Boots hummed softly to herself as she reflected on the night’s adventure. The tip was a bust—she didn’t much care about the territorial squabbles between the Riftkeepers’ Guild and the College of Inventors—but it had been more than a week since her last break in, and skulking around the Guild’s dark hallways with a crossbow was still her favourite way to spend an evening.
Her bliss turned to trepidation when she rounded the corner saw the crowd gathered in front of Thom’s workshop—or the lot where her father’s workshop should have been. The two-story building had been replaced with a sickly orange glow and the acrid smell of smoke hung in the air..
Terror washed over her as she forced her way through the murmuring clutch of spectators. Then her stomach dropped through the floor. Her home had been reduced to a smoldering pile of cinders. Boots rushed into the smoke without a moment’s hesitation, sifting through ash and scorched timbers to search for the man who had taken her in when she was a child.
She found him curled up beneath the remnants of his workbench. Thom was almost unrecognizable. His hair was gone, and his crisp skin was black and blistered, but there was no mistaking the broken goggles resting on his forehead.
Boots tossed the broken wood aside and fell to her knees, lifting Thom and cradling him in her arms. She felt numb. His body hardly seemed real, as if she was watching someone else carry his weight.
A glimmer of light caught her eye. Boots looked closer and found an old silver watch clasped in Thom’s right hand. It seemed to be the only thing that survived the blaze. Not a single wall was left standing, and the tools and clocks that once adorned them had plainly gone up in flames. The watch was still ticking, so she pocketed it and set Thom gently back to the floor.
Boots stood and breathed more smoke into her lungs. Her skin tingled. She had to do something to outrun the reality she was trying to avoid.
That’s when Boots started plotting her revenge. Her “plot” was little more than a half-formed idea, but Thom had been meticulous and had lectured Boots more than once about leaving her candles unattended. The fire hadn’t started itself, and someone needed to pay for what they’d done. She choked her tears and took one last look at the charred corpse resting at her feet. Then she grabbed her crossbow and burst through the chattering onlookers in search of a target.
Boots was halfway back to the Riftkeepers’ Guild when she doubled over in the middle of the street, clutching at the cramp in her side. She vomited in an alley, then collapsed against a doorway, her gasping breaths mingled with sobs as grief and guilt ripped through her body. The Riftkeepers had told her to stay away. They had killed Thom because she ignored them. She kept replaying the night in her head, and it was the only explanation that made sense. As usual, she had gone where she wasn’t invited, and Thom had paid for her curiosity.
That was the part that hurt the most. Thom had tried to keep her out of trouble, and she had ignored him, too. She had let him down. She kicked the stones and screamed in frustration until her voice gave out and she was left huddled, whimpering, and hoarse on the stoop.
Dawn was breaking when Boots woke. She didn’t know how long she had been there. She didn’t even remember falling asleep. Her head was swimming, and her body ached. Her stomach felt ill and empty. She was itching for blood, yet she barely had the energy to stand. Boots groggily pulled herself to her feet, resigning herself to the knowledge that revenge would have to wait.
In any case, last night’s recklessness seemed rather ill-advised in the cold, harsh reality of day. Boots was going to kill someone, that much was certain, but her initial strategy was inelegant. Thom had taught her to appreciate craftsmanship. In a well-made watch, every cog needed to work towards a single, unified purpose. Overlook any detail—no matter how small—and the entire mechanism would fall apart.
Feeling a weight in her palm, Boots looked down at the silver watch in her hand. She didn’t remember getting it out of her pocket. She stared at it for a long while, her only link back to Thom now. She’d known him better than anyone, and had used her considerable ingenuity to come up with new ways to torment him, yet her pranks seldom elicited more than a grumpy, beleaguered sigh. Today, the memory was bittersweet. Thom could be stern, but he was the only person who had ever cared for her and his support for her had never wavered, no matter what kind of trouble she got into.
