6. Watching Closely

They are three former Fangs. Watch them saunter, stepping forward. Fog dances about their ankles as their worn boots scrap the compact earth. gaggle through the forest that embraces their entrance and spilling shadow over all three former Fangs.

It has been six years. There have been trials. Tests. Talks. “To our mutual benefit” they’ve been told. Again and again and again.

Three Fangs have waited six years for this moment. The sun sets in inky displays of brilliant colors these three cannot see. They are ready.

Are you watching closely?

* * *

The attack comes in the early morning hours. Uthrik had set them on a rotational sleeping schedule. Three people were to sleep for half an hour at a time. He wouldn’t chance most of the camp being taken off guard. “We’ve worked six years to gather enough Roamers to return safely to Typhon Quarter,” he’d said. “We’re not about to lose them now.”

The Roamers that accompany them are not, as yet, his own. A man named Steffron commands a few dozen of them, and has lent seven of them to Silas.

They are passing through the forest that is a day’s walk away from the city walls. Silas Cord is weaving around the camp. Ev and Uthrik watch him, closely.

Gorm’s clan is foolish to attack, but Ev’s scouts have told him that Gorm’s Roamers are hungry, and there won’t be a good time to attack in the first place. So.

Silas isn’t the first to see it coming. That’s Uthrik. Always ready. He rips his sword from his holster before the smell of steel can travel downwind to Silas.

“We don’t have to do this,” Ev speaks for the group. “Come with us and there will be food aplenty.”

“You’re wasting your time, Ev.” Uthrik snarls. Silas doesn’t see his whole body, tensed and corded, waiting to spring.

Heedless, Ev plunges down the road at the band of rival Roamers, tensed and waiting. “My name is Ev! We belong to the Fangs—we are escorting the heir to a city gang back into their walls. If you join us, we can help you,” she says. “You’ll not need to fear other Roamer bands in the city.”

They do not speak. They do not move. There is an ambient noise of fidgeting soldiers.

“We’ve got some spare rations,” Ev suggests. “You must be hungry. You don’t need to steal it. We’ve enough to share.”

The Roamers whisper in hushed voices.

And then one of them screams.

And they’re all charging at Ev and Uthrik and Silas and Steffron’s rival band of Roamers.

“They’re attacking!” Uthrik calls.

“No shit!” Ev says.

Silas does not see these Roamers—filthy, emaciated things dressed in faded roughspun cloths, with flashes of color or bright steel they’ve stolen from unfortunate travelers. Some fire spells from iron wands blindly into the band. Silas hears scattered screams. But Steffron and his roamers have iron wands of their own, and they return fire, at first.

Until Ev throws herself into the midst of Gorm’s Roamers, forming precise cuts and bloody cuts with her long blade. She buries herself in the mass of flesh, so close that the iron wands are useless for both sides. No use discharging acrid-smelling spells if it’s just as like to hurt your own forces.

It is less of a battle and more of a butchery. Gorm’s Roamers haven’t even advanced far enough to reach Silas.

But Silas catches a scent above him, which baffles him, as there’s no way anyone could be above—

Oh.

When he stretches his hand out to a finger’s point, he finds a sheer slab of rock piled high and wide, just off the path. And the figure above has the similar worn leather scent as the rest of Gorm’s Roamers. He hears wooden boards creaking underfoot, and wonders if the man has any way of discerning who is winning this conflict.

So while blades clash and blood runs in rivers down the mat of wet leaves, Silas feels his way around the cleft of cold rock, until he finds a natural staircase. Slowly and quietly he climbs, up and up, and up—

—Until he feels the point of a blade pressed lightly against his upper lip, and the scent is closer now. “Hey,” Silas says. “I just want to talk. Can I come up?”

“You’ve had six years to just talk, Silas Cord.”

He knows this voice. “To be fair, Gorm, I have tried. But best not get into that. May I come up?”

Gorm says nothing.

