My life’s always been a slate sunset, but it really hit a shit river one cold evening on Pier Thirty-three, Brynn Bay.
Sita and I had nabbed a keg of spikeberry wine and taken it to the pier, where we dangled our legs while we drank it down and hallucinated all night. The sea crashed against the pillars and made the world quake and Sita, prone, moaned and clenched the wood slats ’til her fingers went white. I stood tall at the end of the pier and the sea roared and swayed me back and forth and side to side, but never could topple me. I laughed to the black sky, I raised my fists high and bellowed at the night and called for lightning to incinerate me and scatter my ashes into the bay, but heaven never took to my taunts, so I laughed ’til I cried, I cried ’til I laughed, I laughed ’til I rasped, I rasped ’til I cried again. Sita clutched my legs and threw up all over my boots, then my tummy twisted and I found myself keeled over too. The wine hurtled out our bellies and splattered into the bay.
Sita pressed her face against my ankles. “What’s happening, Kaani?”
“It’s just the wine.”
We laid quiet for a long time as we waited for sobriety’s return, while Brynn Bay hammered the pier.
They found us. I think. It may have been a spikeberry vision. Two men stormed Pier Thirty-three, their only weapons biceps thick as tree trunks, their skin even darker than mine, so in the night, they seemed headless, angry eyes over burly bodies. They trapped us against all of Brynn Bay, a thousand gallons of chilled saltwater, and I had nothing but a flax gown and a oak keg of wine and Sita at my side.
I rolled the keg to the edge of the pier and clutched the bung. “Come closer, and Brynn Bay’s getting drunk on all your precious wine.”
“That’s the Gutterking’s wine. You dump it in the bay, you’ll never pay off that debt. You could spend your life spreading your legs for every man in the city and you’d never make enough. That wine’s worth your life, fifty times over.”
“Fifty of yours too.” I grinned so wide it hurt my jaw. “What will the Gutterking do to you if Brynn Bay drinks up?”
I couldn’t see it, but I sensed their scowls, I sensed the air stiffen and crackle with their violent intent. They advanced. I yanked the bung out and let a gulp of red spikeberry wine splash into Brynn Bay before I jammed it back in. “That’s one life! Back up!”
They did. The tide crashed against the pier and the world swam and intricate patterns glittered on the sea foam. The men muttered as they pondered a new plan. I held my hostage close, the oak cold against my fingers. Sita wiped her mouth and stood beside me.
The men noticed her, and a light gleamed in their eyes. “She’d make a fortune posted in Sava District. A lot more than the ugly one.”
I hissed. Of course Sita would. I pulled her behind me.
The men opened their stances, their fists became open palms, their faces became amicable. “You want a future, miss? You could make more money than you’ve ever dreamed of. I’m Nurul. This is Tcha. What’s your name, miss?”
Sita held my hand and trembled.
“Forget the wine. Come with us and your theft’s forgiven. Don’t you want a future?”
Sita and I backed up against the end of Pier Thirty-three. Night tightened around us. The sun had set long ago and dreamed of never rising again. Up and down the edge of Brynn Bay, the other piers held the odd fisher or midnight wanderer, and mud shacks lined the coastline and brimmed with sleeping souls. I could yell, I could cry out, and people would run to our aid, but Sita and I were the thieves here, the evidence in my shaking hands. Down that thread, a jail cell beckoned, a cell guarded by the Watchguild, and those men were the last men you’d ever want to see if you were a woman.
Nurul took a baby step closer. “The Gutterking pays all his girls a fine advance, twelve silver fingers. That’s two full hands before you service a single client! No more petty theft to get by. That’s a life of leisure. That’s a future anyone would want. Don’t you want that future?”
Sita touched the keg bung. “Would you wish that future upon your mother?” She tore the bung out and the wine gurgled into Brynn Bay. She kicked the keg and it crashed into the water.
The men cried out and lunged at us. I shoved Sita off the pier, then I dove after. Brynn Bay ate us, its maw ice. My skin screamed but my mind didn’t flinch, the pain a welcome shock that reminded me I was alive, reminded me that the thread with Nurul had unraveled. Colors shimmered far beneath us, a blurry sunrise in the depths. I swam. I cut across the bay, Sita in my wake. I hit another pier and Brynn Bay spat us out. We scrabbled up the rough, barnacle-strewn side, then we panted and shivered on that pier ’til a fisherman spat a chaw of sunleaf at us and cursed us for scaring the fish. We stumbled away. On Pier Thirty-three, Nurul scooped the keg out of the water, but from his distraught wail, he’d lost a lot of money, the Gutterking’s money. He and Tcha raced after us.
