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PaPW – Gratitude?

It hadn’t taken long to learn that this young woman was significantly younger than Jess herself. Besides being petite, which oughtn’t to have been an indication, she was stubborn as a child.

“The Watch can’t do nothin’,” she insisted, all but stomping her foot. “Can’t and won’t. I’m not big ‘nough to have a payroll.” She spat on the ground. “Not that they’d be on it if I did.”

They had left the men far behind them, and her earlier fear seemed almost entirely forgotten. Jess held the girl by the shoulders and fixed her with a stare that her grandmother had said could soften rock. “Those men hurt you. Someone will have to do something.”

“You already did.”

“Yes. Well. I’m not enough.”

“Oh, I think you’re more than enough.” The girl relaxed in Jess’s grip as though it were the most natural place in the world to be.

Jess let go with a sigh. Children were exactly like this. “At least tell me your name.” She could file a report with the Watch on her own. Even if it wasn’t likely to make an impact without the victim there with her.

“Aphrodite Cloudburst. And what’s your name, hero?”

The smile was infectious to the point of toxicity.  Jess released her grip, trying to keep from smiling back. “Jessaminica. Listen, if you won’t go to the Watch, will you at least let me take you home?”

For a moment, Aphrodite looked taken aback. “Huh. I guess I was right about the hero thing.” She furrowed her brow, then broke out in a smile that was unlike the others. It was less sparkly. More genuine. “I live on Dire Street. In the pleasure quarter. Big house, lots of windows.”

As she led the way, she went on talking. About the weather, her hair, how expensive it was to live anywhere. Everything but what had happened in the abandoned house. Jess gritted her teeth and focused on following her and keeping anything else from happening. Perhaps part of Aphrodite’s blasé attitude was due to having faced many similar incidents.

The idea of the pleasure quarter did not escape Jess. It did not exist among the tribes, but she had to admit that they had no need for it. Sex was treated with respect, but had very few rules. According to what her mother had told her, the higher up one went, the more repressed men and women became. She almost found herself asking how the business fared under such conditions.

They reached a large house with many windows, and Jess nearly laughed. It had seemed such an absurd thing to say.

Aphrodite put a hand on the knob, then paused. “Would you… That is, I feel I owe you a cup of tea. We should have biscuits.”

Her pitch never rose, but Jess could hear the question. She chewed the corner of her bottom lip. The men had to have cleared out by that time, and she wouldn’t get anywhere with the Watch on her own. True, it was clear what Aphrodite’s career was, but that didn’t seem like sufficient reason for two men to accost her with such single-minded hostility. They were too efficient for it to be random, or small.

“I would love to.”

She followed the girl inside.

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PaPW – Good Old Fashioned Pub Rumble

Edelweiss sat in a corner of the Rusty Arms, contemplating a drink. In the most literal sense. She was not the only patron bearing arms. However, judging by the density and reach of the smoke, she was the only one without tobacco.

She reached up and grabbed a fistful. It remained in her hand for nearly a full second before dissipating.

“Well what have we here?”

It was not the first time she had heard some iteration of an opening line. “I am not human. Nor am I inexpensive.”

A heavy arm dropped down as if from the smoke, latching about her shoulders. “Then it’s a good thing I had a string of lucky spreads.”

“Spreads.” It was a question, but only the way that Edelweiss asked it.

“Oh, bless. Must be a new model, not knowing Port of Call.” He squeezed her, which was unpleasant. His breath smelled worse than his body, and the competition was quite fierce.

Edelweiss pushed him away. “It matters not. I am engaged.”

“To what? A steamclock?” The man guffawed at his own ill-informed humour. “Come with me, honey. Old Jimmy’ll pay twice what your john’s shilling out.”

Speaking to this man was only worsening the situation. Edelweiss stood up.

He started to reach for his weapon, but Edelweiss was not about to be taken by surprise. She grabbed at her belt and drew a collapsible sword.

It folded out to deadly form seconds before the accoster had drawn his own sword. His eyes could barely follow the speed with which she struck. The blade sliced through the smoke, carving a deadly trail that ended in the man’s belly.

He stared down at it in dismayed surprise. “That ain’t friendly…” he said, choking on the last word. He dropped to one knee, but did not let go of his cutlass.

