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Excerpt: The Monstrous Citadel by Mirah Bolender

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Amicae, City of Sweepers, survived the Falling Infestation which nearly destroyed it thanks to the efforts of Laura and Okane. While the ancient monsters have been beaten back for the moment, new and more monstrous dangers face them in the form of belligerent bureaucracy, dangerous gangs, grasping Sweepers bent on personal glory . . .

And Rex, the City of Kings, who breed their own kind of monstrosity.

Laura and Okane must go to Rex to reclaim the secret weaponry that keeps Amicae safe and come face to face with a horrifying truth about the Rex and their designs on all of Orien’s cities.

The Monstrous Citadel is the sequel to Mirah Bolender’s City of Broken Magic—a fast-paced, adventure fantasy where a bomb squad defuses the magic weapons of a long forgotten war. Please enjoy the following excerpt and head to PasteMagazine.com to read Chapter 2.

1

Backlash

Laura’s dismissal had been a shock, initially. It came on the tail end of an infestation, just as reported in the Amicae Sun. Damage had been done, yes, but it hadn’t been anywhere near as bad as what she’d done to the army barracks in September, or even what she and Clae had done to a residence in August. Where those incidents had been either picked at or overlooked entirely, stories about this one had ballooned. It couldn’t be blamed on mobsters or another far-fetched reason, not now in Amicae’s “age of truth.” As good as it was to have people who knew about infestations, in this instance it proved extremely annoying. When infestations came up now, the public reacted in hysterics. Citizens wrote to the papers, bemoaning her ineptitude: Why couldn’t she have just not damaged anything? Why couldn’t she have prevented the infestation from coming at all? Why hadn’t she done her civic duty and shared the truth with everyone from the start? Okane suggested that maybe she should avoid the papers for a while, but she ignored him. If she was head Sweeper, she’d do this right. She needed to know what everyone was saying, so she could give them a proper and well-educated fuck you in case she ever met one of these idiots in person. (“- – – sound like Clae,” he’d informed her, and even his lack of “you” sounded exasperated.)

Part of her was viciously pleased when the Dead Ringer newspaper rose to her defense, but mostly she felt squeamish. Anyone with a brain knew that the Dead Ringer was run by the Mad Dogs mob. The Mad Dogs helped Sweepers during the Falling Infestation, but that had been basic self-preservation. With their own fleet of Sweepers far outnumbering the Sinclairs, there was no need for them to dig in their heels like this. Laura had a bad feeling that the Mad Dogs would come knocking on her door with a debt she’d never asked for. Furthermore, the obvious new link between Sweepers and Mad Dogs was a nightmare in publicity. Albright had since redirected any phone calls to the shop, but after the first Dead Ringer article a woman called the Sweepers and accused Laura of assisting the Mad Dogs in bombing a business on the east side and killing her son. Adding insult to injury, the bombing in question had been undertaken by Blackwater, a completely different mob. The very next day, the Dead Ringer churned out a page reading, You don’t even know which mob you hate! Why do you think you know enough to judge an organization you didn’t even know existed?

Laura had braced herself for a rebuke from the Council. Sure enough, she received a letter with the Council’s phoenix stamp. Inside it simply read:

Due to recent circumstances, we have agreed that you are no longer suitable to hold the position of head Sweeper.

Below it were signatures from multiple Council members. Councilwoman Victoria Douglas hadn’t graced the letter with her signature or approval, but majority ruled. Laura was demoted. She might have been biased, but she was still convinced this was a petty dismissal. There was no benefit for Amicae in removing the most veteran member of such a small Sweeper department, and Clae had remained in power for twelve years under the same tactics. Worse, there was no one to replace her with. The only Council-approved option was . . .

“Juliana MacDanel’s been authorized for full citizenship.”

In the here and now, December 5, 1233, Okane paged through another newspaper. It still took him a while to read everything, but he took in all the words with eyes she vowed never to compare to silver coins. “The Sun’s done a highlight on her in celebration.”

Laura’s head lay in the middle of a newspaper halo. She turned to look at him, scrunching the pages of today’s Dead Ringer.

“A highlight? Like they do for film stars?”

“Yes. I don’t see how they had the opportunity to do this kind of interview unless they paid for the telephone call,” said Okane. “It says she enjoys dogs, playing Aces, and eating Ralurian potato peels. When advertisements listed that as a delicacy, I thought it was a joke.”

