Nina S Gooden
A thick, sooty cloud of used steam slammed into Olyve the moment she stepped into the lively store. Miniature airships puffed along while brass clocks with exposed gears ticked pleasantly on the walls. A toy bear scuttled across the floor, mechanical parts whirling as it moved with halting artificial life. Just behind her, a latch clicked on the closing door, sending a tiny spring-loaded hammer toward an awaiting gong. The resulting tone bellowed her presence over the noise of the workshop.
“Coming, coming.” The voice that called from the back sounded strangely muffled. A heavy curtain slid to the side and Olyve forced herself to bite back a giggle. The shopkeeper was an ox of a man, lending to the common knowledge that he had spent some years working as a laborer in the Third Quarter. He had to bend down to cross from one room to the other. The loose vision-enhancing goggles on his head hit the doorframe with a delicate ping, calling attention to his leather covered face.
He pulled down the thin leather gasmask, which was little more than straps and cowhide with holes in the front to allow air to filter through. The added intimidation of the gear only made it that much funnier when he straightened.
“Mr. Brett, I do believe that wife of yours is on to something.” Olyve teased.
The big man huffed and crossed his arms over his chest. Even the heavy muscle could not hide the purple and gold stripes on his once loved leather apron. Splashes of obscene color stood out where only one expected only to see brown. “She’s gonna be the death of me pride as a man, that one.”
Olyve made her way to the window display where a twirling parasol and model train teased each other in lazy circles. “What she’s going to do is ensure that you and your family are as rich as the monarchy.”
The big man laughed. “You think the First Quarter is gonna put up with us simple folk over summin’ as simple as dyed leathah’?”
A little mirror with a brass case caught Olyve’s eye. When she lifted it, the middle folded in and closed, covering precious glass with a case of brushed metal. “How clever,” she purred, opening it once again. “Is this one of your tinkerings, then, Mr. Brett? I’d like to order at least two.”
The shopkeeper angled himself to see the object without moving any closer to the girl in his store. “You looike that, then? Nah, I can’ take credit for that bit of genius. It’s another of Cyril’s.”
Olyve nodded her understanding. “The elusive and brilliant Cyril Reeves. One of these days I hope to meet him.”
“You and I both, Miz’ Blackwell.” The man cleared his throat softly. “’Course, I hadn’t missed that you ain’t answered my question.”
Olyve laughed again, the joyful sound filling the space in between the hiccups and whirls of the automatons on display. “You’re as quick as always, Hershel. Most people I know would have continued the conversation, no worse for wear.”
“That’s because you waste your time with them Blue Bloods of the First Quarter. They don’t have to do much by way of thinking, I know. You’d run circles around them, for certs.”
Olyve grinned, turning to face the man. “You forget that I am one of those Blue Bloods? I should take offense.”
“Pro’ly, but we both know you won’t. You ain’t like the others. You’re a Blackwell.”
Olyve sighed, glancing back to the little mirror. Staring back at her from a heart shaped face framed by blonde curls–made little more than waves by the steam in the store–were the infamous Blackwell eyes. A startling winter blue, they marked her as different. She may be a member of the ton, but those eyes clearly said that she didn’t belong.
Not with the rampant rumors and promise of scandal.
Rumors of magic and curses had swirled around her family for years. It didn’t help that her father had blatantly fed the flames, refusing to settle down into a respectable role. Instead he’d run off to be an air pirate. Sometimes she had no idea why he’d chosen such a life. Others, she wished for the same freedom.
“At any ways, you be a lady still. Don’t you have one of them fancy companions with you today?”
Jerking her face away from her solemn expression, Olyve narrowed her eyes. She watched Hershel Brett drag his gaze over her and knew what he saw. As an unwed woman, she was required to wear the full skirt of her position. The heavy material had been a blessing out in the cold, but now that she stood in the warmth of the shop, she found herself annoyed by the height of fashion.
Soft lavender chiffon made up the bulk of her day gown today. The layer of lace that draped at the bottom of the gown was a hamper, something that she slugged through mud, as well as the ash that seemed to fall from the polluted sky every other day. Tight sleeves hugged her slender arms, almost cutting the circulation from her hands.
