A Victoria Eternal novel
Charles Dickens meets Firefly in this tale of an orphan destined for the stars.
Steampunk with a twist! Enter a fantastical world filled with alien spacecraft and Victorian sensibilities, ball gowns and travel to the stars – where a pickpocket with a particular gift makes the journey from the gutter to the stars…
Read the first 3 chapters here, or snag a copy from Instafreebie – your choice!
Diana Smythe stared out the window of the family carriage and thumped the back of her heels against the leather seat, timing the beats to alternate with the clop of the horses’ hooves. She didn’t want to go visit the Duchess of Penderly, even if the old lady was Papa’s great-aunt or somesuch. She’d much rather stay home and play with her new puppy.
The puppy was small, but Nanny told her he was going to grow into a big dog, so Diana had named him Jupiter, after the largest planet. Maybe he’d even be big enough for her to ride on. And once he was grown, maybe he could even be modded with wings, and they could fly off on adventures together up into the stars.
As the carriage rolled through the streets of London, Diana kept boredom away by watching the horse-drawn cabs and steam-powered vehicles, calculating their speeds and trajectories in her mind. Pedestrians eddied along the sidewalks, and she added them in, too, plus the random dartings of pigeons over the rooftops.
It was a lively scene, full of lines of movement and parabolic arcs she could almost see drawn across the air. Every sudden stop or acceleration changed the dynamics, and she tried to make predictions. Would the hansom cab or the omnibus reach the crossing first? Would a bird dart to the near side of the street, or the far one? Would that lady with a parasol pass the nurse pushing a pram by the time they reached the apothecary shop?
Whenever she spoke about such things, she was either patted on the head or called a very odd little girl. Only once had anyone looked at her like she made sense, and that had been Uncle Xavier. Last year, when she was only seven, he’d insisted on a maths tutor for Diana, although she was the youngest and her older siblings had no such thing.
Papa had sighed and shook his head, but within a week a tutor had arrived. Mr. Tamms had proclaimed himself astonished at her mathematical talent, and soon enough Diana was learning trigonometry and was allowed to do as many sums as she pleased.
Not today, though. After breakfast, Nanny had dressed her in her new frock, the one with the shiny buttons, and told her she was going on an important visit. Diana, engrossed with counting the facets on the crystalline buttons, had scarcely listened, even as Nanny bundled her, along with her brother and sister, into the carriage.
“Here’s a sweet.” Nanny had slipped a horehound candy into Diana’s hand. “Now behave, young miss, and when you come home you’ll be able to tumble about with Jupiter to your heart’s content.”
Diana knew better than to complain, so she’d taken the candy and settled on the far end of the seat. Peter and Claudia squished in next to her, and in a few moments Mama and Papa entered the carriage and sat opposite their children. Diana peeked at them from beneath the brim of her hat.
In truth, she was a little afraid of the elegant, distant creatures who were her parents. She did not see much of Mama, and even less of Papa, although she supposed that would change as she grew up. Claudia had just turned ten, and was deemed old enough to begin taking her meals in the formal dining room with their parents, as Peter had done for the past two years. Diana felt a bit abandoned in the nursery with only Nanny for company during supper.
But there were always her old friends, the numbers and the trajectories. Nanny didn’t know why Diana liked to roll her balls back and forth in the playroom, calculating when to push a smaller one out in order to collide with, or avoid, the others. But Mr. Tamms understood.
Best of all, she now had Jupiter—a constant lesson in speed and motion. Plus he covered her in sloppy puppy kisses and slept at the foot of her bed.
“Are you certain the duchess will aid us?” Mama turned to Papa, a note of concern in her sweet voice. “She is such a distant relative, after all…”
“Don’t fret, my darling. Once she sees the children, and understands our predicament, I’m certain everything will turn out for the best.”
Diana hardly listened to her parents. Most of her attention was taken up by watching the thick plume of steam trailing from a large omnibus clattering down the street toward them. Her parents would never dream of taking public transport about London. That was for the working class, not nobility like themselves.
Still, it looked like great fun to ride about so quickly in a vehicle powered by steam and gears. The omnibus was going at quite a clip; certainly faster than Jupiter could run.
