His name is Silas Cord. He is the son of a gang Boss. And he is dreaming.
And in this dream:
He tosses and tangles in his blankets, unable to sleep. His Mother’s lullaby filters through his head. He thinks of mockingbirds and carts and bulls, and wonders what these things mean.
Silas pulls the blankets tight around himself. The dark, dark tunnels under the city are cold, and they reek of roots and earthworms. His Father’s gang has been holed up here for years—out of sight of Crows and Crown Enforcers and Lords.
He pretends he is asleep when the door shrieks open. He smells his Mother’s scent like road dust and lilacs. He isn’t afraid. “This is our safe haven,” his Father has told him. Again and again and again.
Which is why the urgency in his Mother’s voice when she stoops over him and shakes him awake startles him. He hopes she doesn’t hear his quickening heartbeat.
“Silas,” she whispers, her breath hot in his ear. “You have to wake up, baby. We have to leave. It’s urgent.”
Silas doesn’t know what that word means, but she recognizes the tone in her voice. “Your Father is missing.” Her voice snags on that last word. But she manages to keep going. “You need to—”
The boy shoots out of his sheets and wraps his arms and legs around his caretaker. She staggers, and then lowers him to the ground, gently.
“Stay still,” she tells him, as she bundles him up in a warm fur cloak. It is hemmed at his ankles, he notices. It will not drag, should they need to run.
Her hand is rough and scrapes at his as she drags him down steps that reek of mildew. She hears her suck in a breath between her teeth as the door whines open.
“What’s going on?” He asks. “I don’t understand.”
“Have I asked you to?”
This is adult-talk for stop talking, Silas knows. So he does not talk. He obeys. Like a good little soldier.
Their boots squelch through the mud as they wind down Sandpiper Quarter. The wind whispers against his hood and stirs his cloak. He can hear Beryl sniffing audibly every now and again; does not see how she turns her head to listen. He doesn’t hear any distinct breaths or heartbeats. Anyone ready for excitement.
Nothing his Father has warned him about, trained him for, should this situation arise. “Where is Clarissant?” He doesn’t know who the name belongs to. Only that he’s heard his Father hitch that name to various descriptors he’s been warned not to repeat. “Or Albarran.”
“Far and away, if we’re lucky,” Beryl breathes. “Now hush, little baby.” She drags him squelching through the sand-smelling streets, sharply tugs his arm, yanks him down an alley. They do not see the ruined flying machine—a flighter left over from the Old World, downed and hollowed out and restructured and broken to bits if infrastructure on either side of this alley. The windows betray cautiously little of the goings on inside these restructured homes.
Someone whistles ahead. Three notes. High, higher, and low. He hears heartbeats and short, sharp breaths. Beryl swears under her breath, and he hears that too.
“Am I in trouble, Mother?”
Beryl’s knuckles flash white in her tightening grip on his hand. “Whatever happens,” she says, “Stay close.”
Behind them, someone returns the whistle. The same three notes. Like an echo. Then another, high and above them. It becomes a chorus of whistling.
“Is it Uncle Jerim?” This is another name he’s heard before. He’s not sure what any of this means. But when he hears steel scraping free of leather sheaths, oil-slicked blades and hot, stinking breaths, he is rightfully afraid.
The first to whistle is the first to speak. He smells of woolskin and coarse, worn leather. “Hand him over, Beryl. Let’s not make this any harder than it needs to be.”
“The Stewards will decide what’s to be done with him,” she rasps. “This isn’t your place.” He hears Beryl’s blade slide free, sighing on the wind. “Move, Albarran. I will kill you if you touch him.”
Silas hears Albarran’s lips slither back, hears his teeth set into a grin. “Kill him.”
Silas is almost thrown on his ass at the speed with which Beryl course-corrects. Her heel scrapes the asphalt as she whirls, dragging Silas along the way they’d come, and as they reach the end of the alleyway he hears something whistle on the air. Something sharp and oil-coated. He hears sparks fizzle as something else meats it with a metallic clang. Beryl grunts, something swishes, and the Fang in front of them makes a choking noise, and then gurgles. He makes a wet sound like a bucket falling into a well. He does not see how the pavement spatters with red, but he hears it slither down the pavement. He hears his head rebound when it smacks the pavement, too.
He’s tearing down the street. Beryl’s holding his wrist now, though he doesn’t remember when she stopped to adjust her grip. She’s peels down an alleyway that stirs with leaves of rust in the wind. He can smell the faded iron of the linked gate, and mimic’s his Mother’s mad dash up the iron.
He’s only halfway up when he hears stomping boots and hushed voices. Talking about “the kid”. Always the kid. They can’t name him. Or they won’t, leastways.
He hears Beryl curse, and feels her knuckles go white around the back of his cloak. It snags at his throat, straining. His tongue lolls out of his mouth and for a moment he fears the broach will snap.
It does, of course. But only after Beryl has hauled him onto the other side. He’s falling through empty space, shielding his face and arms. There’s a shock of asphalt. His hands and elbow sting with red warmth.
But the fear that grips his chest won’t let that concern him. He wants to cry, but amidst a thousand thoughts overturning each other he’s not sure if he quite remembers how to do that.
He pushes to his knees when Beryl hoists him to his feet. The Fangs fly, fur cloaks flailing. Silas wonders where Elias is. Elias would know what to do, surely. He wants to ask Beryl about him, but he’s too out of breath.
He’s lost track of the labyrinthine twisting and turning. The scented streets run together as Beryl zigzags him across the city. A stitch blossoms in his side as he huffs, and he tastes something coppery in the back of his throat.
Shacks and shanties and rotting wood stenches cluster them in like a web as they weave through alleyways. Narrow paths of dirt and asphalt tangle in Silas’s senses. He kicks up clouds of dirt as he runs, half-dragged by Beryl who is flying forward sure as a spearpoint.
