The corridor was long and dark, and at the end of it, Alix heard voices that she knew weren’t supposed to be there.
If she hadn’t been able to make out what they were saying, she would have assumed that it was just wind, coming through the hole in the roof. Her master was a miser, and he only repaired things when not doing so would inconvenience him. But she’d heard words – “dream”, “hurry”, “quiet!” Someone was there. Question was, who?
Alix balanced the tray carefully, and crept forward. There was a board at the end of the hall that creaked; she edged around it. A funny smell hung in the air- like boiling water, but with a kick to it.
She slid open the door.
The window gaped, spilling moonlight into the room. Someone stood in front of the window, but it wasn’t her master- long horns curled from the top of their head, and they held a knife. In front of them, someone else squatted on the floor. They wore a pair of goggles and night-black gloves that reached their elbows. The stranger’s mouth hung open, and they gazed into nothing.
Alix dropped the tray. Her master’s glass smashed. Pills scattered on the ground. She took a step back. Her breath stuck in the back of her throat.
The horned person flinched and shook the one in the goggles.
“Svelen. Sve. Wake up-”
Alix felt like her bones had turned to ice. Svelen wasn’t a common name, but— there was no way it was him. He’d disappeared months ago, he was probably dead.
The boy in the goggles blinked, stripped them off, and stood up. The horned person grabbed him by the wrist and dragged him to the window, then through it.
Alix ran to the window, half in a daze. She didn’t want to hope, but if there was even a chance it was Svelen—
She could hear the strangers on the roof, running like starved dogs were at their heels.
Alix swung herself up, and followed them. The loose tiles skidded under her feet. She aimed for the gap in the roof just ahead of her, over the slave quarters.
She jumped it, and glanced over the edge of the wall. Where were they—
There! At the edge of the street, running into an alley. She clambered down onto the lower roof and slid down the drainpipe.
She’d lost her best friend once before. She couldn’t lose him again.
It started to snow, but Alix barely noticed. She squinted, picking out the shape of the person’s horns through the gloom.
The streets twisted and wound around her, but finally, they reached a dead end. She could see them at the end of it. The horned person stood in front of the boy, and she was only seeing him from behind, but —
He was short, with wildly curly hair, and his dark skin was covered in bright orange freckles. It was him. She didn’t know anyone else, human or thoughtform, who looked like him.
“Alix? What’re you—”
“There’s no vexin’ time,” the horned person said. “We’ve got to get out of here now.”
From his voice—he sounded like he’d been smoking broken glass—Alix guessed he was probably a man. “Well, I’ll follow you,” she told him, “until you tell me what’s going on.”
The horned man’s eyes flicked from Alix to Svelen. He growled from the back of his throat.
“You know her?” he asked Svelen.
“She’s my friend.”
“C’mon, then. We keep standin’ around and running our yaps, we’ll be easy pickings for the strikers.”
He started off, Svelen following him.
“Oh-” the horned man said, as if he’d just thought of it. “Stick a fold on her.”
“I’m really sorry, Alix.” Svelen untied a bandage from around his wrist and tied it over her eyes. He pulled it so tight it tugged on her hair.
He grabbed her hand. His was more calloused than the last time she’d held it. What had he been doing while he was gone?
“Get moving,” the horned man said.
And so they did. Alix had no idea where they were. She could barely see lights and shadows through the bandage. She knew that they passed under the belltower of the Cathedral of Industry- the mournful bells tolled midnight- but other than that, she hadn’t a clue.
All she could do was trust Svelen.
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