Welcome back to my WIP updates!
After several weeks of computer troubles, I’m having to settle with the fact that I won’t be able to make header images for my next few posts, but I decided to press on anyway.
So, those keeping up with past posts will have noticed that the last revision reached a word count of just over 4,000. General precedent and market trends report and encourage chapter lengths between 1,000 and 5,000 words. Obviously, that is a pretty big gap and will be affected by multiple variables — not the least of those being age category, genre, or individual writing preference.
Since beginning this project, I knew that I preferred shorter chapters to longer ones. It’s not something set in stone, I imagine most of my chapters will be broken up by scenes. This line of thinking alongside my ever-increasing word count lead me to go ahead and split my next round of edits into scenes. For these posts, I’ll still be titling the excerpts “Chapter One,” but that will be mostly for consistency and clarity.
So that’s a lot of chat before jumping into this week’s edited opening chapter. I hope you enjoy and share what you think!
Working weekends was a drag. Abryn didn’t disagree. But there was always something to do. A malfunction with the trams, a power outage across town, a steel frame to bend back into place by hand. And who could do that if she didn’t? All of her workers were dryftless. They didn’t exactly have her strength.
This week’s request was delivered Rain-day morning while she and Wells fixed lunch. The messenger had insisted ‘they’ needed the job done by midday the next day. Before Abryn could get too many details, Wells appeared over her shoulder to tell him, in the politest way possible, to shove off.
Wells didn’t mention it over lunch or for the rest of the day. But there he was, propped up on the couch, sleepy black eyes watching for her early the next morning. Apparently, she was predictable. “You worked last weekend,” Wells said, sinking further into his pillow and ruffling dark hair out of his face.
“You say that like you missed me.”
He rolled his eyes, “You’re diverting.”
“That was a two hour job. They just needed me to–”
“You were the only one there.” He seemed to know she’d stopped asking her workers to help with overtime, even if he wouldn’t come out and say it. “You skipped dinner to stand in the mud.”
“Lucky me, midday is long before dinner.”
He gave her a cold look, heaved his lanky body out of the cushions, and skulked into the kitchen. She always felt worse when Wells gave up an argument. She emphasized that she’d be back for lunch and shut the door behind her. None of these requests were ever that difficult for her. There was really no reason to go bothering anyone else when, a lot of times, people just got in her way.
Shaking his disappointed gaze from her mind, Abryn jogged across town. Or at least she tried. She was built for lifting, not hustling. There were trams that ran from Downtown to West Station, but no matter how much she tinkered, she couldn’t get them moving faster than a brisk walk. She heaved across the damp cobblestone streets, telling herself it was training for the next time Wells invited her on one of his jogs.
West Station was the dingiest of the three in Ridgate, and that was saying a lot. The tin roof stretched over the boarding zone sagged pathetically to one side, and the platforms themselves were littered with debris. Abryn reminded herself to demote this station’s foreman. Len or Fen or something. He was abusing her tolerance. There were two shops, one on each side of the tracks to split up eastward and westward moving traffic. The shop for the westbound track was sickening. Tools scattered, broken parts mixed in with the new, engines left half-finished over the weekend. It hadn’t been a week since her last check-up. Maybe I’ll fire him.
She stormed to the dumpy control panel and cut power to the tracks. Weekend deliveries were rare and weekend travellers, rarer, but it didn’t hurt to be thorough. She didn’t understand what made this urgent, but she hated leaving things for someone else to do.
Abryn made it to the abandoned train by late morning. It was a beaten down engine cart with an empty cargo trailer behind it. Must’ve been part of a larger west-bound caravan because there was no sign of what or who was previously being transported.
The engine cart had slipped an axle and leaned heavily to the left. The mechanism itself seemed fine; it could use a tune up, but it had one of the newest-looking batteries she’d seen in months. It seemed to be holding a steady charge and everything. The enclosed trailer behind it wasn’t attached when she examined it. The hitch was bent, and the socket had twisted open. Three of the cheap metal wheels had doubled over or snapped completely off. It must’ve been nearly slung off the tracks when the engine lurched down.
