Never pick a chemystral lock.
Ruby could have yelled those words from the rooftops. But she wasn’t on a rooftop. She was halfway underneath a handcart stalled in the mad river of Stout Street shoppers. A squat alloy trunk on sturdy iron wheels, it was strong enough to turn a cannon blast, and the doors on its rear were secured with a devilishly complex lock.
All well and good; Ruby ate devilishly complex locks for breakfast. But this one was stocked with a reservoir of aqua fortis acid. The alchemists’ apprentices called the stuff the Tinkers’ handshake. At the slightest jiggle, the slightest misstep, acid would bubble out of the lock in a golden wave to devour careless thieves’ hands and wrists down to the bone.
Never pick a chemystral lock.
Never, ever pick a chemystral lock on a busy Boston street, at high noon, on your back, with one hand, and blind.
Ruby stretched her arm up from under the cart, playing her fingers across the carved symbols on the rear doorplate until they found a keyhole.
With her thumb and forefinger she slipped her alloyed glass pick out of her sleeve. Any other implement—steel, iron, bronze—would have liquefied at first contact with the lock’s deadly insides. Gwath Maxim Fourteen: “Always Use the Proper Tool.”
The other proper tool, besides the pick, was what appeared to be her ruined foot. It was a horrible sight. She and Gwath had beaten the old shoe within an inch of its life. It looked as if it had been crushed by a team of oxen, and the blood seeping from every corner would have turned her stomach if she had not known that it was nothing more than water, boiled ox hoof, and just the proper sprinkle of powdered rusted iron.
Gwath, playing the part of her master, drew all eyes to her crumpled paw like a mother bear, roaring at the two men at the front of the cart.
This final test was a true challenge, gruesome and grim, but Gwath would not have given it to her if he had not thought she could succeed.
She found the first of five tumblers and teased it open. It felt like old glue in there.
As if he had heard her thinking of him, Gwath launched into another tirade at the men.
She was good at locks. One day she might be great. But Gwath, he was a masterful sharper and in his element. He thundered: “Look at his foot. Look at it! It may well be ruined!” Ruby took the cue and wailed, lifting the injury from the ground. She took care to pitch her voice low. While her dark hair was pinned under the cap and her wiry frame showed them “apprentice boy,” a girlish wail could give it all away.
“This is no fault of mine, sir,” the Tinker said. “The boy should watch his step. This cart carries a delicate and precious package. We are anxiously expected, and we must, I fear, keep moving forward.” Anger and fear fought for room in the twitchy little alchemyst’s voice. Their magic—or science, call it what you will—had fueled the wonders of the Chemystral Age. But Tinkers still were men, and still they could be duped.
Gwath’s voice shifted into a kind of gargle—part angry crow, part suffocating fish.
“The boy’s fault? Your guard there moves like a drunken oliphant, and your cart has smashed my boy’s precious foot to flinders. Look upon it!” Ruby flailed her leg about. “My lad is the assistant to the dancing master at my house. He is one of the most agile young men in Bradfordum Colony. He has played for the governor, even for the foreman of your own guild!”
Something twitched in the lock.
She counted to five. Acid did not pour from the keyhole.
Careless. Cocksure. She grinned wider. She might be all of those, sure, but today was her day.
Gwath was too distracting. She blocked him out. Besides, they had practiced the sharp to death. Threats, allusions to powerful friends in the guild, expulsion and ruin for the man, prison and ruin for the guard, tra-la-la, thus was the sharper’s task. Distract and worry, screen and sham. And all the while, in the shadows, the picker picked.
The second tumbler fell. Ruby wrapped calm around her like a cloak, and the words, the sounds of the busy street, even her sight, they all receded, leaving only the intricate tactile music of her hand, her pick, and their dangerous chemystral partner.
The third tumbler fell. Then the fourth. The path to glory.
“What have we here, then?”
A harder and leaner voice hauled her attention out of the lock and back to the street. On the other side of Gwath’s thick, stockinged legs and gaily buckled shoes sat two pairs of pristine black boots with brilliantly white linen spats. Barnacles. It was Redcoats. The strong arm of the king.
Yet they, too, could see only her feet. She redoubled her efforts.
Gwath bent over her legs and squeezed her ankle twice, the signal for her to stop. Gwath Maxim Five was very clear: “Meddle Not With the Royal Military.” But she was so close! The fifth tumbler had started to dance. A few more seconds and it would be open.
“His Majesty’s Finest. You arrive in the very nick of time!” Gwath said. As he labored up to meet the soldiers, he pulled Ruby’s leg once, hard. She slid toward him under the cart, her hand at least a foot away from the lock. It might as well have been ten thousand miles. She lay back onto the street with a moan, playing her part. Inside, she blazed with fury………………………………….