“I’m sorry. Here.” Silas sits back on his haunches and unclasps his swordbelt, and then tosses it off the precipice. “Is that better?”

He does not see Gorm’s scowl, but he hears him slip his blade back into its holster. He follows Gorm up onto creaking old wooden boards. “I’m just here to talk.”

“And what would you like talk to about?” Silas follows Gorm to the precipice. He’s carved himself his own little lookout on the edge of the forest.

Silas waves the matter aside. “Let’s skip the formalities,” he says. He places his hand, fingers splayed, against the small of Gorm’s back. “And get down to business.”

One hard shove, and Gorm topples headlong over the outpost he’s built. He only has time for whoop of surprise before he hits the ground with a sickening crunch.

Table of Contents

Ko-fi

5. One Last Day

“Today is the last day,” Isora tells herself, grinning. She unlatches the padlock on her locker and opens the grated door. Tomorrow is her eighteenth birthday. Tomorrow, she is a Boss, in charge of her own faction of the Murder of Crows.

But first: business.

The hauberk in her locker is made from the ruins of what survived the Great Detonations. Swirls of red and blue and black mark where who linked the ringmail had stripped metal from the Old World’s wheelers to make the armor. And sitting on a shelf atop it is a visorless helm, with infinitesimal slits that she can breathe out of. Elsewise, it is entirely sealed.

She doesn’t need the helm as yet. That is more for battle-yard trials, or assignments where her Father wishes her to engage in more open combat in the street. These are not the assignments he has given her today, though she knows better than to express her gratitiude to him for that.

It will not make what he has assigned her today any easier, elsewise.

Isora heaves the pile of ringed metal over her head and lets it land heavily on her shoulders. She rubs away the pain, the rings only slightly pinching at the boiled leather and the flesh beneath it.

Isora smells her companions before she hears them. Khalee smiles of oiled metal, and Desmon smells strongly of gasoline.

Both have a hint of crow feathers. All three of them have been taught from a young age never to forget their cloaks.

“That sounded like it hurt,” Khalee calls before she enters the room. “You sure you didn’t need any help with that hauberk?” Isora hears Khalee’s rattling at she enters.

“I’ll be fine, thanks,” Isora laughs.

“I expect a promotion once you’re a Boss,” Desmon says. His voice is nasal despite his best efforts. “Don’t leave Khalee and me behind to do the grunt work.” She can feel their breaths on either side of her now as she buckles her bladebelt around her waist.

“I’d better get a position as lieutenant,” Khalee says.

Desmon is quick to chime in, “Me too!”

“Yeah,” Khalee laughs, “Because the boy who broke his nose three times is totally commanding enough for a position as lieutenant of the Murder of Crows.”

Isora raises her hands in a gesture of mock-defense that no one else can see. She places a hand on both their breasts. “Guys, please. We’ve discussed this.”

“The third time wasn’t even my fault!” Desmon whines, “Isora, tell her—”

“Calm down, Desmon,” Khalee says. Isora hears her gums smack as her lips break into a smile. “Think of your broken noses as battle scars for the incredibly stupid.”

Desmon clutches Isora’s arm in both hands, pleads her name. She pulls it back, grinning to herself. “I’ll see what I can do.” She is sure to turn to face the direction of Khalee’s voice. “For both of you.”

“You’ll be rotting in the Third Hell if you don’t make us lieutenants. Remember what the Goodbook says.”

“The worst crime is betrayal,” the three drone together as they make their way toward the exit. Their footsteps echo down the hallway. An announcement of their coming.

Isora can feel the dim warmth of torchlights held on the sconces on either wall. The flames are a gray blur in her vision, nothing more.

Khalee is the first to ask what Boss Ivan has assigned them.

“My f—” Isora’s jaw tightens at the mistake she’s nearly made. She fights down the word rising up in her throat. “Boss Ivan has assigned us to take a collection from Maken, then we’ve got an appointment with Lord Em, and then ditch duty.”