Abryn took a firm stance and straightened the hitch back out, but there was little she could do for the socket. She wrapped it unconvincingly around the ball and crushed it a bit in her palm, but the train would have to rely heavily on the chains to stay connected.
She stood in front of the damaged side of the engine, considering her options. Lifting the frame onto her knee, she tried repositioning the axel but didn’t have the reach or the angle. The tracks were built on gravel mounds which did not make for stable footing. She set the engine down carefully before letting her feet slide down to the still-fresh mud. It wasn’t going to be easy to get back to the shop like this, but if any one person could get it back, it was Abryn. She was the only dryfter in Ridgate who worked as a mechanic. It would’ve taken six-or-so dryftless to do the same job.
She cranked the engine and put it in reverse on its lowest setting. It was another mile out of town to the next connection onto the inbound tracks, and she had no interest in going that far to come all the way back in the correct direction. Shutting off the power lines turned out to be a good idea. Standing between the two carts, Abryn lifted the inner left corners of each and fell into the engine’s pace back toward West Station. She knew that she had to be getting close to the shop when the trailer lost another wheel. It lurched hard to the right, and Abryn dropped the engine cart to keep it from toppling off the tracks. Metal screeched and sparked as the engine continued to force its way along the rail. She jerked to stabilize both and sprung to shut off the power.
Always another thing.
Abryn slid down the gravel mound, chewing her tongue in irritation. According to the fresh gashes in the wooden siding, adrenaline had dryfted her hands into dark, leathery claws without her prompting. The joints in her legs were also slowly slipping back into place from the instinctive jump. Quick impulse dryfting like that sent pins-and-needles up her calves and pushed her heart to increase blood flow. She stretched out her fingers and wrists, dryfting them slowly between states. Hands were the most likely to cramp up after impulse dryfts. She wiped the little spots of blood from the soft skin between the fingers and cracked her knuckles, considering leaving the stupid train there until the morning. What’s coming through Ridgate anyway?
But someone needed her to get it done. West Station was so close. It wasn’t that big of a deal.
There was slight movement at the door of the shop. A low-ranking Militia officer stood stiffly next to a young woman. The officer puffed out his chest and started down the tracks toward her. “Lady Bryn, you’ve been summoned to the Central,” he called, still a distance away.
“Tell him that is not my name, and tell him I’m busy.”
His steps faltered, but only slightly. “I’m not supposed to leave until you come with us.”
“Don’t come out here unless you’re bringing that big dolley by the wall.”
He hesitated again before turning back to fill her request with the help of the young woman. His face was bright red as he rolled it out to her.
Abryn grabbed the dolley in one hand and heaved it to the front of the train.
“This is an important matter,” he said, “There are Highborns in town he needs you to speak to.”
“This is going to sound mean, but if it was that important, Kaler would have sent someone more important after me.”
She scuffed a dry spot into the sticky dirt, eased into a stable squat, and used her free hand to push the cart onto the far wheels. The officer stumbled back a step as metal creaked precariously. She grunted and wrestled the finicky tool into place then eased the frame back down. The rusty old thing just barely lifted the cart off its broken axle. It wasn’t meant to hold that much weight, but with the station so close, it’d save her a lot of trouble, struggling to move it herself.
“Ma’am,” he cleared his throat, pretending his voice didn’t waver, “these are very important guests. He wanted the Central well-manned.”
Abryn gave him a blank stare and a fake smile. “Tell him I have my hands full. Literally, if you must. It is supposed to be my day off, and I will not spend it playing games. Please, go away so I can do my work and go home.”
The officer set his jaw but eventually scurried back to the platform.
After checking the connection again, she returned to its rear. The two stood in the doorway, perched with peaked interest. Facing West Station, she lifted the back end of the trailer off the tracks.
Abryn sighed and refocused on the task at hand. With the slick tracks, she needed better footing. She dryfted partially, letting the bones and muscles in her legs readjust. Her feet shifted, elongating under thickening skin. Claws and thicker foot pads would help with traction. Changing the joint location of her knees and ankles made it easier to lift and pull the cart behind her. The first few steps the two carts didn’t want to move. The chains rattled, and metal ground on metal. With a small grunt, the trailer jolted forward. The ball hitch had left the socket. Chains snapped tight in the middle, giving the assembly some momentum. Clawing into the gravel between the ballasts, Abryn got up to a heavy run sustaining it just long enough to screech into the shop.
