Dreamless City Writing Excerpt – Thief’s Wick

I’m still in the process of rough drafts, rewrites, and editing, but I had some people ask for more details about Nissa. I struggled with describing her, then realized that showing is better than telling. Here’s an excerpt from The Dreamless City, my steampunk urban fantasy novel.

This is my work-in-progress, so constructive feedback is greatly appreciated!

This takes place right at the beginning of the book. It is one of the events that sets Nissa down the path of no return.

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Nissa Rhodes did not like the look of the two lads hovering in the Golden Gadfly’s stable yard. Crouched in the shadows across the street, knees tucked under her chin, she was waiting for the stable hands to turn in for the night. The Gadfly’s hayloft was snug and dry, and Nissa occasionally weathered bad nights among the scratchy bales. It shared a wall with the Hobbled Hackney, a seedy taproom, and made climbing into the hayloft easy.

The two lads wore woolen greatcoats and cavalry boots cobbled to fit like expensive gloves. Their clothes were custom-tailored and without a tear or patch, marking the lads as Youngbloods, probably down from Hightown district. Nissa wondered what business they had in the Cobblecourt. As the pair approached the stables, the shorter lad looked up and down the street too many times. It was a novice’s mistake, not something an experienced sneak like Nissa would do.

The chill wind gusted, billowing out the taller lad’s greatcoat and exposing the thief’s wick at his belt. It was shaped like a small lantern, but only as tall as her hand. It kept a small flame burning within it, most of the light shielded around the bottom and sides. The fire could not burn without air though, so there were vents in the top of it. The vents gave off a distinctive star-shaped pattern when there was a fire within it.

Nissa’s brown eyes narrowed in suspicion. Trouble is often found at the end of a thief’s wick, citizens of the Cobblecourt were fond of saying.

With a final glance around the yard, the two lads disappeared into the darkness of the stable. Nissa eased her weight from one leg to the other, warding off muscle cramps, and waited.

In the distance she heard the South Foundry whistle blow, signaling the end of the swing shift. She imagined men in coveralls wiping the sweat from their brows, faces reddened from the molten metals they worked. They would be leaving, heading home to families already abed, or nipping into an alehouse for a quick pint. She wondered if any of them would pass this way.

She heard a horse scream, a furious sound that made the hair on her arms prickle. The scream was followed by a heavy slam of something against wooden panels. Possibly something man-sized, Nissa mused. The ruckus was followed by loud voices, then a hush.

The two Youngbloods emerged from the stables, the tall lad smoothing the lapels of his greatcoat. The shorter lad was holding his abdomen and shuffling gingerly. Walking away with head high as if he owned the district, the tall lad led the way, heading towards Brighthurst Street and likely transport to Hightown. Nissa peered at the suspicious pair as they strode into the gloom, but she could not determine if they still had the thief’s wick. They turned the corner and were gone.

Ever vigilant, Nissa waited another quarter bell, the chill wind ruffling her ragged, blond hair and creeping through the ripped coat seams. Her fingertips were tinged a pale blue. She smelled grilled meats from the kitchen of the Hobbled Hackney, and her stomach grumbled in wistful hunger. She tried to block out thoughts of tender morsels dripping savory juices down her fingers and chin. She had not eaten meat in a fortnight, ever since her last job had gone sideways on her.

Damn Oscar Darrow to the starless skies. She would not be waiting to
sneak into a hayloft if not for his highhanded ways. She had been cut out of the Cobblecourt’s grey trade by the Grey Rogue himself.

Overlaying the smell of cooked meats was another smell, dangerous in crowded Rivenloss districts such as the Cobblecourt where houses six stories high leaned wall to wall, sometimes arching over streets and casting them into permanent darkness. The smell ebbed, then came back to Nissa stronger on the next breeze. It was the smell of a building fire.

“What mucking bad luck,” Nissa whispered to herself.

She heard the horses in the stable shifting restlessly. Looking about in the dim coglight, she spied a small stream of smoke escaping from the hayloft window.

Nissa knew she should leave now. If she stayed, there would be trouble, which she could ill-afford to find her. Besides, she needed to find another bolthole to weather out the chilly night.

One of the stabled horses began a frantic neighing. Its calls were answered with silence. No one from the taproom bothered to investigate. Probably too deep in their cups, Nissa thought. The stable lads were long abed. She should leave, but as she listened to the horses’ escalating sounds of alarm, she knew she could not leave them to die.

Again, this is my work-in-progress, so constructive feedback is greatly appreciated. Thanks!