The car wasn’t there next morning.
I fed Hobbes, let him out, and had breakfast, glancing out of the window as I did. No black minivans. No mysterious sixteen-year-old girls, either.
Work went the same as usual, except that I passed Pamela in the corridor a couple of times, and each time it felt as though she had her eyes on me. She didn’t say or do anything, but it still left me with an uncomfortable feeling, and this time it had nothing to do with jobs or universities. It was for quite a different reason: my looks.
Most people would say my looks are the most distinctive thing about me. I have wavy jet-black hair, large brown eyes, long eyelashes, and delicate, slightly feminine features; add it to my slim build, and when I was younger, I’d regularly get asked if I was a boy or a girl. As I grew I put on some muscle, but not much bulk, and even now, at twenty, I still get seen as a pretty boy rather than as a young man.
My looks got me a fair bit of attention while I was in school. Sometimes it was the nice kind, with girls trying to dress me up or ask if I was going to be a model. Sometimes it was less nice: I had to field the “are you gay?” question a lot, which would usually lead into even less friendly questions, which would keep escalating until I did something about it. Apparently I get it from my dad: when I asked him about it, he said that when he was younger he’d looked just like me. (He also told me that, no, I couldn’t be a model, male models needed to be 5 foot 11 and I was probably going to top out at 5 foot 8, and I wasn’t missing anything anyway because modelling was a horrible job.)
It’s got its pluses and minuses. People tend to be nice to me, even when they don’t know me very well and I haven’t done anything to deserve it. On the other hand, I’ve had a few unpleasant experiences where I’ve agreed to something, only to discover much later that what I thought I was agreeing to and what the other person thought I was agreeing to were very different things. Last September, after I moved out of my aunt’s and back to Plaistow, I got a job at a bar in Hoxton. I hadn’t looked very closely at what kind of bar it was, and, with hindsight, the fact that the guy didn’t ask me for proof of age should have been a warning sign, but I had rent to pay and couldn’t afford to be picky. It was only once I started that I realised what I’d actually been hired for – my shifts mostly consisted of getting hit on by men (and the occasional woman) more than twice my age. Most were willing to take no for an answer, but a couple of nasty incidents taught me that something about my looks seemed to attract the predatory type. I got out as soon as I could.
I didn’t really think that Pamela was one of those. And nothing she’d done had been over the line. But I kept my distance all the same.
Fetching and carrying files is pretty mindless work, but there’s one thing you can say for it: it gives you a lot of time to think.
All through that Thursday, as I moved box files around the basement, I kept thinking about that girl on the bridge. Her words had hit a nerve – I’d been feeling for a while now as though I wasn’t doing enough. My dad had told me to keep practising my drucraft, but while I’d got better, I hadn’t really got stronger.
When my father disappeared, I didn’t just lose my remaining parent; I lost the only source of information about drucraft that I could trust. Without him I’d had to fall back on the internet, and as it turns out, finding out reliable information about drucraft online is really, really hard. Typing “drucraft” into a search engine takes you to pages with titles like “how to deal with friends or family members who spread conspiracy theories” and “our fact-checkers teach you how to spot misinformation”. Any drucraft-related content posted on social networks like Twitter or YouTube or Reddit gets deleted, and when you try to look up the authors, you find they’ve been banned for ‘violations of our terms of service’. Most sites won’t talk about the subject at all, and when you ask about it, you’ll get evasions or silence. It takes a lot of work to find people willing to talk, and even when you do, there’s no guarantee that anything they say will be true. Here are some of the things I’ve “learned” about drucraft over the past couple of years:
- There are lots of Wells out there, scattered all over the country. (Verdict: true.)
- Different types of Wells draw upon different branches of essentia, and different countries are much better or worse for finding Wells of particular branches. (Verdict: not sure, but sounded plausible.)
- New Wells are discovered with something called a “finder’s stone”. (Verdict: false. I’d found my Well on my own.)
