“Cam’s going to kill me for being this late,” Tess grumbled; her pitifully light basket thumped against her legs as she tried to navigate the cracked asphalt street in the growing dusk. “Of course it had to storm.” She’d already had a splitting headache from wrangling with merchants for the best fruits and vegetables, and half the time she wasn’t even sure of the right way to tell whether something was good quality. It was even harder in the winter, when everything was preserved or dried.

She’d definitely been cheated by the vegetable man and had spent far too much time trying to talk his prices down, but the real lost time had been at the baker’s, when she picked up a loaf that would have been twice the normal cost, and then the baker wouldn’t let her put it back because she’d touched it. So unfair. My hands were clean! Probably cleaner than his, the way he was blowing his nose in his sleeve.  She shouldn’t have started the argument though. By the time it was over the sky had gone black and she’d barely had time to duck into one of the actual shop buildings before the deluge started. Unfortunately for her, it had been a shop that sold sweet breads, and the smell had nearly convinced her to spend even more money. Waiting in there for almost an hour was torture, and by the time she was ready to leave it was so late that the sky was almost as dark as during the storm.

She’d never come this way from the market before, it was normally a stop on the way home from school if she went at all. It had been easy to navigate in the light, but evening shadows made her second guess every turn and nothing looked the same. She was pretty certain though that the street she had just turned down was the wrong one. The house painted in three shades of hideous green did not look familiar.

She backtracked her steps to the main street and looked around, trying to get her bearings. If she could just find the shop with the big red shoe sign, she could make her way home from there. It couldn’t be too much farther.

A shuffling sound came from an alley to her side and she froze. Even though the White Sector was nominally safer than the Red or Green, or especially the Blue, there were sections of it that weren’t safe to walk alone at night. And she wasn’t certain enough of where she was to know if she was in one. Wishing she had a more formidable weapon than a basket of vegetables, bread, and half a ham, she started walking slowly down the street, avoiding looking back. If she ran-and that alone would kill her, she hated moving faster than a rapid walk-whoever it was would easily catch her. Better to ignore this and maybe make them think twice. If you act confident, and in control, you seem like you belong. They’re looking for anyone who isn’t comfortable in the area…ugh. Shut up, inner Anj.

She thought she was doing well until there was another, louder shuffle, accompanied by a sound very much like a pained whimper. Tess didn’t think anyone would blame her for stopping and turning around at that. She glanced down the alley-if they’re gonna kill me, oh well, I’m screwed-and it took far too long to realize that the shadows were not a man with a knife, and that the sound was coming from a heap at the end of the alley, a trash pile from one of the restaurants whose back door led there. Something was moving, and not just an object slowly sliding down the heap. This was something alive.

Why do I have to be such a sucker for lost animals? I should leave and go home…Tess ignored her own reasoning and stepped slowly into the alley. The sound might be a small stray kitten, a dog, or less appealingly a rat, scrounging through the garbage for food scraps. Tess approached cautiously, berating herself for leaving her glasses at home. Her eyesight wasn’t terrible, but it could be better, and she’d rather not get herself bitten by a defensive stray or a diseased rat. She wanted to help, not get some creepy disease. It took her just a bit too long to realize the whole thing was a living creature, that it was breathing in soft sobs, and that what she was seeing was the back of a shirt shredded from whip strikes and covered in drying blood.

No one but a Mixed would have been left in an alley in such condition, not with the Patrols. A human would have been taken to the hospital. A Mixed was treated like so much trash. The creature was curled with its back to her, and she couldn’t tell if it was even still alive; the sobbing breaths had gone silent. Tess swallowed a sudden sourness in her throat. She wasn’t overly familiar with the darker side of the servant community except through her friends’ stories. Still, she’d heard Julie’s few quiet recollections and seen Farley’s scars. So she knew the results of a whipping. She’d just never seen it in person, not this bad.

Tess couldn’t say what made her go closer. It was a bad idea to approach any wounded Mixed, since many, especially first-gens, could go absolutely feral and lash out blindly when in pain. Even she couldn’t deny that that was something in their nature. She moved just a few steps more and then gave an involuntary shriek when the creature rolled over with a short, harsh sneeze and a soft moan.