He also hated violence, and would absolutely not have approved of her present scheme. He would have told her to move on, and do something more productive with her time. But Boots had seldom heeded his advice before, and she saw no reason to do so now. Someone needed to answer for his death. If she was going to go to war, Boots felt like she should do it in a way he could appreciate. Like his clocks, her revenge should be exquisite.
That kind of plan took cunning, which Boots had in abundance. It also required patience, which would be much trickier to come by. In the meantime, she needed information. Boots tucked the watch away, dusted herself off, then turned her back on the Riftkeepers’ Guild and headed towards the Truthbrokers on the opposite end of town.
The Truthbrokers Guild Hall was just opening its doors when she arrived. Though the sun was high in the sky, the windowless interior was as black as night, lit only by a few small torches set in sconces against the wall. Boots marched straight for the counter, where a hooded figure waited behind a metal grate.
She slid two gold Zeniths across the marble. “Just give me a name.”
The Truthbroker spoke with a strange, artificial rasp to mask their identity. Members of the guild never revealed themselves to the public.
“The butcher will prepare your feast and show you the cuts you need to make.”
Boots scowled. That was the trouble with the Truthbrokers. They rarely gave you a straight answer. But their information was good, as long as you were smart enough to decipher it. She slid two more Zeniths across the counter.
“A name,” she repeated.
“Gristle is tough, but it holds the meat together and is beneficial for your health.”
Boots wheeled her hand back and spiked two more Zeniths with as much fury as she could muster. They bounced off the counter and ricocheted through the metal.
“Wide roots yields better fruit. A sturdy tree has strength buried in the dirt. ”
Boots jammed a hand into her pocket, and swore profusely when she found only a single silver coin. The half-zenith would not be enough to find out what she needed to know. She turned and stormed out the door.
The street was crowded with people going about their business when she emerged. Boots bumped into as many people as she could while moving through the crowd. She was halfway across the city before realizing where she was headed.
Before long, she was in the market, where dozens of vendors had set up stalls to feed the city. She used the half-zenith to buy a loaf of bread and a bit of cheese, then stealthily climbed onto the roof of the fruit stand opposite the butcher. She decided to wait as long as necessary. She didn’t know what she would find here, but the six Zeniths had been spent, and that was all she had to work with at the moment.
Boots couldn’t even taste the bread, but it helped fill the void in her stomach. She ate half, then tucked the remainder into her pocket, watching as hundreds of ordinary people went about their business.
It was late afternoon when she awoke with a sunburn. Yet again, Boots couldn’t remember falling asleep, and it was making her feel less and less like herself. Her nerves itched and her skin was on fire, and she desperately wanted the hollow feeling to go away. She’d do anything to make it go away.
Thom’s charred face popped into her mind. The grief slammed into her, and she felt herself flailing as she tried to push it away. She eventually managed to suppress the image, though the effort left her reeling and lightheaded. She stared down at the butcher’s stall, hoping to see something that would make her forget her sadness.
The crowd had thinned, and the butcher was starting to clean her shop before closing up for the day. The only customer was a weathered, middle-aged man waiting as the butcher’s son prepared a rather large order of beef. When Boots looked up the street, she saw a man in a distinct purple robe strolling along the thoroughfare.
Every muscle in her body tensed. Time itself slowed down. She took out her crossbow, loaded a quarrel, and trained it on the Riftkeeper, clutching the weapon with such force that she thought the stock would splinter in her hands.
The Riftkeeper stopped at the stall next to the butcher, which sold ointments, balms, and other herbal remedies. He grabbed something from one of the bins. When he went to pay, his purple sleeve fell away, revealing his right hand and arm covered in shiny burns.
Her finger hovered above the trigger of the crossbow, but something stayed her hand. One squeeze, and that would be the end of it. The man would die, and she would have her revenge. But his death would be simple, and Boots had sworn herself to something more elaborate. There was no creativity here. This would be cold and meaningless, a brutal act that would only make her life more difficult as the Riftkeepers searched for the culprit.