“That was incredibly impressive, Lady Bryn,” the young woman bowed as Abryn caught her breath. She had the slightest eastern accent.
“Do yourself a favor,” she awkwardly waved off the bow, “Don’t listen to anything Kaler says. Just call me Abryn.”
“I apologize,” she nodded another bow. “He asked me to summon you to Central.”
“No,” she said immediately. “I don’t have time for him today.”
The officer stepped in, “You have no authority to dismiss a command. He is your superior.” His eyes shifted nervously as he tried to maintain an authoritative air.
Abryn took a breath and straightened to her full height. “How about you go sit down while the adults are speaking. You still smell like the Academy, Sergeant-major.”
He flinched. Reasonably so. She wasn’t part of the Militia, but her presence made up for her lack of rank. She was almost half a foot taller and maybe sixty pounds heavier. On top of that, his nervousness implied he was dryftless.
“I apologize for the interruption,” she said, calmly returning her gaze to the woman
She had maintained a gentle smile — maybe even an amused smirk — throughout the exchange, “Ma’am, if I may, I am part of the Highborns’ travelling party in Ridgate. The Maistru summoned you on their behalf.” She had no Highborn tattoos — in fact, no tattoos at all; she was dryftless.
But then something sunk in. “Wait. Maistru?”
The woman nodded.
She nodded again.
Abryn’s eyes narrowed, “This is not funny.”
“It isn’t a joke,” the officer said.
“Tell him to waste someone else’s time. I’m not playing games,” she nudged past them and left the grimy shop behind. She caught a trolley back east, staring blankly through the bright homes and makeshift shops along the railway. The colorful, modge-podged neighborhood of the dryftless slowly faded away, leaving the perfect grids of the relentlessly monotone Downtown Residential Zone. The tram’s route cut into and through the broad plaza surrounding the Central. She waved to friends in their Militia-green vests as they mulled around outside. There were quite a few of them out, leaned against doorways, picking at the cracking wood siding, and kicking stones back and forth…
She shook the thought from her mind — the thought of Kaler as Maistru over all of Ridgate. He was always looking for a way under her skin. She wasn’t going to let him today.
Abryn stepped off the ever-moving trolley and strode back to the house, hands stuffed in home-stitched pockets to keep her fingers from twitching. The sky was the azure of midmorning. The move hadn’t taken long at all. “Told you I’d be back before lunch,” she said, ducking in the door. “Wells?” There was no reply. A note waited for her on the kitchen counter written in a tight, tall script.
Called in to work. You win this time. I’ll pick up lunch.
Any other day, she would have been excited for the chance to make him eat his words, but the bad feeling had settled back into her stomach. She stuffed the note in a pocket and tried not to run to the morgue two streets past the tram tracks. The back door was always locked, but, lifting on the handle while pushing at the top, the bolt could be maneuvered out of its socket. Wells always kept a bottle of grease soap in the wash room to help her scrub oil off as best she could. She slipped into a sanitation gown and had barely opened the door when a thick smell wafted from the autopsy room into the hall. The chemicals turned her stomach. She stared intently at the ground, waving under the assumption Wells was in the room. But she had to check. She stole a glance to see him pacing toward her, sanitation gown damp with things she didn’t want to think about. Despite her efforts, she failed to keep her eyes from the autopsy table and the body thereon. Ridgate’s Maistru — or former Maistru — Remlot Gentry gazed blankly through the ceiling looking cold and blue.
Wells already had disposed of his gloves when he caught her gently by the elbow. Her face burned, and she was losing feeling in her fingers. He guided her silently to his office to sit and catch her breath. “What are you doing?” He said, pulling his medical mask to his chin. “I told you I’d be working.”
“It could’ve been paperwork,” she said weakly.
“Paperwork. On a weekend.”
She sighed, “I had to know if he was really dead.”
“Who told you?”
“Some kid. I thought it was a joke at first.”
“Apparently, he showed up on the doorstep last night. Absolutely brutalized. Significantly worse on the right of his body, if you can believe it.”
