The Talented

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The Talented

Metal gears whirred softly at his heel. Although he could hear it and knew what it was, Alex glanced down anyway. Beady, red eyes stared back. They blinked with a click, click of the lashes.

“Scat,” he hissed but the beady eyes just clicked again.

Marrell was an untrusting sort to send a rat with him. Stupid man. The rat was a dead giveaway.

“It’s your butt if they find your rat,” he said to the thing. It twittered a metallic response that Alex took as understanding. Marrell might have gotten the message. If he didn’t, it wasn’t his problem.

Scanning the dark estate, Alex made out the dome-topped outline of the main house. The kitchens were housed in the building to the left with the cellars beneath. To the right rested the carriage house. The doors sat open and the dark shapes of two work hands appeared and disappeared as they worked to fix a broken wheel.

They were the only ones moving at this time of day. It was as Alex liked it. Just before dawn people slept the hardest.

The crunch of wheels on the drive startled him. Who would be coming in so early? He didn’t have to wait long to find out as a red carriage appeared from the trees behind him. The signal on the side indicated the House of Waylin.

As the carriage passed, he slid underneath. It wasn’t how he’d planned to approach the estate but that didn’t matter. This worked better. The rat skittered after him and made a jump for it. The gears whirred and it latched onto the luggage rack at the back. It disappeared in between two trunks.

Alex scowled. Stupid thing.

He held tight to the carriage as it pulled up to the house and a servant helped Master Waylin down. Then the driver continued on, carefully maneuvering around the broken carriage and into the carriage house.

“You’re early,” one of the hands said.

“They sent an assassin last night,” the driver replied. “Master Waylin wants this done before they send another.”

“An assassin? That’s bold.”

The driver simply grunted. The carriage shifted as he stepped down and Alex saw his shiny, black boots.

Assassin? For who?

As far as he knew Master Waylin was an old bachelor. Who would send an assassin after an almost senile old man?

His skin pricked and he glanced over to find the rat watching him. Something didn’t play right here. He couldn’t place what but the prickling sensation was his sixth sense. As far as sixth senses went, it was minor. Not even worth mentioning in the course of his work but it kept him alive. It told him when he’d been played.

He glared at the rat and lowered himself to the ground. The hands were still working on the broken wheel but the driver was gone. Crawling to the far side of the carriage, he looked around and found what he wanted, a window opened for a cross breeze.

On silent feet, he reached the window and hauled himself through it. He was here for a job. He’d finish it and get out of the way of whatever larger issue was going on. Coming around the back of the house, he used a servant’s entrance to get inside. After checking the hall beyond, he moved toward the front of the house and was about to ascend the stairs when raised voices reached his ears.

“Things aren’t ready. If we move them now, they’ll be exposed.”

“They’re already exposed. They sent an assassin. We have to move them.”

“I’ve had no security issues but now that you’ve run pell-mell to my door, of course they’re going to know where to look.”

Alex shook his head. Not my business. He took the stairs two at a time. If he dawdled any more he’d run into the servants when they woke. Following Merrell’s instructions, he found another set of stairs at the back of the second floor and made his way upward to the door at the top.

Testing the handle, he was surprised to find it unlocked. Rarely did people keep their valuables unsecured. He opened the door and stepped inside. Merrell had assured him he’d know what to take. It was an odd transaction. The client wouldn’t name the desired object.

Alex stared. The rat whirred at his heel and then bit him. Cursing softly, he kicked it. The room was square with a single bed and a trunk. Nothing else except on the bed sat a girl of about twelve. She stared back at him and then blinked. Click, click.

“You’re a machine,” he said.

“So they tell me,” she said back.

“But he can make one of you,” Alex protested as he caught the rat by its tail before it bit him again.

“He can make that,” she pointed at the rat, “he can’t create me.”

The overheard conversation came back to him. Them. “There are more than one of you?”

“Maybe.” A tear slid down her soft cheek despite the defiant tilt to her chin.

Alex shook himself. Her face was pale with skin, her eyes bright green. But she whirred and clicked. His ears said one thing while his eyes said another. And she cried.

