Alyss had almost given herself up for lost when she heard the footsteps.
She sat up among her blankets, listening. Yes, there–the rapid click-clack of heels on cobblestones. Someone doubtless in a hurry to get home and shut out the bitter winter evening. Someone fortunate enough to have a home at all.
Alyss fumbled for the battered top hat that lay, bottom-up, before her. Little good it had done. The streets had been unusually quiet all day, and those pedestrians who had ventured out, stingy. Alyss wished she could say that were unusual.
But perhaps this one would be different. She needed this one to be different.
Alyss peered along the alleyway. The glow of a nearby street lamp revealed that the person approaching was a woman, all bundled up in a coat and bonnet. Her nose was wrinkled against the stink of the gutter, and she held her skirts clear of the ground with gloved hands. Not a regular visitor to the Warren then, but not too fine either. Alyss felt a twinge of hope. This was the type who might take pity.
She held out her hat as the woman came closer. “Spare a prayer, miss? Spare a prayer.” Her voice emerged as a cracked whisper, hoarse with disuse and the cold.
The woman started at the words, emerging as they did from the shadows beside a brimming dustbin. Her eyes flickered towards their source, but when she spied Alyss she hastily averted her gaze. Alyss’s hope–meagre in the first place–receded. But she couldn’t afford to give up so easily.
“Spare a prayer for an unlucky god, miss?” she tried again. “Come on, miss. I’m down on me luck. Spare a little prayer.”
Yet the woman only click-clacked onwards, allowing Alyss to glimpse her shoes beneath the hem of her skirt. Patent leather, they were; well made, with smart little heels. Alyss looked sadly at her own boots–cast-offs from a laborer’s child, soles flapping at the toes, laces missing, threads frayed.
Hunger growled in her belly, warning her that it knew how weak she was, that the moment was coming when it would finally pounce.
She wouldn’t have many more chances.
Alyss made one final attempt. Bracing herself against the chill, she let her blankets fall away, exposing her skinny ankles, her tattered skirts–and her wings. Poking out of her jacket, the once-proud pinions dangled down her back, inert and useless.
“Please, miss. Please, one little prayer. I ain’t asking for a litany, just a tiny prayer will do. I’ve fallen on hard times, miss. I’ve no disciples left. Please. One prayer. Spare one little prayer.”
She waited, trembling with cold and anxiety. She didn’t know whether her piteous display would persuade her audience, for her cry was the cry of half the gods in the city. Abandoned deities lurked on every street, hunkered down in doorways and under bridges, thin and wretched, cradling hunger in their bellies just as Alyss did. With so many begging for succor, the populace had grown accustomed–and hardened–to their pleading.
Like as not this lady would be the same, hurrying off into the deepening night in her expensive shoes and never thinking again of the starving god she’d passed on her way. But just as Alyss began to draw her blankets back around herself, the woman’s stride faltered, and she walked back a few steps to look down at the shivering supplicant. Alyss returned her gaze, beseeching, hardly daring to believe her luck.
The lady’s lips were chapped, her eyes sombre, and Alyss realized that she didn’t look so very proud after all. She wondered what the woman thought of her, a child-sized godling with a pale, pinched face and drifting white hair, almost drowned in her oversized garb. Alyss was no beauty, she knew that much. She had been formed of garbage–knuckles made of bottle-corks, wings of sackcloth, features molded from rain-pulped newspaper–and it showed. Although Wakening had smoothed away her seams and transformed her motley parts to flesh, her ignoble origins were still apparent. Alyss’ body was awkward and crooked, her limbs more knobby than a grandfather oak. Newsprint peeked through the skin of her cheeks.
She tried to smile, but found she was so frozen and miserable that she couldn’t force it out. Yet the sight of her must have stirred the woman to sympathy, for she bowed her head and mumbled a few words–some generic wish for health or happiness. A wisp of prayer slid from between her lips, curling in the frigid air. She plucked it from her mouth and dropped it into Alyss’ waiting hat.
“Thank you, miss. Oh, thank you. Bless you, bless you.” Alyss wasn’t in a position to bless anyone, but she reckoned it was the thought that counted.
The woman ignored her thanks. She only leant down and said, quickly, “I’d get indoors if I were you.” Then she turned and click-clacked into the night.