A thrill of anticipation and respect whirred through Edelweiss’s gears. Those eyes. A wound like that had all but killed him, but he wanted to go on. She eased into a more flexible stance, half-forgetting where they were. A real fight. This wasn’t sparring, or a desperate feat. This pirate had stopped seeing a whore, and was looking at a hand with a sword. She could feel it in his gaze, that he was looking over her stance now, not her hips.

Gravelly voices raised in protest and appreciation. Some cheered, but they were hushed up as men began to circle round them, like fast-moving clouds. Two men helped the first to his feet, but he pushed them away.

“First time I’ve seen such a lovely in this kind of distress.”

Another man had entered the circle, although this one had come to her side of it. She sized him up. “This is not a show,” she warned him. “Never mind what they are chanting.” She indicated the crowded pub-goers with a jerk of her head.

“It’s never a show.” The man, youthful in appearance, had large eyes only slightly hidden by his wild rust-coloured hair. He held up a device, similar to a steampistol, but slightly more complex, with a lens in the wide muzzle. “By the way, I’m Candle,” he said.

There was something about his smile that invited a mirrored answer. “Edelweiss.”

Old Jimmy’s friends were casting dirty looks their way. “Now that we’re friends,” Candle said, “I think local tradition demands we spill someone else’s blood in celebration.”

It was a stupid joke, but Old Jimmy was already heading back to cross blades. Edelweiss started to calculate how the battle would go against two opponents, when Candle leaped ahead to position himself by Jimmy’s friends.

Chivalry was  such an interesting concept, she thought.

Jimmy was staggering, but he held his cutlass upright. “I prefer a good horizontal dance to battle,” he said, then coughed. “But I wonder who made you capable of both.”

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Candle fire at both of the other men. Two blasts of heated air boiled towards his targets. His first shot went wide, allowing the skinnier pirate to strike at Candle’s leg. But his second shot hit home just before the other pirate could clip his knees. The chubbier pirate screamed and tore at his shirt. The cloth burnt away, revealing the blistered, bubbling skin beneath.

Horrified gasps mixed with the general roar of appreciation.

Old Jimmy didn’t seem to notice or care. He remained fixed on Edelweiss, wearing a determined smile that was marred only slightly by the trail of blood glistening on the corner of his mouth. But he made a game attempt at a swing.

Edelweiss sidestepped it, but she hardly needed to. It was a shame that a man with such gumption did not have the skill to match. She slashed at his front, tearing more clothing than skin.

Although he remained standing, his breathing became ragged, and the blood that had soaked his clothes was beginning to drip. “You just might be… a bit too much for me,” he said with an embarrassed chuckle.

“Now hold on!”

Everyone in the pub turned to see who had shouted.

With her superior vision, Edelweiss could cut through the smoke to see a thin man standing on a chair. He was dressed well, but not too well, and he was holding a black bag in front of him, like a parish priest clutching a bible. Perhaps he was handsome, but he did not seem a capable fighter.

“This quarrel should be allowed to die off without two of its participants doing the same,” the man said, head held high. He cleared his throat, then added, “The most exciting bit is over. Let them seek medical attention.”

The crowd murmured, but began to disperse among the tables. Some of the patrons left altogether. Jimmy laughed, then hunched his shoulders when it became a hacking cough. In a moment, the weedy man was by his side, still clutching the black bag.

“You are an impressive young woman,” he said quietly. “But you might consider learning some restraint.”

“Oh, don’t ruin her,” Jimmy gasped. “I ain’t dead, am I?” He waved his friends away, giving some instruction to have the chubby pirate taken to hospital. “No offence, doc.”

Candle cut short any possible response by hauling himself over. “I’m not picky.”

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PaPW – Jewelry for Information

Balm, when first applied, sent a feeling of cool relief throughout one’s body. But after stumbling under the weight of one’s injuries and the heat of an eager afternoon sun, the balm became sticky and unwelcome.

Surinder scratched at his wounds through his shirt. “They looked familiar, I suppose. But thugs do. And whatever you call it, we live in slums. Things like that happen all the time.”

“Things like Lady Magna’s goons roughing you up in the name of job offers? Those things happen all the time?”

He glared at Arete and stopped scratching. “No. I meant… Just goon-related incidents. You see your fair share.”

“I’m a player, love.” She flipped her hair over her shoulder. “Slum artists still keep their heads above water.”

