Raine leaned against the window, watching the veil of dusk draping over the city. He stared toward the docks, unable to see them but still focusing on the dip beyond the skyscrapers. The remnants of his rum, diluted, weak, glinted as he held up the glass.
He coughed as liquor tore down his throat. The glass spun from his hand onto the desk. He slipped his arms into an olive shirt. As he rolled his sleeves, he eyed his khaki vest but held off. He didn’t want to trudge through the muck in his best suit, but the boss had given his orders.
His bar beckoned, whispering for another fresh drink.
As the sun dipped below the horizon, the lights in his apartment rose. Outside, the skyscrapers sprang to life in unison, white eyes flickering all over the steel behemoths. One moment, dying husks under the darkness of the setting sun, the next, a metropolis resurrected.
His bedroom reverberated with the shrill ring of his phone. Raine looked toward the sound, made his choice. Rather than follow his intuition, he’d stick with Keir’s plan. Pulling open his desk drawer, he retrieved a cigar box. The binding had long since ripped and would never quite shut. Knocking off the lid, he pulled out a wad of money and counted it. Another couple hundred dollars should do the trick for now. He tucked the folded bills into the inner pocket of his jacket.
Scooping up the vest and, in one smooth movement, slipping it on, he slid through the front door.
Raine entered the tram station in an effort to get to the docks faster. He paused as he saw the line snaking down the causeway, too dense to skirt past. For the last wave of trams, the station teemed with people. They couldn’t all expect to catch the final runs, but they’d migrated here, intent on being the one to beat the odds and make it home minutes earlier. As the latest trams filled, the horde of commuters expanded, reshaped. Through the crowd, he spotted the orange-eyed man from the bar seated across the room.
The stranger wore a white coat with a crimson lining over slate grey clothing. He reclined against the metal bench, his arm swung out wide, his leg kicked to the side. A dark red book laid open in his lap, although he seemed to ignore it. His fashion was too elegant, antiquated so he seemed from another time. This relic stared over the mass, an elastic smirk spread across his thin lips.
Raine angled his way through the mass. The stranger’s face gained focus as his vision snapped to Raine. His eyes breathed the light in, flashed.
The air shifted, drained, roared with a sharp ringing that filled Raine’s ears. Colors bled away, swathing the world in grey. The stranger’s mouth moved as if he was talking to Raine but Raine couldn’t distinguish the phrases against the ringing. Raine wanted to break away from his gaze, but couldn’t.
The next set of trams ripped into the station. The world snapped back into place, the crowd shifted and shot forward. He caught a flash of the white-haired man disappearing around a corner.
Raine darted after him, his curiosity overwhelming him at what he’d just experienced. The mob clumped together, shimmying forward at a dead crawl. Through the endless stream of bodies, he nabbed glimpses of the antiquated man as the crowd parted for him. Descending the stairs, the stranger looked back once as he disappeared from Raine’s view. Raine shoved an old man out of the way. Angry shouts followed him.
He took the stairs three at a time, skipping the last five with a jump. Spinning on his heel, he slammed into a man. He caught a vision of a burlap coat, satchel, and a falling cap. Raine sprawled to the ground, righted himself, ignoring the pain spreading through his hands and back.
He searched the lower platform, but saw nothing of the white-haired man. Swearing, he pulled himself up against the metal railing. He tugged on his vest, trying to calm his pounding heart. “Sorry about that,” Raine said with a flippant smile, turning back to the man. His eyes widened at the young woman he’d struck.
Her cap had fallen, exposing choppy brown hair, soft, fragile features. As she regained her composure, her jaw set and she became hard once more. She scooped up her bag, shoving foreign tools and scraps of crumpled pages into it. He stared at her wrapped hand, bandaged in stained gauze. She froze when she noticed him, withdrew it. Their eyes locked.
He recognized her in an instant. The woman he’d intervened for in the bar.
Off in the distance, bells rang, signaling the final wave of trams.
He mumbled another apology, climbed the stairs. Each step an agony, he tried to ignore the curses of his leg. When he reached the platform, he found the area empty. The last of the trams skirted out of the station. The platform lights clicked off. “Great,” he muttered.