“I’m still not convinced it isn’t.” Laura felt tempted to sink lower in her slouch, but there wasn’t anyplace lower to go when one’s face was plastered to the counter. She had no doubt this interest in Juliana MacDanel was engineered: a way to soothe the public, make Amicae feel like the Council was answering their call, all while endearing the Sweepers to them like the friendly entourage of a film star. “If they’re trying to make the head Sweeper into a mascot, I’ll admit I’m not a good fit for the job.”

Okane eyed her reproachfully. “There’s no way she would know the job better than – – – do.”

“With twenty years on the job, she would,” said Laura. “Knowing layout isn’t everything. She’ll probably learn quickly.”

“I still think – – -’re more suitable,” said Okane.

Laura snorted. “Look at it this way. If the head Sweeper’s going to be a media darling, that cuts back on her Sweeping time. She’ll be in an interview, and I’ll be on the extermination. I won’t have the title, but I’ll still be the real power here. So long as I can keep Sweeping, that’s enough for me.”

It was a lie, but admitting that felt petulant. She’d reach for any silver lining she could at this point. Okane seemed to be even more upset about this than she was, but luckily she was spared any additional arguing by a knock at the door. While strange during business hours, the gesture meant it must be one of two people. Okane waved at the large windows, and the visitor creaked the door open.

The police chief, Heather Albright, stepped in. She carried her black helmet under one arm, freeing dark red hair to fall in a frazzled braid down her back. Her glasses half hid the dark circles under her eyes, the sheaf of paper under her other arm presumably to blame. At one time her presence might’ve been odd, but ever since the disaster she dropped by to check on them multiple times a week. Whether this was because she worried over losing a vital cog in the city machine or actually felt concern for their personal well-being Laura didn’t know, but she appreciated the attention. She’d expected Albright to drop by, but the man who sidled in behind her, hands in the pockets of his overcoat and a pipe held loosely between his teeth, wasn’t familiar. He stood behind and of to Albright’s side, close enough to observe but not in the way, and seemed very used to this spot. Albright didn’t so much as look at him, instead fixing her tired gaze on the Sweepers.

“Good afternoon. Has business been well today?”

“Not really,” said Laura. “No one came in, even for recycling.” “After the incident I didn’t think we’d need so many warnings

printed, but I’ll ask for another round in the papers,” Albright muttered. “That should send them hurrying in.”

Laura smiled. “Did you need something today, Chief Albright?”

“Just giving you some news.” She brandished the papers. “For one thing, we’ve got the politics hammered out on this problem of yours. Might want to thank Douglas. She nearly turned the case into a crusade.”

The idea of the stern, elderly councilwoman charging into battle surprised Laura, but then again she’d never met Victoria Douglas. “How did it turn out?”

“Clae Sinclair’s will is going to be carried out as intended. Whether or not it was used for public service, all Sweeper equipment is privately owned, so the Council and city can’t claim it.” She muttered something about a gray area of whether Pits were considered private property, something the Council had argued over in the process. “And whoever inherits his estate gets all of it, since Sweepers are tax- free. The Council loved that. Bottom line: there’s a lot more up for grabs and possibly yours, but that’s all up to the estate administrator carrying it out.”

“Good. I wouldn’t trust the Council with it,” said Laura. She’d read more than enough about the early days when the Council had used Gin to pay of any small debt, and her personal experiences with their orders hadn’t been enjoyable. “Do you know how long an administrator should take?”

“I wouldn’t know. I’ve never had to deal with them.” Albright turned to look at the man, who’d drifted toward the counter to inspect the Kin. “Rhodes, how much time does it take for them to do their job?”

The man straightened up from squinting at a flask, pushing his hat back on thick auburn hair. “Depends,” he said, in a slow drawl. “If there’s organized documentation, they could be in and out in no time. If there’s not, you may have to deal with them for a while. Don’t worry, though. They don’t take nearly as long as people seem to think.”

Albright nodded her approval before plucking a small page from her papers and setting it on the countertop. Laura leaned over to see it better and recognized it as a telegram.

“In addition, your new boss is coming soon.” The mention made Laura’s stomach twist; half shame for her horrendously botched job and following dismissal, half dread for the newcomer. “Personally, I think it’s unnecessary. As far as I’m concerned you did the right thing. Clae Sinclair certainly wouldn’t have done any different. You prevented a massive loss of life, and—”

“And the Council doesn’t want another Clae,” said Laura. “I’m not happy about it, but there’s nothing I can do. Besides, I have faith in whoever Puer’s head Sweeper picks out.”