Still, there were lots of other Riftkeepers. She could kill one now and come back for the rest of them later after she came up with something better. The thought made her smile. Steadying her weapon, she was about to pull the trigger when the Riftkeeper turned and met her gaze. He seemed unconcerned about the crossbow, and instead he offered her a condescending wave.
“Lower the crossbow,” said someone to her left. Boots was so startled that she dropped her weapon and fell over backwards, landing on her rear. In her exhaustion, she had failed to notice the four Riftkeepers sneaking across the rooftops. They were already forming purple rifts in the air around her.
“Good,” said the same man. His voice was gruff and smug, and Boots was trying to figure out the best way to jam an arrow through his throat. “Now come with us. We knew we’d find you here. It won’t be too much trouble to find you again.”
Boots glanced back to the street. The man in the butcher shop had finished his purchase, and was watching the confrontation with some interest, though in that regard he was hardly alone. Traffic up and down the street had halted to watch the scene unfold.
Meanwhile, Boots searched for an escape. She seldom had trouble with that part of a caper. Even after Thom had taken her in, she had spent much of her life roaming the streets, and knew Sparkstone’s secrets as well as anyone. The city was filled with passageways and hidey-holes that came in handy whenever she got into trouble. There were sure to be a few nearby, maybe one she had used before. And yet, her mind was strangely blank. She got caught. Some part of her brain told her that it would be easier to accept it.
For want of a better idea, Boots idly slid her hand towards her crossbow at her feet. She didn’t know what she planned to do once she had it, but figured it was better to be armed.
“Come on,” said the Riftkeeper. “I’m standing right here. You and I both know you’ve never been subtle or clever.”
Her blood flared so hot that she half expected the Riftkeepers to melt from the intensity. She focused her attention on the people surrounding her, burning each face into her memory. She hated every single one of them.
But her fury wasn’t enough to break her apathy, and guilt weighed on her and stayed her hand. Thom was dead. Whatever awaited her was no less than she deserved.
The man to her left nodded to one of the other Riftkeepers. Behind her, she could hear someone unfolding a set of manacles as they approached. Boots tried to protest, but could only muster grief and rage. She again turned her eyes to the street, unable to stomach the thought of looking at her captors. Despite her shame, she loved tormenting the Riftkeepers. It galled her to think they’d win this way.
Maybe that’s why she noticed when the man in the butcher shop set down his parcel. It seemed odd, the way he jerked his thumb towards an alley to his left, and even odder when he winked. Then he placed his hand on a barrel of pig knuckles and stood expectantly, as if waiting for her to do something.
The puzzle helped her clear her mind. She scanned the area again, and suddenly remembered a tunnel beneath a loose floorboard in an abandoned building two blocks away. Why hadn’t she thought of it before? Thom often fretted about her knack for mischief, but he also loved a challenge. He was the one who told her not to quit until she had exhausted every possible solution. He never would have forgiven her if she gave up now.
She shifted her weight to her feet and coiled like a spring. Then she burst forward just as the Riftkeeper was reaching for her hand. Grabbing her crossbow in stride, Boots leaped off the low roof. A piece of heavy canvas broke her fall. She rolled off the awning, then bounded to her feet and sprinted toward a nearby alley to get out of sight.
Behind her, something heavy tumbled to the ground. The Riftkeeper with the burned arms swore as the man at the butcher stand apologized profusely. Unless she was very mistaken, someone had just tripped over a toppled barrel of pig knuckles.
Boots, however, knew better than to look back, especially as the other Riftkeepers shouted and joined the search. She dipped to her right, then scrambled through an open window. She saw a flash of purple light in the alley she had just abandoned, and knew she had narrowly avoided the Riftkeepers jumping to get ahead of her.