The rat in his hand spat and tried to claw him. He grabbed it around its neck.

“Knock it off or I’ll destroy you. You lied to me.” The rat stilled with a soft thrumming sound.

The girl scoffed. “He’s cursing you.”

“You understand it?”

“Of course.”

“Do you understand any automaton? No matter who built it?”

She raised a brow with a ‘try me’ kind of look.

Alex’s skin tingled so bad he thought of fire ants. “You were made to understand them.”

“I was born understanding them.”

“Born? You’re machine.”

“I’m half machine. I was born human.”

Slumping against the door, Alex held the rat up. “What’d you get me into?” he asked it.

It whirred.

“A job.” The girl translated. “Stop asking questions and get it done.” She tilted her head to the side with an angry pinching around her eyes. “That’s Master Merrell’s, isn’t it?”

“What’s it to you?”

“He sold us. That’s what.”

Fire ants. Definitely fire ants crawling all over his skin. Alex resisted the urge to scratch his arms.

“The other one like you understands automatons too?”

She tilted her dark head, glaring at him. “Why should I tell you?”

Alex didn’t really have a reason. He was supposed to steal her for Master Merrell. Trust him? Ha. What a joke.

“You want out of here?”

“Maybe.” She hugged herself tight. Alex just waited, meeting her eyes as she considered him. Finally. “He understands human languages. I understand anything else. We were a team.” Tears slid down her face and she scrubbed at them angrily. “But they won’t let me see him now.”

“Who are they?” He shouldn’t have asked. The less he knew about the job the better, but stealing a human? It just didn’t jive. And a young girl to boot? What the blazes were these people doing?

“Master Waylin and Master Gillent separated us. They said it would be safer.”

“Safer for—“

Steps on the stairs brought Alex up short. He dove under the bed, lifting it off the floor before he settled onto his back.

The girl squeaked at his sudden movement but then she tossed her blanket over the side of the bed to hide him.

The door groaned as someone shouldered it open.

“Wakey, wakey, Miss Brianna. Must eat your breakfast. You’ve a long day ahead of you.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” the girl, Brianna, answered.

The bed sagged under more weight. Sucking in his stomach, Alex held his breath as the cross bars of the frame pressed against his chest. He eyed the rat still in his hand as its red eyes glowed at him, almost seeming to laugh at his predicament. It hummed but because of the girl on the bed, its noise didn’t seem out of place.

“Every bite, Miss Brianna.”

Silence fell except for the clicking of silverware against porcelain. Then the weight on the bed disappeared and Alex breathed in relief.

“Eddy will be by to get you in a few, Miss Brianna. Be sure to dress soon.”

Steps and the groaning of the door told Alex the person left. Holding the blanket off the floor, he scanned it before sliding from under the bed.

Brianna watched him as he stood and stretched. “Blast it all,” he muttered.

“I won’t go back to Master Merrell,” she said. “But if you help me find my brother, we’ll disappear and pay you for your troubles.”

The rat stilled, waiting for his answer.

Enough of this. He held it by its neck and squeezed until the metal cracked and the eyes dimmed. Tossing it on the end of the bed, Alex sat beside the girl.

“Okay, explain this to me,” he said.

“Master Merrell’s our uncle. When he found out about our senses, he sold us to the spy network as translators. They did this,” she gestured at her face with its jerky, mechanical movements, “to pass me off as an advanced automaton but then something happened. About a week ago Master Waylin put us in a carriage and split us up. He says they’re just moving us but I don’t believe him.”

Alex nodded but something still didn’t feel right to him. “Master Merrell sold you?”

“Waylin paid for us. He showed me the bill of sale.”

Swallowing his revulsion, he pointed at the trunk. “That yours?”

“Yeah.”

“You fit in it?”

“Maybe.” Her chin tilted up again.

“Easiest way out,” he said, “is for me to carry you. I get the feeling they’re moving you today anyway, so it might not be questioned.”

“Great.” Despite her sarcasm, she moved to the trunk and pulled out her clothes. “Throw them in on top of me,” she said. “Eddy’ll at least open the lid when you go to load the trunk.”