“Ditch duty?” Khalee spits her indignation. “Fuck! Please tell me that one’s optional.”

“Take a wild fucking guess.”

At least we’re not battle-yard champions again,” Desmon says.

“Fair enough,” Khalee agrees.

“Isora, which districts did the Crown appoint Lord Em to rule over again?”

“We’ve been over this, Desmon. Typhon Quarter and Muninn Point. Which did you think he ruled? There’s a reason Father’s told us to meet with him—”

“Father?” Khalee asks.

Isora freezes. Her whole body tenses. She feels a fish wriggling in her stomach. She can feel her friends looking at her. She curses herself inwardly for such a stupid mistake. Such a simple mistake. Even her friends know she’s not supposed to do that. In the back of her mind, a small part of her wonders what would happen if one of them went to Fath—no. Went to Boss Ivan.

She does not bother to correct her mistake. They already know what she was supposed to say. It’s no use dragging the mistake through the mud. “Don’t concern yourself with Lord Em just yet,” she tells her companions. “We’ve a debt to settle first.”

Table of Contents

Ko-fi

The Vile Assembly – Part 4

The crow’s nest was once where the sick came to die.

Those of the Old World used to see their physicians here. Only the skeleton of its structure remains, to here it told. You’ve come here to see her Father.

You would have words with him.

It is three flights of stairs to the throne room; to the high-backed wooden chair that reeks of lemon-scented lacquer. You wrinkles your nose at it from down the hall.

You shoulders a Crow out of her way, grip the blade belted around your waist. It is a comfort, and you holds it like a lever. As if the blade would steer you to your Father.

Your footsteps whisper across the carpet outside the throne room. You can hear each strand bend under your weight, just so. You can smell her Father’s brandy-breath in the other room. You hears his fingers scratch against the scruff on his face. He sniffs audibly.

As you cross the threshold, she hears, opposite Ivan the third figure.

Azoc.

You does not see him in his motley, but you can hears the shuffling. The foot-to-foot dancing and wordless babbling. A flail made of tin cans dangles from a PVC haft in his hands.

Your face twitches in his direction, but you ignore him all the same.

You have grown used to ignoring his presence. Sometimes it feels as if you have imagined the figure.

Perhaps you have. It’s not like you can remember him without my help.

But telltale signs remind you this is not the case. Beleaguered sighs from her Father at his interruptions. The occasional moment of recognition, fast and faint as a candle-flicker. There and gone in an instant, as Ivan does now as Azoc whirs his tin-can flail.

Unless I’ve made this up. Not that you’ll know.

You turn your will to steel and falls to one knee, ignoring the ruckus behind you. Your crow-cloak must be a half-moon behind you. “Your Grace.”

“Isora. Why would you speak with me so late?” he asks. A smile plays across his lips that you cannot see. You know. And he knows that you know.

“What is your will for me and my partners?” Isora asks. “Years I’ve served you. Acted as your hand and executed your will. Trained for this day. And now I shall serve you. How best would you use me?”

Boss Ivan leans forward, resting his elbows on his knees. Isora hears his back crack as he does this. “I will need you and your partners. I have fashioned you into iron and them into carbon. Your leadership will be their forge fire. You three will be as steel.”

You allows him to continue on like this. Your Father enjoys savoring these moments. You’ve witnessed the price of ruining them. Felt it.

“We need fresh meat if we are to end the Fangs once and for all. Our gang must have supremacy in the city. Not just in Munnin Point, but in all districts.”

“You crippled them,” You say, dumbly. “Years ago.”

“There is an old monster in the Fangs. High in their ranks. One of the elders who have been squabbling for years over who shall be their next Boss. She is a pivotal vote. The monster’s a Lordess,” Ivan tells you. “Yet still, she is but Lordess of the gutters.

Azoc flails the tin cans on its PVC haft. Both of you ignore this.

