I like to walk through the streets and alleyways of New Babbage, observing the everyday going-on of the populace, talking to the merchants and tinkerers, urchins and villains. The rougher parts of town, such as the Gut, require some care to navigate safely, but an observant eye, a quick step, and several concealed weapons help immensely.
On the surface, Babbage is filled with respectable citizens, going about their business in a (mostly) law-abiding manner. Nearly everyone has experienced the antics of the urchins and is aware of the roguish pirates who oil the cogs of commerce, but they avoid the hidden corners where the underclass lives and plies trades of a less-respectable nature. From a lady of the night to a murder for hire, everything is for sale to those who know where to look.
At first, the prostitutes would occasionally mistake me for a potential customer: at night, wearing a cape that covers my head, and walking where no respectable lady should be, I could understand being mistaken for a boy. As I would approach and my face and skirts became visible, reactions would range from disappointment - more long hours out in the cold and dark would be necessary before retiring to a warm bed - to relief. In fact, once they overcame their initial suspicion of a female stranger with a foreign accent starting a conversation, many of the women seemed grateful for a hot tea - I always carried some with me for this purpose - and a the temporary distraction from their duties.
Although I became acquainted with many of the ladies who plied their trade on the streets, I became closest to Gwen. Gwen Smith, she styled herself, and it's even possible that she was born with one or both of those names. She had a weather-beaten face and appeared at first glance to be in her early forties, though closer inspection suggested her true age was perhaps twenty years younger. She had kind eyes, which surely helped her attract customers, but those eyes also contained a great deal of sadness. She confided in me that her mother, widowed at an early age and never remarried, had no further use for Gwen when she turned sixteen. Gwen was forced to leave, with little money, no learned trade, and no romantic prospects. Little wonder that Gwen's path eventually took her to the alleyways of Babbage to earn a living. The surprise was that, despite her experiences, she maintained a positive attitude toward mankind.
"Oy, Rhianon, the weather has been something awful this past winter. It's an omen, I tell you, an omen of troubled times to come to Babbage."
"Come now, Gwen. That's nothing but superstition, and you know better than that."
Gwen shook her head. "Nay. The old ways don't seem 'tall scientific, not in this age of mechanical wonders of ours, but our ancestors knew what they was doing right enough. Bad weather means bad times ahead. And that's not all - I heard of strange creatures found yonder in the Fells, huge worm-like things. As sure as my name is Gwen Smith, that means a stranger in town will be the cause of the bad times." She crossed her arms, daring me to contradict her.
I laughed. "I won't discount what you say. This is New Babbage, after all, and the town seems to live on a diet of strange happenings."
Two unkempt boys ran toward us, both about thirteen years old. I recognized them as part of the ever-shifting population of urchins, but couldn't recall names. The one on the left waved some coins. "Miss Gwen, I got two dollars. How about you and me getting dirty together?"
Gwen tousled his hair and gave him a friendly push on his way. "You know well that two dollars won't pay for any time in me bed, Samuel. Any road, you seem plenty dirty already, by the looks of you."
The other boy waved a single coin. "How 'bout a look under your skirt, then, Miss Gwen?"
"Ahhh, away with boths of you." She swatted the air where the second boy had stood, but both were on their way, running down the alley again, laughing. "Boys," she said to me, "too young to know you always pay for what you get, one way or t'other, and the price is never cheap." She looked sad for a moment, a far-away expression in her eyes.