She could believe it — Kaler was left-handed. “Rumor has it he was the one promoted to Maistru.”
“Out of all of our options?” Wells cursed, his pale face somehow losing more color. “Guess that’s it, then.”
“I’ve told you for years, I would not stay with that idiot running the town. I meant it.”
“You’d just leave without me?”
“I never said you couldn’t come, but I wasn’t sure you’d want to leave.”
She ignored the bite in his tone. “And who would take over for me in the shop?”
“Quit making that your problem. You’ve got to take care of yourself, too.”
“You can’t tell me you don’t feel at all guilty about leaving. You basically run the morgue.”
“They’ll find a replacement for me just like they can for you. Doesn’t matter how important we may or may not be. They’ll find someone.”
She chewed her tongue and narrowed her eyes. “I guess you have a dead guy to get back to.”
He pursed his lips. “We can talk about it over lunch. I’ll bring home dumplings.”
Abryn waited until the exam room door clicked behind him before leaving. She turned sharply out of the front door, heading straight for the Central.
Ridgate’s Central was a single-story, H-shaped building with the only two public entries in the east and west courtyards. The eastern courtyard was a clean space — or relatively so — boasting smoothly paved, light gray limestone and scattered with reasonably soft benches. The west-facing, however, was filled with dark gravel and surrounded by tinted windows. One for Endlife celebrations; the other for punishments and executions.
Abryn refused to use either entry. Instead, she marched to a door leading to the laundry room. The higher-ranked officers barely flinched as she entered from the side door, but the startled newbies inside fumbled to tell her she was in a restricted area. An officer posted outside told them to stand down, and she passed by, entering in the lobby that bridged the two wings. The room was a little crowded, but Kaler was tall, and his bright auburn hair was impossible to miss. She exchanged salutes with a few officers as she weaved over to him.
There was something off about him. He was never disheveled. Not like this. They were subtle keys. He stood a distance from their friends. His brown eyes were restless; his arms crossed in front of his vest, almost covering his new insignia — red with five silver bars. There was a stiff edge to his movements. His jaw was clenched. She wished she found satisfaction in his anxiety, but instead, it was more unsettling.
Failing to hide a deep breath, he put on a smile when he saw her, “I told him you wouldn’t be long.”
“What is going on?”
“Not in the mood to make new friends?”
“I never seem to like your friends.”
“Oh, you’ll like this one. He’s fun. Of course, if you don’t like him, you better be a convincing liar,” he said, maintaining his typical playful tone. “Either way, I’ve really talked you up to some important people. You could at least thank your Maistru, Bryn.”
She held her blank expression.
He waited for a moment before brushing his unnaturally unruly hair away from his face. “You can quit reading into this summon. The Highborns have some engineering needs that you’re going to help them with. Ignore me, fine, but you’re too smart to decline their request.” He gestured to the Maistru’s office. His office now. “You’ve kept him long enough. You remember your common etiquette, right?”
Abryn didn’t give him the satisfaction of a withering glare. Anticipation tied a knot in her stomach as she approached the imposing oak doors. She fixed her hair as best she could. Her fingers twitched softly at her side, but she cocked an eyebrow and straightened her posture. It was difficult to block out the whispers echoing in the entrance hall. The two officers posted as guards pulled the double doors open toward her.
The office was a tall, wide room, well lit by massive windows that peered out into each court. There were about a dozen people inside, and every eye turned as oak scuffed the floor and the latch clicked into place. A sharp man with long, heavy hair leaned against the desk. Abryn’s eyes rested on the thin arrows drawn on his neck — tattoos that marked him as a member of the Cutov family.
He rocked to his feet and dismissed the officers — all women, she realized — back to their other duties. Abryn saluted him with a fist over her heart, displaying the tattoo on her hand that marked her as a dryfter.
Maybe I should have bowed.
His expression hadn’t changed from the confident smirk he’d worn when she’d entered. He had an almost aggressive bounce to his step. To her relief, he held out his hand, palm down, in an informal greeting. She returned the gesture, resting her hand on his. Without warning, he pressed his lips to her knuckles.
Abryn fought hard against the urge to jerk away, blushing. “Oh, so you’re a kisser,” she said to underplay her surprise.