Surinder cast about a glance so meaningful that it ought to have twanged. She may have shared the building with the rest of her Family, but Arete’s personal rooms were an exercise in opulence. He picked up an earring from the jewellery box on the table. “Then you must fly between the bottom and the top.”

She snatched the earring out of his hand. “Prostitution is hardly the top.”

“Easy mistake to make,” he said. “It’s easier to gather information with your job.”

“Information is better than hard currency,” she said, beating him to it. “I do know a bit about Lady Magna.”

He held out his hand. She reached into the jewellery box and handed him a cut ruby. Holding it up to his eyes and turning it, he asked, “Gold or silver wire?”

“For a ruby?” Arete buffed her nails on her shoulder. “Gold, of course.”

He sat down at the low tea table in the centre of her room and pulled out a small metal box. Inside were all of his tools.

When he had left the lowland empire to live with his cousin, he had decided to pull his weight in a similar manner. Sanjay painted, and Surinder made wire jewellery.

He selected a small coil of thin gold wire, and his best pliers. In his line of work, materials were almost more precious than the monetary compensation. A few small mistakes could leave ugly kinks in the wire. Too many kinks, and he could end up spending what he earned replacing his materials before he was even done.

Arete was, in many ways, a friend, and she brought him comparatively regular business. Whenever she watched him make a piece for her, there was more on the line than loss of wire. But with that impetus of pressure and knowledge of Arete’s personal tastes, he  managed to come up with an impromptu design and bring it to delicate, yet hopefully long life.

It was a flat bird cage, wrapping around the ruby at its centre, in a perfectly symmetrical heart. The wire wrapped around the ruby inside the heart, in a spiral.

Surinder drew one of his premade chains through it, then pinched the loop so that the setting wouldn’t slide. He presented the finished necklace to Arete.

She held it up in the light, smiling faintly. “Lady Magna inherited her husband’s clockwork manufactury, Magnificent Clockworks,” she said, fastening the clasp behind her neck. “But I work with a lot of businessmen, and I’ve never heard them praise her business sense.”

“But that company is still in business, I’ve seen the manufactury. And its shops.”

“I would say, rumour has it, but those who know that Lady Magna keeps her workforce and repairs her income with threats and shady dealings, have no reason to gossip about it.” Arete touched the necklace lightly. “However, I do know one interesting rumour that isn’t easy to confirm.”

Still touching the necklace, she rose almost absent-mindedly. Watching her walk across a room, Surinder thought, was like watching a swan fly over water. It gave him an idea for another design.

“One of the ladies on the third floor works regular with a manufactury worker, and she told me that Lady Magna has a new section working in seclusion.”

Surinder rubbed his chin. “She may have sent those thugs to recruit me.” Then he shook his head, grimacing. “I really don’t remember.”

He started to ask if Arete thought there was a chance he may have been mistaken for Sanjay, but he was interrupted by a disturbing sproing. Arete got up and took the clock off the wall. “It’s always doing that,” she grumbled.

“Let me take a look at it.”

She turned away, ever so slightly, holding the clock to her chest. “Why? I don’t know anything else.”

It baffled him how calculating she or anyone else could be. “I can’t do chores for a friend? It’s just a clock.”

And so it was. She handed it over, and he opened up the back. There were no major repairs needed, just a bit of tightening. Yet, after he’d shut the back of the clock, he realised that Arete was staring at him. She accepted the clock without a word.

Then, his mouth ran ahead of him. He had meant to thank her and leave. What he did was say, “Would you come with me?”

Her stare became penetrating, almost angry. “Where?”

“To see this Lady Magna. Perhaps you can help me to convince her that I am not what she’s looking for.”

Arete scoffed, exhaling with such force that she blew the hair around her face into disarray. “What in the sky makes you think I could help?”

“You’re charming, and you seem like you get your way, um… a lot. And if worse comes to worst, you are a dab hand with a pistol.”

She rubbed her tongue over her teeth, like a lioness checking her fangs’ readiness. “All right,” she said at last. “But you’ll owe me big. Cost of bullets at least.”

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PaPW – Arete Windfall

Humans could put beasts and their base natures to shame. Arete leaned against the wall, red lips wrapped around an unlit cigarette. She enjoyed the ugliness of it all. Being part of it. The garish lights, lampposts tainted by coloured paper, somehow left the world darker, full of shadows.