- To make a sigl, you need something called a “limiter” that’s powered by human blood. (Verdict: definitely false. I’d made my two sigls on my own, no blood involved.)
It’s easy to say “get stronger”, but that’s pretty hard when you don’t have any good idea of how people get stronger. The one thing that I was sure would help was getting more powerful sigls. But how?
The obvious way was to find more Wells. I’d spent a while last autumn trying to do exactly that, and I’d actually managed to find three, but none had resulted in a sigl. The first two Wells, out towards Upton Park, had both been weaker than my one on Foxden Road, and when I’d tried to use them it hadn’t worked. It hadn’t been for nothing – those two failed shapings taught me some useful lessons – but it did seem that sigls needed a certain minimum amount of essentia, and if a Well wasn’t over that limit, you weren’t getting a sigl out of it.
The third Well was over that limit, but it was occupied. It was an old church in West Ham, and when I found it in October, someone had obviously just used it since most of its essentia had been drained already. It might have filled up since, but I was wary of getting too close. My dad had warned me that drucrafters were territorial, and you could get into a lot of trouble trespassing on a Well that wasn’t yours.
But there obviously were other Wells out there – lots, if I’d been able to find four without even leaving my neighbourhood – so I should be able to find some if I kept at it. The problem was time. I spent eight hours a day at the MoD, the better part of two hours travelling there and back, another hour or two on drucraft. And then there were the little things. Calling the agency to sort out the latest error in my payslip. Going to the bank to get a document. Prowling around the supermarket looking for special offers. Having to stay home because the landlord had told us to let someone in. Chasing down the one person in the department who’d sign my timesheet. All the tiny annoying problems that people with better jobs and better lives probably don’t have to deal with but which seemed to eat up whatever free time I had left. Hunting for Wells was a slow process and I was stretched thin already.
There was another option. One thing that I’d learned from my research was that most people with sigls didn’t make them; they bought them. And when the conversation turned to buying sigls, the same name kept coming up: the Exchange.
The Exchange is in Belgravia, a London district between Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea, and I finally managed to track the place down last year. I’d known right from the start that I wouldn’t be able to afford a sigl – my bank balance for the last few months had hovered between £500 and £1,000, which in London is a month’s living expenses at most. But even if I wasn’t going to buy anything, I liked the idea of getting a look at what was on sale. One of the problems I’d been running into more and more over the past six months had been that I wasn’t sure exactly what was and wasn’t possible. If I could see what sorts of sigls other people had been able to make, it might give me a better idea of what I could do on my own.
But it turned out that none of that mattered, because they wouldn’t even let me in. I’d tried twice, and both times I’d been stopped at the door. Apparently the kinds of people who belong in these places have a specific look, and I don’t have it. If I could make that invisibility sigl, I might be able to sneak inside . . . but I’d only be able to sneak inside if it worked . . . and to know if it would work I needed a better idea of what sigls could do . . . and to get a better idea of what sigls could do I needed to get in.
So while finding more Wells didn’t seem very realistic, the “buying sigls” plan seemed even worse. What did that leave?
I had to stay late at work, and it was past seven when I came out of Plaistow station, walked down the hill and turned off the side street leading to Foxden Road. The sun was setting in the western sky, its rays igniting the clouds in brilliant scarlet and gold. Cherry blossom lay scattered on the pavement, and the temperature was dropping fast with the coming evening, the chill cutting through my fleece and making me shiver. A crow was perched on the telephone wires, watching as I passed below.
There was a girl waiting outside my front gate.
My mind flashed instantly to last night, but as the girl turned to face me I saw that she wasn’t the same one who’d passed me on the bridge. This girl was about as old as me, with fair skin and shoulder-length ash-blonde hair. Her movements were quick and confident, and she looked me up and down in a self-assured sort of way.
“Well,” she said at last. “You’re better looking than I expected.”
“Can I help you?” I asked.
“That’s the question, isn’t it?”
