Having swiped a piece of cheese from the nearby shop, a young lad leaned against a wall in Clockhaven and nibbled on his prize. Hearing the sound of whirring gears, he turned his head enough to see a clockwork doll staring at him, in something of a uniform. He kept chewing while she studied him up and down.
Finally, she greeted him. “Good morning, young bandit.”
“Oy! ‘Oo’re you callin’ a bandit, then? Oy’m a roight honest lad, oy am!” he barked indignantly.
Without missing a step, she countered, “Ah, then I suppose that morsel of cheddar appeared in your small mitt directly from the sky…”
He carefully looked about for a moment then muttered quietly, “Oy paid fer it.”
“Excellent! Then Miss Dee has the money to pay me for the past fortnight. I shall just shout and have her bring it out to me,” the doll spoke, then turned toward the cheese shop, holding her mechanical hand up to shout.
‘Wait! Oy din’t pay fer it. Oy’ve no money, y’ see. Dun want to pilfer, but a lad needs to eat, y’know,” the young fellow explained, clearly both ashamed and remorseful.
The clockwork stared at him in mock shock. “Oh! Oh, I see… What an uncomfortable predicament. I wonder if honest employ might improve your footing.” She held out her hand to introduce herself, “Dollianna.”
He stopped chewing and gazed at her with a mix of horror and intrigue. “Yeah. Moight, at that,” he said carefully, almost as though he knew he’d regret it, and took her hand. “Me name’s ‘arold.”
After a quick shake, she released his hand and without waiting for him, turned and started walking toward the Clockwork Laundry. Almost as an afterthought, she turned her head casually to command him, “Come to my office for a rare opportunity.”
Descending the stone steps into the dank, choking steam of the laundry pit, Dollianna turned abruptly to face the very nervous looking boy.
“I have a task well-suited to a young fellow who might blend in—invisibly, untraceably—into the city’s underbelly. Not one of the local urchins; not someone familiar. Someone who appears to be passing through who none expect to see again would appear to be designed for the undertaking. All that is required is that he observe the comings and goings of certain underworld creatures; certain… infamous characters amongst the city’s criminal chasm—one or two most particularly—without himself being observed.”
“Bleedin’ ‘ell. You’re off your biscuit, tha’s what. Oy’ve ‘alf a mind–“
“Yes, so I gather,” she interrupted harshly.
There was a pause while he briefly struggled to salvage anything useful from the discussion, with quite unexpected composure and shrewdness completely ignoring her barb. She calmly waited until he finally uttered: “Naw. No, this ain’t a bleedin’ job; it’s madness, it is. Musta confused me wit’ someone ‘oo ain’t awl there. Be seein’ ya, then…” spat the young fellow as he made for the stairs.
“Blast!” coughed Dollianna. “I shall be forced to find another use for all this ghastly absinthe.” She waited until Harold stopped in his tracks before she turned resignedly away from him.
“Now, ‘old on a minute. You din’t say nuffink about no bleedin’ green fairies, did you? Tha’s different, tha’ is.”
“Oh, is it indeed? You’ll toil for the wormwood, will you? And a bit of proper fuel for that gaunt young carcass? It all seems more than a fair exchange: nothing more than a few minutes a day of casual observation, to live the high life on grand fare well suited to this town’s elite. But what would I know; I’m a machine. I eat poorly refined oil and subsist on a few turns of my key. I know nothing of the rich ecstasy of glorious continental cuisine. I must say, though: it does sound a grand payoff for such minute risk…” She waited for everything to sink in, observing that the scant spoils of his earlier crime were long dissolved into the abyss of his hunger. She hadn’t long to wait.
“Risk o’ starvin’s greater, innit? Risk,” the youth scoffed. “Every bleedin’ day’s a risk. Moight get pinched for poachin’ a chunk o’ bread and swing from a bloody tree. Try that risk round yer little neck. But, y’ know, just for negotiatin’s sake… what is the risk exac’ly, moight I ask?”
“I can only say that if you are caught… Well, just don’t get caught,” she stammered, before quickly continuing so as to prevent him considering her warning for too long. “If you are quite as crafty as my cursory appraisal assures me that you are, you’ve nothing to fear. Were they well counseled, that lot should surely fear you.” She studied him, wondering if she had blown too much sunshine onto his ego for him to believe.
Seeing him grin, she continued. “I can warrant a steady supply of fresh hearth loaves and some of the finest cheese this city can smuggle in; absinthe til hell wouldn’t have it, and even a bottle now and then of some modest local wine. All in exchange for a few simple words reported strictly to me, in gravest secrecy. Have we a bargain?”
He held out his hand silently, with a trace of a grin and an excited yet nervous sparkle in his eye, as though he had just settled into the sling of a trebuchet. Having shaken hands on their pledge, he stepped back and tipped his hat before winking and saying, “See ya’s tomorr’a, then,” and then climbing the steps up out of the laundry pit.
“On some occasions, playing requires allowing oneself to be played,” she whispered to herself and shook her head as Harold whistled his way out into the street. “That one is a prize in himself. I do hope that I might somehow avoid causing him to be slain…”