Diana undid the latches and lowered the window a bit, leaning out slightly so she could taste the air as the omnibus swept past.
Something was wrong, though. The lines of travel weren’t parallel. For a moment her lungs squeezed so tight she could barely breathe. It was like watching two of her balls meant to zip past one another instead wobble into a collision course.
“Mama?” she asked in a small voice.
“But what about the debts?” Mama did not hear her, and continued speaking to Papa. “Do you truly think she will agree to cover them?”
“Mama!” Diana tried again.
“Now, Diana dear, no need to shout—”
Mama’s words were obliterated by the blast of the omnibus’s horn.
It was coming too fast.
There was a horrible crunch and the carriage spun sickeningly about. Diana screamed as they turned and tilted. She felt herself slipping out the window, and tried to grab on to something—anything—but her scrabbling fingers could find no purchase.
“Diana!” Papa bellowed as she was flung out of the coach.
She tried to tuck her head down, to make herself into a little ball so she would not break her arm the way she had when she’d fallen out of the apple tree last summer. The air was full of the screech of metal, and people screaming.
Then a bigger crash, that sounded like the sky was breaking. A flash of light and heat, and a whump that vibrated through Diana’s chest.
Her head collided with something, and everything went away into the black.
8 years later
The pickpocket known as Diver slipped through the throngs at the Southampton docks, her nimble fingers dipping into a pocket here, a reticule there. The pattern of working a crowd had become as simple to her as breathing, the trajectories predictable, and she used them to her advantage.
She knew when a space would open up for her to pass through, how to avoid becoming trapped in a knot of people, the way the rich nobs strolled leisurely along without much change in direction, as though they owned the very air. She never lingered too long in one place, and usually only lifted small items: a shilling, a kerchief, a thimble. Things that could be misplaced just as easily as stolen.
She was fast enough to make up for it, though, and her slight pickings grew until she judged that her own well-hidden purse was heavy enough.
Then, with a smile for the gentleman whom she’d just relieved of some coin, and a twirl of her battered parasol, she left the docks. Better to depart now, before raising any suspicions. There was a new policeman on patrol, and she didn’t want to run afoul of the fellow. Word was he hadn’t yet been bribed by the gang runners to look the other way.
Diana wasn’t one of the gang rats, though it cost her a fair bit of her weekly take to maintain her independence. Sometimes she wondered if it was worth it—but then she remembered those first, horrible months on the London streets. And the orphanage before that…
With a clang, she slammed the door on those thoughts. Her past was gone. There was only the present, and the life she’d scraped up for herself. Her independence was one of the most valuable things she had, and bedamned if she would give it up lightly.
She ducked down a nearby alley to transform herself. Off went her skirt and matching jacket, revealing the trousers and work shirt beneath. She traded her bonnet for a plain cap, stuffing her hair beneath the stained wool. Finally, she turned her skirt and jacket inside out and wrapped them around the parasol to make a nondescript bundle.
With a grimace, she scraped some muck from a nearby puddle and smudged her face, especially around the jaw. Best to give the impression she was a boy—she’d learned that lesson some time ago. Diana, the girl who’d grown up in an elegant house in Mayfair, was gone forever, changed to Diver, a scrappy lad from the stews of London.
It was getting harder to pass as a boy, though, as she grew older. She’d lost track of her birthdays in those first, dreadful years after the accident. Now she figured she was sixteen or thereabouts. Maybe seventeen. Living on the streets had delayed her growth—but not halted it altogether.
It used to be a fine disguise, to dress in the castoffs of some noble girl while she worked the crowd. Now, though, she was the recipient of lingering glances she didn’t much like, and leering smiles that made her queasy. She knew where that led, and that was a path she refused to take. She’d seen girls her own age used up in only a few years, and nothing to show for it.
Maybe ‘twas time to hack off her hair, but she shied away from the thought. Shearing it off felt like losing an essential part of herself and giving in completely to the harshness of the streets. Leastwise, that’s what she told herself. It tasted better in her mouth than the notion she was vain about her curling, toffee-colored tresses.
And if worst came to worst, she might need her pretty hair—if she ever grew so desperate as to take the path of those other girls.
Overhead, the roar of a ship taking off from the spaceport distracted her from her grim thoughts. A hauler, from the sound of the engines, loaded with cargo and headed out-system.