I opened my mouth to ask what she was doing outside my house, when another memory from yesterday jogged loose: Gabriel talking about why that girl had been waiting outside his house on a Friday night. Well, today was a Thursday, and it was technically evening, not night, but . . .
“Do you know who I am?” the girl asked.
“Um,” I said. “No?”
“Guess,” the girl said with a smile.
“I’d rather not.”
“Oh, come on. Here, I’ll give you a hint. It’s to do with your family. Your well-connected family.”
That made me stop. Wait. Did she know something about my father?
“Who are you?” I asked.
“Lucella Ashford,” the girl said, and waited expectantly.
I looked at her. The girl – Lucella – looked back at me.
“Okay,” I said at last when it was clear that she was waiting for a reaction.
“As in, House Ashford.”
“. . . okay?”
Lucella frowned at me.
“Not ringing any bells, sorry,” I said. My brief flash of excitement was fading; it was looking as though she didn’t know anything after all. Still, I had to check. “When you said ‘your family’, did you mean someone called William Oakwood?”
Lucella looked at me as if I were an idiot. “Of course not.”
“Right,” I said, trying to hide my disappointment. I started to move around her.
“Where are you going?”
“I think you’ve got me mistaken for someone else.”
“Don’t walk away from me,” Lucella said with a frown, and sidestepped to block my path.
I stopped with an internal sigh. In London, if a stranger comes up to you on the street, it generally means one of three things. First: they’re looking for directions. Second: they want money. Third: they’re drunk, on drugs, crazy, or all of the above. Lucella obviously wasn’t lost, and she hadn’t started to spin me a story about how she had to get home and needed three pounds for the bus fare or whatever, which just left “drunk/drugged/crazy”. I didn’t really want to know exactly which of those boxes she ticked, but unfortunately she was standing between me and my front door, so it was looking like I was about to find out.
Lucella and I stared at each other. The annoyance faded from Lucella’s face, replaced by a thoughtful expression. “It’s weird how you don’t look like any of them,” she told me.
Now that we were this close, I couldn’t help but notice how pretty she was. Too bad about the on-drugs-or-crazy thing. “Excuse me,” I told her.
“You do know what I’m talking about, right?”
“Not really, no.”
Lucella stared at me for a second, then suddenly laughed. “Well, this isn’t going how I expected.”
“Look, I don’t mean to be rude,” I said, “but can you please let me through?”
“What? Oh.” Lucella stepped aside.
I walked past. Lucella was eyeing me thoughtfully, but to my relief she didn’t do anything. Now if I could just get indoors before she—
“You are a drucrafter, though, right?”
I stopped dead and turned. Lucella was standing with one hand on her hip, watching me.
“What?” I managed.
“You know, someone who can use drucraft?” Lucella asked.“A channeller, or a tyro at least? Because if not, then I really wasted my time coming here.”
I didn’t answer and an interested look came into Lucella’s eyes. “So you do know what I’m talking about.”
“What are you doing here?” I asked.
Lucella studied me for a few more seconds, then seemed to come to a decision. “You know what, why not? Let’s go inside.”
I looked at her.
Lucella raised her eyebrows. “Aren’t you going to invite me in?”
I hesitated. I didn’t know what to make of Lucella, and part of me was still wondering if this was some sort of scam. But if it was, it was the most elaborate one I’d ever seen. Lucella was only the second person I’d ever come face to face with who knew what the word “drucraft” even meant, and I really, really wanted to find out what else she knew.
And even if she was just making it all up . . . well, she was a pretty girl about my age who seemed interested in me and wanted to come to my room.
“All right,” I told her.
I pushed open the gate and walked up to the front door. Lucella made a waving gesture towards something or someone I couldn’t see, and followed.
I closed the door behind us, breathing in the warm air. Chatter and the sounds of TV came from the front bedroom, and Ignas stuck his head out. He’s a big guy with greying hair and stubble who works at the local garage and lives in the other upstairs bedroom with his wife. When he saw Lucella, his eyebrows rose.
