Theo Whitfield had been dreading this visit before she entered the building. Any one of an assortment of grisly jobs sounded more appealing than the task she faced now, whether it be sucking down clouds of noxious black steam while repairing an airship vent, or tromping through the sewage and muck in the Underground. Blazes, she’d even rather devour her mother’s charred attempts at supper, a feat that caused even the most ironclad stomachs to falter.
Yet, her sister Ellie had never come home last night, and Theo needed answers.
Theo swallowed hard as she stepped to the storefront and rested her knuckles on the freshly painted door. The polished bronze sign of Kylock Industries glared down at her from the overhang, and she gritted her teeth while gathering her courage. Autocarts rattled behind her while they raced along the cobblestones, part of the average hustle of Barnsbury. Each one that passed elicited a stream of curses from the street thugs who were half-rats by noon and reeked of gin.
She gripped the knob and turned it, entering the business.
The dim gas lamps in the entryway flickered their sallow light onto the tarnished floorboards. A woman sitting behind a mahogany desk stationed in the front of a sprawling parlor startled in her seat as if she’d been caught napping. Even with the posh and polished entrance of the shop, the scents of iron, steel and copper tickled her nose and made her fingers itch. For a technomancer like herself, the contraptions devised in this place were rife for exploration.
“How may I help you?” the attendant asked, smoothing her skirts before she stood from her seat.
“I’m here to see Silas,” Theo said, slipping her hands into the pockets of her trousers.
She didn’t miss the way the woman stared her down, lingering on her shocking attire. With her long black curls left free and wild rather than pinned back, and the lack of a corset to give her an unrealistic waist, Theo would never be mistaken for a lady. Though the populace’s judgment didn’t matter. As a technomancer in a city of industry, she would always, always find employment, whether she followed social norms or not.
“Mr. Kylock is occupied. Did you want to make an appointment?” the woman replied as she forced a smile.
Theo lifted an eyebrow. The high-and-mighty bastard’s too busy playing with his toys to spare a second? As if I’m surprised.
“He’ll see me now,” she demanded, her fingers itching all the more. Whenever her temper sparked—which happened often—the magic tended to flow with it.
The attendant bristled at her demand. Based on the sharp glint in the woman’s eyes when she opened her mouth, another denial was about to follow.
A fancy auto-stylus attached to a typewriter sat on the desk and bore Kylock’s tinker imprint—a K with a surrounding cog. The fancy piece of tech could imprint different fonts and handwriting onto letters and would sell for a high price in a lot of the upscale salons. That would do just fine.
Theo lifted her hand, and the conductive ring she wore nearly vibrated from the magic at her fingertips. Wisps of it condensed in the air, like tufts of cumulus clouds, at her will. She urged the energy onward with a twist of her wrist, and the buttons on the typewriter began to type. The stylus lowered to the blank pad of paper.
“I can send this machine into a frenzy in about three seconds,” Theo said. “I don’t suppose your employers will appreciate their fancy equipment getting broken. Now, take me to Silas.”
The stylus moved faster and faster, scribbling more furiously with every keystroke she manipulated from afar. Condensation filled the air with the outpouring of magic, like the steam that billowed out of the machinery in the city. The woman’s eyes widened and she threw her hands up in defense.
“Stop, stop,” she bit out, the fear illustrated by the pallor on her skin. “I’ll take you back to the workroom.”
Theo’s kind was rare enough that when they encountered normal folks on the street, respect or fear became common currency. After all, not everyone had the ability to manipulate mechanics with magic.
The woman led her through the fancy trappings of the parlor, from the bookshelves filled with leather-bound tomes to the mahogany table and chairs next to a cabinet displaying crystal glasses and decanters of fine liquor. This wasn’t the sort of place meant for ruffians like herself.
Theo’s footsteps echoed down the hall, her thick-soled boots made for stomping, unlike the quiet click of the woman’s heels while she guided her to a double door at the end of the main corridor. Her loose curls tickled her neck, annoying her enough to bat them out of the way before she came to a stop in front of the workroom doors. Her agitation threatened to bubble over the moment she stepped foot inside this place. The attendant bent forward, inputting a number sequence. A series of whirrs and clicks followed until the lock opened.
“Step along now,” Theo said, swerving past the woman’s petticoats to grab the knob. “I’m sure I can handle the rest.” For extra emphasis, she waggled her fingers in the attendant’s direction, which had the desired effect of sending her scurrying. If the ladies and gents were going to treat her like a freak, she might as well reap the benefits.
The door whispered as she pushed it open and stepped into the heart of rolling steam that kissed her cheeks and burning metal that tickled her nose. Absinthe-colored aether bubbled up in tubes lining the room. The power-source not only served as fuel but also cast rays of light to add to the meager flicker the dim overhangs offered. A large workbench spanned the entire back wall, and every spare inch of the monstrosity was covered in projects.
The tick-tick-tick of clocks echoed through the place, coming from at least six different sources, and scrolls of blueprints and designs covered entire shelves of the three bookcases that towered along the right wall. Gears, lavers, burnishers and drills lay scattered about, half on the floor, half on the table and in no particular order. Amidst the chaos of the room, one man hunched over the worktable, neck-deep in his latest project.
“Silas, I know where your missing automaton is,” Theo called out, her voice echoing through the room.
The man’s shoulders tensed, and he placed whatever he was tinkering with down before swiveling around on his stool to face her. His rust-red hair glowed in the wake of the sheer amount of steam pumping through the room, and he lifted his goggles with their magnifying attachments to rest them on his head. He smirked upon meeting her gaze, the sheer amount of arrogance in his dark brown eyes igniting her temper on the spot. The man was too pretty for his own good, yet Theo refused to be swayed.