She bolted through the empty house, then slipped across the road to her destination, shouldering the door aside and closing it as softly as she could. Running down to the basement, she lifted the rotting floorboards and crawled into the low dirt tunnel before pulling the boards back over the hole to cover her escape.
It was dark down here, but she had used this tunnel once before, when she had been hiding from a Professor whose pocket she had picked when she was twelve. Back then, her mischief had been haphazard. It was only later she decided harrying the Riftkeepers was more fun.
She now regretted that more than she ever thought possible, but she knew the tunnel still led to an irrigation ditch behind an inn at the outskirts of the city. Unlike most of the tunnels in Sparkstone, this one stayed close to the surface and seemed like it had been dug relatively recently, although Boots didn’t really care about those particular details.
She used the walls for guidance as she inched her way towards a small speck of light in the distance. It grew larger as she got closer, until she reached the exit some time later. When she emerged, the man from the butcher store was waiting with an apple. His package was nowhere to be seen.
“Tunnel’s handy in a pinch, but you can’t move very fast down there. It’s quicker to take the street, if you don’t mind being seen.”
Boots scrambled to her feet and brushed off her pants. The man was weathered, with long, shaggy hair and a beard like a thornbush, but he seemed warmer than Boots would have expected. Somehow, she knew she shouldn’t be surprised to see him here.
“How did you know where to find me?” she asked.
The man shrugged. “I dug this tunnel,” he said. “Ten years ago, in fact. In all that time, you’re the only person who ever found it.”
“You dug it? What the hell for?”
“That was the job,” the man said, handing her an apple. Boots realized she was standing in the middle of an orchard. The Truthbroker’s final prophecy played at the edges of her mind. “Come with me. It’s more comfortable inside.”
Boots stayed rooted to the spot. The man had saved her, but she wasn’t in the habit of trusting strangers. He turned back when he realized that Boots haven’t moved.
“You think charity is free?” he asked. “I did you a favor. The least you can do is enjoy my hospitality.”
Boots hesitated, then followed the man up to the inviting inn at the top of the hill. She was wary, but her curiosity was once again getting the best of her.
He led her through the back door and into a warm tavern filled with laughing patrons. Behind the bar, a woman was pulling drinks in a leather work vest with her greying hair tied back in a bun. The man guided her to an empty table in a dark corner of the room, then walked back to the bar. He nodded to the woman, who poured two drinks and slid them over. The man took them without paying.
“I’m sorry about Thom,” he said when he returned. “Never heard anyone with a bad word to say about him.”
He set one of the pints in front of Boots. She was too weary to know whether it was any good, but she drank it anyway. The other patrons seemed to be enjoying it.
“Thank you,” Boots said. “But you’ll forgive me if it doesn’t mean much. I don’t need empty words from people I don’t know.”
“They call me Gristle,” he said with a chuckle, and once again Boots was left pondering the words she’d heard in a dark hall that morning. Was this the man that held everything together? Boots tried to keep a calm demeanor, but she knew she was probably squirming in her seat.
“I’m Boots,” she said at last.
“I know,” Gristle replied. “We’ve had our eye on you for a while.”
A ripple of trepidation ran down her spine. Who were these people, and why did they know so much about her? She made a note of the exit, but opted to stay put for the moment.
“Well, Gristle,” she said as casually as she could, “what is it you do here, anyway?”
“I work for a very powerful woman,” he said, taking a swig. “So I do anything she asks of me.”
The were distracted when a rowdy patron spilled their drink near the hearth at the opposite end of the room. The bartender ran over with a rag and a mop to clean it up.
“She likes me because I keep my nose clean, and don’t ask too many questions. If I were you, I’d take that to heart,” Gristle continued.
Boots scoffed. “Old man, I need your advice even less than your condolences.”
Gristle leaned across the table. His breath smelled of apples and stale beer. When he spoke, he spoke in a whisper. “It’s that attitude that got Thom killed.”