We ran. We dove ‘tween the mud shacks ’til they gave way to tall, wood and steel building faces with eyes that gleamed torchlight yellow and brick chimneys that belched black smoke. We climbed one. Our fingers were slippery and our minds were fuzzy, but we’d scaled those chimneys a thousand times before, every time the shopkeeps or hawkers caught our fingers in their purses or stockrooms, so Sita and I reached the roof quick. Nurul and Tcha arrived too late. The roofs by the bay jammed into a maze untraceable to anyone on the ground.
Nurul waved the empty keg high and seawater dribbled out the bung hole. His voice was a ghost ship. “This debt ain’t something you walk away from.”
Sita spat but missed his face.
“I almost pity you. Your futures are wilting fast.”
I found a loose slate shingle and cracked it off and hurled it at Nurul, but he blocked it with the keg. I bared my teeth. “Never had a future anyways.”
“You can run today. Tomorrow too. But the Gutterking will find you.”
I belted out a laugh. “We’re two thieves with not a finger of silver. We’re nothing to him.”
“You’re nothing. But she is something.” Nurul grinned at Sita. “With a face like that, she’ll make ten times his best girl. She might even service the pale princes of the Tomb Keep. She’s a damned diamond, and the Gutterking’d be a fool not to snatch her up.”
Sita shriveled next to me. I didn’t feel her heartbeat but I knew it jittered with fear and rage and bitterness as mine did. She clutched my hand and whispered, “Let’s go.”
We scampered across the rooftops with slate shingles that creaked and wobbled and chimneys that puffed out warm clouds that blackened our gowns and smelt of sulfur and sweet sunleaf ash and roasted crayfish. The soot hung low in the sky and blotted out the stars. The Tomb Keep loomed above the city, one full quarter of the horizon, just as dark, not a damn window on all its surface, a hundred smokeless flues stuck out at insane angles. The buildings grew taller. In the streets below, the scant folks shrank to ants, their shrill chatter dimmed by distance, their suspicious gazes glazed over as we leapt from rooftop to rooftop, crept from balcony to balcony, swung from clothesline to clothesline.
The sky lightened. The spikeberry visions had swallowed night fast.
The city roofs grew apart. We dropped down to street level and reached Lyten Temple, ten stories tall, the only structure that dared rival the Tomb Keep in height. Angry orange torchlight spilled from the top and lit the trees and greenery that overflowed from the highest garden to the ground floor. ‘Tween the bamboo and the oversized pitcher plants, patterns swam and shifted in carved stone. I steadied myself on the wall and stared for many minutes at the chaos. Damn. Still drunk.
Sita held my shoulder while the world wavered. The priests with their naked bulbous bellies that bobbed with each step oft paid us no mind, but sometimes they gave us a quick smile or a quicker bow. The scent of sandalwood incense wafted by. I could smell the salt and sweetness and rain in the smoke. Or maybe that was just the wine, I don’t know. A woman with a four-man retinue and a parasol with black lace curtains that almost obscured her ghost-white face walked by. Her bodyguards with their square jaws and icy composure eyed me and Sita, then thumbed the chains and spike spinners on their belts. We averted our gazes ’til they passed, then we peeked in.
I hadn’t seen a pale princess leave the Tomb Keep in years. Not to pray, not to spout platitudes for the crowds to swallow, not for anything. I crept through the quiet temple, Sita but a breath behind. The princess came to the biggest shrine, the one with a six-headed elephant statue made of chilled goat butter and burned incense. We found a shrine ‘side the princess with a baby elephant statue and burned some too. In the collection plate, between browning bananas and wilted flowers and green sunleaves, several dozen fingers of brass and silver laid. One bodyguard approached and loomed behind us, so we crumpled and bowed our heads almost into the incense sand. The seconds hummed by. Smoke circled the room. The priests locked their eyes on the princess and the other worshippers watched and wandered as close as they dared. She finished her prayer and placed a finger carved from blue gemstone on the shrine. The priests stiffened and squeezed close.
I touched Sita’s hand and kept my voice low. “Don’t get greedy.”