But there were some things that could only exist in shadows. Thrill rarely lived elsewhere.

Her regular trade flourished alongside it, but work could make anything dull. She wondered if any of the sharks dealing in drugs, dice, and cards found the rush of chance tedious. It seemed impossible to her, but then, some might find her job glamorous. Or demeaning.

The world was no longer divided into men and women. Not for the majority of them. Not for Arete. They were only players, throwing dice, drawing cards, snorting powder and begging for needles. Shooting up in one way or another.

They hugged walls and street corners in groups, lining the network like clusters of ants on sugar cubes. Some were playing Impresario or Dusk, but her game was Port of Call. Arete held the cigarette as though it contained something less polite than tobacco, then flicked it away.

She followed the clicking of dice on metal sheets. As it grew louder, the tingling in her fingers grew to an answering rattle all through her spine. It was no wonder that the game’s jargon for throwing dice was casting bones. It was your bones the game occupied.

There was always room in any given game for a woman in a red dress. Especially a woman who could make a pair of overalls attain the same effect. The dice came her way immediately. She blew on the dice. Arete didn’t believe in luck, but it never hurt. She cast the bones.

The dice came up Leery Fingers. Not a losing spread, but a poor start. A few murmurs went up, but she tossed her head. There was enough strategy to the game that she could recover or even win with subsequent spreads. She tossed in another fivepence and waited for the dice to return to her. If she could roll the same combination, the second spread would be Heavy Thinkers. Combining Leery Fingers with Heavy Thinkers would give her Faithful Band, a rare spread. An almost guaranteed win.

The dice slapped the metal sheet positioned over the cobblestones. Two dice knocked against one another. The collision changed the roll, and left her with Skeleton Crew, a losing spread with no salvation.

The man nearest her jostled her with a jovial menace. “Oh, bad luck, my lovely,” he said as he scooped up the dice. “But as long you’ve your body, you’ve money in the bank.”

Irritation knotted her stomach. She reached up to rearrange her hair, affecting disinterest. It wasn’t difficult. “Oh aye. Is that what the ante is now?”

Whoops and catcalls reduced the tastefulness quotient in the atmosphere below zero. Arete nearly turned up her nose. Never mind ants and sugar. They were cockroaches feasting on dirt. The one who had spoken, a malodorous spectre with no muscle and plenty of coarse hair, twisted his spotty face into a revolting grin. “Will ye call?”

She looked him up and down with cruel thoroughness. “I don’t play for stakes so low as that.”

The rattle of dice was the first sign of trouble. Skinny No-Muscles was still looking at her, but the dice had passed to the next player. The game was going on without her. Without either of them.

It didn’t take a veteran of the seedy underbelly to guess what she was up against. But Arete was exactly that, and it gave her an edge. She moved her dress to draw the revolver from the hidden holster on her thigh.

He raised his fists. She fired.

The bullet sang through the air, and came to a discordant end right between the skinny man’s eyes. He swayed like a bug-eyed and unnatural dancer. Then he dropped.

No one paid any mind to the report of the gun or the slumped corpse. Arete shook her head at the foolishness of it all. Then, she turned and started back to the pleasure quarter.

She was going to have to find somewhere else to play next week.

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PaPw – Dr Anson Chevalier

Bad things happened on muggy days.

It was the kind of thing his grandmother had always said. Whenever the summer started to boil the air in earnest, the poor woman would take to her bed wailing about her nerves. Yet even after her beloved grandson had become Dr Anson Chevalier, she went on self-medicating her delicate “condition” with spirits and selective isolation.

He shook his head, rubbing his eyes in a vain attempt to suppress a hopeless smile. It wasn’t the weather that was getting to him, or even the memories. He was supposed to be enjoying a day off. But there he was sitting in his office, at his desk, as stiff and reliable as  ever.

To call his office informal would have been to overestimate how deep an understatement could descend. It doubled as his bedroom, and the waiting area was, at its most honest, a hallway. His own bed saw more use by patients as a chair and examining table than its nominal use.

Normally, his two o’clock would have been there, perhaps heading a line of forgotten appointments and walk-ins. They all needed him, and he could only pray that he was enough.

Yet somehow, once a week, they got along fine without him. Once a week, he went out to a café on the border between the docks and pleasure quarter. The owner, and elderly man called Max Teech, knew him by name, and chatted occasionally about his sailor grandson.