Albright pursed her lips but didn’t argue. “That man was in contact with us about her, and had a lot of good things to say. The Council sent someone to properly interview her and they were impressed, so she’s been accepted. This”—she tapped the telegram—“was sent yesterday. There was a mix-up in the mailroom so it only reached me today, but it says she’s eager to start and left for Amicae already. If the trains run on schedule she’ll arrive tonight, and if she’s as enthusiastic as I believe, she’ll swing by to look at the shop as soon as she does. You may meet her before I do.”

Laura wasn’t sure what to think. She thought they’d have a little more warning before the replacement swooped in to usurp the job. Time to mentally prepare themselves, time to hide the Sinclairs. She almost wished no one had been picked as head Sweeper.

She folded her hands, bit her lip. She glanced at the man before whispering, “Should we tell her about, um, those two?”

Albright leaned back and regarded them a moment.

“I think that’s up to you. I don’t know the extent of politics and rivalry between Sweepers, but I know nothing’s free of corruption. Wait awhile and judge whether you can trust her first. For the moment, I’d keep it secret. That said, I’ve shared information about the Sinclairs with Rhodes.”

Laura froze. “You what?”

“Rhodes, come over here.”

The man sauntered over to their group. He stood next to Albright, easily taller than all of them, though he had a slouch and his eyes were droopy in a friendly kind of way. If she’d met him any other time Laura would’ve thought he was harmless, but now she felt on edge.

“This is Byron Rhodes, a private investigator,” said Albright. “I’ve asked him to keep an eye on you. With the news and the recent riots, criminals have been getting bold. There’s been an upsurge in crime rates, mob and otherwise, so I won’t have the time to check on you. He’ll be monitoring you in my stead. He’s currently investigating the events leading to the disaster and evacuation, so in order for him to have a full understanding I gave him the whole story. What I know, anyway. If you have any other information I urge you to share it with him.”

So a stranger was free to know about Clae and Anselm while the head Sweeper wasn’t? That didn’t make much sense, but if the chief of police put so much faith in this investigator, Laura supposed she could trust him to an extent.

“It’s nice to meet you, Mr. Rhodes,” she said, trying her best to look unruffled.

“Just call me Byron,” he replied, tipping his hat. “No need to be nervous. I’m here to support you, same as Heather here.” Strangely enough, Albright didn’t look remotely concerned with the use of her first name. “Quite a few strange pieces in motion around that infestation. There’s no telling who’s behind it, but if they attacked Amicae on such a grand scale, I’m sure their next attempt will be just as vicious. I’d like to make sure you don’t become casualties.”

Laura blinked. “Next attempt? I thought Sullivan was the one behind it all, and he’s in jail now. It was his pipes, right?”

“Maybe, but the man himself couldn’t have done the deed,” said Byron. “Takes a lot of workers. We’ve got false IDs on what’s left of the interior record and no matches in his workforce. I’d say there’s another group at work here.”

It couldn’t have been the Mad Dogs mob. The Mad Dogs had a disagreement with Sullivan before, and their Sweepers had come to fight of the infestation rather than evacuate. That left another city, Rex: they’d sent a small infiltration force, and their crest was blatantly painted under the ruined bulwark tree. But they’d only had three men, two captured. Surely one man couldn’t manage all that. But Rexian rumor was worse than ghost stories, and Laura had to quash her unease.

“You’ll find out who did it?”

“He’s more capable than his looks suggest,” said Albright, “which is one of the reasons I’m assigning him to you. If you have any immediate problems, go to him.”

Laura nodded but said nothing. Byron seemed to understand her reluctance. He pulled a card from his pocket and set it on the counter before her.

“Here’s my information if you need it. You probably won’t see me often, but I’m there if you need me. Until then I’ll try to stay out of your way.”

“Thanks,” Laura mumbled, while Okane slid the card closer and squinted at the type.

Albright checked her watch and let out a short, angry sigh. “I’ll have to be going now. Good luck with your new boss.”

Business finished, Albright inclined her head and left. Byron followed close behind, and their forms flitted past the right-hand window as the door clicked shut. The pair stared after them, silence unbroken for a while before Okane gave a shuddering sigh.

“So what do we do?”

“We keep Clae secret.” Laura shrugged. “I guess we move him.”