The princess stood, then left in a flurry of rustling skirts, and the priests descended upon the blue finger like hyenas. They blocked off the shrine and bared their teeth at anyone that might come near. Some worshippers moseyed close, with faces of pure innocence, but the priests pushed them away and escorted the finger to the back of the temple.
I touched Sita’s arm. “Now.”
We scooped the silver and brass fingers out of our collection plate, stuffed them into our gowns, and scurried out. Not a soul shouted an alarm, everyone too fixated on the princess’ finger. We ran through a dozen streets before we stopped in an alleyway to count our winnings. The sun peeked over the city walls and the silver and brass fingers gleamed in our hands.
Sita’s eyes widened. “Heavens. We’ve never pinched this much.”
No we hadn’t. I didn’t stop to gloat, to raise a fist at the sky and laugh at all its attempts to squash us. We went to a little shop on the corner of Yellowcask and Sweetriver, a shop with all the silver and gold and glittering gems and jewelry and a watchman who leered at Sita. The shopkeep looked up from a bamboo desk. A lens made one eye look enormous and she held the daintiest brush. She scanned our soot-stained gowns and pointed to the exit. “Your kind’s not allowed here.”
I held out two hands of silver. “And now?”
The lens fell out of her eye and rattled on her desk. She took one of those fingers and pressed a straight edge to each hexagonal corner, an ivory ruler along each side, even weighed it on a scale.
I pointed to a necklace behind her, one with blue jade carved into a flower. “How much for that?”
She handed back the finger with a huff. “Where’d you steal this?”
I smirked. “From your father’s codpiece.”
She waved the watchman close. A broad blade appeared in his hand, a heavy butcher knife curved and shaped into a point, a blade which could cut me apart in a flash. Sita hid behind me and her heart thumped against my shoulder.
I set the fingers on the desk and forced a confident grin across my face and clapped Sita’s back. “She works the streets of Sava District. Streetwalkin’ ain’t a crime.”
The shopkeep squinted. “She don’t dress like a streetwalker.”
“Day off. But look.” I pressed Sita forward, even as she wormed in my grasp. “Ain’t that a face men spend their life savings on?”
The shopkeep harrumphed. She toyed with her lens. We stewed in silence while she scanned us from boot to crown. She traded a number of glances with the watchman, then sighed. “Sixteen silver fingers for the necklace.”
I paid her, took the necklace, and we fled the shop right quick. The watchman called back at us, “Where in Sava do you post up, miss?”
We left the shop far behind. The rising sun beamed red across the roads and people trickled out from the houses and shops and inns and soon the streets hummed with life.
Sita slapped my shoulder. “You ass.”
“You had a better cover story?”
She shook her head and murmured an apology. We hugged and for a moment I forgot all about Nurul and Tcha and their nasty faces and their nasty threats, and all I remembered was the way last night’s sunset outlined the Tomb Keep pink and flame yellow, the way all those cloud patterns glimmered across the sky when the spikeberry wine hit us, how Sita and I had laid on Pier Thirty-three and cried at the beauty, how the wine had made the world a little bit softer, a little bit kinder, the edges smoothed out, the day to day pains paved over. And then it’d made us sick.
We went home. Home was halfway down the old clay quarry, the sides stacked with brick shacks that reached for the sun with abandon. Home was bright yellow torchlight that peeked out of one small hut separate from the rest. Home was the way mama’s face lit up when I cracked open the door. Mama tried to stand from her cot but her legs shook like leaves in a storm so I rushed over and sat her back down and hugged her and smelled the cheap pine incense that she’d been burning in her little shrine all day. She sniffed my clothes and smelled the sandalwood incense of the Lyten Temple. Sita joined our hug.
“I got you something, mama.” I showed her the necklace, the blue jade carved to a flower, and mama smiled. A little sad, but mama’s smiles had been a little sad ever since her hip gave out at the Tomb Keep and the pale princesses had dismissed her. I put the necklace on her. Sita found the small safe-box under the cot and took out the silver earrings she’d gotten mama last month and put those on mama too.
I took the brass mirror off the wall and let mama look at herself. “One day I’ll buy you a big blue ballgown, mama, one of those dresses that only the pale princesses wear. I’ll buy you a tiara and gold bracelets and twelve golden rings. You’ll go to a ball in the Tomb Keep and you’ll be the only sunshine there.”
Mama’s smile lost some of its sorrow. “I’d need a lot of chalk dust. They wouldn’t dare let in someone with my skin.”
I frowned. “Your skin’s beautiful the way it is, mama.”
