An orphan boy discovers adventure beyond his wildest dreams
In its perpetual night, the city stayed aglow. Globes of electric light shimmered hither and yon; flickering wisps of light shuddered with false life. Amidst this, pale moonbeams glowed, reflected by a regiment of mirrors, bringing illumination in a place of shadow. The bloated moon dangled in the purple sky as its reflection trembled in the coursing waters of the River Tell.
The river claimed citizenship to Moonglow as well; its waters coursed through trenches and canals burrowed streetside years before. Waterwheels spun, fat and lazy, their paddles churning forth the hydropower that kept the city alive. Grates in the ground belched clouds of steam, and it accumulated into a fog that hung like low clouds.
Along those cobblestone streets, a figure moved with great speed. He ignored the shadows. Passersby cried with indignation as he burst through them. He was not yet a man, small and spry. He froze momentarily, glancing in both directions, and chose a path. As he darted along another busy street, a piercing whistle filled the air.
“Stop!” bellowed a husky voice, and a constable hurried behind, his cheeks rosy and face stricken. “Get back here, boy!”
The boy, named Brom, did not listen. It is not hard to imagine why: it is a natural reaction, for most people, to do the exact opposite of what a person in pursuit orders. Brom wasn’t normally a bad person; his small gathering of peers often considered him the most thoughtful of their group. But Brom’s decision to nab a hunk of bread from the baker’s also made him a thief, which meant that having a conversation with law enforcement wasn’t likely to end well for him.
A throng of people, dressed smartly in formalwear, congregated around the front of the theater. Brom grimaced; in his desperation to avoid arrest, he’d fled into the heart of Gildtown, the affluent district. Here, even the servants seemed to earn a king’s ransom. The array of stovepipe hats and powdered wigs dazzled the eye. They glanced in his direction; a boy clad in filthy rags and barefoot, running with a half-eaten heel of bread in his hand struck them as out of the ordinary. A few startled gasps greeted him as he plowed through the gathering.
The constable, winded yet determined, pushed through, offering rushed apologies to the theater-goers, as his pursuit continued.
Brom hurdled a low gate, and spun past a strolling couple. The woman shrieked in fear, and the man stabbed a furious glare in Brom’s direction, but only pulled the woman closer to him.
I have to get out of this place, Brom thought, desperate. The Gildtown district offered him no sanctuary.
The shrill whistle pierced the air, and much closer than before. Brom glanced over his shoulder and gasped: the constable was gaining ground, and he had company. The mustachioed lawman growled, only perhaps ten feet behind him, “Give this up, thief!”
Brom did not follow directions.
He pivoted, turning quickly and hustling down a narrow alleyway. The hidden detritus of Gildtown gathered here, pushed away conveniently, unable to cast a black mark on the wealthy. The constable grunted and turned in pursuit, but he stumbled, giving Brom more ground. Ahead, a canal rumbled, its water pushing past, accompanied by the thrum of a paddle-wheel.
Brom ran harder. His side was beginning to ache; it felt like the flesh was tearing free, and his breaths became gasps, but he did not slow pace. The rushing water was before him. The constable roared, his voice filling Brom’s ears as he leaped.
The canal was perhaps eight feet across, and Brom cleared it, landing neatly and picking up his sprint once more. The constable, meanwhile, grunted as he leaped, but his landing was awkward, and he tumbled into a fleshy heap. He roared after the diminishing form of the bread thief, his fist shaking with futility.
Brom did not slow his pace as he rounded a corner. The adrenaline that pumped through him denied him the ability to simply stop. He kept running, racing through dark alleys, his footfalls echoing in the vacant space.
When he finally reached an opening, he finally slowed. He was out of Gildtown and now at the outer reaches of Bamford Alley, where even a child in rags could avoid notice. There were still evening carousers, though most of these staggered about and occasional hurled unsavory language in another’s direction. Powdered wigs would not last long in this stretch of Moonglow. Brom glanced over his shoulder, reassuring himself he was no longer being sought, and stepped into the evening traffic.
He chewed on the bread and kept as much in the shadows as he could manage. He wasn’t afraid of anyone asking about the bread here. A greater fear was someone deciding to use him as an outlet for frustration. He gathered the occasional glance as he moved along. The bread was crusty and tasted a little cold, but it was the most he’d eaten all day.
Something hissed at him, and Brom ducked his head; his heart shuddered and his legs flexed, ready for a new chase. An exasperated breath escaped him as he looked up into the filthy face of a boy perhaps two years older than he. The older boy grinned; with his broken teeth he looked more monster than anything else. “Oy, Brom! I heard the jackets was onto you!”
“If they was, they’d have me, wouldn’t they?” Brom replied around a mouthful of bread. “Honestly, Gaspard, if I needed someone looking over me all the time, I wouldn’t have left the Wayward Home.” Brom looked away quickly. Gaspard wasn’t exceptionally bright, but Brom didn’t want to give anything away.
Gaspard leaned in beside him, eyeing the last remnants of the bread. “And where’d you nick that from, eh?”
“Who’s to say I didn’t buy it?” Brom asked, shielding the bread.
“That’s a laugh,” Gaspard spat. “You, or any of us for that matter, buyinganything. You nicked it. I got my eyes out there. They say you was running through Gildtown.”
Brom crammed the last bit of bread in his mouth, and swallowed. Gaspard’s face twisted bitterly. After chewing and swallowing, Brom offered a skeptical smile. “Why would I be in Gildtown?”
“Don’t matter why, does it? They saw you. You was there.”
“And I’m telling you I wasn’t,” Brom replied, eyes narrow.
Gaspard sighed. He plucked a small, stubbed cigar from his pocket and popped it into his mouth. He cracked a match on his thumbnail. Soft, trembling light burst forth. As he brought the flame to the cigar, his eyes glared down upon Brom with subdued fury. “I know you was there, and I know that the law was upon you. The question now is, should he know that you was nicking bread in Gildtown, or should I keep it to myself for when it’s convenient?”
“Do what you need to do. I wasn’t there.” Brom fought to hide the shaking in his voice. The he that Gaspard spoke of was none other than Callow. Callow ruled the Whispers, where the homeless congregated. Callow didn’t want the law nosing around in the Whispers. Anyone that attracted the law was punished.
Gaspard glared down at Brom for what felt like an eternity. Suddenly he burst into a laugh, and slapped Brom on the back. “Fine then. You wasn’t in Gildtown. You still nicked that bread, but I won’t waste time on that. We all gather things from time to time, don’t we?”
“Yeah,” Brom said unsteadily, and the pair of them walked toward the Whispers, as the sounds of the night echoed behind them.