Hands that she kept covered above all else.
Today she had opted for soft brown leather that matched the bodice wrapped around her midsection underneath her breasts. The added layer of material made it that much more difficult to breathe through the crushing hold of her corset, but was also required by law of society.
She’d decided to top the painful outfit off with brown boots that went up to just below her knees. No one would ever know, thanks to the yards of material, but under it all she wore a scandalous pair of fishnet stockings, a purchase made in secret.
Everything she wore, from the leather lacing at her back to the unsightly bonnet on the top of her head, marked her as an overage, untouched noblewoman.
It dawned on her that Hershel still hadn’t taken a single step beyond the backroom of the shop. “Oh, for Heaven’s sake, Mr. Brett. I come here all of the time.”
“That you do. Still, my Nora ain’t here right now and I’m not likely to get fingers for putting you in improper straits. Really, Miz, you should ’ave your chaperone with you.”
The gong sounded when the door clapped shut again. Icy winter air swept through the room, ruffling the folds of Olyve’s clothing. The material didn’t stop the chill that skittered up her spine.
“It’s freezing out there, cousin. How long does a ‘quick look’ take?”
The young woman ignored the question, turning to the shopkeeper. “There. I have a chaperone. You’ve met my cousin, right?”
“Pleasure to see you again, Lord Whittock.” The man finally moved forward, offering a tight smile. “Did you enjoy yer last shipment?”
A shadow behind the lesser lord moved, revealing a muscular man with a pistol on his hip. Olyve blinked, rolling her eyes. “Really, Andrew. Did you have to drag Mr. Leeway out with us? I hardly think an armed guard is necessary to do a little Christmas shopping.”
Andrew, Lord Whittock, shrugged, glancing around the cluttered shop. “Have you got all of your things? We should be moving on now.”
A quick transaction later, Olyve and her cousin were again moving along the cobblestone walkways of London. The sky settled into a dusty burnt red, signaling the approaching sunset but she paid no attention, browsing through various windows.
“You’re awfully set on this little venture, Lyv girl. Why do you want to buy so many presents in the first place?”
A soft gasp over a spinning top cast her breath over one of the displays, frosting the glass. She purchased it from a stone faced woman before bothering to answer her cousin’s question. “They’re for the kids in the Third Quarter.”
A sharp tsk echoed off the low buildings that surrounded them, drawing her eyes. The people in the Second Quarter lived simple but prosperous lives, allowing for small luxuries if they did their chosen duties well. It was the place where many of the servants and craftsmen lived. “The children in the Third Quarter don’t have even the most basic pleasures. Why not share a bit of cheer on Christmas?”
Another tsk filled the air and Olyve dragged her attention to her cousin. He was a handsome man by all reports. Tall and slender with smooth, aristocratic features. His face was as soft and fine as her own, something that people commented on frequently.
His blue eyes sparkled with a tinge of green. A shock of overlong blonde hair fell over his forehead as he narrowed his gaze on her. “You’re going to get hurt handing out your alms, Olyve. You should have one of your help do it.”
“If I did that, it wouldn’t be nearly as memorable, now would it?”
For a moment it looked like Andrew would argue with her, but he knew the effort was pointless. He shrugged casually, “You should take more care, that is all I am saying. You have a reputation to worry about and your trips will only prove to further…tarnish your prospects.”
She didn’t need the reminder. Olyve squared her shoulders and moved with sure steps, even while ignoring the various whispers that followed her. The aristocrats that passed her while she walked were little more than shadows with whispering mouths. She knew well enough that her reputation was beyond saving. There would be no invitations or suitors calling on her anytime soon.
Andrew sighed at the look she cast him. "Come now, Lyv. You were the talk of the Season during your introduction to society."
"Yes, I was. But that was six years ago and before anyone realized who or rather what I am."
He waved a careless hand in the air. "That doesn't have to mean anything. I am your cousin by blood, yet I've managed to be accepted. So can you, if you would only try."