“It’s this way,” I told Lucella, who took a long glance around then climbed the stairs. I followed her up, and looked back to see Ignas grin at me and give me a thumbs up.
Hobbes was waiting outside my room; he eyed Lucella suspiciously as we reached the landing. I unlocked the door and led Lucella in. “Well,” I said, feeling suddenly embarrassed, “here it is.”
Lucella stepped through the doorway, looked around, and stopped.
The silence stretched out. It was the first time I’d ever had a girl in this room, and all of a sudden I was uncomfortably aware of how small and dirty it was. “Well,” Lucella said at last. “This is . . . different.”
“Um . . .” I tried to think of how I could make a good impression. “Can I take your coat?”
Lucella handed me her coat – which I now noticed was lined with fur – without looking. Underneath it she was wearing a smart looking blouse and skirt, and now that I looked more closely, there were rings glinting on her fingers. Standing there in my fleece and worn trousers, I suddenly felt very underdressed.
Lucella inspected the bed dubiously. “You don’t have fleas, do you?”
“No,” I said defensively. Well, okay, there had been that one time, but I’d learned my lesson about giving Hobbes his flea treatments.
Gingerly Lucella perched on the edge of the mattress. I scooped dirty clothes off the chair and sat down.
“So this is what a slum looks like,” Lucella said, looking around curiously.
“This isn’t a slum,” I said in annoyance. “Why were you waiting outside my front door?”
Lucella leaned back on her hands, her expression becoming thoughtful. “Because I’ve got a problem,” she told me. “There are some people whose shoes I want to step into, and they aren’t stepping out of them. You understand?”
“Okay. You know what House Ashford is?”
“What do you mean, ‘no’?” Lucella said in irritation. “How can— ugh, fine. House Ashford is one of the Noble Houses of the United Kingdom. Not a Great House, but we’re still a real House, not one of those old families who just call themselves one because their great-great-grandfather was someone important or whatever. We’ve got a seat on the Board. You understand?”
“Okay,” I said slowly. I was starting to seriously wonder if this girl had a few screws loose. Maybe this was the kind of thing Felix and Gabriel meant when they’d say “the cute ones are always insane”.
“It’s still kind of weird that you don’t know anything about it,” Lucella said, crossing one leg over the other. “I mean, you are related to us.”
My thoughts came to a screeching halt. “What?”
“Well, not a real member, obviously, but still.”
“Wait,” I said. “You think I’m related to this House Ashford of yours?”
“Yes?” Lucella said, looking at me with an ‘are you stupid?’ expression.
I hesitated. A part of me still wasn’t sure whether to believe Lucella or whether to decide that she was just crazy.
But if she was crazy, how did she know what a drucrafter even was? And how had she known that I was one?
“What I don’t get,” Lucella said when I didn’t answer, “is how you don’t seem to know anything. I mean, okay, you only had one parent to teach you this stuff, but still. You didn’t even recognise your House.”
“I think you’ve got me mixed up with someone else,” I told Lucella. “My dad’s definitely not from your House Ashford.” That, I was sure about. My father’s old-fashioned East London working class, and I didn’t believe for a second that he’d raised me for nearly eighteen years while somehow hiding the fact that he was from some rich noble family.
“Not your father, your mother,” Lucella said. “I mean, I’m assuming you get it from your mother’s side?”
“Get what, my drucraft?” I said with a frown. “My dad taught me.”
“Well, that’s a bit less impressive, then.”
“Okay, back up,” I said. “You’re saying my mother’s from House Ashford? The same place you’re from?”
“That I’m a member of,” Lucella corrected. “And, yes. Did she just not mention it or something?”
“She left when I was one.”
“Yeah, but you still talk to her, right?”
Lucella laughed. “What, she just walked out on you and never called even once?”
I didn’t answer.
Lucella paused. “Wait, seriously?”
I looked away.