The grandson appeared to be in port that day. Anson sat in the middle of the café, waiting to see if Teech’s familial pride would incite a presentation. In the meantime, Anson held a ceramic mug and counted the cracks, stained dark with old coffee and cleaning. But after he set it back down on the table, it seemed less steady than it had been in his hand.

He may have been a doctor, but he wasn’t exactly a master surgeon. He planted his feet firmly against the floor. His eyes widened.

He kicked the chair out from under himself and grabbed the thick table leg to pull himself in. Scarce moments later, a deafening boom shook the café. Anson clung to his hiding place. It was several seconds before his ears recovered.

The first sound he heard was a baby crying. He hauled himself out from under the table.

There was nothing left of the café as he had known it. Its walls were pitted and wrinkled, as though a giant hand had tried to crush them. A woman knelt by the counter, next to the till. She was holding a cocooned infant, clearly too frightened to comfort it.

“Are you all right?” Anson asked her.

Her face was streaked with black, striated by jagged paths of tears. Wordlessly, she turned her body to show him where a shaft of wood had speared through her side. Somehow she kept the baby’s blanket clear of the blood.

A loud groan stopped him from tending to her immediately. He looked up to see Teech dragging the limp body of a young man. Teech’s face was a study in agony, but his voice was composure itself. “My grandson Morgan,” he said, laying the young man carefully down on a relatively clear bit of floor. “Hit his head on a counter in the kitchen.”

Morgan groaned again. “At least he’s conscious,” Anson said, forcing a smile. People had to smile at times like this.

“Wish I weren’t.” The young man scowled at nothing. “But I s’pose any boon is welcome.”

His grandfather nodded. “All the better to patch him up, right? Doc.”

The last word held a wealth of asking. Anson took off his coat and rolled it up. “Of course.” He placed the impromptu pillow under the woman’s head and asked, “Can you hold on a moment longer? If I can get this young man back on his feet, we shall get out of here all the faster.”

She whispered breathless assent and handed the baby to Teech. “My grandniece  Cass,” he said quietly. “Came to visit.”

Anson nodded absently. Fortunately, he’d gotten in the habit of carrying his black bag everywhere. The floor shook as he wound a bandage around Morgan’s head. Morgan sat perfectly still, swearing softly. “Blasted pirates,” he murmured. “They fire on Seriaga for sport, not a thought for the little people like Cass and wee Arnie.”

“They’ll be chased off soon enough,” Anson said, snipping the bandage. “There. Now you’re in a state fit to get all of us little people out of here.”

Morgan gave him an amiable mock-salute, then got up to start clearing debris from the door.

A few more blasts sounded off in the direction of the port, as though to confirm Morgan’s bitter supposition. Anson put them out of his mind, focusing on Cass. The shaft was about as thick as her arm, splintered off from one of the beams that had held up the ceiling. She was pale, but alert.

The anaesthetic in his bag would be just enough to dull the pain, but he would need to act quickly all the same. He tore off a sleeve and wrapped the cloth around the wood. Then, gauging the angle as best as he could, he pulled it out.

Cass let out a gasp, but otherwise remained still. Anson moved through his carefully arranged tools like a hurried aristocrat going from salad to dessert. Time passed like condensed milk through a sieve as he cleaned the wound, stitched it shut, and finally bandaged it. All the while, the sound of Morgan working persisted in the background.

“I don’t feel a thing,” Cass said, rearranging her torn blouse.

“That’s the anaesthetic,” Anson said, but she went on smiling at him.

“We’re out!” Glass crunched under Morgan’s boots as he stomped back to them. He looked down at Cass, then grinned at Anson. “Not bad.” He slapped Anson’s back with impressive strength.

Teech stood up, cradling the sleeping infant. “Wonderful,” he said. “Though I s’pose we’ll have to close for a while.”

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PaPW – Jessaminica Nakkerman

It had never occurred to Jessaminica that her clan’s name was either ironic or a simple misnomer. The Patient Hawks were well-named in every respect that counted. Their ground-bound existence did not strike any of them as counterintuitive.

Her remaining family had accepted her decision. They had even helped her to pay her way onto the airship Turlington Wheeze. She smiled, remembering the words of farewell. Bring your husband home someday.