Olyve bit her tongue against her retort. Yes, Andrew was accepted, but only because he was such a distant relative, the aristocrats were willing to look the other way. It had only taken one look at her for the ton to realize she was unwedable. Her shocking blue eyes had decided that for her.
“I don’t care what they think, Andrew.” She said it as much to herself as him. “They can go rot.”
Her cousin hissed softly, putting his hand on her elbow. “Keep your voice down. You’re not doing yourself any favors, you know. If you would just act like other young women your age, you may just overcome your inherited scandal. Yet you don’t even try to blend in.”
They turned off of the main path, preparing to cut through one of the few remaining parks on their way back to the manor. For several feet they had to pass through narrowed alleys. The blank spaces were blessedly clear of litter and filth so the smell wasn’t as offensive as it could be, but the gaps in between the buildings could still hold cutthroats and beggars.
“Wait a moment, Olyve. Let Mr. Leeway go first. There have been a few disappearances as of late and it is better to be safe than sorry.”
“I doubt it’s anything to be concerned with, cousin. The papers were all extremely confident that it’s only a couple friends running off to elope or some such nonsense.”
“Yes, but it is still a message of caution. You never know what people are thinking in this day and age. You follow behind us.”
Olyve didn’t point out that walking in such a fashion would leave her exposed while she brought up the rear flank. Instead, she sighed heavily and followed his instructions. The alley was merely a short jog long and only so narrow that her skirts would brush the walls in select points.
“All right, let’s get going.” Andrew pushed forward, trailing closely after Mr. Leeway, who had his pistol drawn.
They moved easily, breathing shallow breaths by habit. The latest elaborate heating systems grew ever popular. They kept the buildings well warmed, but on the other hand, they released a good deal of exhaust and heavy steam. Those pollutants smeared the walls and air with thickness, gathering in the nooks and crannies of the streets; which included alleys like this one.
The three of them breathed in collective relief once the opening at the end of the dingy tunnel appeared. After the twists and turns of the small space, they were glad for the blast of semi-fresh air.
“Almost there,” Andrew turned his head to smile at her.
Olyve started violently, nearly tripping on the frivolous lace of her gown, when a hand shot out from one of the retreats of the alley. An incomplete set of blackened fingers wrapped around her wrist, spinning her around.
“Don’ shoot, mum.” A weak, strained voice crackled in the air, pained and soft.
The sound drudged through the air, weighed down by despair and tears. It broke Olyve's heart to hear it. “I’m sorry, Miss. I don’t have any more money. If you’ll wait just a moment, I’ll have one of my companions give you a coin.” Charity wasn’t Andrew’s favorite way to spend his money, but he would offer something in her name.
“I don’t need coin. I need give you something only. Yer one of those Blackwells, ain’t ya?”
At the mention of her family name, Olyve immediately slid the first barrier in her mind open. Her psyche sighed with release, a burst of ventilation after the pressure of holding its breath finally eased. Psychic fingers brushed over her skin leaving tracks of invisible water wherever it touched. The cooling sensation was at once refreshing and cleansing, it painted her body with a sense of well being. Safe.
The intuitive impression of security took only a second to hit her, but it was long enough for Mr. Leeway to turn and raise his gun. The dirty woman squawked and shoved something into her hand before scrambling away, even as Olyve moved to protect her.
“Mr. Leeway! Was that really necessary?” She snapped the question even as she slid her barrier back into place.
The armed man continued to scan their surroundings for several moments before he lowered the gun. Between them, Andrew made a displeased sound in his throat. The guard immediately bowed at the waist, his dark eyes still meeting Olyve’s.
“Forgive me, Miss Blackwell. Your safety and that of my lord is my first priority, always.”
The bodyguard rarely spoke and hardly ever met her eyes. Now Olyve knew why. The intensity she found there was unnerving. He remained bowed, one hand on his chest, the other settled over the gun that had found its way back to his hip. Still, his eyes were flat, dead. She sucked in a nervous breath and nodded.
“Come now, Leeway, no need to dawdle. My cousin is no doubt assured of your sincerity.” Andrew managed to sound bored as well as impatient. “The sun has nearly set and I would feel terribly guilty if we kept her out past a decent hour.”