Diana tilted her head. The ship should be visible between the buildings in just a moment… there. Heavy-bodied and powerful, a mid-century Frauke, probably bound for one of the colonies out along the spiral arm.
She watched until it was just a speck in the sky, trying not to think of the stars shining behind the blue. Trying not to think of what it would mean to save enough to book passage out to a new planet, where she could start over. Where her life wouldn’t be a constant scrabble, always looking over her shoulder for trouble.
Every streetrat had that dream, to board a ship headed to the stars. It was as impossible as the storyvid tales of fortunes suddenly regained, of lost families reappearing to fold missing orphans back into their arms. But her life was not a storyvid. She knew well enough that families didn’t miraculously come back to life after a flaming carriage crash, and lost riches never magically reappeared.
Even though she knew it was an impossible dream, yearning stung the back of her throat. She felt for the shiny crystal button she wore on a string about her neck—the one remnant of her former life. It wasn’t valuable, else she’d have bartered it away long ago. No, the button was simply a useless little trinket that she couldn’t bring herself to part with.
Someday, I’ll find a place to belong again. The old longing rose in her, and she savagely thrust it back down, then spat the taste of misery out of her mouth. Her home was gone forever, and that was the hard truth.
The hope of escaping Earth was harder to abandon, though, living as she did beneath the stitched shadows of takeoffs and landings from the largest spaceport in the galaxy. Every night she counted her small store of coins, but it was not enough. Never enough, not even for a berth to the moon.
“The moon,” her young acquaintance Tipper had said, rolling his eyes. “There’s nothing up there but dust and the nob’s castoffs. I want to go someplace real, like Patcheny or Blue Crumpet.”
“Blue Crumpet’s already full up,” Diana had said. “I think Dahlia 7 is the planet for me.”
They’d had the conversation at least a dozen times. Tipper’s voice always held a longing that Diana had learned to hide—but then, for all his cockiness, he was still a child. Still dreaming the child’s dream of space, the blackness full of stars and possibility. A million futures to choose from.
The reality, though, was this mucky alley, and the ominous silhouettes of two burly figures blocking the light.
Diana whirled, to find the other end of the alley guarded by a gaunt, black-clad man known as Pick and a smirking girl holding a knife. Breggy’s crew, they were—members of the biggest gang in Southampton. And a pack of trouble, no question. Ever since the new leader had come into power, he’d been working to eliminate all the independents from the streets.
So far, she and Tipper and a few others had held out, refusing the bribery, nursing their bruises from the beatings. But Breggy wasn’t giving up. The knowledge left a hollow hole in her gut.
“Hey, ho, Diver,” the girl called. “Time for a bit of a chat.”
Damnation. Diana knew better than to linger by the docks. She’d been a fool, and getting distracted by ships was no excuse.
“Don’t know as we have anything to talk about,” she said, trying to keep her voice low and relaxed. “I paid Breggy my weekly tithe three days ago.”
She glanced over her shoulder. The two thugs were sauntering down the alley toward her. There was no way out, except up, and she’d never been much of a climber. Her heart knocked loudly against her ribs.
“That’s the thing.” The girl ran a thumb along the length of her knife. “Terms just changed.”
Diana bit back her words of protest. There was no arguing with the gangs, not in the stews of London, and not here. Either you paid or you ended up with a knife across your throat one dark night. Or the third option, which she’d never take: agree to join the unsavory crew.
She took a few steps toward the girl and Pick, away from the thugs at her back.
“How much?” Diana asked, her stomach clenching at the implications.
She was eking out a living and able—barely—to put a few coins by now and again. Someday, somehow, she’d escape the slums. But without a bit of the ready, it would be that much harder.
“Give us your purse, and we’ll say.” Pick held out his hand.
Reluctantly, she unfastened the pouch belted on under her shirt. The heavy tread of the men behind her sent her forward a few more steps, but not fast enough. Without warning, her arms were pinned to her sides from behind. With this crew, struggling would only earn her a cuff across the face, so she seethed silently and waited.
The other thug pulled the purse from her hand and gave it to Pick. He opened it, a look of disdain on his face as he prodded through the contents.