“Wow,” Lucella said when I still didn’t speak. “And I thought my parents were bad.”
I don’t like thinking about my mother. When I was younger I used to make up stories about her, imagining all kinds of reasons for why she might have left, and why she’d never got in touch. But as year after year went by and I heard nothing from her or from anyone else, the places those trains of thought led to became more and more depressing. When I’d ask my dad about her, he’d go quiet. He’d let slip a few things over the years, but not much. Though come to think of it, he had mentioned she’d come from a rich family.
As I got into my mid-teens the whole thing started to bug me, and I started pestering my father about it, trying to get him to tell me what had happened. I probably would have worn him down eventually, except that right about then was the time he disappeared, and all of a sudden I had much more urgent problems. My mother became just another unsolved mystery, boxed up and pushed to the back of my mind and forgotten about.
“You know, you’re not what I expected,” Lucella told me.
“What were you expecting?”
“Someone more like me, I guess,” Lucella said with a shrug. “I grew up outside the family, too, but at least my mother took me for visits. But it’s like you’ve had no contact with them at all. I don’t think half the Ashfords even know you exist.”
“Was that why you came here today?” I asked. “You thought I’d know some of these people from House Ashford?”
“Something like that,” Lucella said, swinging her legs.
“Yeah, sorry.” I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed. Despite how weird it had been, I was realising that I didn’t want this conversation to end. “Though . . .”
Lucella stared past me.
“Um . . . I know I’m not who you thought I was, but . . . it’d be really nice to have someone to talk to about drucraft and stuff.”
Lucella blinked and looked at me. “What?”
“Um . . .”
“Oh, you thought I was about to leave?” Lucella said. “No. Actually, I think I’m going to help you.”
That caught me off guard. “What?”
“I mean, you’re not who I thought you’d be, but we still might be able to help each other.” She glanced around the room meaningfully. “And I mean, you obviously need it.”
“I’m doing all right,” I said defensively.
Lucella raised her eyebrows.
“What kind of help?” I asked after a pause.
“A better place to live, some spending money, that kind of thing.” Lucella eyed me critically. “Maybe clean you up a bit.”
“Hey,” I objected.
“Plus we could actually teach you some drucraft.”
“Same way everyone learns,” Lucella said. “Tutors and drucraft schools.”
I was suddenly very alert. “There are drucraft schools?”
Lucella laughed. “That got your attention. Yes, there are drucraft schools. I mean, they’re just regular private schools mostly, but they have drucraft courses. I went to King’s London, that’s where everyone from House Ashford goes. Obviously you’re a bit old for that now, but there’s always uni. You’re not going to Canterbury or Oxbridge, but we could probably get you into Maxwell or Queen Elizabeth or something.”
My head was spinning: it was all too much to take in. I’d looked at university brochures from time to time, but never with any serious thought of getting in. But a university that taught drucraft . . . being able to study that, as much as I wanted, without having to struggle to make a living day after day . . .
It was tempting. Too tempting. I looked at Lucella in sudden suspicion. “Why are you doing this?”
“I feel sorry for you, I suppose,” Lucella said with a shrug. “But also, I might need you to do some things.”
“What kind of things?”
“House Ashford has some . . . issues,” Lucella said. “Questions of succession, let’s say. Point is, we might be having some problems soon, and when we do, it’d be useful to have someone connected to the House who isn’t in the House. Someone I can rely on. You understand?”
I looked at Lucella. Her voice was casual, but the way she was watching me wasn’t. “Would this involve doing anything illegal?”
“Does that bother you?” Lucella asked.
“Depends on what it is,” I said slowly. I was starting to wonder what I was getting myself into here.
“You want to be free, don’t follow the rules,” Lucella said lightly. “There are things out there more powerful than House Ashford.”
Something about those last words made me look up sharply. Lucella wasn’t looking at me, but just for a moment I had the sense of being watched.