But when thundering boots come pounding out of an adjacent alleyway, just ahead, she is forced to veer off from her trajectory, through rusted metal bins piled high with garbage, and tear through the other side.
They do not see the structures they pass. Gigantic structures built from capsized, titanic boats leftover from the Old World. A single-story network of wheelers, hollowed out and piled two-high. Brick structures, patched or girdled together in twisting steel supports.
Beryl swivels down a side street, sending scents spilling into Silas’s nose. He’s not sure if he’s walked this street before, and hopes his Mother knows where she’s taking him.
Heat buzzes beneath Silas’s skin as they speed through the nighttime streets. Short, sharp shouts punctuate the silence. One-word commands lobbed across roads and alleys and dark corners. And whistling. So much whistling. Their foes whistle to signal their location, and help the others to locate and close in around them.
Beryl has avoided this fate simply by staying ahead of them. But she cannot keep running forever.
Silas’s breaths are labored, and he feels like he’s not breathing fast enough—as if he cannot suck in a big enough lungful of air before his feet pounding forward forces it back out.
Once, he hears three men ahead of him, smells the leather grips of their blades and the crack of joints as they set their shoulders. He would call a warning to Beryl if he only had the breath. Heedless, his Mother plunges through them, worming Silas between their gaps. One of them falls. The other two stumble, dazed and confused at her mad dash forward, forward, forward—so fast that they couldn’t even attempt to strike her before she plowed through them.
Silas would be impressed if he had had that kind of time. Instead his heart slams into his chest. He feels it is straining against the flesh that contains it, threatening to burst at any moment. He wants to cough, but he’s too busy sucking in too-small lungfuls of air.
“Nearly there, baby,” Beryl tells him. And as she says this, a new scented street makes itself known to him: iron and sea-foam.
The Narrows. Nobody lives there unless they have no choice. Is this where his Mother is taking him. To live here? On the outskirts of the city, living in its’ walls’ spilling shadow? Unless—what does she plan to do?
Silas Cord doesn’t see his Mother slam her heels into the asphalt. But when she stops, so does he. She’s still holding his wrist. Her hand is sweat-slick. She lets him go only as long as it takes to grab his face in both hands. “Listen to me, baby.” He smells the salty tears on her cheeks, and hears them drooling down her face, and every one that drops off her chin onto the pavement. “If anything happens, know that I love you—”
Silas is confused. “What are you—” His throat closes up before he can finish. The tears are warm on his cheeks.
His Mother thumbs them away. “Hush, little baby. Don’t you cry. Everything is going to be okay. Now you needs must harken to me.”
Silas nods, though his Mother doesn’t see it. So he answeres, “Y-yes. I’m listening, Mother.”
She explains what he must do. “When the sea-foam scent washes out the iron, you’re going to make a right turn, do you understand me? Don’t stop running, and don’t look back. Uncle Uthrik and Aunt Ev are waiting there for you. They’ll see you ferried safely through the across the causeway and through the Narrows. They’ll get you out of the city safely. Do you understand?”
“I need you to tell me you understand.” There are pounding boots scraping down the street. Intermingling fur scents and heartbeats and heavy heaving breaths.
Silas knows that if he tells her that he understands, he’s like as not never to see her again. He says, “I love you.” and hopes this will prolong their time together.
“I’ll see you soon,” she bends his forehead to her lips. “Go,” she commands, and pushes him lightly, sends him speeding down the street.
Silas is sniffling. He tries to hold back his tears. If he cries, his nose will clog up and he won’t be able to smell the sea-foam. So he obeys. Like a good little soldier. And holds his tears at bay. He listens instead to his Mother scraping her steel free of its sheath.
He doesn’t see the multicolored, ripple-patterned steel from melted-down wheelers leftover from the Old World. He hears it clash against a similar blade, though. Hears wet smacks of fists and flesh and heavier thuds of boots and ribs. Swords scraping asphalt, clattering to the ground. Grunts and short, sharp breaths. He can hear something like gray, coiled ropes smacking the street, and he swallows the bile of his thoughts.
And like an obedient child, he tears down a side street when the sea-foam stench washes the iron out. He hears others shout his name, and a cold hand closes over his heart.
And he wakes.
He is in the wild, sleeping amidst rock and stone. And Uthrik is nudging him with the toe of his boot. “Wake up,” he says. “It’s our last job before we can return to the city.”
Silas Cord rubs the sleep from his eyes, and his mouth quirks into a shrimp-shaped frown. “I know,” he says. “I know.”
Uthrik seems to sense his thoughts. He crouches, joints crunching, and asks Silas, “Was it the same dream?”
“Is it ever anything else?”
He hears Ev shouting from far off, coming closer. “Uthrik! Uthrik, did you wake Silas!”
“He had the dream again!” Uthrik shouts back, as Silas hears Ev come stomping over to them.
“No wonder,” Ev says. “He’s nearly back. Of course he’s dreaming of the city. Why wouldn’t he?”
He wants to say, because I’ve spent the past six years with you. Or, because I should have put it behind me. But the Roamers outside the city have been negotiating an alliance with him for six years. He’s been Steffron’s errand boy, working off his debt until he comes of age to return with Steffron and his Roamers and retake the Fangs.
And once he’s deposed of his usurper, he can finally used his gang to be rid of the monsters that so plagued his parents. To be rid of the Murder of Crows. He’s going to be a Boss soon.
He knows it.
He knows it.
But right now he’s an errand boy.
He wants to cry and rage and shout at the unfairness of it all. But he cannot. Will not. He cages his rage and sadness and fear. He holds fast to his anger and drinks in his venom. These things are not good things. But at least they are his.