“This is all you’ve got? A sorry showing, for someone reputed to be as light-fingered as yourself, Diver.”
“’Twas a slow morning,” she said. No need to mention the second, smaller pouch around her ankle, where every third shilling went. If she was lucky, they wouldn’t discover it.
The girl pushed a greasy hank of hair out of her face and peered into the pouch.
“Pitiful,” she said. “This will barely cover your new tithe.”
Diana blew a breath out through her nostrils. It could be worse.
“We’ll expect at least this much every third day,” the man added.
It was worse.
“Shut it,” the man next to her said, jabbing an elbow into her ribs. “Don’t need no excuses.”
Diana caught her breath and swallowed the rest of her words.
“Best get quicker with your work,” the girl said. “Then again, you could always join up. Breggy would find a use for you.”
No doubt he would—something far more dangerous than working an unsuspecting crowd. Something like breaking into mansions and stealing diamond necklaces, which would either get her hung or transported to one of the prison worlds.
She wanted off Earth, but not like that. Prisoners didn’t live long. They labored under terrible conditions, terraforming planets and moons for real colonists to occupy once they were fit for human habitation. Criminals were expendable.
“I’ll keep on my own,” she said. “No insult to Breggy, of course.”
Pick narrowed his eyes. “We’ll get you yet, Diver. Too proud for your own good.”
He tucked the purse into his sleeve. They were done. Relief coursed through Diana, until he nodded at the man beside her.
“Teach him not to complain,” he said.
The breath was driven from her lungs as the man’s fist connected with her stomach. She wheezed and doubled over. Blinking away the tears of pain blurring her eyes, she saw that Pick and the girl had gone, leaving her to be pummeled in the alley.
For a moment, Diana thought of calling for help—but what good would that do?
She still had her parasol, though, and the second man had let go of her arms, probably so that he could get a whack in.
Whirling, Diana, swung her bundle up between the man’s legs. It connected with a satisfying thump
He made a strangled sound and staggered back a pace.
“Bastard!” The other man grabbed her arm.
Diana wrenched free and raced for the end of the alley. If she made it to the dock, she could lose herself in the crowd. Almost there. A few more steps and she’d be out of the shadows of the buildings and into free, clear air.
She risked a look behind her. Despite the anger on their faces, the two thugs were slow. She’d be able to outrun them.
Then she ran into something solid, and fell back, landing in a pile of muck. Oh, she was in for it now.
“What’s this?” asked the very tall, very muscled policeman who’d stepped into the alley just as she was bolting out.
“Nothing, sir,” she said, scrambling to her feet and wiping her filthy hands on her trousers.
“Friends of yours?” He nodded to the two men, who’d turned and were quickly making for the other end of the alley.
As she watched, they ducked out and were gone. Probably waiting for her—but she had multiple routes back to the bolt hole she called home, and knew she could make it there without being seen.
Coming back out tomorrow, however, might prove to be a problem.
More immediate in her list of troubles, though, was the policeman standing in front of her, hands on his hips. She gave him a quick once-over. Trim, not like the paunch-bellied constable who’d had the dock patrol last. Young, too. His shiny new holobadge read Byrne.
If she ran, chances were more than good he’d catch her. Best to play it innocent.
“I’d never seen them before,” she said. “I think they meant to rob me.”
No need to mention that she’d just had her purse full of purloined money and trinkets stolen in turn.
The policeman’s dark eyebrows rose. “Have you anything of value?”
“A bit of coin.”
“And what’s your business at the docks?”
She let a bit of wistfulness creep into her voice. “I like to watch the ships land and take off. Best view of the spaceport.”
It wasn’t actually true. She’d found a perfect vantage point on top of an abandoned building where she could almost see over the huge, Yxleti-built wall surrounding the spaceport. And there was one other spot near her hidey hole: a vacant lot where she could map the arcs and parabolas the gleaming ships scribed through the blue.
Byrne’s expression softened the tiniest bit.
“It’s not safe down here,” he said. “Especially for a girl.”
Diana forced herself not to take a step back. “Good thing I’m a boy, then.”
“I didn’t see it right away, but now I do.” He reached for her arm, and she twisted away from his grasp.
“Don’t touch me.” Stars, but she was in danger.