“Now?”

“If the new head Sweeper comes by tonight she’ll want to get in, right? Best move them now. Just to make sure.”

“To where, though?” He gestured at their surroundings. “It’s almost closing time. There’s no way we can get anywhere without people seeing them. This is all the space we have.”

“What about upstairs?”

The second floor of the Sweeper shop was a living space, Clae’s— now Okane’s—home. Other Sweepers would have no reason to go up there, boss or not.

That was how they found themselves hauling Clae bodily up the stairs. It occurred to Laura that there was a reason they’d left him on the ground floor in the first place. The stairs were steep and he was extremely heavy, not to mention slippery after being stuck in a tub of water. Laura couldn’t get a good hold on his feet without losing grip, having to lurch sideways and hug his boots to her side. Okane didn’t fare much better, but at least he could grab Clae under the arms. Clae’s face was enraged, as it had been the past few weeks, but if he’d been aware of the proceedings she thought he’d make the same expression. She stopped a third of the way up the steps.

“I don’t remember these stairs being so much like a ladder,” she panted.

“It’s an architectural disaster,” Okane wheezed.

“How did the Sinclairs get any furniture up there in the first place?”

“Magic?”

Laura panted some more before heaving Clae’s feet up again and staggering. They went three steps before the crystal slipped in their grip and they scrambled to a halt. Clae’s form hit the steps with a loud thunk, and Laura sucked in a breath, horrified.

“Oh, shit. Is he okay?”

Okane squinted down and nodded. “This crystal must be tougher than it looks.”

Somewhat reassured, Laura steadied herself and they lurched up again.

“Why did we start with him?” Okane groaned. “Anselm will be a piece of cake in comparison.”

“Where are we putting him?”

“I don’t know. You live up there, you tell me!”

“Bed?”

“Just lead the way.”

It took an eternity, but they reached the second floor and hauled Clae down the hall, into the back room with the twin beds. They de- posited him none too gracefully, and turned back to the stairs.

Anselm was, luckily, a hell of a lot lighter. Okane hefted the crystal into his arms and took him up alone. Laura watched from the bottom and called up when he stumbled.

“You’re leaning left again! Don’t slip!”

He made a frustrated noise and disappeared into the second floor. Eventually he emerged again with a pensive look on his face.

“What do you think they’ll say about me? About the ‘- – -’ thing?”

“They won’t notice it.” Laura noticed, but she’d trained herself for it. Okane shook his head. “And the eyes?”

“If they give you trouble at all, I’ll back you up. Nothing like the Sullivans will ever happen to you again.”

Okane rubbed at his covered arms, and the scars there. “Thanks.” A clattering sound made Laura jump and look back at the shop.

There was someone by the windows, headed straight for the door. Could that be the new boss? She gestured madly for Okane to come down, hissing, “She’s here! I think she’s here!”

Okane sped down the stairs while Laura straightened, heart jumping into her throat. The door creaked open, admitting two people.

The first was a woman with long brown hair twisted into a knot at the back of her head. Her hazel eyes and upturned nose reminded Laura of a film star, and her expensive coat and fur stole only enforced the idea. She gave them a smile both excited and bashful. Laura was immediately distracted by the man behind her: tall, reedy, with the same coloring and upturned nose, though the rest of his face was long, thin, and gaunt, and he’d opted for a plain overcoat.

“Hello,” the woman said breathlessly. “I’m Juliana MacDanel. This is Sinclair Sweepers, right? It’s hard to read the sign.”

Laura forced a smile. “Are you our new head Sweeper?”

Juliana’s face brightened. “Yes! I was sent over from Puer. So you’re—Oh, I know this, they sent the information. Laura Kramer, and Okane Sinclair?”

At each name she went to shake their hands. She had a strong grip, and Laura needed to rub her hand to get the feeling back when the woman turned. Okane’s reluctance to touch ended up being interpreted as something completely different, and Juliana pulled back.

“Sinclair. So you were a relative of the previous head Sweeper? I’m sorry I’m not him, but I’ll try my best to carry on his great reputation.” She put a hand over her heart and said this sincerely. Okane shuffled and ducked his head.

“Did you know Clae?” Laura asked.

“Not personally, but he was something like a Sweeper celebrity: the youngest head Sweeper in recent history, worked almost solo most of his career, and still somehow managed to be the most effective fighter in Terual. Even Rex could see he was talented.”