Your Father stands, takes slow careful steps toward you. You can feel his breath on her face now. Hot and moist. Your lower lip is trembling. His fingers softly brush your arms, and you step into his. Your face is smothered in his tunic, ringed by his crow-cloak.

“The Fangs not all gone. They are rebuilding. Regaining their strength. New men seek the title of Boss from their council of elders. And this gutter-lordess can help them recover from their fall. I have built the old guard. You must establish the next generation of the Murder.”

For a moment, you quail. Indecision curdles inside you. You wants to scream. To push him away. But when he holds you tighter, you shudders and steps closer.

“My child,” Boss Ivan breathes. His breath stirs the top of your head. Spittle flecks the crown of your scalp. “The monsters of Sandpiper Quarter have been regaining their strength. They’ve infiltrated Crown-approved information reserves. There is one such reserve here in Munnin Point. It is where you will find the gutter-lordess. She has been its keeper for years. Right under our noses. Our war begins anew.” He squeezes her, gently.

You gasp. Her heart is aflutter and your hands bunch up fistfuls of your father’s cloak. You sucks in a breath between her teeth.

“Will you be ready?”

“Yes, your Grace,” you say. “I will be ready.”

4. Roaming Remembrances

Silas cannot sleep. In the morning, he is to face Steffron’s rival, Gorm, and bring Steffron his rival, Gorm’s, head. The anticipation is excruciating and he cannot bear to dream.

So he thinks. He remembers.

His exile hasn’t been all survival and violence. Sometimes things could get almost quaint.

He can remember the small child, one night in the highlands. He’d meekly asked for food. He’d let Silas get a feel of him. He’d only a shadow of skin, and deep-sunken eyes that couldn’t remember to blink. Silas had given him his share of rations, much to Ev’s annoyance.

(“He’s dead anyway,” she’d said.)

And when he’d scampered off, Uthrik added, “You two hear that?”

He hadn’t. “Hear what?” Silas asked.

“Moves awfully quick for a starving boy.”

Ev had chewed him out herself for that. Reminded him that there are no monsters beyond Morgad. “Just a bunch of suffering fools,” she’d said.

“Does that make us fools?” Silas asked.

“Yeah,” Ev chuckled. “We’re all fools together.”

Silas can remember Uthrik, once, sitting under the burnt remnant of an old poplar, prying some insects off of his flesh with the flat of his dirk. Halfway through, he’d forgotten that dirks tend to be sharp, and by the time he noticed that he’d braced his thumb against its edge, he’d sawed the pad of his thumb down to the bone.

It had bled worse than the Nailed God’s hands, Silas remembers. Ev had bandaged him up, laughing on the while. So much laughter that she was overflowing with it, and it shook her.

Silas can remember how, two days after he’d been accepted by Steffron and his band of Roamers, Ev and Steffron started playing cards together. They made their own, carved out the numbers from little chips of wood. And all the while he talked to him about what life was life in Morgad, and why he should help him return.

(“When you’re old enough, boy,” Steffron had told him, sniffling as if he could scent Ev’s cards. “When you’re old enough.”)

For a while, it became a nightly practice. They would excuse themselves to the two smoothed-over tree stumps in the back of Steffron’s camp, and they would face each other and place bets on each other’s’ cards. Silas hadn’t followed the rules too well. But one night, Ev was so confident in her hand that she’d bet a kiss on the outcome of the match.

(She had been fifteen at the time. To hear it told now, she thought the whole thing quite childish.)

Ev lost.

They quit their game early that night, and told Silas he needed to get some sleep. But Silas had feigned sleep when he heard Ev returning later that night, heard her running her hands through her hair, which he couldn’t see was in disarray. But he’d heard he combing it free of twigs and leaves and aught else.

She still denies anything happened that night.