The feeling was gone in an instant, but it left a sense of unease. I rose and turned to the window: outside, the sky was darkening. A crow was perched in the cherry tree, looking in at me through the glass with beady black eyes. I drew the curtain and turned back to Lucella.
The moment’s pause had let me gather my thoughts. A little voice was telling me to say yes, that this was my big chance. Against that was caution. I didn’t know what I was agreeing to, but something was telling me that it might be something I couldn’t easily back out of.
But if I put all of that aside, the cold truth was that Lucella was right: I did need the help. At the moment I was just about keeping my head above water, but I had few savings and precious little safety margin, and it really wouldn’t take much for things to go wrong. An accident, an unexpected bill, some mistake at work that cost me my job . . . any of those things could push me into debt, and once you get into that spiral, it’s hard to get out.
“So?” Lucella said. “What do you say?”
“I guess we can give it a try,” I said.
It sounded a bit half-hearted to me, but Lucella gave a satisfied sort of nod. “All right!” she said, clapping her hands. “Let’s see what you can do.”
“Do with what?”
“Drucraft, of course.”
“Why does that matter?”
Lucella shook her head. “I keep forgetting how new you are to all this. Okay, pay attention.” She held up a finger. “The biggest thing that children of Noble Houses are judged on is their drucraft. Looks count, brains count, but if a family head’s sizing someone up, like for a marriage proposal or something, then the first two things they look at are their House and their drucraft skills. And that goes all the way down. If the armsmen and the servants are a bunch of plebs, well, people are going to think the House is weak. So if we’re going to find some sort of place for you in House Ashford, you’re going to have to measure up.”
This world of hers sounds really weird. Still, the idea of a place where my drucraft was actually a selling point, and not something to hide, did sound nice . . .
“So let’s see what you can do with a sigl,” Lucella said.
“You do have a sigl, right?”
“Yes . . .”
“Is it some crappy one that doesn’t do anything but make light?”
I gave her a look.
“Wow,” Lucella said. “You really are starting from the bottom.”
“Can you go outside for a second?”
Because my sigls are behind the skirting board, and I don’t want to show you where I hide them, I didn’t say. To be honest, I was starting to get the feeling that Lucella wouldn’t think my sigls were even worth stealing, but old habits die hard. “Please?”
“Oh, all right,” Lucella said with a shrug. She got up and walked to the door. Hobbes was curled up in front of it, and Lucella poked him with her foot to make him move, then went out into the hallway, closing the door behind her.
Hobbes gave me an unimpressed sounding “mraaow”, then looked at his food bowl.
“Later, okay?” I told him. I pulled out the skirting board, took out the box, reached inside for the two sigls . . . and hesitated.
My two sigls had been made twelve months apart, and you could really tell the difference. The older sigl was the first one I’d ever made, and it showed – you had to push nearly twice as much essentia through it as the newer one, but it wasted so much of it that it was only half as bright. I paused, my hand hovering between the two. Should I show her my best, or hold back?
I made my decision, took out the newer sigl in its plastic ring, put the box back in its cubbyhole, then replaced the skirting board and straightened up. “Come in,” I called.
Lucella came back in, closing the door behind her, then looked at me and paused. “Oh.”
“When a boy asks you to step out of the room and come back, you kind of expect something a bit more exciting.”
I felt my cheeks heat up. “Um . . .”
“Oh well.” Lucella took a step forward and looked at the sigl in my hand. “Is that a plastic ring?”
“Where’d you get it, out of a Christmas cracker? Okay, okay, never mind. Light sigl, right? Let’s see it.”
I slipped the ring onto my finger and channelled a thread of essentia. A pale blue glow sprang up.
“Blue?” Lucella asked.
“Isn’t white better?”
“It came out this way.”
“Jesus.” Lucella’s eyebrows climbed. “What kind of made-in-China shit is this thing?”
“Can you stop it?”
“Fine, fine,” Lucella said, waving her hand. “You have to admit it’s kind of funny, though. I didn’t know they even made sigls this bad.”
