The autumn wind bit with winter’s teeth as it blew across the rooftops of Clockwork City, underneath a bright, full moon. The wind curled about the chimney stacks and blew across the strange landscape until it reached a solitary figure crouching on the edge of a rooftop, a hood pulled up over its head. The wind tugged viciously at the hood, causing a lock of short, snow white hair to drift free.
Spire tucked the stray hair back up under her hood as she focused on the top floor window of the building opposite her. The window was dark, as were the others on the same floor and the one below, whilst those at street level cast their bright lamplight out into the street. It was one of the Merchant’s Guild buildings, the Merchant’s luxurious offices on the top floor, with the Merchant’s staff below. The lowest floors housed the most junior officers, who worked all hours of the day and night doing the actual work. So the Merchants and their senior partners were all gone, which was just what she had expected.
Spire counted along the windows for the third time, making sure she was facing the middle one, and nodded. She closed her left eye, the one she had been born with, and with the ease of practice blinked the right one, her Eye, twice rapidly. The strange, faint and now almost familiar whirring, ratcheting sensation started, and the Night Sight lens shifted across her retina. Spire looked once again at the window, and nodded. She could make out the latch mechanism clearly now, and it would pose no problem. Spire blinked her Eye twice more, and once the Night Sight lens had retracted, she looked down at the street. The gaslamps flickering was the only movement. The Officers of the Fourth Watch had passed by a few minutes before. It was time.
Spire rolled her shoulders and flexed her hands. Then she rolled her right shoulder a second time, bending the arm, flexing the fingers, checking each mechanism was working. She should know better, the arm had never failed her yet, but still… Suddenly she heard the old man’s voice again.
“A clockwork thief in a clockwork city…”
She could hear the smile in his voice, even through the mist of memory…
Spire shook her head. Now was not the time; there was work to be done. She shifted her weight, balancing on the balls of her feet, ready to spring. She gauged the distance to the window, took a deep breath, and leapt.
She landed in a crouch on the roof of the Merchant building and with barely a pause she moved to the roof edge. The window was directly below her, and Spire lowered herself over the edge. With practised skill her hands and feet found spaces in the wall to grip, and in moments she was balancing on the narrow windowsill of the centre window. Spire retrieved her tools from the belt about her waist, and set to work on the window latch. Even crouched on the side of a building dozens of feet above the street, the latch took only moments to unlock, and then Spire was lowering herself silently to the floor of a large office.
The window shut again with a faint click, and Spire surveyed the room. It was much the same as any well-to-do merchant’s office; a large wooden desk dominated the room, with bookcases and drawers against the wall and a few display cabinets dotted about; merchants always liked to show off their wealth.
Spire thought back to her conversation with her employer the previous night. Cagey was a thin, wiry man who had a tendency show just a few too many teeth when he smiled. Spire often thought he looked like a stoat that was wearing a tattered cravat and a bowler hat. For all that, he was one of the most reliable black market traders in the city. Cagey was Spire’s regular fence, and every now and then, like tonight, he even gave her work.
“I have a client who is after a particular trinket, see?”
They were in the cluttered, dirty room Cagey called his office; in reality a back room of The Splintered Whale tavern. The Whale was one of the more reputable drinking holes in Lowgrime Quarter, though admittedly that wasn’t saying much. Cagey leaned back in his chair, resting his booted feet on the desk.
“It’s an amulet set with three emeralds. Old. Doesn’t look like much, but apparently it’s pretty pricey. This high and mighty merchant has acquired this trinket from my client, and they wants it back with minimal fuss.”
“Guild involved?” Cagey raised an eyebrow.
“Ain’t a merchant left outside the Guild now, Spire, you know that. But it’s a personal issue, just an item to be retrieved from a safe in the merchant’s office. That’s all my client cares about.”
“This merchant have a name?” Spire asked, and Cagey gave her a too-toothy grin.
“It’s one of the big ones,” he said. “Arn Sanding.”
“The Food Baron himself,” Spire muttered.
“Enough of that,” Cagey snapped. “You sound like your friend, that dissident…” Spire rolled her eyes.
“I’m no dissident, and neither’s Tera. She just believes we all have the right to eat.” Spire grinned as she thought of Tera in full swing, cursing the Merchant’s Guild, the Mayor and the Guard for keeping food from the poor.
“Look, it’s tough all over. Keep your head down, that’s my advice. Back to the job, eh?”
They’d settled on a price quickly enough, and Cagey had given her the building details and office layout. Then as she was leaving, Cagey had said one last thing.
“Remember what I said, Spire. All I care about is the trinket, anything else in that room is not my concern.”
She’d raised an eyebrow at that, but the fence had said nothing more, so she’d left. The office matched Cagey’s description pretty well, and she wondered what connection his client had to Sanding, one of the wealthiest men in the City.
Spire moved around to the front of the large desk. Two heavy wooden chairs faced the desk, sitting on an expensive-looking woven rug. Spire lifted the chairs off the rug and pulled it back. Just as Cagey had said, there was a trapdoor in the wooden floor, with three keyholes arranged in the centre. She retrieved her picks from her belt and bent to the first keyhole.
Spire slid the picks into the first lock, gently feeling the mechanism. She could feel the slightest shift or movement in the tumblers through her Arm, almost as though the pick was an extension of it. In only a few minutes, the first lock was done, then the second, and finally the third. As the final tumbler clicked into its unlocked position, there was a faint hissing sound. With a faint racheting noise, the safe mechanism lifted the trapdoor, actually the safe door, revealing the secrets held within.
Cagey’s ‘trinket’ was lying on top of a letter; otherwise, the safe was empty. Spire carefully lifted out the amulet, surprised at its weight. It looked old, a tarnished golden metal disc set with three green stones. Emeralds, Cagey had said. Spire stowed her prize in one of her belt pouches. Her eyes strayed to the letter. Cagey had only spoken of the amulet, but…
Spire picked up the letter, scanning her eyes quickly over the handwritten page, and her breath caught. …we must continue to stockpile… …shortages must continue… …starving men and women have no strength for revolution… Spire sank to the floor, her mind whirling. If the letter was genuine… The Merchants Guild were causing the food shortages that were choking the city. She thought again of Tera, her anger and determination, her certainty that something must tip the scales…
“All I care about is the trinket, anything else in that room is not my concern.”
Cagey’s words echoed in her head, and she knew what to do. Spire folded the letter into her belt pouch, and flicked the switch on the door of the safe. It closed slowly, and with a whir the tumblers in the three locks spun, sealing it. Spire replaced the rug and the chairs, and moved to the window.
The street below was still empty, and so there was no one to see her climb fluidly up onto the roof. Spire moved swiftly and silently across the rooftops, and only when she was ten streets away did she stop. She stood and stretched, throwing back her hood. Her gaze drifted to Lowgrime Quarter, and she touched her beltpouch, feeling the amulet within. She’d deliver it tonight, and collect her fee. But first… Spire turned her gaze eastward towards the Artists Quarter, where Tera lived. She knew what she must do.
Tugging her hood up once more, Spire began to run, gliding like a shadow across the rooftops of Clockwork City.
© Matt Beames