(Silas is pulled from these memories by others happenings, days after that. When Gorm and his Roamers had ambushed them for the first time. His friend, Barric, who he’d been of an age with, falling into a nearby river and never surfacing. He’d sank like a stone and stayed down there. Silas hadn’t heard anyone stab him. He didn’t think he’d been wounded. It was like Barric was waiting there at the bottom of that lake, for the fighting to be over, and he would surface. But he never did. And then Silas thinks of Wulf, the first boy he’d loved—and how a few months later, during Gorm’s second raid, Silas had found him swaying on the end of a rope like a decoration. A warning. He’d never had a chance to tell him.)

He pulls himself from these thoughts, now. This isn’t the time for them, he thinks. Not now.

Not now.

It wasn’t always like that, anyway.

He can remember the one time he and Gormund got along. Back when Gormund found some spare herbs in the wake of a raid that he thought would soothe the sore throat he’d been having. But all it did was make him prone to stupid observations. He’d talked about how “Time passing is so weird when you think about it.”

So Silas tried some of the herbs himself, and for the rest of the day he’d never had a better friend than Gormund.

And when it wasn’t close to quaint, or horrifying or melancholy it was just. Waiting. Swinging a blade. Leaving runes behind for the next Roamers. Slapping bugs. Foraging and foraging and foraging. From the days the sun burned his flesh away to the days some Roamers lost some digits to the cold. The number of ways they could die became so plentiful it actually started to bore Silas.

Which was dangerous.

(Is dangerous, he thinks, as he lies in his bedroll, not sleeping.)

Because boredom led to thinking. Which sometimes led to too much thinking, which led something coming out one end or the other from the sheer terror that came with waiting for something to happen. Rival Roamers came at any time. Silas would be milling about, listening to Ev and Steffron playing cards while Uthrik did pull-ups on a tree branch. And then the next moment, they could smell torches and steel and stomping boots, and his stomach would drop down to his groin, and he’d be reaching for a blade or running very far away.

Uthrik did that once. And he didn’t come back once the assailants were dead or fled. Silas started to think of Uthrik as another Barric. He just dropped into the water and didn’t come out. Waited too long for the fighting to end and drowned. He was gone for months.

And then he came back. Told them about how he fled into another band of Roamers. He met a woman and fell in love.

“So why come back?” Silas had asked him.

Uthrik had smiled broadly, which Silas did not see, and he ruffled Silas’s hair and told him he missed him. “I wanted for nothing back there,” he’d said. “That woman took care of me. Like you truly do when you love someone.”

“So why did you come back?”

“That’s the trouble with wanting for nothing,” Uthrik had said. “Makes you want anything.

(This, to Silas, is either very wise or very stupid.)

Silas can remember how Uthrik never talked about that woman again. Wouldn’t even mention her name. Ev said he probably got captured. Silas assume he’d made it up. There hadn’t been a woman. There couldn’t be. That kind of thing didn’t just happen.

And as Silas drifts towards sleep, these memories wheel in his mind, fragmenting to slivers of moment, endless and without beginning:

Listening to crickets with Uthrik, who tells him, “It’s okay if you don’t want to win honor and glory.”

“What do you mean?”

“That’s all my Mother used to tell me. I needed to bring glory to my family. The old woman couldn’t wait for me to join the Enforcers, move up in the Crown. Last thing she ever told me was that I would be the Majesty one day.”

“You couldn’t be the Majesty, Uthrik.” Silas had told him.

“Someone forgot to tell her that,” he’d laughed. And then he stopped laughing, abruptly, and said, “She died when I was fourteen. A few weeks before we left the city.”

Silas can remember Ev teaching Uthrik and Steffron to dance while he watched with the rest of the Roamer’s. She’d tapped their legs or arms, or chest to signal the movement. Just the way her Mother had taught her.

“Where’s the music?” Silas had asked.

“What?” He didn’t see how Ev’s eyes widened.

“If you’re dancing, don’t you need music?”

