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Paid Attention – 1 of 2

Petra sat on a curb near the corner of Abney Parkway and Savory Street, replacing the rags in the toe of her boots, and listening vaguely to the French boy lecture her on the infractions she had recently committed.  She pulled a bedraggled rag slowly from one boot, dripping copiously with foul grey liquid, and dropped it into the gutter with a satisfying plop.  She took a new (or newish) and clean (or cleanish) rag from one pocket, balled it up, and stuffed it into the old weathered boot.  Her bowler hat sat beside her on the pavement. 

“How it is, is: these signs, they are there to protect.  You see?” Gaston asked, blowing his nose into something which had possibly been part of a shirt at some point.  “The garçon renard, he is not happy.” 

Petra looked up at Gaston, then back down at her boot as she pulled another rag from her pocket and bunched it up.  “Tell him I do as I please.” she said, stuffing the rag into the boot.  “If I wanted people tellin me what to do, I’d be back at the Pipco mine in Falun.  Besides, he wasn’t the one being called stripscrew.”  She looked up at him, squinting around the smoke from the old stogie she was clenching in one corner of her mouth.  “Got it?” 

“Name of a name, Petra!” Gaston groaned, slapping his hand against one thigh. 

A purring baritone behind the two, said, “Non serviam.”  

Petra and Gaston looked around at a tall bald man wearing a long coat and tall top hat standing nearby, seemingly listening to their conversation.  Petra blinked, trying to decipher what the man had said.  When unable to process the phrase, she squinted up at the man: “Come again?” 

“Non serviam.” the man repeated.  “It is Latin.  It means ‘I will not serve’, and they are wise words indeed.” 

Petra snorted a laugh, then poked Gaston hard in the side of his leg with her elbow.  “Yeah, see?  Tell him I said no serve ‘em.” 

The man in the top hat then asked, “Did either of you serve in the Babbage Urchin Militia?”

“I did, yes.” said Gaston, taking his armband from his pocket. 

“Me too.” said Petra, leaving out that she had served for less than twenty-four full hours.  “But I don’t got my armband on me.” 

The man said stiffly, “No matter.” He then took two small bags of coins from his pocket and tossed one to Gaston, and the other to Petra.  “Overdue payment.” he said, then turned on one sharp heel and strode briskly away from the two. 

“Sacre dieu!” Gaston said, opening the bag and looking at the coins inside.  “The thing is this, I will not have to sing for weeks now, you know.” 

Petra looked into her own bag and almost choked when she saw it was filled with quatloos.  “Good gravy…” she croaked out.  She shoved her feet into her newly repaired boots, slapped her hat onto her head, then turned to Gaston.  “I gotta go hide this.” 

The French boy turned to run off toward the canals.  Petra hotfooted it around City Hall, intending to run across the elevated tracks south of the Gut, when she ran smack straight into somebody, knocking herself back onto her behind. 

Petra tipped back her hat, looking up at who she had collided with: It was the tall man in the top hat again. 

Before she could say anything, the man in the top hat said:  “Careful there, lad.  If I had been Primary Gears, you might have lost a tooth.”  He leaned over her.  “Say, did you happen to serve on the Babbage Urchin Militia?” 

She blinked. 

Slowly, she responded:  “…Yes?” 

The man nodded, then tossed another bag of coins down to her.  “Overdue payment.” he said, then walked into City Hall.  Petra looked at the second bag of coins.  She scratched her head under her hat, then it came to her… her hat… he hadn’t recognized her because she was now wearing her hat. 

Horrible, terrible, devious thoughts bubbled up into her mind.

Petra smiled.



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