“Nonsense. I need skin like her to be beautiful.” She squeezed Sita’s cheek, and Sita winced and averted her gaze.
Mama took off the jewelry and hid it under the bed and we became three grimy women in a dirty shack again, a place nobody would ever think to rob. Sita boiled a pot of water in the fireplace and made us all tea and goat’s milk.
The steam from the tea made a veil over mama’s face. “Oh Kaani, if you can afford that necklace, it must mean the princesses are paying you more!”
The princesses had laughed in my face when I’d begged for a job washing their latrines. “Yeah.”
“I told you there’s a future serving them.”
After mama served them for sixteen years, the princesses had thrown her away like garbage. “Uh huh.”
“Sita dear, you should ask them for work too.”
“Maybe, mama.” Sita said ‘mama’ with unease. All this time, and she still hadn’t gotten used to saying that, no matter how much mama insisted it.
We all sat beside the window and drank our tea in silence and watched the sky become blue and beautiful, a sky full of possibility and promise.
Three days later, all that promise dribbled down to dirt.
Sita and I sat in Uncle Amit’s bar, the one on the far side of the quarry, glasses of cheap millet wine ‘tween their hands, while the hot, sticky night air made the other patrons snappy. They chatted in hushed tones about sightings of pale princes and princesses all ’round town and some insisted it was a harbinger of bad times, some that it foretold great fortune, some that it didn’t mean a damn thing. I finished my glass and waved a brass finger ’til Amit filled me up again.
Nurul sat ‘side me.
I jumped up and almost knocked my chair over. Sita clutched my arm. Nurul ordered a glass and Amit eyed him for a spell, but when Nurul didn’t wear the slightest aura of violence, Amit shrugged and served him. I spied Tcha outside the bar, leaning against a brick wall, a big bone-cutting blade on his belt, his eyes empty of anything but malice.
Nurul downed his millet wine. “The Gutterking cut off one of Tcha’s balls.”
I shivered and looked for an exit. Behind Amit lay a storeroom, and maybe a window too.
“The Gutterking paid us to guard his wine and we failed. Tcha lost half his manhood because of you. Was it worth it?”
“We don’t pay off the wine by week’s end, the Gutterking’ll have my throat. You see the bind I’m in?”
“The wine’s never coming back.”
Pain ran rivulets through Nurul’s voice. “And I’ll never raise that much money in time. What am I to do, young miss?”
“It’s none of my business.”
“It’s all of your business. You caused this mess. If I give the Gutterking your friend and he pimps her out on Sava District, I’m in the clear.” He leered at Sita ’til she all but curled into a ball. “I don’t see any other option, though. Do you?”
“Run.” No, not an option, not with the savages swarming the countryside beyond the walls, but I couldn’t think of anything else.
Sita peeked out from behind my shoulder. “Hide.” Also dubious, with the Gutterking’s spies everywhere from Brynn Bay to Lyten Temple to even the Tomb Keep.
Nurul shook his head and stroked his scruffy beard. “I have a wife and daughter. Tcha has six kids. You think he could hide them for long? Hell, you couldn’t even hide your own mother from me.”
I mouthed a curse and stood with the speed of an elephant. Sita too.
“Go on. Run to your mommy, kids. Hide her. See if it works.”
We stepped outside. Tcha loomed but didn’t advance, so Sita and I fled through the maze of shacks, up and down the hills of the old quarry, ’til we reached home. We stopped in the alley across the way and spied on mama through the window. She sat on her bed and sipped a cup of tea and knit a ball of flax and wore the same sad smile.
Sita’s eyes were a crucible. “Nurul’s right. Where would we hide mama?”
I had no answer. I’ve never had answers to nothin’, I just pinch fingers from the temples, or wine kegs and tea tins and goat butter bricks from bars and taverns, and Sita helps. We eat or drink what spoils we can, and the rest we sell to a grimy pawn shop owner on Sweetriver. It was inevitable I suppose. One day we’d pinch something too rich for us rags and this quaint living we make would flutter apart, ashes in the breeze. But I’ll be damned if I ever thought a wine keg would kill us. I put my hands atop my head and cursed.
Sita hugged herself. “You think they’ll hurt mama?”
“Of course. They’re men.”
We watched mama knit for a long while. Neither of us dared to leave the alley, as if Tcha would appear and strike us down. The buildings kept us in shadow and silence and there we agonized over our situation.