Boots recoiled, but her shame checked her anger.
Gristle continued. “You’ve caused us quite a bit of trouble, Boots. You’re good, but you’re foolish, and you’ve still got a lot to learn.”
He leaned back and finished the last of his beer in one long pull.
“But you’re grieving, so now is not the time,” he said, resuming his normal speaking voice. “You’re welcome to stay here for the night. No charge. There’s an empty room on the top floor at the end of the hall. Let the bartender know if you want a drink. We’re friends, so anything you want is on the house.”
With that, Gristle stood and headed for the door, nodding to the bartender as he passed. Boots was left alone with her pint and her thoughts. She finished her drink, then signaled for another, hoping the booze would take her mind off Thom.
When she woke, Boots was tucked into a clean, comfortable bed in a room she didn’t recognize. Save for her shoes, she was still fully dressed, while her crossbow and her watch sat on a small table to her left. Her head was pounding. She remembered drinking ale, but she didn’t remember when she had stopped. Based on the light pouring through the window, she estimated it was still early in the morning.
She put on her shoes and grabbed her things, then made her way to the door. It led to a landing that was plainly part of an inn, with several more rooms on either side. There was a staircase at the end of the hall. She followed it down to the tavern where she had been drinking the night before. The room was empty, save for last night’s bartender, who was currently sweeping under the tables.
“Good morning,” the woman said, stopping and leaning on her broom. “I apologize for any confusion. You passed out, so I had Gristle carry you upstairs. A bed seemed better than a table, especially after everything you’ve been through.”
“Thanks,” Boots said. Yet again, she wasn’t really sure what else to say.
“Do you want breakfast? The bread is baking, but there are always apples lying around.”
“I’m fine,” Boots said. “Thanks for the room, but I should really be on my way.”
“Nonsense,” the woman said, setting her broom against the wall. “You should at least stay until you’ve worked off the hangover. Come with me. There’s something I want to show you.”
Boots rapidly assessed the risk, then followed the woman behind the bar, heading for a room that looked to be some kind of office. When she got there, the woman was standing at her desk scribbling a quick note. She set down her quill when Boots rapped on the door. Behind her, there was a black bird in a cage with the strangest mechanism Boots had ever seen.
“Sit down, Boots,” the woman said, indicating a chair opposite the desk in front of her.
Yet again, Boots hesitated. Gristle was one thing, but the bartender was another. She was beginning to feel like she was at a constant disadvantage, like she was trying to put together a puzzle that was missing a few pieces. Her instincts told her to run, but her head pounded, the woman seemed nice, and Boots didn’t know if she had the energy.
Instead, she sat in the wooden armchair opposite the woman.
“My condolences for your loss,” the woman said. “Thom was a remarkable man. I’ve had his clocks on my walls for years. Even commissioned him to build my birdcage.”
Boots again glanced at the unusual contraption. It certainly looked like one of her father’s designs, although she had no idea why he would have put so much effort into a birdcage, even if there was something eerie about the bird sitting in it. The woman sounded sincere, but Boots was wondering why this woman knew so much about her family.
“Thanks,” Boots said, though she was getting tired of saying it. “It’s still a little fresh.”
“Of course. If you need any help with funeral expenses, I’d be happy to offer some assistance.” Boots barely had time to register the offer before the woman continued. “But forgive me. My name is Hamara Groveguard, and I’m the owner of this inn.”
“Good for you,” Boots said, more flippantly than was polite. She was seldom very interested in what other people had to say, and her mind was already wandering back to the Riftkeepers.
If she was insulted, Hamara didn’t show it. She simply slid her note across the desk. “This is for you,” she said, though she pulled it back when Boots reached for it.
Boots scowled. This was not the sort of game she typically enjoyed. “If that’s for me, you might as well hand it over.”
“Not yet,” Hamara said. “Information is valuable. You’re the only soul on this mountain who would care what’s written on this paper, but this is something you’d kill for, and I don’t give things away for free.”