Or the day Uthrik befriended one of Gorm’s hounds who had been left behind after a raid. He’d fed it, bathed it, and took it everywhere with him for months—and for months, Gormund had told him not to trust it. That the dog was a spy. A monster set loose from the city. Or that one day it would turn on us and kill us in our sleep.

Nobody took Gormund seriously—so one day he decided enough was enough, and the Roamers woke up the next day to Gormund serving roast dog for breakfast.

And, in the final unguarded moments before sleep—Silas remembers these things, too:

The rooting, putrid stench of corpses after a raid.

A chill bluff of wind leaking past his cloak in winter.

A wheatfield, bowing under weighted wind only to rise again after his passing.

White-knuckled hands squeaking against blades corded in leather.

The scraping scream of a charging Roamer girl.

His own blade, red and wet and glistening.

Ev saying, “No choice. It couldn’t be helped.”

Ev saying, “Silas?”

Ev saying, “Talk to me.”

Table of Contents

Ko-fi

The Vile Assembly – Part 3

It is the Crow’s Nest. Where the Murder prepares for assignments.

“Today is the day,” Isora tells herself, grinning. She unlatches the padlock on her locker and opens the grated door. Today is her sixteenth birthday. Today, she and her best friends receive their first assignments from her father—his Grace—Boss Ivan.

She is joining the family business.

The hauberk in her locker is made from the ruins that survived the Great Detonations. Swirls of red and blue and black mark where the smith who linked the ringmail had stripped metal from the Old World’s wheelers to make the armor. Isora heaves the pile of ringed metal over her head and lets it land heavily on her shoulders. She rubs away the pain, the rings pinching only slightly.

Isora smells her companions before she hears them. Khalee smiles of boiled leather and blade-oil, while Davion smells strongly of pitch and woodsmoke.

Both have a hint of crow feathers. All three of them have been taught from a young age never to forget their cloaks.

“That sounded like it hurt,” Khalee calls to Isora before she enters the room. “You sure you didn’t need any help with that hauberk?” Isora hears Khalee’s rattling as she enters.

“I’ll be fine, thanks,” Isora laughs.

“I hear we’re getting promoted,” Davion says. His voice is nasally despite his best efforts. “Don’t leave Khalee and me behind to do the grunt work.” She can feel their breaths on either side of her now as she buckles her bladebelt around her waist.

“I’d better get a position as lieutenant,” Khalee says.

Davion is quick to chime in, “Me too!”

“Yeah,” Khalee laughs, “Because the boy who broke his nose three times is totally commanding enough for a position as lieutenant of the Murder of Crows.”

Isora raises her hands in a gesture of mock-defense that no one else can see. She places a hand on both their breasts. “Guys, please. We’ve discussed this.”

“The third time wasn’t even my fault!” Davion whines, “Isora, tell her—”

“Calm down, Davion,” Khalee says. Isora hears her gums smack as her lips break into a smile. “Think of your broken noses as battle scars for the incredibly stupid.”

Davion clutches Isora’s arm in both hands, pleads her name. She pulls it back, grinning to herself. “I’ll see what I can do. It’ll be some time before any of us achieve any rank.” She is sure to turn to face the direction of Khalee’s voice. “All of us. We need to prove ourselves to Boss Ivan first.”

“You’ll be rotting in the Third Hell if you don’t make us lieutenants, when the time comes. Remember what the Goodbook says.”

“The worst crime is betrayal,” the three drone together as they make their way toward the exit. Their footsteps echo down the hallway. An announcement of their coming.

Isora can feel the dim warmth of torchlights held on the sconces on either wall. The flames are a gray blur in her vision, nothing more.

Khalee is the first to ask what Boss Ivan has assigned them.

“My f—” Isora’s jaw tightens at the mistake she’s nearly made. She fights down the word rising up in her throat. “Boss Ivan has assigned us a hunting expedition. We’re to receive orders from him once we’ve packed for a few days. I hear there’s something about a library. Maybe ditch duty after that.”