A smile tugged at Laura’s lips. If the new boss had a healthy respect for Clae, she couldn’t be too bad.

“And, since my companion doesn’t seem interested in introducing himself, I’ll do it for him. This is my brother, Lester. He’s also a Sweeper. Once I heard how small Amicae’s force was, I begged him to come along. I hope you don’t mind?”

“Not at all!” Laura hadn’t expected more than one new member, but the help would be welcome.

Juliana shrugged of her coat and hung it up on the coatrack, revealing a dress underneath. She looked ready for an evening party. Had she dressed up to meet them, of all people? It was almost flattering.

“What do you say, you want to give us the grand tour?”

“Tour?”

“Of course!” Juliana laughed. “The Gin, the weapon construction, the storage areas, what have you.”

“Well . . . this is it.” Laura waved around at the room. “Everything is on this floor. We’ve got the Kin,” she gestured at the hissing setup behind her, “storage,” she tapped the glass of the counter, “and the Gin is in the next room.”

“It looked like there was a second floor.”

“That’s a home.”

My home,” Okane piped up. “I’d prefer – – – didn’t go up there.”

“Of course! We’ve got no reason to pry.”

Thank goodness they didn’t press the matter. Laura slipped off the stool and led the way to the black drapes. The newcomers followed, Juliana with a distinct spring in her step. Laura held the curtains aside and scrutinized them as they passed. She startled when she realized Lester was scrutinizing her right back.

“Is there a problem?” Juliana glanced from one to the other. Had Laura made a noise without realizing it?

“It’s nothing,” she said quickly. “Sorry, I’m just not used to letting people in here. Clae was protective of the equipment.”

“Was he?” Juliana sounded interested.

“Amicae has a long history of taking away Sweeper inventory and selling it of,” said Laura. “The Sinclair family had to purchase most of their equipment from the city to keep it from being destroyed. Okane, wasn’t there something about the Pits, too?”

“Functioning Pits are city territory, but sunken ones are private property,” said Okane. “Otherwise the mining would’ve disturbed them.” “A grave concern,” said Lester, and his voice sounded grave too.

“We’ll have to keep that in mind during our future dealings with the Council,” said Juliana, stepping through the curtains.

Laura leaned to watch as the pair inspected the Gin room. Without Clae or Anselm present it looked innocent enough. But rather than checking the water basin, the rocks, or the tubing, they turned to the shelves. Juliana’s hands sifted through the empty Eggs, moving the glass shapes in search of something while Lester did the same on the other side.

“Are you expecting something else?” Laura asked.

“Oh, nothing,” Juliana replied, even as she tilted her head to see the back of one shelf. “I’m a little surprised is all. Excelling the way he did, I thought Mr. Sinclair would’ve had a few more tricks up his sleeve.”

Laura leaned against the doorway and crossed her arms. “No. He was just talented.”

“You’re sure? There’s nothing else?”

“No.”

Juliana looked disappointed but moved on quickly. “Who’s the weapons supplier?”

Laura blinked. “The what?”

“Weapons supplier.” She held up one of the Eggs. “Who makes the Egg shells? The bullets? The Bijou?”

Laura didn’t have a clue.

“Her name’s Amelia.” Okane peered around Laura, content to use her like a shield. “She used to be a Sweeper, but now she works with companies to get equipment.”

Juliana perked up again. “That’s wonderful! Where’s her office?”

“I don’t know. We’ve only talked over the telephone.”

“Other Sweeper buildings?”

“None.”

“Our Council contact?”

“Clae harassed them on his own.”

Juliana gave a perplexed sigh. “How did you function with so few resources?”

“Clae.” Laura shrugged as if his name should explain everything. “We haven’t had experience with larger operations, so we have nothing to compare this to.” Okane ducked further behind Laura as Lester turned around.

“In any case, we’ve got a lot of work to do,” Juliana announced, folding her arms. “Sad as it is, that big infestation should’ve rattled your Council. Now that they’ve got some fear in them, they’ll be willing to pump up defenses. We can get away with a lot of demands, so long as we pitch it right.”

“Demands like what?”

“Like more funding, more equipment, more space.” Juliana gestured around the cramped room. “We can get this place back into shape and working properly.”

Laura decided she liked the sound of that; she’d given thought to such a plan during her brief stint as head Sweeper, but had no idea how to follow through with it. “How do we begin?”