She leaned over the rail, her thick braids whipping in the wind. She nearly had to close her eyes against the strength of it. But even blinking would rob her eyes of too much.

Her mother had not been born one of the Hawks. She had come from a city in the sky. Jess hooked an arm under the rail and leaned out to brush a cloud with her face. Her mother had told her about the world far above the ground. Extensively. Every time, she’d appended it with the claim that Jess would have to see it herself.

“Don’t look down,” a rough female voice warned her.

Although she was not rebellious by nature, Jess found herself looking down out of reflex. The woman, the ship’s own Captain Mary Turlington, laughed jovially and slapped a hand on her shoulder to pull her away from the rail.

Jess gave Captain Turlington a tiny, controlled smile, typical of a Patient Hawk expressing amiability. “It’s lovely,” she said. “Like being a bird.”

This earned her another slap on the back, which jarred her. Clanswomen, like the men, were quiet, determined people. Little was ever wasted, be it water or breath. These air people liked everything loud, big, and excessive.

When they arrived at the pillar city port of Seriaga, this impression was cemented. The sounds of her own body–heartbeat, breathing, even footsteps–were lost in the thick, sweaty crowd of shouting people.

It could have been awful. But Jessaminica Nakkerman was done with awful. There were worse things than body odour and volume.

However, there was no point in exhausting herself. She found a shady spot under an awning and leaned against the wall of an unassuming building. From there, she was free to observe the noisy mess.

Her mother had told her that colours were different in the pillar cities. In Jess’s eyes, they were less alive than her home in the lowlands, but possessed of a variety that could not be rivalled. Even the awning above her, although decorated in a reasonable stripe pattern, contained a mottle of reds, whites, and purples, like banded agate.

The universal spirit of tourism was about to compel her to reach up and touch the fabric when she heard a bang against the other side of the nearby door. The vibration rumbled through the rest of the wall.

Without any conscious thought, Jess melted her body into a fighting stance and slid to face the door as though it were an opponent. The sound had been far too loud and violent to belong to a harmless action or accident. A human cry from within snapped her into a decision.

Her rucksack held few things. She reached over her shoulder and pulled out her most important possessions–a pair of arm blades, short knife-blades mounted on leather bracers. Thus equipped, she shrugged her rucksack back into a comfortable position, and attacked the door.

The air people and their love of excess must not have extended to materials. The door crumbled after a single blow, like dried cheese failing to resist a spoon. A cloud of dust and splinters roared silently into the air, but Jess squinted through it.

Two men were standing over a woman. Her clothes were ragged, and she was weeping. One of them had her by the hair, the dark waves contrasting sharply over the white scar tissue of his hands. Both men stared in dismayed awe at the wreckage of the door.

But they recovered quickly. The one holding the woman yanked her to her feet. The other raised a hand. In the gloom, Jess could barely see light glinting off metal. A pistol.

She leaped forward to slash at his midsection, but he fired the pistol before she could get close enough. The bullet ripped through one of her thin braids, barely missing her ear.

He cocked the pistol for another shot, but Jess didn’t let him take it. Patient Hawks used everything. All of her muscles were focused on fighting this man, stopping further harm from coming to the sobbing woman. She whipped past his second shot and impaled him with both blades. His body jerked as he tried to flail away, blood dribbling down his chin.

The blades came free with a sound that obscured the running footsteps of the other man. The injured man hit the floor, hard. He would live, if care reached him in time.

Jess cleaned her blades and returned them to her pack, then approached the woman. She might have been the same height as Jess, but her body was softer, fuller, as was her dark, wavy hair. Very different from Jess’s tight, numerous brown braids.

She looked up at Jess with bright black eyes. Her face was blotchy from crying, and covered in dirt. But she was clearly beautiful, with high cheekbones and lips like a shortbow. Her breath was coming in gasps.

When Jess held out a hand to her, the woman jumped into her arms. Taken aback, Jess stood still. The woman didn’t stop trembling, even after Jess helped her outside.

0

PaPW – Candlewick

Every pub in the world had atmosphere. But the Rusty Arms had nuance. If there hadn’t been so many drunk morons weighing her down, she could have flown away.

Candlewick Reed stood under the sign, contemplating the esoteric symbol beside the name. It fit his own thoughts. The hermaphroditic sign that could not decide one way or another.

