separating it into two parallel blocks and I gestured to Venice with my chin towards it, and she gave me a dubious glance before we both slunk down it and I peered out with my hands clutching the cold stone wall, watching as the steamcoach continued. Looking down the nameless junction, I could see that if we followed it, it would circle back round to Allern Alley, as I could see another split junction separating it just up ahead, only a moment from when the steam coach would reach it, and I grabbed Venice’s arm.
“This split circles back around to another split junction in the alley – we can be fast enough to get there and ambush them from the side before they know what’s happening.” My voice urgent, low and hurried as we stood there in the drizzling rain, the clang from the mines and the tolling of the Clock tower, the chatter and yelling from the crowd distant and blurry through the fog, the people in the distance almost looking akin to swarming bees or a nest of ants as they trailed through the busy streets.
“Full of surprises today, aren’t we?” she said in a approving voice, looking sharply to the right with her hand around her pistol that she’d taken out from the confines of her coat pocket and instead hidden under the threadbare material of the chest, and then looked back at me with a spark in her eyes and a slow spreading smile on her face as we started to move down the alley, turning sharply to the right and then following it back around to come out in nearly the middle of Allern Alley, and I could feel my heart shuddering in my chest as I heard the clatter and hiss of the steam coach just to my right as we lay in the shadows, my finger fingering the trigger of my gun. We see the steamcoach emerge out of the fog, and the coachman sitting up the front with a wary gaze on his face, his dark hair slicked back with rain, his hands directing the coach with a series of shifting gear sticks that he pulls correctly to position and when he finally passes us, we exchanged a final glance in the shadows of the junction.
“We’re insane.” I said, a low chuckle in my throat accompanied by my frantically drumming heart and the hairs on my neck standing up as the familiar rush of adrenaline surged through my veins and made my eyes bright, and we made our way into the alley, grabbing the back of the coach and crawling around the side of it before I put my hand at the coach door.
“It’s in the job description.” That was the last coherent words I heard before I yanked the door of the coach open, scraping volatilely under my hands as it banged for a moment and then swiftly shut as I pulled myself inside, ignoring the startled screams of Lester and Redway; the coach warm and heady around me with soft lighting and velvet seats. My hand shook only slightly as I pulled the pistol out from the pocket and held it to Redway’s head, his breathing harsh and heavy as the steamcoach continued to clatter down the alleyway, the hissing of the steam and turning gears loud in my ears where I had been used to only the dull spatter of rain. Venice had her arm around Mrs. Whytings waist, and her chest was heaving erratically as she scrabbled at her with her claw like hands, and Venice’s face took on a pale sheen before she proceeded to knock her over the head with the pistol, making her crumple onto the seat, the folds of her gown filling almost the entire carriage and her head lulling to the side on the seat, her pale gloved hands still clutched around her purse. The tension in the coach was heavy, hanging around us and clouding our vision while our we breathed rapidly, chests rising and falling with each shudder and hiss of the clockwork under us. The velvet burnished seats brushed against my fingers, the seductive feeling of it adding to the feeling of the heavy clouds around us. Both Lester and Redway lay on the seats, eyes shut and fluttering slightly, their clothes rumpled and wrinkled from the struggle only moments earlier, and with shaking hands, I grabbed Mr. Redway’s arms, hauling him over the seats, his hands cold and clammy under my own, sending a rattle through my bones that tore at my lungs and sent my heart hurtling in my chest as I tried not to look at his face, pale and covered in a thin sheen of sweat, his tie and waistcoat crumpled and a purple welt that had started to spread across his gaunt face from where I had clouted him; and his breath came heavy and wheezy as I pulled open the trunk of the steamcoach and pushed him inside with a low grunt, his body toppling inside and making a loud thud as he hit the bottom of trunk. Venice followed suit, her hands fumbling slightly with Mrs. Whytings elaborate costume as she struggled for a moment, her face turning red with exertion and a strand of hair slipping from under her cap as she pushed her into the trunk, both now very intimate travelling companions in the dark, claustrophobic trunk. They both lay there in the dark, their forms vaguely outlined in the shadows and the dim light spilling in from the street lamps outside, looking like bedraggled marionettes with limp strings and no puppet master. Venice slammed the trunk shut, the hollow sound of it shaking the trunk slightly and we both collapsed back onto the seats, adrenaline pouring through my veins as though it was a hedonistic wine and I took a deep sip from the intoxicating elixir; shutting my eyes and allowing it to spill through every crevice of me before opening my eyes. Venice glanced back at the shut trunk, taking a deep breath before letting out a satisfied smirk, her lip curling upwards and her eyes glinting as she made a few resolute taps on the wood.