“Tomorrow morning, as soon as shops open, we’re making phone calls.”

An hour later the MacDanels left. They needed to find their new lodgings and unpack their luggage. Juliana wished them a cheery good evening as she left, while Lester gave a solemn farewell of his own. The shop was quiet again. Laura sat heavily on a stool and looked at Okane. He lurked behind the inactive Kin with an expression like a kicked dog.

“Well?” she asked.

The single word implied more. Opinion? Trustworthy? Will this work? Okane gave a halfhearted shrug and wandered farther down the counter.

“That’s enlightening,” Laura grumbled.

“Well, what do – – – think?”

Laura paused, leaned back to look at the ceiling. Her mouth twisted. “I think . . . I think this might turn out okay. They—Juliana at least—seem like they’re going to put a lot into this. She’s a proper Sweeper.”

Okane peered around the tubing of the Kin, his eyes darker, brooding. “And?”

“And I don’t think they need to know about Clae or Anselm. Not yet, anyway.”

He nodded his approval, very slowly. “That sounds like the best plan. I don’t like them.”

“That’s a pretty quick decision.”

“They were snooping.” Okane circled all the way around the counter and sat on another stool. He looked very moody.

Laura sighed. “So we’ll keep Clae and Anselm a secret permanently? How can we manage that? The house works for now, but it seems too close. If anyone ever goes up there, they’ll find them.”

“Can we take them to – – -r house?”

Laura burst out laughing. Okane kept looking at her, and she realized he was serious. Her mirth died into uneven giggles.

“Okane, I live on the eighth floor. There’s no elevator, and Clae might be lighter than he was as a normal person, but if he is, it’s not by much. I can’t carry a grown man up all those stairs. Besides, I live with people. Should I stuf him in a closet to keep my cousin from finding him?”

“Maybe? I could help carry them.”

“We can’t set up the Kin in my house, either!”

“The Kin?”

“Well, yeah.” She avoided his gaze, staring at the toe of her boot.

“We can’t pull Anselm out of the Kin without losing all our power, can we?”

A long pause.

“I thought – – – didn’t want to include him.”

Right after the fact, Laura was very opposed to the idea of using either Sinclair in the Kin. It felt like desecration. But the more she thought about it, the more she wondered. Clae hadn’t liked using Anselm, but he’d kept doing it. It was the only way to get through the onslaught of monsters at the time. While there were more Sweepers now, nothing guaranteed they’d do well or even if they’d survive the first infestation that came along. Besides, another spike of stronger monsters would hit soon; Clae had said it himself. They couldn’t aford to lose any power. It was logical, but the more she thought about it the guiltier she felt. She’d barred Clae from being used. Would she feel the same about Anselm if she’d ever seen him alive?

Okane exhaled slowly. “So we need somewhere for the Kin.” Laura rubbed her face, suddenly tired as she thought over their options. Their only Sweeper building was now off-limits. Albright couldn’t take them. Even if Morgan and Cheryl happily accepted the presence of crystal people—doubtful—they might talk and the information would get around the whole city in an awful game of telephone. Perhaps they could create a space. She had some savings squirreled away with the idea of funding herself later in life: emergency money, college fund, rent for her own apartment. Whatever half-baked plans she had were flying out the window.

“Should we rent someplace?” she suggested, but her voice was forlorn. She was stingy and apartments were expensive these days.

Okane tugged at his hair some more, frowning at the floor. “I don’t like the idea of them being far away. I want someone to keep an eye on them.”

“That might be impossible.”

“Still.”

They lapsed into silence. After a while, Laura heaved a sigh.

“Tomorrow we can start looking at options.”

________

The next day was Saturday. Laura would typically be on call on weekends and not go in to the shop at all, but since today was Juliana’s first full day she felt obligated to go. Laura left at her usual time, arrived at the shop at eight in the morning, to find the blinds down on the windows. Strange. She rolled her bicycle up the steps and knocked on the door. A long pause followed. She started to wonder if Okane was even awake this early on a Saturday, but a muffled voice called through the door.

“Who is it?”

“Laura.”

A shorter pause, a clacking and shuffling at the lock, and the door opened. Okane blinked at her, very much awake.

“Good morning?” He sounded confused. “What are – – – doing here?” “I thought I’d come over before the MacDanels do. What are you sneaking around for?”

