Many people who earn a living by commission will tell you that they’re often asked to do work for free. Fortunately, when the thing you’re being commissioned to do is highly illegal activities for one of the most powerful criminal organizations in the city, payment in exposure only goes so far.
If you’re being exposed, after all, you’re probably doing something wrong.
Unfortunately, as anyone who earns a living by commission will also tell you, it takes quite a few of them to earn enough to stay alive. Doesn’t offer much time to make something of your life outside of those commissions, but I suppose everyone needs to keep busy.
That’s probably why as soon as I reached Boss Ivan’s district, I smelled the crow-feathered cloaks Ivan smothers his soldiers in. He must’ve sent them to retrieve me for another assignment.
They led me through back streets of his district, Munnin Point. through the rusting, metal giant of a deadciv, built back when humanity could still see.
The Great Detonations of the twenty-first age killed half the world a long, long time ago. And yet more: it mutated we who survived. Our eyes don’t quite work anymore. But our other senses are far greater.
So great, in fact, that the leaves of rust that flake from the ancient metal sounds, to the modern ear, like what a net of birds taking wing might sound to someone who lived when the Old World was thriving. We can feel their impact as they float to the ground, just so.
It’s not all bad, though. In the dark, you see, everything is anything it should be.
Boss Ivan’s base was a run-down hall that stank of mildew and dust. I could hear voices echoing within the mostly-empty hall and could just hear the wood knocking against wood in its backyard where Ivan’s Murder of Crows trained in the tourney grounds out back.
I threw down my two-wheeler’s kickstand, and the moment I dismounted it, one of Ivan’s crows told me, “We’ll need your blade.”
“That’s a new protocol,” I muttered.
“I’m afraid I cannot allow you before Boss Ivan so armed, Silas Cord.” The crow told me. “Not after the…accident at the border.”
“Yeah, yeah…” I muttered and tossed him my swordbelt. The buckle rattled in the air, “Fetch,” I said, and he caught it by the sheath.
There were footsteps all around me, then. I heard hands squeaking closed around leather hilts. One of the crows touched my hand. “This way,” he said, and I followed his voice.
I could hear the rumble, not unlike the roar of a two-wheeler, as the door to Ivan’s hall was slid upwards into the ceiling. I could almost imagine the moonlight spilling into the hallway, as told in the tales from the Old World. The gray blobs of my limited vision darkened as the hallway’s shadows swallowed us.
The crows led me through to Boss Ivan on the other side. I could hear him clasp his hands behind his back, heard them whisper across the crow-feathered cloak that spilled down his back. His crows crowded into the room, thumping about and fan out, guarding the many entrances. Ivan’s base is a labyrinth. All halls will lead to his office eventually. Bare as that office is.
I heard stiff backs crack as knees scuffed the floor. I bowed with the others.
Ivan’s bootsteps grew louder. Closer. His sheath slapped against his thigh as he walked. “Silas Cord,” Boss Ivan said. “Explain yourself. What’s happened now?”
I swallowed thickly. “Well,” I said, tip-toeing my words carefully. “You see…of course…that I…am…sorry?”
A whistle, and Ivan’s open hand stung my cheek and sent me sprawling to the floor. “I have been building my contacts within the Majesty’s Crown for eleven years, Mister Cord. Eleven years a painful patience, calculations. Bribes. Talking to the right officials at the right times. All to protect my district from the monsters birthed in the Great Detonations that took our sight. All that planning, and what does it get me?”
His boot struck my ribs—which strangely enough I felt in my throat when I coughed. Like his boot had dislodged something. Dimly, I was aware that my head was on the carpeted floor, and when I picked it up, a line of drool thinned and snapped.
“All of my planning,” Ivan roared, “has bought me mere husks of once-great border bases and useless, melted ore. Our rivals—the Fangs and their vassal-gangs—have since destroyed the bases and New Mechs that the Crown allowed me to build.”
“Boss,” I said, “I was trying—”
“The monsters have melted the ore we need for precious Arkynian steel,” he said, as if he hadn’t heard me. He kept walking toward me as I scrambled back on my hands and knees. “The same Arkynian steel required for good blades and New Mechs, the first since the Great Detonations. The most effective steel our line of work—and it has all been wasted. Our greatest asset is gone. The Murder of Crows has never skirted so close to disaster. All thanks to you.”
“Boss, what did I—” I started to protest, and then thought better of it. Not in front of all the sentries.
“You captured key members of the Fangs’ vassal-gangs after they stole the blueprints for my manufacturing bases. Then you released them so that they would lead you back to their masters. You let them go. Deliberately.”
“I…take responsibility for my actions,” I told Boss Ivan. “But I was hardly alone in my failings. The arrogance of our border-bases and Crown-approved steel courted disaster from day one.”
He sighed so heavily that I thought he was going to deflate. “Yes,” he relented. “My captains share the blame just as much as you do, Silas Cord. I will give you that. But my captains were murdered when the monsters assaulted our base. You are the only one still living left to suffer my anger.”
I tested my footing, tried to stand. I winced as I did so, hoping Ivan wouldn’t throw me back to the ground. “I’ll make this better,” I told him. “The Fangs will not go unpunished.”
“No,” he said. “They will not.”
I let myself breathe. Though I must’ve been a bit too relieved, because I exhaled so fast that I felt dizzy for a moment.
Ivan continued, “But you will not carry out the punishment. My daughter Isora always argued against the New Mech-making project. She alone properly estimated the monsters’ threat. She is to assume primacy, and you shall act in accordance with her will. It is only the time and money I have invested in you thus far that has spared your life. Do not make me regret my generosity.”
“I will not fail you, your Grace.”
“Save the formalities,” Ivan said. “You must first finish your dealings with the Gathering of Ravens. You are to bring them into the fold as a vassal-gang of our own.”
I couldn’t believe it. “You want me to haggle? Really? Haggling? Boss, you know—you know me! You know me!” I sighed, sagging somewhat. “You’re paying me to be a glorified salesman?”
“I’m paying you not to ask questions.” His voice was clipped. Like an owl biting through bone. He walked towards me. Slow. Deliberate. Steps. I could feel his breath hot on my face. “Do you understand?”
“Transparently,” I told him.
Special thanks to my patron on Patreon, Alicia Cameron