“If that’s the case, then maybe I’ll just kill you,” Boots said. It was not an entirely idle threat, but she mostly wanted to see how Hamara would respond. Sometimes people gave her things if she made them uncomfortable.
“You’re welcome to try,” Hamara said. “At least it’d liven up my morning.” She seemed wholly unconcerned about the possibility of her murder. The events of the previous evening suddenly clicked into place.
“You’re Gristle’s employer,” Boots said.
“He said you were powerful.”
“I am,” Hamara said again.
“You don’t seem like much to me,” she said. Hamara offered no reaction. Boots shot her hand out, but the paper was gone by the time her fingers reached the desk. Hamara moved surprisingly fast for an older woman.
“All right then,” Boots said. “What’s on that paper?”
“The names of everyone who was at Thom’s workshop two nights ago,” Hamara replied.
Boots coughed and bolted upright. “How?” she sputtered. “I couldn’t even get that from the Truthbrokers.”
For the first time, Hamara registered her disdain. “The Truthbrokers are a bunch of drama hacks using costumes to make themselves seem mysterious,” she said. “How do you think the Riftkeepers found you yesterday? You paid six Zeniths for a bunch of vague hints. At those rates, they have to sell information more than once. You want exclusivity, it gets expensive.”
Boots felt like she was drowning. Whatever this was, it went far deeper than she had ever cared to look.
“I don’t like mischief on my mountain,” Hamara said. “You’re a clever girl, but you’ve been wasting your talents on silly tricks and pointless capers. You show me you can handle this responsibly, and then we can talk about revenge.”
Hamara tucked the note into the pocket of her vest. Boots eyed it greedily.
“I want a room, I’ll ask an innkeeper,” she said, forming another half-baked plot. “If I want revenge, I’ll handle it myself—”
Boots lunged across the desk. The old woman stepped aside and caught her by the armpit, using her momentum to flip Boots head over heels and slam her onto the desk. Boots wheezed heavily as she tried to recover her breath after having it knocked out of her. A thunk sounded at her cheek, and she turned her head to see the gleaming blade of a dagger sunk into the surface of the desk.
Hamara placed a solid forearm on Boots’s throat and kept her other hand on the dagger. It all happened so fast that Boots still didn’t know where it had come from.
“I wasn’t always an innkeeper. I never have been, depending on who you ask,” Hamara said, with menace in her voice that hadn’t been there at the beginning of the conversation. “I’ll forgive you once. Try that again, and I’ll feed you to my orchard.”
She took her arm off Boots’s throat and walked towards the door, leaving both her and the dagger on the desk.
“Destruction is an art,” Hamara said, turning to face her one final time. “You need to know how the pieces fit together if you want to know which one to break. Speak to Gristle if you want to make arrangements for the funeral. After that, I have work for you if you’re interested.”
Boots waited until Hamara was gone before sitting up. Her feet dangled off the side of the desk as she rubbed her neck gingerly. It was sore, but it didn’t hurt nearly as much as her pride. She hadn’t been scolded like that since she was a child. The justice of the rebuke make it sting even more.
Boots hopped off the desk, wrenched the dagger free, and slid it into her belt. She couldn’t even beat an old woman. As much as she hated it, she was forced to admit that the Riftkeepers were more than she could handle on her own, at least for now.
She stuck her hand into her pocket, and pulled out the watch she had taken from the workshop two nights before. It was still ticking steadily, as it always did. The mechanism was intricate and perfect, a closed ecosystem where everything was in its proper place.
Sparkstone was much the same, but Hamara had just shown her that she only had a handful of the pieces. She needed to know how the city fit together. Based on their encounter, she knew Hamara could teach her to see the grand design.
Boots put the watch away and left the office. An elegant man deserved an elegant revenge. Until she was ready, she knew she would do what Hamara asked.