“Great,” Alex muttered, throwing the clothing overtop Brianna and closing the lid.

***

Eddy was a big man with a mustache trailing down past his chin. He ordered Alex to set the trunk on the luggage rack of the newly fixed carriage and then he flipped the latch and shoved the lid open.

Alex’s nerves felt like trip wires. Holding his hands behind his back, he kept himself from making a run for it. He was still wondering how he, a hired thief, got roped into helping two kids.

Probably his Mama’s ethics. Every once in a while they kicked in like they had to make up for things. The poor woman was probably wringing her hands and praying, for once, her boy would do the right thing.

Eddy slammed the lid shut. “For an automaton, she certainly has a lot of girlie frills.”

Alex grunted a response. Was the man unaware?

Watching him walk away, Alex leaned against the carriage and lifted a foot like he’d stepped in something. He snatched a stick and cleaned his boot until Mustache Eddy was gone.

Lifting the lid, he gave Brianna a hand crawling out. “Keep low and follow me.”

She nodded and they headed out the back of the carriage house.

***

“You’re sure?” Brianna asked.

Alex frowned at her. She wasn’t good at keeping quiet. “As sure as I can be,” he said and cut off her next question by moving farther forward.

They lay in one of the gardens of the Waylin estate, watching as the house wound down for the night. Several windows glowed with firelight but it’d been awhile since anyone wandered outside.

Alex’s best guess was Brianna’s brother was held here. They’d followed Waylin’s carriage home and no one had left since. He couldn’t think of another reason for an assassin to visit the estate, so it was as good a guess as any.

Deeming the time right, he motioned for Brianna to follow him. Her gears whirred just like the rat’s had the night before. He glanced back to make sure she was still the girl and not a spy from Merrell. She gave him a questioning frown and he just shook his head.

Nearing the house, they settled against the edge of the porch. A window squeaked as a servant opened it.

“Why’d we have to get the fighter of the two?” asked someone inside.

“Just go,” ordered a voice Alex recognized as Master Waylin.

A door opened and a man emerged with a tray. He wasn’t a servant judging by his dress but he was carrying food and his face bore scratches like he’d been clawed.

Alex moved to follow him. Brianna’s gears whirred as she kept close. They rounded the corner of the house crouched low but the man wasn’t paying any attention. Alex wondered if he could walk right up behind him but then decided not to try it.

They moved across the back yard to a house set apart for the servants. It was nothing more than a bunkhouse for the single men. Instead of entering it, the man opened a door set against the ground at the back of the bunkhouse. It could be a second cellar but Alex couldn’t tell.

The man set the tray on the ground and turned to lower himself down a ladder. Reaching what must be the bottom, he reached over his head and grabbed the tray. Then he disappeared, leaving the doors laid open on the ground.

Alex moved to follow.

“I hate you! Where is she, you stupid—“

Something thudded and the words cut short.

“Colt.” Brianna sounded strangled. She stepped forward but Alex held her back.

“Wait,” he cautioned.

She blinked at him—click, click—and then relaxed. They waited around the corner of the bunkhouse. Brianna twitched, her gears clicking softly every time she moved to peek at the doors.

“Stop,” Alex pulled her back, “you make too much noise.”

“I—“ she clicked her teeth shut and settled against the wall with her arms crossed.

Finally, after night had fully fallen, the man reappeared with an empty tray. He closed the doors gently to avoid sound and then returned to the house.

Only then did Alex move. He found the doors unlocked. Laying them open, he motioned for Brianna to go first. A friendly face would hopefully keep the boy from screaming again and giving them away.

Following her down the ladder, he left one door open for the little bit of light it offered. It was indeed a small cellar but a second door had been added before one could enter the actual underground chamber. This one was locked.

“Colt,” Brianna whispered.

Something shifted on the other side of the door.

“Bri?”

She slumped with a sigh.

“Give space,” Alex nudged her.

“Why?” She shot him a look.

He held up a small pouch. “Would you like to see him or is knowing where he is enough?”

“Oh.” She moved.

