Her name is Isora. She the daughter a gang Boss. And she can’t sleep.
She has returned from her trip to kill a monster, through a forest of steel that nobody can can see. Not since the Great Detonations. Twisted, jagged metal spires whose purpose has long been forgotten. They are what remained of the Twenty First age, before the Detonations, long ago. The event that blinded the world.
As for the other senses:
She could hear leaves of rust peel away from the steel ruin in the soft breeze. She could smell their parchment-thin sheets as they sway through the air and settle on the ground. She could feel their the tremble of their ever-so-light impact as they hit the ground like a featherfall.
Now Isora lies staring at the barrack-ceiling. She wants to sleep. But the summer heat forbids it. But Boss Ivan has confined her to the barracks—he’d wanted her last target alive. So when he heard her, Khalee and Desmon dragging the Fang’s body slithering behind them. Well.
He wasn’t happy.
Isora—the Boss’s daughter—tosses and tangles her sheets, though she wants to sleep. But her sheets are damp with sweat and cling to her in the thick, soupy air. “Khalee?” she hisses. “Are you awake?” She knows she hasn’t returned from the infirmary. Khalee was carted off by others in the Murder upon their return. Their target had been fast, and they hadn’t even heard his poniard slip free of its sheath. There was only a wet squelch—and then Khalee was screaming, and Isora could hear the blood drooling down her shin.
(She pulls herself away from these thoughts, then. She knows the risk of reliving them. Falling into a sunken place where pain is all there is.)
Isora wonders if she can sneak to the infirmary. Except if she’s caught—if her father—no, if Ivan catches her…
(She cannot allow herself to call him Father. It is forbidden.)
Hadn’t Khalee been there for her since the beginning? When they were all children, doing the menial tasks like digging the latrine pits? Khalee had been one of the bigger children that Ivan had plucked off the street and given a home in his gang. She’d taken Isora under her wing, and—
(Isora bites down her laughter as she thinks this. Wings and Crows and all that.)
She’d kept the older Crows away from her for as long as she could. Boss Ivan preferred to let them reign as they would. If his daughter couldn’t fight them off, this was her fault. But if Khalee wanted to help Isora. Well. There’s nothing wrong with that.
And then Ivan put blades in their hands.
Practice blades, leastways, wooden and weighted with lead rods and scented in heavy coats of oil. An imitation of what they could expect on the streets. The blades were theirs to use as they chose until they broke them, or were judged adept enough for live steel. And as more and more Crows picked up sharp blades, Isora had realized she wasn’t improving fast enough.
So she went to Desmon.
Rather, Khalee went to Desmon, one night. And left Khalee waiting in the biting cold of the practice yard, shivering in her crow-feather cloak until she came hauling Desmon out as he hollered for his blade.
The sound of its familiar weight smacking the syntha-grass shut him up.
“Teach me,” was all Isora had told him, lips peeled back in a crescent.
He’d hrmed and hawed. She could hear his fingernails scraping the back of his neck. “How many welts is too many?” he’d asked.
“As many as it takes.”
“Hope you heard that, Khal’!” Desmon shouted. “As many as it takes!”
And as he taught her, Isora began to realize something: Desmon wasn’t particularly exceptional. The only reason he’d risen to such prominence among the bigger Crows was because the boy moved like he didn’t know pain. Isora smacked him with her practice blade again and again and again and he. Just. Kept. Coming.
He broke his nose for the first time that night.
One night, when they were lying in the syntha-grass, sweat sheened and cooling, she’d asked him, “How do you tune out all that pain?”
“I don’t,” he confessed. “I just don’t like to lose.”
* * *
Once, Boss Ivan made Khalee and Desmon duel during practice. Isora had listened, breathless, to every crack of their practice blades. The scrape of boots across the syntha-grass. The salty smell of sweat as it spilled down them in sheets. Grunting and the spray of spittle-flecks. The oily lacquer on their wood.
Khalee had caught her blade on his chin and split his lip open. So he thanked her by breaking his blade over her back.
It had been breaking for some time, actually. It could only sustain Khalee’s talentless, brutish swings for so long.
They’d received their live steel that afternoon. And that night, Isora had heard Khalee return to the barracks after bedtime, humming quietly too herself. She’d said she was only out for a walk. But her lips had smelled faintly of dried blood.
(Khalee and Desmon spent the next two weeks staying three feet apart from each other at all times.)
* * *
When Isora got her own blade a week later, they were all sent to a rival gang’s territory: Boss Fremin’s district. The Majesty had offered Fremin his support. But Ivan’s spies relayed that they were still in negotiation.
And. Well. Accidents happen.
Ivan said Fremin was a monster. And monsters couldn’t be countenanced.
She remembers the crunching of boots as her Father—
(Boss Ivan Boss Ivan Boss Ivan)
—led them quietly through his district. It was a simple in and out. Complicated by the fact that Boss Fremin had a few consiglieres in line to take his place. Isora and her friends had been dispatched to…dispatch them.
She’d spent that night hunched over the new latrine pit, Khalee holding her hair back as as Isora vomited, untangling the knots.
They were just monsters, she’d told herself when it was done. She hadn’t even punched steel into anyone’s belly. But still. Still. When she came back to the Crow’s Nest, she’d washed her skin red and raw and it still didn’t feel like enough. She’d wanted to turn herself inside out and scrub all that clean too. She felt all-over dirty. Wrong. She’d washed her hands again and again and again until they bled and dried and cried but it still wasn’t enough.
They were just monsters—