After another thoughtful second, the man straightened and resumed his forward march. Olyve nearly stumbled in her first attempt to continue walking; her knees had turned into mush.
Andrew muttered under his breath. “I’m sorry about that. He can be a little overeager at times, but that is exactly why I keep him around.”
She tried to laugh, squaring her shoulders as she moved. “I think he’s doing an excellent job.”
Andrew leaned away, smiling as if he knew why she’d made a point to make the statement a little too loud. “At any rate, what did that woman want?”
“She said she wanted to give me something…” She stopped walking, opening her clenched palm for the first time since Mr. Leeway had shocked her. “This, probably.”
A hard, flat disk of polished wood gleamed in the orange light of sunset. The sky, so polluted with smog and dirt, reflected the dying rays, making everything they touched tinged with a hint of fire. In the center of the disk, a raised geometric symbol gleamed. Though the etchings were worn and scarred, it was a pretty piece of treasure. She flipped it in the air, watching expectantly when his arm instinctively reached out to catch it.
Andrew made that soft little tsking noise that was quickly growing on Olyve’s nerves. “You shouldn’t accept trash from strangers, cousin. You don’t know where it’s been.” He tilted his hand for a moment before shaking his head dismissively. “It’s obviously worthless. Throw it away.”
He handed it back and she considered doing just that before discarding the idea. Whatever it was, the woman had gone through some trouble to get it to her. Well, to get it to a Blackwell. What if it was something important? Her curiosity wouldn’t let her simply throw it out. “No, I think I’ll keep it.”
Her cousin shrugged. “Suit yourself, but don’t expect me to be a gracious victor if you end up with some terrible sickness.”
Olyve laughed, tucking the trinket between the leather tie at her waist and her gown. “As if you are ever a gracious winner, Andrew.”
* * * *
It was well after sundown by the time Olyve got back to the manor.
“Hello, Miss Olyve.” A familiar, chiding voice followed her across the foyer of her home.
The blonde did her best not to wince as she offered her hat and bags to a waiting footman. “I see you’re still up and about, Mrs. Jacobson. I trust my sister is well?”
The look she got for her polite question could have melted glass. Mrs. Jacobson was a well built, no nonsense kind of woman. With thick black hair on her head as well as growing out of her top lip, she was a rattlesnake whom her father had found to “keep her in order.”
As if the man had any right to care about propriety with the example he left.
“Your sister is doing just fine, Miss, no thanks to you. Were you planning to spend the entire night with that man or were you going to actually take part in the lessons you missed this afternoon?”
Olyve tried to keep her voice level. “Well, seeing how the lessons were this afternoon and I’ve already missed them, I think it is safe to say that I had no intention of completing them.”
The woman let out a strangled noise. Olyve had no doubt that she was preparing a lengthily retort as to how young women of privilege should behave. Unfortunately, Olyve didn’t care for reprimands, verbal or otherwise, and had no intention of sticking around for another one.
“I’m going to my room. If you will have one of the chambermaids bring me my dinner I would greatly appreciate it. Goodnight, Mrs. Jacobson.”
She escaped up the sprawling stairs, but not before the crone managed to work up a decent comeback. “Your sister has never given me any of the trouble you have. You are years older and yet you act like a child, perhaps you should take a lesson from Kate.”
Olyve didn’t pause. Instead, she grinned over her shoulder. “I’m sure Kate is only waiting for a good chance to rebel. Perhaps you’re not doing as much good for her as you think.”
“You’re twenty and five years old, Miss Blackwell. If you don’t take care you will end up on the shelf.”
“Well, then I hope you saved me a seat.”
The housekeeper wouldn’t stoop to her level by snarling, but Olyve knew she wanted to.
Kate was living out in the country now. The doctors thought she would do better with fresh air. Only the Blackwell family knew the truth about her mysterious illness, and even they didn’t truly understand it. Kate wouldn’t be able to venture back into London for several years. She had to figure out how to control her gift, just the same as the rest of them.