Only Tipper knew her secret—he’d caught her wrapping her chest one morning, and she’d sworn him to secrecy. Hopefully, the lad wouldn’t betray her. It was beyond worrisome that some fresh-minted copper could see her as she was.
Blowing out a breath, he let his hand drop to his side. “There are places you can go, you know. The laundries—”
“Aye, where the girls drop like flies from overwork.” Her throat tightened at the thought. “I’m not doing anything wrong.”
The roar of another spacecraft ascending filled the air. They both glanced up. A sleek Frigate XV, taking tourists up to Venus, she’d bet coin on it.
As soon as the noise cleared, Byrne fixed his gaze on her again. “It’s not right, though. Are you living on the street?”
“No,” she lied. It was none of his business—and clearly he was too soft to be patrolling the Southampton docks. Time to turn that to her advantage and make her escape. “My mum’s expecting me. She worries if I’m late. May I go?”
He narrowed his bright blue eyes. “You’ve a pretty way with words.”
Diana shrugged. “Family’s fallen on hard times.”
It was true enough, seeing as how she was the last member of her immediate family, and it was a convenient explanation for her occasional slips into gentrified speech. When pressed, she’d say that her mother had been a governess to the nobs, and she’d grown up in a big house, learning their ways.
There was no point in admitting she’d been the daughter of a lord and lady. She’d tried that road already, and it led nowhere. Not when the family in question was all dead, and had turned out, lost their entire fortune. Her only uncle was long gone to the moons of Saturn, oblivious to the fact that his niece had survived the dreadful carriage crash.
No use crying over curdled cream, though. Best to throw it out and start fresh.
The smell of sewage drifted down the alley, and the policeman grimaced. Diana tried not to smile. He’d get used to the stenches of the docks soon enough.
“Very well,” he said. “On your way. And stay out of trouble, miss.”
“Don’t ever call me that,” she said, her voice low.
Before he could respond, she ducked past him and let the crowd swallow her up. She’d trouble enough on her heels without adding a meddling policeman into the mix.
Derek Byrne watched the girl slip away into the patchwork throng at the docks. She’d lied to him several times over, he’d no doubt of that. But what could he do?
He slowly clenched his hands into fists, then released them.
Damnú, a part of why he’d joined the constabulary was to make a difference, to help people. Instead, he had to stand helplessly by, watching young women throw their lives away and young men like his brother Seamus—no, don’t think on that—make bad choices with even worse consequences.
As the newest member of the Southampton police force, Derek was well aware he’d been given the worst patrol. When he started three weeks ago, he’d been confident in his ability to do his job, and do it well, but now he wasn’t so sure. The last few days had been spent in apprehending pickpockets and, yesterday, dealing with a dead body washed up in the river. His partner, Cribbs, was older, and hardened from his years on the force. Cribbs didn’t have much sympathy for Derek and his faith in the general goodness of humanity.
That faith was rather ironic, Derek had to admit. After everything that had happened, he shouldn’t be worried over such things as a streetrat’s safety. And yet, he couldn’t seem to stop himself from taking on the role of protector. It was part of his blood and bones to champion the underdog—be it a grubby girl, or his own people, despised and ground to ashes beneath the boot heel of the Empire.
One day, Ireland would be free of the British yoke—and he was there to help hasten that day along.
A commotion near one of the sidings pulled him from his musings, and he set off at a trot, hoping the young woman he’d been talking with wasn’t involved.
As it turned out, she wasn’t. A dispute over loading one of the ships moored at the pier had turned nasty, and one of the combatants took a knife wound to the arm before Derek and Cribbs could intervene. The fellow was taken off to the hospital, and Derek jotted a few notes on his handheld. He’d have to wait to see if the injured man wanted to press charges, but somehow he doubted it. Justice at the docks was rough and dirty, and seemed to operate under its own rules, with little heed paid to the Queen’s laws.
Indeed, the whole of the West Quay area was ugly—worse than the run-down Dublin neighborhood he’d grown up in. Although, in his personal opinion, the Irish were harder in many ways than the English. Centuries of oppression would do that to a people.
“A nasty bunch, down here. Even worse than you Paddys.” Cribbs spit onto the grimy cobblestones. “Next year I get my promotion up to Lordswood. Can’t hardly wait.”
