The Black Orchid (The Viper and the Urchin Book 2)

By: Celine Jeanjean
A Novel of Steampunk Adventure

Prologue





In the half-light of early evening, a giant of a man swept a patch of cobblestones in the Rookery. He took care and pride in his work, swinging his long-handled broom in a slow rhythm. In the shadow of a nearby doorstep, a scrawny girl stared at the strip of dried beef the man held clamped between his teeth. Her long hair was filthy and matted, clumping in places into rope-like segments that partly obscured her face. Her eyes shone through the spaces between her hair, wide with hunger.

“What you doin’ there, lookin’ at me like that,” the man asked, pausing his sweeping to pull the strip of beef out of his mouth so he could talk more easily.

She didn’t answer, but her mouth made a chewing motion. The man chuckled.

“It’s my dried beef what’s got you all worked up, is it? Well s’ppose there ain’t no harm in you having a bit. Here.”

He handed it to her, one end chewed up and shiny with saliva. The girl grabbed it and tore a chunk out with ravenous teeth. She eyed it longingly but handed it back to him.

“You hold on to it for me for a little while. What’s yo name, by the way? I’m Slothum, but they call me Two Planks on account of how big I am. Thick as Two Planks, they call me.” Two Planks smiled and pointed at one of his massive arms.

“Rory,” said the girl around her mouthful of beef. She tore another chunk from the strip.

“Easy now, dried beef don’t like to be hurried. Got to chew it slow-like.”

Rory slowed her chewing and Two Planks nodded his approval. “Good. Now, I can’t be stopping my sweeping like this — sweeping’s a respons’bility, you know. A man’s got to sweep his patch, and look at my patch, ain’t it just the cleanest in Damsport?” He gestured at the cobbles around them.

Rory nodded, still carefully chewing.

“But I can’t very well leave you here with my dried beef. So —” Two Planks lifted the girl up and plonked her on his shoulders. She made a faint noise of surprise but otherwise seemed content. “There, now you can talk to me for a bit too. Two Planks likes company and sweeping’s a lonely profession. Say, pass the beef down.”

Rory leaned over and passed it to him, circling an arm around his forehead for balance.

“Mind where you put that arm, now.” As Two Planks took the strip of beef, he moved her arm away from his eyes and higher on his forehead. “That’s better. Old Two Planks’ gotta see if he’s to sweep.”

Chewing on his strip of dried beef like some men chewed tobacco leaves, Two Planks took up sweeping again. He rumbled beneath Rory like an elephantine beast, moving at a slow, plodding pace.

“Say, how old are you?” asked Two Planks. “Three? Four?”

“I dunno,” said Rory. “No one told me when I were born.”

“I reckon four, unless you’re a right titchy one. Don’t you worry yoself 'bout it if you are titchy, mind you. ‘Tis the titchy ones that grow to be the biggest and strongest. Take me for example, I’m as big as they come. Two Planks they call me, on account of how big and strong I am. Well, back when I were a child, I weren’t no bigger than a thumb!”

Rory snorted. “That ain’t possible.”

“By all the gods, that’s the truth of it. You can even hear it in my name. I were powerful lazy as a child and I loved to sleep, see, so my old mum called me Sloth, like the animal. You ever seen a sloth?”

“No.”

“Well, they likes to sleep powerful too. And then my old mum called me Thumb, on account of me being no bigger than a thumb.”

To illustrate his point, Two Planks lifted one of his massive hands, showing a thumb that looked like it could crush rocks. Rory laughed and grabbed it. It filled her tiny hand.

“My old mum, she’d carry me in her pocket. She’d slip me in there while she were working and I’d sleep — powerful strong, too! Nothing could wake me when I were in her pocket. So she named me Slothum, on account of me being a sloth the size of a thumb.”

Rory giggled, then fell quiet.

“You’re lucky,” she said at last. “Ain’t no story to my name.”

“O’ course there is. You just ain’t been told it, is all. Rory, Rory…. Hmm, sounds to me like there’s a ‘roar’ in there. Maybe you were powerful loud when you was born.”

Rory smiled. “Lions roar.”

“That they do. You know who else roars? Krakens.”

“Krakens?”

“Yep. Ain’t very well known, mind you, but it’s the gods’ truth. Krakens roar. Say, anyone told you 'bout krakens?”

Rory shook her head. “No.”

“Ah, then you’re in the right place. Krakens are just 'bout the most ‘mazing beasts in this world.”

Giant and girl plodded on, and Two Planks began to talk of the krakens. After a time, he forgot about the girl on his shoulders, talking to himself as he was wont to do. He recited his kraken facts with all the pleasure of a child playing with a favourite toy.

Other than Two Planks’ rambling, the lanes were quiet in this part of the Rookery, the tumult of Damsport little more than a distant rumble. The sun was warm on Rory’s back, and she dozed off on Two Planks’ shoulders, lulled by the rhythmic sound of the broom bristles against the cobblestones and the low drone of Two Planks’ voice.

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