“Sleep tight.” She let out a chuckle, adjusting her coat lapel and then reaching for the bag slumped on the seat next to us, opening the latch and pulling out the Shroud – a dull, metal machine that would let us impersonate Lester and Redway. Venice fiddled with it for a moment, her fingers switching buttons and flicking up switches with her eyes narrowed as the machine whirred to life, humming erratically under her movements. With a satisfied grunt, she glanced up at me, shadows carving into her face from the night sky outside, her eyes twinkling from underneath her cap as she leaned forward, holding the machine over her knees and pulled at my hand, placing it over the top of the blinking panel on the machine. “Ready to play dress up?” I gave her a good-natured wink, leaning forward so that we were both hovering over the machine, the metal cold under our fingers as the steamcoach continued its fated path down the dim lit roads of the clockwork city.
“I’m always ready to play.”
The steamcoach jolted, throwing us back into our seats; my head growing thick and fuzzy, the steamcoach swimming and blurring in front of my eyes for a moment before it cleared, and I leaned forward, my head in my hands and my eyes tightly shut as I struggled to command my stomach that was sloshing nauseously. I let out a groan before opening my eyes and blinking in shock as I saw Mrs. Whyting sitting opposite me, calm as you please, fiddling with the studded ruby necklace at her pale collarbones which jutted out from her bodice before giving a loud “humph.” My words became lodged in my throat before I realised that Venice was the imposter, dressed in Mrs. Whytings extravagant exterior; a strikingly dark cobalt blue dress with fringes of lace like delicate spider webs, an onyx belt with glinting silver and pewter buckles cinching in her waist, her sleeves pinned and tucked expertly so that they billowed out at the shoulders and gathered in at the wrists, altogether paired with a very disgusted look from Venice, her brow wrinkling and touching the skirt as if it were a can of tuna instead of a gown. Her face still had smudges of coal dust on it, a pale sheen of sweat covered her cheekbones and forehead and her now almost white hair matted under her cap like a ravenous bird nest.
“I like the chimney sweep look – really suits the gown. I’m sure you’ll get compliments.” I propped my foot up on my knee, grabbing the cane resting against the side of the door, the Covol resting upon it, its half open beak resting in between my gloved fingers as I snapped it up and caught it in my hand. Venice glared at me while she reached for her purse, snapping it open without breaking her gaze, her lashes casting spidery shadows against her cheekbones as her face turned from infuriated to smug in less than a moment.
“Oh, if only there was a clean, white shirt,” she started, looking up sorrowfully, her hand placed upon her chest delicately, with all the innocence of a young lamb before giving me a sardonic smile before casually adjusting the gossamer lace gloves on her hands, “with which to wipe my oh – so sooty face on.” She finished with a sly glance as she folded her hands innocently on her lap while I arched a brow at her, biting back my own grin before I reached into the unfamiliar coat I was wearing and came out with a snow-white handkerchief, which I handed to her with a flourish, tipping my hat at her in a teasing manner before she practically snatched it out of my fingers without so much as a thank you.
“Come now, my generosity knows no bounds.” I sniggered, wincing internally at the feeling of the foreign fabric encasing limbs that were no longer my own, looking down to see that my polished brown boots had been replaced by a pair of black leather boots that were glass like in reflection compared to my own, a pair of ebony trousers with a paisley pattern that I deemed far too elaborate for my tastes, but then again, I didn’t have spare Gunts to be throwing to the wind, now did I? Wine was the chosen shade for the jacket that restricted my movements, making me scowl as I adjusted the black trimming that rimmed the coat at the cufflinks and the neck, the material scratching at my neck while I straightened the velvet top hat that now sat perched on my head like a mildly startled bird. Venice looked at me with more than subtle amusement as I examined my outfit with disgust, my features distorting into a scowl and a pursed lip as I slouched in my seat, tapping my shoes restlessly against the floor of the coach.
“Not a word of this. To anyone.” I muttered, leaning back against the seat of the coach with my scowl still carved on my face, turning to look out the window into the foggy streets of Pendulum; the stores lit up with lanterns, glass windows thick with silhouettes of late night street roamers, loud laughter and clinking of glasses permeating the night air as street lamps lit up the roads, mist weaving around the posts as people marched up and down the streets, heads low and coats wrapped tight around them, cigars burning oily orange in the night air, sparking brightly as it lit up and then faded, a puff of smoke in its wake, the shout from late night washer women as we passed the factory lauder house, great billowing steam erupting from the brightly lit windows and water being sloshed out of high windows into the empty streets below, people ducking to avoid the streams of water as it splashed onto the cobblestones below. I was thrown out of my reverie by the shudder of the steamcoach, and I looked around wildly to see Venice hunched over the Shroud, her face now completely free of soot and her hair tumbling over her shoulders as she frantically fiddled with the knobs and switches, biting her lip in frustration as the coach gave another shudder, the vibrations ripping through the underside of the coach, my teeth rattling in my jaw and my head nearly hitting the top of the roof.