Derek held his tongue at the casual insult—he’d grown up hearing such things from the English all his life—and simply nodded at Cribbs’s news. Everyone on the force knew that the rich neighborhood was the easiest patrol. No stabbings or muggings, and the vices were genteelly kept behind closed doors. Certainly there were thefts, but usually the culprits were found—often right among the servants working in the big houses.
“Look there.” Cribbs nodded to a tall, thin man with bright red hair strolling through the crowd. He had an entourage with him—a disreputable-looking young woman, and two men dressed in black, with knives at their belts and the scars to prove they weren’t afraid to use them.
“Who is it?” Derek asked.
“Breggy. Came recently to power. He controls the biggest gang in the whole port area, but keeps his own hands clean. Rumors are he’s got connections in the gentry. Don’t run afoul of him.”
“I’ll try not to.”
As if aware they were watching, Breggy looked up. He smiled, sunlight glinting off a gold-capped front tooth, and tipped his hat. Cribbs scowled, and Derek narrowed his eyes.
Gangrunners were the lowest of the low, in his opinion. Unscrupulous, happy to use anyone as a tool to their own ends. He pitied anyone caught up in that kind of web. Like Seamus. Like me.
His secrets burned inside him, and he shoved them back down. For all anyone knew, he was simply the newest member of the Southampton police force. Not a man with an ulterior motive and ties to a certain radical organization.
“Do the Sisters of Mercy never come down here?” he asked Cribbs, thinking once again of the girl.
“They try. Breggy and his kind laugh at them, and they only save one or two off the streets a quarter. Maybe less. Who wants to go scrub cathedrals for the nuns when you can sleep free under the open sky? Least that’s what the streetrats say.”
“Not so pleasant in winter.” Derek glanced at the sky, currently a deceptively placid blue.
Even now, near midsummer, the air was never truly warm. Squalls blew in regularly off the Solent, drizzling moisture over the docks and spaceport.
“Not at all,” Cribbs agreed. “You’ll want a good overcoat and boots, come October. We have to endure the same weather as the rats. Can’t stay in The Frog and Whistle all day, after all.”
Derek glanced at the pub fronting West Quay Road. It was the best of the several establishments scattered down the street; cleaner and with fewer chances of being murdered in a dark corner.
“Speaking of which,” Cribbs continued, “it’s lunchtime. Keep watch, and call for me if there’s any more trouble in the next hour. We’ll swap out, after.”
Derek glanced down at his badge. With two taps, he could contact Cribbs. Three, and the badge would serve as a location device within a decent radius—certainly big enough to cover West Quay.
He nodded and didn’t say anything about the amount of beer Cribbs was probably fixing to consume for lunch. Everyone did what they had to in order to get by.
For the next few days, Diana took extra care slipping in and out of her bolt hole—a sheltered corner in a derelict building near the spaceport wall. When the port had been built last century, the buildings directly around it had been demolished. The rest had been left to fall into ruin. Her current abode had likely been a lodging house, until the noise of the ships blasting off drove away the tenants.
Dawn warmed the sky as she folded her tattered woolen blanket away. A whiff of her own stink made her wrinkle her nose in disgust. Her routine of washing up in river water hauled home in a dented pail she’d found was inadequate over the long term. Luckily, there was a solution, though it had taken her months to discover it.
With a sigh, she pulled on her girl’s clothing, fastened her hair up with twine and bits of blackened metal, and counted a few coins from her hidden store into the water-stained reticule she’d salvaged from the river’s edge. Time to be a lady, or at least as much of one as she could manage.
Keeping to the early morning shadows, Diana made her way out of the cluster of dilapidated buildings and into the bustle of the West Quay streets. In the morning, the port seemed fresher, the odor of garbage and rotting fish just a promise in the air, not a miasma brought to full bloom by the day’s heat.
Midway along the quay, she was joined by a young boy with matted brown hair and a quick stride.
“Morning, Tipper,” she said, giving him a sidelong smile and a twirl of her parasol.
“Aren’t you the fancy one today, Di,” he said, returning her smile with a chipped-tooth grin. “Where to?”
“The baths. Come along with me?”
He gave a shudder. “Never. It’s unnatural, is what. Rain and the river are good enough for me.”