“Looks like we’ll both be walking.”
Raine looked over to see the woman standing beside him, bag strap clamped in her hand. With her cap refitted and her hair hidden, little tipped off her gender. He’d seen it, but even now it faded from his memory.
He offered his hand. “I’m Raine. Morgan.”
She took it, despite the stained bandage wrapping hers. She winced as they shook, but seemed determined to bear through it. He turned to the stairs, motioned for her to go ahead. She waited and let him go first. “Marise Shield. Since we’ve got some time, what do you do, Raine? Other than trying to be a Knight-in-Shining-Armor?”
He almost laughed at the notion. Holding himself back, he said, “Oh, come on.”
Her face betrayed her naiveté.
Raine laughed. “Well, Miss Marise Shield, you’re the only one in Sandhyanen who doesn’t know me.”
“Don’t be like that,” he said, “it’s just . . . nice to not be known the moment I walk in a room.”
“Woe to be you.”
“You wouldn’t believe.”
She eyed him, but said nothing. The lights snapped off around them.
A few stragglers ambled past them, cursing their luck, moving past the maintenance and cleaning crews occupying the space. Along the causeway, lanterns burned in several of the windows, enough for them to do their job. Outside, the city sprawled in a flourish of amber and gold lights.
They crossed into a hallway, another mural to the gods. The ceiling glowed cerulean, a pool of water rolling atop thick panes. Etched into the glass, the seven gods glowered down on all who passed underneath. Breaks in the water left the ground filled with shifting white lines.
One kept his attention hostage, the deity’s eyes burning vibrant orange. Flowing hair fell over his face, hinting at his long, thin grin.
The clinking of seven coins filled his ears. A remnant of endless lectures from Keir about the gods, about how they used to inhabit the world of men, of the opulent parades and destructive tendencies. Sandhyanen used to be lousy with the immortals, but, at some point, the city had gone heathen and lost their sense of place. All these words, these lessons, punctuated by a stack of coins that Keir held, lifting and dropping them as if to accentuate his point. Still, the god looked familiar . . .
Grimacing, he stopped to stare.
Raine broke away his gaze, stared at Marise’s furrowed brow. “Oh, it’s nothing. Kei—Just remembering something. Where were you headed?”
She regarded him with suspicion, but walked alongside him as he rejoined her. “Nowhere in particular.”
“Sounds like an adventure. Where do you live?”
“Nowhere in particular.”
He looked down at her. Her eyes remained glued to Oki’s snaking vein. He noticed the dirt, the blood, the general sense of living in the city, not a part of it.
The lanky teen working the entrance eyed him through a mop of hair. Frayed cuffs and worn spots covered the hand-me-down suit. “Rough night?”
Raine motioned for Marise to stop, but she pushed past him, passed over the money, waited for him on the other side. He kept walking despite his limp, making sure the kid saw his bloody eye. He said with a suppressed sneer, “Yeah — something like that.”
Raine dropped a pocketful of change into the tray, shifted past the bars before it had a chance to clear him. An objection died on the lips of the attendant as a prerecorded voice said, “Have a nice day.”
Raine shot a grin over his shoulder.
When he passed through the doors, the world felt off again, but only for a moment.
He stopped Marise. “I know this might seem forward, but — do you need some place to stay?”
Her eyes hardened, her jaw set.
“I’m not trying to take advantage of you. I’ve got a job tonight. And my boss needs it done basically now. I won’t be back tonight and if you’ve got no other place to go—”
“Now hear me out. See that building over there? That’s my place. Top floor, whole shebang. I’m not going to be there, if you need to bunk up, get cleaned up, sort things out, whatever. It’s yours for tonight.”
She regarded him coldly. “What’s the catch?”
“There’s none. I’d just hate for nowhere in particular to catch up with you. It’s the least I can do for causing you to miss your ride.”
Behind them, an alarm sounded. Raine peered over to see the teen looking around frantically at the bars, alone with the blaring siren. Raine turned back to Marise. “Just say yes. I’ve got to get going and I can’t be distracted, worrying about you on the street. Plus, I’ve got to learn how the hell you’ve gone this long without hearing my name.”
She sighed, offered a hand. “How do I get there?”