It had been named by the original owner, a man keen on robotics. The man had crashed and burned as an inventor, then had apparently gone acceptably crazy and stuck giant robot arms on either side to make a unique-looking pub.

The symbol, a distaff and spear drawn from the same circle, was meant to show that the owner and his wife had equal partnership. The current owner, their oldest son Andrew, was unmarried, but claimed he would carry on the tradition when the time came.

Most pub-goers didn’t know or care. But Candle needed to know. The more trivia living in his mind, the less real thinking he could do.

He shrugged his way inside and headed straight for a lonely spot at the bar.

“The usual.”

Second Son Damon was working the bar. He tended to be more liberal than his siblings. At least in the application of alcohol. He snagged a mug with one finger, twirled it to stop under the tap. Beer hissed up to a line barely contained by surface tension.

Destined to spill immediately, Candle eyed the mug. A dramatic quaff would be fun, but it would leave him sticky and unsociable. He sipped delicately at the brim of the mug until the beer level was low enough to prevent the floor becoming his inadvertent drinking buddy.

Before he’d even set it down, Damon had whipped out a bar rag. “Drowning sorrows?”

“This much beer will drown me first,” Candle said. “My sorrows are taller than me.” Even after draining a second pint, his head was too clear. He tilted the mug to stare at the glistening bottom. “Got anything stronger?”

Without a word, Damon turned around and retrieved a bottle from the shelves behind the bar. He set a shot glass and poured with his usual generosity.

Candle knocked it back without examining–or smelling–it too closely. The taste hit him like an elbow in the nose. He nearly gagged instead of swallowing, but he managed to overcome the reflex. The liquid burned as it travelled down his throat. He made a face to avoid coughing.

“Family recipe,” Damon said, laughing with his eyes.

“Fantastic. Gimme another.”

Damon obliged. The drink’s second attempt to overwhelm Candle was not quite so powerful, but he didn’t mind. His head felt as though it were made of warm, fluffy fabric, and everyone in the bar looked lovely.

Particularly in the corners. Blondes were not his usual style, but some people wore it better than others. Candle leaned over the bar, relying on peripheral vision. Tall, broad, and brooding like a legend. A man like that needed someone who listened.

But not in a place like the Rusty Arms. Candle gave himself an exasperated shake. There was another blonde, one not hiding in a corner. She was flushed and, if her build was any indication, generous. She laughed as her companion, another young woman, spoke animatedly.

Candle felt his gaze wander between the two blondes. He tapped the bar absentmindedly, and Damon re-filled the shotglass. It still burned, but Candle was too distracted to react as strongly as before.

The woman’s companion left her to approach a cluster of men, giggling the whole way. Candle swept in to take her place.

She looked up at him in cheerful confusion. “Are you real?”

“I just might be.”

Her loud laughter startled him, but he noticed that she ignored her drink. She rested her chin in her hands. “Then maybe I shouldn’t be alone with you.”

He flashed her his most charming smile. “Or maybe that’s exactly why you should be.”

Thick black lashes held a screen over her painfully blue eyes as she laughed again. It was a huskier laugh than before. Not as loud or high in pitch. Candle focused on her face, still not quite drunk enough to stop thinking.

Her name was Belinda. Probably not her real name, but everything else about her was real.

Candle woke up slowly, like molasses coming to life. An arm was draped over his chest, so warm that his skin was beginning to feel sticky.

He reached under the blanket to shift the arm, then froze. Belinda’s arm would have been smooth, limber but light. This arm was hairy and muscled to the point of local envy. But the head on the pillow beside his was just as brilliantly blonde.

His groan woke the other man.

Before Candle could say anything, he found himself on the receiving end of a blinding smile and holding a well-worn dollar. He had only just managed to make an offended noise after the man had been gone for five minutes.

A disjointed curse bubbled almost literally out of Candle’s mouth, but he recognised the room he was in. One of the “guest” rooms of the Rusty Arm’s neighbour, the Open Arms. Along with everything he’d had to drink, the room would cost at least ten pennies.

As he handed over his ill-won dollar to the sultry woman in what could only be called the Lobby, she winked at him. “You’re popular for a newbie.” She handed him a white envelope.

Inside were three dollars and a note from Belinda asking to meet again at a specific time. Lipstick marks and all.

Once outside, Candle practically ran home. This required a bit of thought.