If only she’d been born a man…
A man in Whitechapel had choices. He could take up a trade, or theft, or even join some of the rookery gangs. A woman had opportunities too, but they were far more limited and nothing that a gently-bred young lady would ever aspire to.
A mere six months ago Honoria Todd had owned other options. They hadn’t included the grim tenement that she lived in, hovering on the edges of Whitechapel. Or the nearly overwhelming burden of seeing her brother and sister fed. Six months ago she’d been a respectable young woman with a promising job as her father’s research assistant, hovering on the edge of the biggest breakthrough since Darwin’s hypotheses. It took less than a week for everything she had to be torn away from her. Sometimes she thought the most painful loss had been her naïveté.
Scurrying along Church Street, she tugged the edge of her cloak up to shield herself from the intermittent drizzle. It was no good. Water gathered on the brim of her black top hat and each step sent an icy droplet down the back of her neck. Gritting her teeth together, she hurried on. She was late. Mr. Macy had kept her back an hour at work to discuss the progress of her latest pupil, Miss Austin. Scion of a merchant dynasty, Miss Austin was intended to be launched upon the Echelon, where she just might be fortunate enough to be taken in as a thrall. The girl was certainly pretty enough to catch the eye of one of the seven Dukes that ruled the Council, or perhaps one of the numerous lesser Houses. Her family would be gifted with exclusive trade agreements and possibly sponsorship, and Miss Austin would live out the terms of her contract in the extravagant style the Echelon was acclimatized to.
The type of style Honoria had once lived on the edges of. Before her father was murdered.
Church Street opened into Butcher Square. On a kinder day, the square would be packed with vendors and thronging with people. Today, only the grim metal lions that guarded the entrance to the Museum of Bio-Mechanic History kept watch. The Wall loomed ahead, with the gaping maw of Ratcatcher Gate offering a glimpse of Whitechapel beyond. Fifty years ago the residents of Whitechapel had built it with whatever they could lay their hands to. It stood nearly twenty feet high, but the symbolism of it towered over the cold, misty square. Whitechapel had its own rules, its own rulers. The aristocratic Echelon could own London city, but they’d best steer clear of the rookeries.
If Mr. Macy found out her address, he’d fire her on the spot. Her only source of a respectable livelihood would vanish, and she’d be facing those damned options again. She’d wasted a shilling tonight on a steam-cab, just to keep the illusion of her circumstances intact. Mr. Macy had walked her out before locking up the studio where he taught young ladies to improve themselves. Usually he stayed behind and she could slip into the masses of foot traffic in Clerkenwell, turn a corner and then double back for the long walk home. Tonight his chivalry had cost her a loaf of bread.
She’d disembarked two streets away, causing the cab driver to shake his head and mutter something beneath his breath. She felt like shaking her head too. A shilling for the sleight-of-hand that kept her employed. It didn’t matter that that shilling would keep her with a roof over her head and food on the table for months to come. She still felt its loss keenly. Her stockings needed darning again and they hadn’t the thread for it, her younger sister Lena had put her fingers through her gloves and Charlie… Her breath caught. Charlie needed more than the pair of them combined.
“Hey!” A voice called. “Hey you!”
Honoria’s hand strayed to the pistol in her pocket and she glanced over her shoulder. A few months ago she might have jumped skittishly at the cry, but she’d spotted the ragged urchin out of the corner of her eye as soon as she started towards Ratcatcher Gate. The pistol was a heavy, welcoming weight in her grip. Her father’s pistol, it was one of the few things she had left of him and probably the most precious for its sheer practicality. She’d long ago given up on sentimentality.
“Yes?” she asked. The square was abandoned, but she knew there’d be eyes watching them from the heavily boarded windows that lined it.
The urchin peered at her from flat, muddy-brown eyes. It could have been any age or sex, with the amount of dirt it wore. She decided the square jaw was strong enough to name it a boy. Not even the constant rain could wash away the dirt on his face, as though it were as deeply ingrained in the child’s pores as it was in the cobblestones beneath their feet.
“Spare a shilling, m’um?” He asked, glancing around as though prepared to flee.
Honoria’s eyes narrowed and she gave the urchin another steady look. If she wasn’t mistaken, that was a rather fine herringbone stitch riddled with grime at the edge of the child’s coat. The clothing fit altogether too well for it to have been stolen, and it was draped in such a manner that it made the child look rather more malnourished than she suspected he was.
She took her time, drawing her slim change purse out and opening it. A handful of grimy shillings bounced pitifully in the bottom of it. Plucking one out with reluctance, she offered it to the little street arab.
The urchin reached for the coin and Honoria grabbed his hand. A quick twist revealed the inside of the child’s wrist – and the crossed blades tattooed there.
Those wary mud-brown eyes widened and the urchin yanked on his hand. “Leggo!”
Honoria snatched her shilling back and released him. The boy staggered, landing with a splash in a puddle. He swore under his breath and rolled to his feet.
“I’ve more need of it than you,” she told him, then swept her cloak to the side to reveal the butt of the pistol in her skirt pockets. “Run back to your master and tell him to give you a coin.”
The boy’s lip curled and he glanced over his shoulder. “Worf a try. Already bin paid for this.” He flipped a shilling out of nowhere and then pocketed it just as swiftly. A stealthy smile flashed over his face, gone just as quickly as the coin. “Himself wants a word with you.”
“Himself?” For a moment she was blank. Then her gaze shot to the child’s wrist and that damning tattoo of ownership. She tucked her change purse away and tugged her cloak about her chin. “I’m afraid I’m not at liberty this evening.” Somehow she forced the words out, cool and clipped. Her fingers started to shake. She thrust them into fists. “My brother is not well. And I’m late. I must see to him.”
She took a step, then shied away as a hand caught at her cloak. “Don’t. Touch. Me.”
The boy shrugged. “I’m jus’ the messenger, luv. And trust me, you ain’t wantin’ him to send one o’ the others.”
Her mouth went dry. In the ensuing silence, she felt as though her heartbeat suddenly erupted into a tribal rhythm. Six months scratching a living on the edges of the rookery, trying to stay beneath the notice of the Master. All for nothing. He’d been aware of her, probably all along.
She had to see what he wanted. She’d caught a glimpse of the others that were part of his gang. Everybody in the streets gave them a large berth, like rats fleeing from a pack of prowling toms. Either she could go of her own volition or she could be dragged there.
“Let me tell my sister where I’m going,” she finally said. “She’ll be worried.”
“Your neck.” The urchin shrugged. “Not mine.”
Honoria stared at him for a moment, then turned towards Ratcatcher Gate. Its heavy stone arch cast a shadow of cold over her that seemed to run down her spine. Himself. Blade. The man who ruled the rookeries. Or creature, she thought, with a nervous shiver.
There was nothing human about him.