“Suit yourself—but one day you’ll change your tune.”
“I doubt that.” He clicked his tongue against his teeth. “Hey, seen the new copper on patrol? Word is he stopped two of Breggy’s crew from robbing a fellow last night.”
“Oh, that’s not good.” Breggy didn’t like interference, and especially not from the law. “Do you think the new man won’t be bribed?”
He’d struck her as an upstanding sort, with his broad shoulders and intent blue gaze. Of course, she knew better than to judge by appearances, but there was something about the new policeman—Byrne, that was his name—that made her think he wouldn’t be easily cowed by Breggy and his ilk.
“Speaking of Breggy…” Tipper scuffed at the dirty cobbles with one worn boot. “I hear he’s raising the tithe.”
“Already did.” Diana fought the urge to spit into the street. In her current guise as a lady, it wouldn’t be quite the thing. “Upped mine to twice a week.”
Tipper glanced up at her, his eyes shadowed. “I can’t pay that.”
“I’ll help you.” It was foolish of her—but she couldn’t imagine life in West Quay without at least one other streetrat free of the gangrunners.
“I can manage,” he said, shoving his hands in his pockets.
“Well, when you can’t, tell me. I’ve a bit set by.”
“That’s for your berth to Dahlia 7, though. You can’t use that!”
Leaving Earth was an impossible dream, for both of them, but she didn’t have the heart to tell him so. At least one of them deserved the luxury of that hope—at least for a little while longer.
“I’ve got plenty of coin,” she lied.
“Soon as we find the hidden passage into the port, we can stow away on a ship anyways.” His grin was back in place. “Then Breggy and the gangs won’t matter at all.”
Another dream Diana was disinclined to tarnish. On the streets, dreams were sometimes the only things that kept a body going. Tipper would grow out of believing that particular fairy tale soon enough, and in the meantime she didn’t mind helping him search the ruins for the mythical secret entrance to the spaceport.
She’d found her blanket that way, after all, and a comb only missing a few teeth.
The crowd thickened as they neared the bridge over the River Itchen. The smell of onions clashed with some nob’s fancy perfume, and she wrinkled her nose. Though she had to admit she was doing her part to add to the general stench of humanity.
She glanced at Tipper. “Sure you’re not coming?”
He halted and shook his head. “Never. Good pickings, Di.”
“You too, Tip.” She dipped him a little curtsy, then turned and blended with the pedestrians traveling over the Half Shilling bridge to Itchen.
A few months after hopping the rails to Southampton, she’d overheard two women talking in horrified tones about the Turkish baths across the river. Diana didn’t care overmuch about the reputation of the baths—or her own, had she one to protect. But she did care about washing off the weeks of grime crusting her skin.
Of course, she had to go in girls’ clothing, but on her first trip to the baths, she’d discovered there was no basis to the shocking gossip. Instead of a steamy hive of depravity and heathen sin, she’d found a quiet, respectable bathhouse where, as long as she had the money, no one asked her any questions.
The only problem was the wall in the women’s side where the blue mosaic tile was mislaid. The sight of the uneven rows and gaps made her twitchy, so she always kept her back to it when she was in the warmth of the water. Other than that, it was a blessedly quiet haven.
It didn’t hurt that there was a bustling marketplace near the baths, where Diana could recoup the bathhouse entry fee. She’d made a habit of bathing, then going to purchase a cup of strong Turkish coffee and roaming the bazaar, alternately taking in the colorful sights and rich smells, and nicking a bit of coin from stray pockets and purses. Never enough to raise the ire of the gangrunner on that side of the river, of course.
Because of the various risks, though, she only allowed herself the luxury of the Turkish baths once every few months. This time, when she emerged clean and calm from the women’s side of the baths, she discovered she wasn’t the only West Quay denizen to take a jaunt to the other side of the river.
Standing near the main entrance was the policeman, Officer Byrne. He was speaking earnestly with the turbaned man who owned the baths, while taking notes on his handheld.
Diana halted, but it was too late. Byrne’s gaze rose to fix on her, and there was no mistaking the flash of recognition in his eyes.
Curse it! Now it would be impossible for her to deny she was a girl. No man would ever emerge from that side of the baths. They were very strictly maintained and chaperoned.