“It’s not that bad!” I said in annoyance. “It’s a light sigl, it makes light. What else do you want?”
“Well, it’d help if it was actually bright enough to see with . . .”
I widened the flow of essentia through the sigl. The light doubled in brightness.
Lucella paused. “Did you do that?”
“Do you see anyone else around?”
Lucella gave me a suspicious look. “You aren’t shining a penlight from behind your fingers or something?”
I was getting a bit tired of Lucella talking down to me. I thinned the flow of essentia down to almost nothing, causing the light to dim, then brought it up to half brightness again. Then I did it a couple more times, just to prove it wasn’t a fluke.
“Huh,” Lucella said. She actually looked mildly impressed. “Why didn’t you tell me you were a channeller?”
“You didn’t ask,” I said. According to my dad, being able to channel was the point at which you were a “real” drucrafter, so I’d assumed that was what Lucella had meant. “What, did you think I could only sense or something?”
“Actually, I wasn’t sure you could even do that,” Lucella admitted. “Well, I guess you pass.”
Huh. That was easy.
“That’s so weird, though,” Lucella said, bending close to stare curiously at the ring. “Why would anyone make a sigl like that?” She held out a hand. “Give it here.”
I pulled my hand back and let the light from the sigl vanish. “Why is it weird?”
Lucella looked briefly surprised that I hadn’t obeyed her. “Well, no one makes blue torch sigls.”
“It came out that way.”
“No one’s that cheap,” Lucella said with a laugh. “Or at least no House is. Did you get it out of some corp’s bargain bin?”
“I made it.”
“No, seriously, where did you buy it?”
“I told you, I made it.”
For a moment Lucella looked as though she was about to make yet another joke, then she seemed to realise I was serious. “Wait,” she said, her smile fading. “Really?”
I looked at her. Lucella stared back at me.
I waited. When Lucella didn’t speak, I leant a little to the side. Her gaze didn’t track my face, and I waved a hand. “Hello?”
Slowly Lucella turned to look at me. “What?”
“You said I passed?”
Lucella stared at me for ten seconds in total silence, then something in her expression changed. “Yeah, this isn’t going to work.”
“What do you—?” I began, but Lucella had already turned and pulled open the door. “Wait!”
Lucella shut the door behind her. I heard her footsteps trotting down the stairs, then the sound of the front door. Then silence.
“I thought you wanted to see what I could do,” I said to the empty room.
Hobbes had been watching the entire conversation from the corner. “Mraaow,” he said in a decisive tone.
“I kind of knew any girl I brought back to this room wasn’t going to be impressed,” I told him. “I didn’t think she’d run away.”
Hobbes looked pointedly at his food bowl.
I sighed. “Right, right, your dinner.” The excitement that had started to build during my talk with Lucella was gone, replaced by a growing depression. Having your hopes raised and then dashed is much worse than having them never raised at all. For a few minutes there I’d started to believe that I’d found a way out. Now I was back to reality. Hobbes needed feeding, my bills had to be paid, and I had work tomorrow.
I shoved my sigl into my pocket, turned towards the wardrobe, then stopped. Lucella’s fur coat was still lying on the bed. “Hey, she left her coat . . .”
Hobbes padded over to his bowl. His manner clearly conveyed that there were more important things to worry about.
I looked down at the coat, hesitating. Should I go after her? It was a cold evening; as soon as Lucella got out into the street, she’d notice her coat was missing. Maybe she’d come back.
Just as I thought that, Hobbes’s head turned. A moment later, I heard the sound of the front door.
“That must be her,” I told Hobbes.
Hobbes’s ears flattened against his skull, and he backed away towards the window.
I frowned, started to say something, then stopped as I heard the sound of footsteps coming up the stairs.
Lots of footsteps.
Lots of heavy footsteps.
I stared, confused, as the footsteps grew louder and louder until they were right outside. My door swung open.