It was a risky first impression, but her instinct was right. His grin widened. He straightened up and placed his palm on the top of her hand. He glanced behind him to the only person left in the room — the woman from the station. “As I told you,” she said with a gentle laugh.
“I’d been warned about your quick wit — several people, actually,” he laughed. “I knew I’d like you.”
She faked a smile and took a moment to look him over. His hand marked him as a dryfter. He and Abryn were the same type: terresuca. He stood a few inches taller than she was but had more of a swimmer’s build like Wells. His maroon Highborn’s cloak draped all the way to his knees and his bare chest underneath bore several more delicate tattoos. He had olive skin and dark brown hair, straight and long down his back. There were a number of small, haphazard braids pulling unruly hairs away from his face. He had sharp features but chose to wear short facial hair that gave him a somewhat casual look.
“I’m Kerrix,” he said. “And you’re Abryn the engineer, right?”
“Yes, sir,” she replied, “but ‘mechanic’ is a more accurate description, Lord Cutov.”
“Don’t do that,” he waved his hands dismissively. “Titles are stupid. Just Kerrix. No ‘lord’ or ‘sir’ or anything. Anyway, I hear you’re the best in Ridge Gate.”
“Be useful or be forgotten.”
He flashed another crooked grin. “I like that attitude. We share a similar mindset. Let me get straight to the point, we need your help with our train — my travelling party and me. We’ve been having engine troubles on and off since we left the Coast, and I’m afraid we’re on an incredibly tight schedule. We’ve put off fixing it as long as we could.”
She nodded, “Of course. I can help with whatever you need.”
“Perfect. That’s what I want to hear. If that’s the case, I also need your recommendation.”
“We also need some medical assistance. The best all-around in town.”
Abryn tried not to react. “Oh, I’m sure Kaler had — er, the Maistru, I mean — can give you a good recommendation. I’m sure he has access to all the stats or records.”
The Highborn raised an eyebrow. “Interestingly, he deferred the question to you.”
“Oh. Of course. Well, my sister is a fairly talented medic. Last I heard, she held the widest variety of certifications in town.”
“What’s the best way to find her?”
“Any of the first-tier officers have clearance to find her,” Abryn gestured toward the lobby. “I passed six of them when I came in.”
“Deal,” he glanced at the young woman and nodded for her to leave. She smiled and floated by to find an escort. “We should go look at the train while Mabyth takes care of that.”
Abryn agreed and let him guide her out into the lobby. The Militia officers scrambled to salute, leaving only the echo of footsteps as Abryn and the Highborn left. Kaler held the door to the western courtyard open. She refused to look at him, but his eyes followed her out.
The dark gravel crunched beneath them as the door swung shut. “I hate that,” the Highborn — what’s his name? — shook his head. “I’ve asked them to quit that since I got here, but it’s pummeled into their instincts.”
“It’s been a while since we’ve had a Highborn in Ridgate, Lord Cutov.”
“Just Kerrix, please.”
Kerrix. Kerrix, Kerrix, Kerrix. “Oh, of course. It’s hard to, well, un-pummel an instinct,” she lied, keeping an eye out for the next tram as they bounded across the pavement. Don’t forget his name again.
“Seems that way,” he laughed, gazing around the plaza. Pods of officers were already beginning to form near the shops and restaurants. “Where’s the best place to eat in Ridge Gate?”
Abryn scanned the different cafes and pointed him to one of the larger buildings known for its variety of high-protein dishes and cheap drinks after hours.
“Best in all of Ridge Gate?”
“I mean, in terms of Downtown, yes. My friends and I go every couple of weeks. It’s very popular among the officers.”
“What about outside of Downtown?” They were already halfway across the plaza, and he wasn’t slowing down.
“The dryftless have smaller shops and restaurants, but none of them are this nice.”
“How about you walk me past the best one between here and West Station?”
“I’m sure the tram will be here soon if you’d rather wait on that.”
He shook his head. “You can’t see much from the tram. Let’s go see some restaurants on our way.”