Pulling a few picks from the pouch, Alex inserted them into the lock. He’d always had a feel for lock picking, kind of had to when one was a thief, but this was the first time someone was watching when he did it. It made him second-guess the feel and it took him a few tries to get the thing open.

Finally, with a soft click, the door swung under his touch.

A boy rushed out, knocking into him before catching sight of Brianna and enveloping her in a tight hug.

In the faint light Alex made out his shock of dark hair and pale skin. He couldn’t be older than Brianna but neither could he be younger.

“Twins?” he muttered.

Something twittered behind him.

“Watch out!” he swung around but missed the rat by an inch. It skittered away with what he guessed was an irritated whirr. “It followed us.” He lunged for it again.

“Wait!” Brianna cried.

Alex tried to stop, tripped, and landed face first on the ground.

“It says there are Barviddian spies on the estate. One killed Waylin.”

“You trust it? This is sweet uncle Marrell we’re dealing with.” Alex pushed to his feet with a groan and brushed himself off.

“Who’s h–?” Colt fell silent as voices came from above.

Alex understood not a whit of what was said. It sounded like someone swallowed hot sauce and was speaking through the aftermath.

“They’re looking for me,” Colt whispered.

“Who?”

The rat whirred.

“It insists it’s the Barviddians,” Brianna translated.

“Why are the Barviddians here?” Alex asked

“They found out about your sixth senses. Their spy network wants you,” Brianna continued to translate. “Just as our spy network wanted you. I never sold you. They stole you.”

Both kids stared at the rat.

“I saw the bill of sale,” Brianna said but there was a question in her voice.

The rat whirred. Brianna shook her head and took a step away.

“You sold us,” she insisted.

More whirring.

Colt wrapped an arm around her shoulders. “For now just trust him.”

Alex crept forward to the ladder while the two dealt with their familial issues. He should never have gotten involved. The Barviddians were not kind to those who got in their way. Plus he’d stolen something from his own country’s spy network, which didn’t bode well.

Checking over the top of the ladder, he spotted two men dressed in mottled black and gray outfits. If they hadn’t been walking, he would have missed them.

“Uncle Merrell says to climb out and make a run for it. He says he’ll create a distraction.”

Looking at Brianna, Alex wanted to argue but he couldn’t think of a better option.

“Fine.”

Climbing free, he stayed tight to the ground until both kids were out too.

“Run for it,” he said and took off his own direction.

A concussion to the air made him trip. With it came a wave of heat that threatened to singe his hair. Glancing over his shoulder, he gulped and ran harder. Merrell certainly went all out on his distractions. The whole house was on fire.

***

Alex sat at a back table in the tavern, enjoying his last drink before he skipped town. After the fire, he’d lost track of the two kids. When he went to Merrell’s house it was empty. Kid’s, old Master Merrell, and his payment were gone. He’d gone out of his way without earning a cent.

His Mama would be chuckling at him, asking why he wasn’t simply happy for helping, if she knew. Well he’d done his one good deed for the year. She could rest happy, wherever she was.

A man stumbled across the tavern carrying two drinks. At first Alex thought him destined for the booth to the left of him but then the man stumbled again and made a seat for himself at Alex’s table.

“Good ol’ Mister Alex? Gotta be, here.” He thumped the second mug in front of Alex. “An’ here,” he pulled out a small leather bag and thumped it next to the mug. “Compliments of the twins.”

Then the man shoved to his feet and ambled on to the booth.

Alex contemplated the mug and bag for a second. Was this a joke? He peeked inside the bag. A shiny rock cut at exact angles glittered blood red in the faint light. It was the size of his palm.

Tucked next to it in the bag was a slip of paper.

Payment as promised. We were stolen for our talents by our own country. Now we run. You might want to also. Regards, B & C.

 Leaning back, Alex pocketed the bag and sipped from the mug. It was good ale. He’d planned on running anyway. Things were looking up again.

The End

Blessings,

Jennifer

P.S. I love feedback, so if anyone has suggestions, questions, or comments on what they like or what doesn’t seem to work, please let me know. Just be gentle to my poor thin skinned feelings. Thanks.

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