Passing the walls of rich paintings and heavy tapestries, Olyve made her way to the west wing of the manor. He father had purchased the building just for her and Kate, but now the charming little home seemed more empty than anything. It was a sad shell of a place without friends or family.
Safely within the walls of her own room, Olyve threw herself down on her bed. The very nature of the Blackwell Legacy ensured that they were a solitary people. Loneliness normally counteracted by a deep sense of family and belonging, but for the first time in years, Olyve was on her own. Her brother was across seas. Her sisters (one of whom no one but her knew about) were coming into their own abilities and working through all the chaos that came with.
She brought her knees to her chest, squeezing her eyes tightly shut. There was no one for her to talk to, not really. Andrew was a relative and well aware of her abilities, thanks to his own. Unfortunately, he was only half blood. As a descendant of her great-grandfather, he was not particularly strong. It didn’t help that he completely refused to use his own gift.
She was alone with her power. Desolate.
Olyve rolled over, gasping when the wooden disk dug into her side. Freeing the ties at her back, she sat up. An easy motion sent cargo tumbling across her pillow. The wood was just as it was before, gleaming and polished, though now it had a familiar glow to it.
She flinched a little, recognizing that the item had something to tell her.
Rolling off the bed she carefully crossed the room and locked the door. Checking her windows, she made sure all of the latches were set and secure before pulling off her gloves.
Almost immediately, the tips of her fingers began to sting with eager pressure. The nails that graced her slender digits bled with color, this time a deep purple. Olyve gasped, shaking her head. The glow around the wooden offering matched up with that of her nails, signaling a high power request.
The barriers around her mind shuddered, begging to be set free. Purple was a strong color, signaling that many barriers would have to fall for her to read everything that the object had to offer.
Again, she shook her head, trying to calm the demand of her ability.
The stinging heat swept higher than her fingertips, engulfing her entire hand slowly. She pushed it back when it traveled up her wrists, the same watery fingertips now spreading over her hands. “No. We’re doing this my way.”
The barriers continued to tremble and the power fought against the shield she erected around her wrists. The struggle continued for fifty erratic heartbeats until the tips of her fingers slowly bled a soothing blue.
Olyve let out the breath she’d been holding and took a step closer to the bed. Every time her foot landed on the ground, she relaxed a little more, watching the blue take over the purple. By time she was within reaching distance the item was humming with anticipation.
Steeling herself, she let her fingers come to rest on the smooth wood. “Show me.”
A clap sounded in the space between her ears, a tsunami landing on a hard surface. Garbled, broken images flooded her mind:
A woman knelt in filth, tears flowing down her face. The crack of a whip sounded, followed by an inhumane cry of pain.
A brothel danced in her vision. It was all red paint and heavy curtains hiding moans of pain and savage pleasure. The paint moistened and wept until it was blood running down tattered walls.
A man traded coin for ripped, tortured flesh. Weeping assaulted her ears. Salt and human waste battled for the space of her nose. Olyve stood somewhere outside of the vision, knowing she was gagging, knowing that her free hand clawed at her throat. She desperately tried to rip the taste of smoke and stale alcohol from her mouth.
The third barrier within her mind threatened to crumble. It wanted to push her deeper into the vision, deeper into the vortex of lust, pain, and madness. She struggled for control, centering her mind even as she held the barrier firmly.
“This gate shall not fall. This gate shall not fall.” The mantra echoed in the cavity of pain that lay between her ears, crowding out the answering cry of skin landing violently against skin.
She slammed the second barrier into place, able to breathe a little clearer as the visions left, leaving only the voices. They spoke to her in hushed tones, telling her she wasn’t safe.
“…have to find…”
The voices were too loud. They were so earnest that Olyve was only vaguely aware of the fact that her own mouth was moving. The words she said were lost to the broken sentences.
“You mustn’t trust…”
Just as violently as it all began, Olyve jerked free. She slammed backward and away from the bed, landing sprawled out on the ground. Her hands throbbed along with her head but she managed to crawl over to where she dropped her gloves. With one last look at her now normal colored fingernails, she slid the gloves on before collapsing bonelessly.
She didn’t realize she was crying until wet puddles formed in her ears.
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