“Sparks – bloody aftershocks,” Venice muttered, flicking a few more switches, the lights it blinking furiously and another jolt ripping through the carriage and I clung on the handle just above the door, my arm jerking as the steamcoach shuddered in its path and then, confirming my fears, it came to a halt, braking harshly and the clockwork gears letting out a harsh hiss of steam, as if a serpent was living in the gears of the coach and I heard indistinct muttering and a clatter of boots on the road as the voice got louder. Venice tucked the Shroud under her, looking at me with a panicked look on her face, the blood leaving her cheeks as her eyes fluttered rapidly, worry eclipsing her iris’s and I quickly grabbed the cane, switching my seat so that we were both facing the door, my heart hammering as Venice suddenly made a mad grab for the sandalwood fan sitting on the seat I had just been on as the steamcoach door was yanked open and a face laced with displeasure stuck its hand inside the coach. His ears stuck out from under his carefully positioned hat, his eyes narrowed behind shimmering grey spectacles, his hair slicked back with equal parts grease and gel; the strong, chemical smell of it wafting through the coach making my nose wrinkle in distaste as the footman narrowed his eyes at us suspiciously, the amber lights of Pendulum glowing behind him.
“Is everything quite alright back here, Mr. Redway? Mrs. Whyting?” He said her name with a manner that was thick with disdain, his back becoming stiffer as he leant away from her and I couldn’t help but silently sit back in amusement as Venice smiled demurely and opened the fan with a snap, flourishing it in front of her face, brushing it over her cheekbones as if she was the lamp and the fan was the moth. I arch my brows subtly at her act, but she ignores me and proceeds to flutter her lashes at Walter, who clearly is not amused by her vain attempts at seduction.
“Oh, yes – of course…uh,” Venice trails off uncertainly, waving her fan absentmindedly as she widens her eyes, blinking up at him innocently.
“Walter.” He gave a condescending sniff, backing out of the steamcoach and then slamming the door loudly, causing the coach to rattle and I can hear more indistinct muttering as the coach shakes slightly when he resumes his seat and then with a lurch, we rattle forward again, moving faster this time, the cobblestones under us sounding like beating hailstones; and I give Venice a sly glance before tapping the seat with my cane. “Oh, yes, Walter,” I imitate her in a high pitched fluttery tone, batting my lashes at her while she looks at me with tangible disgust, snapping her fan open and shut threateningly at me, “Everything’s quite alright. Do you like my fan? I stole it off the real Mrs. Whyting who is currently locked in the trunk back here! Isn’t that excite – “ Venice cuts me off by whacking me with the fan and yanking my tie so that it comes loose, and I adjust it, tightening it while giving her a good – natured wink, which results in another whack on the arm with said fan, but I can see the glint in her eyes which gives away her amusement and she leans back on the seat with a loud sigh, tapping her fingers nervously on the seat next to me and I grab her hand, giving it a squeeze.
“Don’t worry - we’ve got this.” I look her in the eyes, obsidian shadows that wrinkle with nervous tension as she distractedly fiddles with the necklace at her collarbone, giving a determined nod as she pressed her lips together.
“We’re the Fireflies.” Her voice came out loud, echoing in the silky air around us as moonlight spilled through the windows, bathing the seats in a misty haze, the low lights in the steamcoach flickering around us, crackling softly in the silent air that is only broken by the muted clatter of the wheels and the low hiss of the coach under us. I closed my eyes for a moment, the light only pricking faintly under my eyelids as I allowed the constant rise and fall of the coach to lull me for a moment.
Pendulum was a hive, the citizens of this grinding city worker bees, living only to serve the wants of the Queen. She was there merely to oversee the hive, put the bees to work, to keep them in place. Did the bees sometimes whisper to each other in the six cornered holes of their hexagon hive, their wings fluttering as they contemplated rebellion, to revolt against the Queen bee and reclaim themselves, to rise to the skies and take to the flowers, becoming their own rulers in a field of roses and lilies, sweetness luring them to the petals that they might make their home? Or perhaps they were oblivious to the fact that they were being ruled, that the Queen was perhaps not as benevolent as they might want to make her out to be; that her golden and onyx coat might hide a heart of soiled gold, burning at the edges as she flew through the hive with honey seeping through the crevices in the hive as the bees flew silently from flower to flower, never protesting, never questioning her harsh rule until they were nothing more than drones. Born to serve. Dying without feeling the sky on their wings, wings tearing under chains of bondage of hive and gold, never knowing the taste of the nectar without the acrid taste of slavery biting at them. I clenched my hand around my cane, leather tightening against my hands as I made my vow.
I would see the Queen bleed.
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