She pulled back into the shadows of the tiled portico, but there was only one way out. True, she could retreat back into the baths, claiming she’d left something behind, but she suspected that Byrne would only wait her out.
Besides, Breggy would demand his next portion later that day. She had little time to waste in trying to hide from overly perceptive policemen. No, it would be best if she simply marched right past Officer Byrne. If he tried to follow, she could lose him in the bazaar.
Suiting action to thought, she straightened her shoulders and crossed the patio, keeping her open parasol held at a precise fifty-degree angle between them. Just as she thought she’d pass him by unscathed, the policeman held out his hand.
“One moment, miss,” he said.
She could run for it, certainly, but something stopped her. She was reluctant to cause a disturbance at the baths that have proven to be such a haven for her, and, in truth, she sensed Byrne meant her no harm. Perhaps if she calmly complied with his request, he would leave her be.
Halting, she tipped her battered parasol back so she could see his face.
When he met her eyes, an odd expression crossed his features. She blinked, and it was gone. No doubt he was recalling seeing her in boy’s clothing and trying to reconcile the idea of her in trousers.
“Yes?” she asked, bringing a bit more of her highborn haughtiness to bear than she usually showed on the streets.
“I beg your pardon, but I’d like a word with you.”
“Is there a problem?” the proprietor asked. “Other than what we were discussing earlier?”
“No.” Byrne tucked his handheld away. “No problem.”
“Very good. I will let you go about your business then.” The man gave him a bow.
To her surprise, Byrne returned the salutation. It wasn’t like the coppers to pay much heed to the customs of foreigners on their shores.
Then again, the new policeman had a clear Irish accent—and to many British, the Irish were as bad as the Turks, or worse.
Byrne turned to her as soon as the proprietor had gone.
“Miss,” he began, then paused, his eyes narrowing slightly. “I believe I don’t know your name.”
Diana hesitated. Certainly she wasn’t going to introduce herself as Miss Diana Smythe—but neither did the moment seem to warrant her street name of Diver.
“I’m Diana,” she finally said. After all, there was no use in her continuing to pretend she was a boy. “You can call me Di,” she added, with a pointed look.
The last thing she needed was a new-minted policeman calling out her true name in West Quay, and putting her in even greater danger.
“I’m Derek Byrne,” he said. “You can call me—”
“Officer Byrne,” she said. “Pleased to meet you, but I really must be on my way.”
She strode through the opening in the wall enclosing the baths, exchanging a brief nod with the guard on duty there. Unfortunately, Byrne came after her—not that she really thought she’d be able to escape him that easily.
“I’ve a few questions for you,” he said.
“Oh?” She shot him a look. “Is this to be an interrogation? I assure you, I’m guilty of nothing except desiring a bath.”
He had the grace to flush a little. “It’s about West Quay. And the gangs.”
“Oh.” Her steps faltered. “I’ve nothing to say about that.”
It was dangerous. Too dangerous, to discuss street business with a policeman. If Breggy or the other gangrunners found out, she’d be dead in the river by morning.
“Please,” he said. “I’d treat you to lunch.”
Her stomach clenched at the thought. The last true meal she’d had was four days ago—a hot beef sandwich she’d bought fair and square. Before Breggy upped the tithe. Since then, she’d been living off apples stolen off the back of the vendor’s cart, and the stale ends of bread the baker threw out. When she could beat the other streetrats to them.
“Very well,” she finally said. “But we can’t meet anywhere near the port.”
At least she was in disguise as a young lady, and in a different quarter than the wharf rats usually frequented.
“Of course not.” He sounded insulted. “We can go to one of the coffeehouses nearby.”
“As long as it serves women.” Not all of them did, she knew. Usually she bought her cup from a cart vendor. Cheaper that way, too.
“Trust me to know my business, Diana.”
“Di,” she corrected. “If you can’t get that right, I’m not telling you a thing.”
Not that she would reveal much, anyway. She’d just eat his food and say vague things about West Quay. Certainly she could ramble on for as long as it took to fill her belly. No streetrat owed a policeman anything. Ever.
Want more? The full novel is available only in the DOMINION RISING boxed set, available now for pre-order and releasing August 8th!