“Ditch duty?” Khalee spits her indignation. She has heard the stories of ditch duty. Same as anyone else. “Fuck! Please tell me that one’s optional.”

“Take a wild fucking guess.”

At least we’re not battle-yard champions.” Davion says. “Imagine that for a first assignment.”

“Fair enough,” Khalee agrees.

“So where to?” Davion asks. “Boss Ivan?”

“We’re off to see my Father—”

“Father?” Khalee asks.

Isora freezes. Her whole body tenses. She feels a fish wriggling in her stomach. She can feel her friends looking at her. She curses herself inwardly for such a stupid, simple mistake. Such a simple mistake. Her friends know she’s not supposed to do that. In the back of her mind, some small part of her wonders what would happen if one of them went to Fath—no. Went to Boss Ivan.

She does not bother to correct her mistake. Better not to dredge it through the mud. “Let’s go,” she says. And then again: “Let’s go.”

Table of Contents

 

 

Special thanks to my patron on Patreon, Alicia Cameron

3. The Crow’s Nest

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.

And now?

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.)

And yet.

And yet.

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

Just monsters

Just

Table of Contents

Ko-fi

The Vile Assembly (2 of 2)

Isora notices she’s stepped closer to the two men. She can hear the perspiration slithering down Boss Azoc’s face; she’s not sure if it’s him or the rickety chair doing the squealing while he struggles against his bonds. Isora trembles. “Y-y-your Grace,” she says, “What’s going to happen to him?”

“I don’t expect his mind can handle it. Heh. Few could. But we’ll find out.” The two do not see the projection of light filtering through a rainbow of colors, dimmer and brighter, darker and lighter. Boss Azoc still struggles.

“But why are you doing this?”

“Do I detect a note a sympathy?” There is an angry edge to her father’s voice, barely sheathed. “For him?”

“I—”

“Do I?”

“I…no. No sympathy.”

“Good girl.”

They hear Boss Azoc struggling and murmuring. Then all is quiet. They do not see the green fade into his irises. They cannot see the orange gloom, the filtering sunlight, the crow-feathered cloaks on a young girl and an old man with graying temples.

But Boss Azoc does. First he whimpers. Then he screams.

It is a loud and shuddering wail that Isora feels in her bones. She reaches out for something—anything else to listen to. But all she can find is the net of birds taking wing from a tree, fleeing the sound that Isora is stuck with.

Azoc is thrashing while Boss Ivan laughs. Isora stands still, listening to the shrieks. The stomping of feet. She sniffs the air and scowls at the smell.

“The last ounce of courage is trickling down his leg,” she tells her father. “Isn’t this enough.”

She hears her father following his nose toward her, stomping. She takes two involuntary steps backward before he’s holding her hair close to her scalp. She does not move for fear of what he might do next.

“There can be no measure for mercy to monsters! That aside,” his grip on her hair loosens. “This can stop when he tells me who’s next in line to lead the Fangs.”

With a swirl of his cloak Boss Ivan crosses the room toward the screaming, thrashing, Azoc. He cannot see the color in his irises coming and going. He crouches next to him, eyes closed, and whispers: “Where do you billet yourselves. I know you operate out of Sandpiper Quarter. But where do you hide away?”

A muffled scream is his only response.

“You don’t want to disappoint my daughter, do you? Come now. We’re waiting.”

Isora trembles in the corner, reaching out for something else to focus on. But all she finds is a crazed Boss. Maybe two, she wonders. “No sympathy, she tells herself. “It’s only a monster. No sympathy, it’s only a monster. No sympathy, it’s only a monster. No sympathy, it’s only a monster. It’s only a monster. It’s only a monster…”

Her name is Isora. She is the daughter a gang Boss. Her cloak itches.

Today is her birthday.

Table of Contents

Ko-fi