“Well, well, whatever did I do for one of the Whitfield girls to pay me a visit?” He cocked a thick eyebrow, the elegant arch perfecting his defined features. “Last time I saw you, Theo dear, your employer required my consult on a situation because you refused to admit your utter lack of knowledge on the subject.”
Her fingers curled into fists. They had both grown up in Islington, even getting into scuffs on the streets as teens, but as they’d aged, he’d become ever more insufferable. Once he’d become a full-fledged Tinker, and she’d found technomancer work as a handyman, their paths continued to cross, over and over and over again. Unfortunately, punching him in the face at a job site would get her pay docked, and she needed every penny for Mother’s treatments.
“You want to talk utter lack of knowledge?” she ground out. “Where’s the latest model of your line of clockwork maids?”
His eyes flashed with irritation. He leaned against his worktable and folded his arms over his chest. He was one of the few who didn’t fear her kind. “What did your sister get mixed up in this time?”
Theo bristled. While he might be right—out of the two Whitfield girls, she’d gone the straight and narrow while her sister had taken to thieving with a naturalness that worried Mother endlessly—she didn’t appreciate the derision in his tone.
“Do you want the automaton she stole back or not?” she asked, ready to exit this infernal room with the man who’d become a nightmare in her professional life as well as a personal irritant.
“You’ll have it back here by tonight, or I’ll give your sister’s name to the constable,” he responded, keeping his gaze level.
Despite the firmness in his voice, shadows crept underneath his eyes and the three-day stubble gracing his chin implied the disappearance had caused him more trouble than he’d ever admit. He fidgeted with one of his cufflinks, the constant motion betraying those nerves.
“That’s the problem.” Theo swallowed, a pit forming in her stomach. “She disappeared before she ever made the drop with your clockwork maid in tow.”
The tapping stopped.
“So, you’ve come to me why?” Silas asked, his voice sharpening. The hungry way he eyed her suggested she was treading on dangerous ground. However, Theodosia Whitfield made a habit of stomping through delicate territory.
“Because I can get your automaton back, delivered without anyone the wiser. I just need your help. Specifically, I need the scrap metal you forged the clockwork maid from so I can trace it.” She lifted her chin and matched his gaze. He might be taller and have developed more muscles than necessary while smithing, but she threw a mean right hook and knew his blind spots. If it came to a fight, she’d still bet on herself.
“And what do I get in return?” he asked, an infuriating grin returning to his face. “Because I have the blueprints—I can always make a new clockwork maid. However, you only have one sister.”
Theo heaved a sigh, not bothering to hide her irritation. “You get the satisfaction of being a decent man for once.”
Silas snorted. “That’s not a barter in the slightest. Offer me something worthwhile.”
Theo didn’t miss the way his eyes lingered on her or the heat burning in them.
He might be a handsomer than average man with the sort of blacksmith’s build to make most women fall into his bed—and many did—but he had the personality of a pickled turnip. Theo rested her hands on her hips while she eyed him, refusing to indulge the blatant implication he threw behind his words. She should punch the smug expression off his face and just steal the pieces, damn the consequences.
“A favor,” she said, at last. “In my professional capacity.” She emphasized the word professional to dispel any ideas he might be entertaining. The sooner she could acquire the scrap and get the hell out of there, the better. Her sister might be bleeding in an alley for all she knew.
Silas tapped the side of his chin as if he were musing over the proposition—as if he hadn’t already made the call. “While a favor from you might be helpful, we subcontract technomancers on a regular basis. I’m not going to hand over my scrap metal and hope you bring back our automaton. I’ll bargain for a favor from you if I’m along for the hunt when we track your sister.”
Theo’s eyebrows lowered with her glare. Spending more time around Silas Kylock was not only hazardous to her health but edged her closer and closer to the ledge of getting locked up for homicide.
Except he possessed the exact item she needed to track down Ellie. And no matter what trouble her little sister had gotten into this time, Theo would do anything for that girl.
She heaved a sigh. “Fine. Meet me in an hour at my residence with the scrap metal. You may as well clear out the rest of your busy calendar today. I don’t know how long this will take.” Her words dripped with derision she didn’t bother masking. The Kylocks had made themselves quite a few shillings between his father’s business connections and Silas’ tinkering, but like her, they were gutter trash from Islington. Bottom-of-the-barrel ruffians didn’t fit amongst the posh and pretentious folks, no matter how hard the Kylocks tried to pretend the opposite.
“You have yourself a deal,” he responded, tugging off the thick work gloves he wore and tossing them to the ground.
He stood from the stool with a creak and crossed the distance between them until he stood mere inches away. Theo’s hands didn’t budge from her hips while she looked up at him with her back to the door. At six feet and a few, he towered almost a foot over her, but she had never found him intimidating.
Silas thrust his hand out between them to shake. She offered her own, and heat emanated from his callused palm as they shook on the deal. This close, she could smell the tinge of copper, earth and amber, an infusion that made her mind swirl. Theo realized their handshake had gone on seconds too long when a smirk curled Silas’ upper lip. She yanked her hand back.
“I trust you can find your way out?” he asked, not budging an inch despite the proximity between them.
“Quite capable, thank you,” she snapped, whirling around to face the double doors. Behind her, she heard the shuffle of footsteps and the clank of metal parts from myriad tools being moved around on the table.
Theo Whitfield kept marching forward. Even if she was required to work with the most obnoxious bootlicker on this side of town, Ellie was roaming out there and needed her help. Theo wouldn’t let her down.