He glanced around, then opened the door wider and beckoned her inside. Raising an eyebrow, she hauled her bicycle over the threshold. The room felt hot and humid as if the Kin equipment had been going, but none of the usual gold could be glimpsed inside it. The floor of the shop, however, was cluttered: green Puer Eggs, more Bijou, more guns and bullets, along with bags, straps, masks, goggles, and tens of other things she couldn’t identify. Okane sat on one of the stools and resumed his earlier activity, trying to load one of Clae’s old pistols with Puer bullets. He’d gone through three varieties, and the fourth didn’t fit either.

“Juliana said we can take what we want,” he said.

“So she did show up,” Laura muttered. “I’m sorry. I wanted to get here before she had a chance.”

He shrugged. “It was uncomfortable, but it’s not as if I expected them to hurt me.”

“Will they be coming back soon?”

He shook his head and pointed; a note had been left on the Eggs.

Hi, Laura! Sorry if it feels like we’ve ditched you. Lester and I are on our way to the Council to get a full report of the city and what’s expected of us. With the situation as is, I expect we’ll be gone most of the day. In the meantime feel free to look through these presents from Puer! All this equipment is top of the line. Our kin formula and accompanying devices are all the product of years of scientific refinement; even cities as far south as Canis swear by it. I recommend giving them a try and seeing just how strong Sweepers can be!

“The first full day of the job and she’s already avoiding us.” Laura caught sight of his expression and snorted. “That was a joke.”

“I know,” he mumbled. The fifth bullet slid in clean and he popped the cylinder back into place. Almost immediately he hastened to get it out again. “Not good!” he squeaked. “Very much not good. That’s a disaster.”

“Didn’t it fit?”

“I get the distinct feeling that it won’t when it needs to. It feels like . . . like standing on the Quarter wall and looking down.” He eyed the bullet once it was out, expression defeated. “I don’t think our equipment’s compatible with Puer assembly lines.”

No, Laura agreed, it wasn’t. When she finally selected a sturdy supply bag, it was only to find that its compartments were designed for Puer’s rounder Eggs, with their greenish kin; the yellow, Amicae variety were too oblong and threatened to spill right out of the slots. Cursing, she went upstairs to raid the old sewing basket for stitch rippers and new thread. She set it all down before her and paused. Yellow Eggs on the right, green on the left. Dusty material worn soft but sturdy, versus the glossy reddish sheen of something new of the assembly line. Somehow she felt lost. She looked up at Okane, only to see him looking back.

“It’s different,” he said simply.

“Alien,” she agreed. “It’s better quality. I don’t know why I’m hesitating.”

“I like things staying the same,” he said, spinning the cylinder. “When they’re the same, they’re predictable. They’re safe. I don’t . . . I don’t really want to switch the gun, even if Puer’s is supposed to be better.”

“‘Better’ may apply to some things, but not others.” Laura stood and buckled on the new bag. There were four diferent buckles and chains, and by the end of it she was sure that not even a typhoon could pull it all of. “What do you think? We can mix the equipment and make it work. There’s more than enough bullets in storage to cover that gun.”

He perked up a little. “- – – think so? I don’t think we have the budget to replace them.”

“Even if the office itself doesn’t, once you get your share of Clae’s estate, there should be more than enough to cover anything you need.”

“My share?”

Why did he sound so surprised?

“Yes, your share. Albright was just talking to us about it.”

He grunted in disbelief. “Clae didn’t look like he was rolling in money. If he couldn’t replace his stove, what makes – – – think he had anything in his estate to cover anything?”

“His family owned Gin underground, and charged people to power amulets from it,” she pointed out. “That’s expensive, and he didn’t have to pay income tax on that.”

“But the stove—”

“Maybe he was a miser.”

Okane gave a short huff of laughter. “I could see that. Still, I don’t think he left me money, or if he did, not a lot. So we shouldn’t count on it.”

Laura frowned. “Why do you think that?”

“I’m not important enough.” He folded his hands in his lap as he said this, expression sad but earnest. He believed it.

“Okane. Okane.” Laura mimicked Morgan’s pitying tone as best she could. “Okane. You’re not that stupid.”

“Excuse me?”

“He gave the time and effort to get you out of trouble. You have his name. Of course you were important!”

“But—”

“But nothing.” She crossed her arms and frowned, daring him to question her. “I guarantee it. He left you a lot.”

“Hmm.”

Still unconvinced. Laura rolled her eyes.

Copyright © 2019 by Mirah Bolander

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