The farther they strayed from Downtown, the more nervous she felt. The dryftless didn’t care too much for regulations; worse than that, the officers in Ridgate were the most lenient in the area. Since Abryn could remember, the little town had been a closed circuit of Academy graduates. There was a constant flow of new sergeants coming in, gaining some experience, then relocating somewhere nicer. So much time was spent on ‘training,’ the actual responsibilities were pretty regularly ignored.
Most neglected of all were the dryftless neighborhoods. The straight, neat lines of Downtown housing were immediately abandoned as the cobblestone paving ended. It was common to run across home-crafted sheds and stands. Many of the artisans made additional money after work selling hand-crafted furniture or pottery or clothing or tools. Animal pins filled whatever space the owner deemed necessary, often running out into the streets and connecting to a second home that advertised fresh meat. The houses themselves were slathered with thick paint and graffiti.
Kerrix didn’t seem to mind, though. He discussed the issues he and his travelling party had been experiencing like nothing was extraordinary around them. Occasionally, he’d want to go down a narrower alleyway to see what was on the other side only to continue explaining different scenarios where their engine would die or they would lose power to the cabins. Apparently, the whole train shut down a little ways out of West Station, and he and his party had been forced to push the train in. He’d stopped at a few stores to make small purchases as they went, joking with the shopkeepers as if he didn’t realize how ridiculously out of place he looked.
It took nearly an hour to get to West Station along their meandering path, but he wasn’t unpleasant company. Despite the easygoing nature Kerrix projected, the stress of him seeing the dingy Station was relentless. Abryn held her breath as he led her to the east-bound shop where the Highborn train was docked. She only had an instance to be upset with the mess before she was captivated by the most gorgeous train she’d ever seen.
Four sleek, black-and-maroon, luxury carts held together with bright silver frames and polished connections. It looked like a sleeping carriage and a dining car between two engines facing opposite directions. The windows — even the dark, reflective glass of the sleeping cart — were clearer than any glass in all of Ridgate. Kerrix went to the sleeper to drop off his purchases from the market, and Abryn stepped right onto one of the engines. The assembly was sleek and minimal with streamlined access to controls and common maintenance areas. This beauty was probably maintained by some of the best engineers the Coast had to offer. Real engineers. She’d get it running to their standards. She had to see how fast it could move.
Abryn was shoulder-deep in one of the ports when Kerrix stepped onto the cart behind her. “That was one of the most unique places I’ve seen anywhere on the island. Do you live in that part of town?”
“No, I live in the dryfter neighborhoods, Downtown.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. Of course.”
“Doesn’t hurt my pride,” one of the belts in the back felt kind of funny. “It’s a really vibrant community.”
“Yeah,” she said nudging past him to get a look under the vehicle, “it’s kind of a hidden gem. We don’t really get tourists.”
“Should you get more tourists?”
She slid underneath the front end, “I mean, sure.”
“That wasn’t convincing.”
“You want an honest answer?” she chipped at some corrosion buildup on one of the terminals. “No, not really. There’s not much to do here other than drink or bury somebody.”
“I’m sure there’s more than that.”
“Eh, everything here is pretty mediocre.”
“Then why stay?”
She shrugged, forgetting he couldn’t see her shoulders, “This is where I’m needed.”
“I’m sure other places could need your particular skills.”
The conversation with Wells flashed through her mind. “Maybe so.”
“Sounds like there’s a ‘but’ coming.”
“But,” she smirked, “I’m not sure what this place would do without me.” She pulled on a slipped belt, and it crumbled in her palm. The mechanism wasn’t at all maintained to the standard she’d expected. She tried to snuff her disappointment. She slid out from underneath and stepped past where he sat on the shop floor. He didn’t seem concerned with the mess.
He must’ve noticed her frustration as she scurried around the shop trying to find parts in the mess. “I think I might go see if Mabyth found your sister — let you concentrate a bit. I feel like I’m in the way.”
She blushed, “I apologize if I was rude…”
“Not at all!” He rolled to his feet. “I’m just supposed to be watching her, anyway. Making sure she’s safe, and all that.”
Abryn nodded, gave him directions to the hospital, and crawled back under the hood as he left. She wanted to know what he’d do if he found her sister, but it didn’t feel like her place to ask. She could only hope he didn’t bring Reislyn back here with him.