Sita slumped against a wall. “I could do as Nurul says. Give myself to the Gutterking.”
“No!” I caught my shout before it spilled into the street and stuffed it back down my throat. “No.”
Sita looked glad I said that. Sad too. I’m sure a part of her would do anything for mama, ‘specially after mama took her in after Sita saw her own mother bobbing in Brynn Bay years ago. I’d found Sita perched on the edge of Pier Seven, her face all tears, her eyes lost in twelve hells, her body a shivering lump of everything wrong with this world, and I’d taken her back to mama’s hut where she curled in the corner by the chimney for a couple days and cried and cried and cried. Many months later, she’d told us the pale princes had raised the taxes on her home and her mom had been foolish enough to take a loan from the Gutterking, the kind of loan that’s always just a little too impossible to pay off, and it’d spiraled from there.
I hugged Sita. “I’ll kill them before I let anyone pimp you.”
That was it. I’d kill them. The Gutterking didn’t know ’bout mama, didn’t care. But Nurul and Tcha did. I’d kill them with my own two hands that couldn’t cut chicken right and my own gut that flipped at a few flicks of blood. Damn. But I would I do it. “Sita. I’ll kill Nurul and Tcha.”
“They’re twice your size. By Brynn Bay, I’ve seen sailors their size take twelve blades to chest without a cry.”
“I’ve seen it too. Those same men topple the instant a blade nicks their neck or pricks their skull.”
Sita looked into my eyes. Those crucibles were aflame. “Don’t be stupid, Kaani. You could die. If we go my route, nobody dies.”
“That’s the future you want? Lying on a bed, letting in monstrous men with diseased dicks, while the Gutterking’s pimps peek through peepholes and later beat you for not moaning loud enough?”
Sita curled into a ball. “In that future, mama lives. You too. Me too.”
“No. In that future, you die. Not your body, but your soul will burn to cinders and your smile, the one that warms me when I wake like a summertime horizon, that smile slinks away, and me and my mama will watch you die just like you watched your mama die.”
Sita slapped me so hard I smashed into the gravel street. Needles danced on my cheek. She apologized and hugged me and massaged my face.
“I’ll kill them, Sita. If I’m not back by midnight, hide mama. I don’t know where, but try your best.” I pushed her off and strode away, away from mama, and left Sita shaking in the alley. I wove through the maze of shanties back towards Uncle Amit’s bar. I figured a plan would come together as I walked, but boy was I wrong. My mind stayed blank as a backwater, and all that came together were the puzzle pieces of panic.
A pitter patter of soft boots chased me down and Sita walked ‘side me. “When every last guild refused to give you an apprenticeship because you were a woman, I was there. We watched those futures fade together. When you nabbed your first fingers from a collection plate, I was there. We became thieves together. When you kill your first victim, I’ll be there. We’ll become murderers together. Blood on your hands will be blood on mine.”
Her voice quivered but her heart shone through her fear. For all her shyness, for all the times she’d hid behind me, she’d never left me to fend for myself. A shiver shook me, the thought of having to bury Sita, the thought of seeing Sita, limbs twisted in an awful pose, blood soaking the gravel road beneath her, and I almost shouted and pushed her away. But she’d never back down, never give up on me. I grasped her hand and she clutched me back. Her touch was the only torch in today’s night.
Sita steered me away from Uncle Amit’s bar ’til she found a shop carved into the quarry wall. Within, a hundred blades and clubs and picks and chains and spike spinners hung with abandon ’round a plump teapot of a woman, her arms posed like teapot handles, the shape of many blades pressed against the underside of her apron. She moved with the speed of someone used to violence. Her simmering smile made me shiver.
Sita picked out a big broad blade, the same blade butchers used, the same blade murderers used, heavy enough to cleave bone, long enough to dance with swords, and handed it to me. It felt like a bar of solid iron, so heavy I dropped it and trembled. All those instruments of killing, all that steel that promised futures of bloodshed and bitterness, they all glared at me when the sun hit them just right, like they knew I had the dainty hands of a thief and not the callused claws of cruelty, like they knew I had no business playing with them. It was too real. I ran out the shop and slumped into an old quarry pit and breathed in, breathed out. Breathed in, breathed out. The sun burned hot and the humid air turned my palms clammy and the sharp gravel was a needlegrass field under me.
The sun blocked out. Sita stood over me, a woodcarving knife in each hand, blade no longer than her foot, and gave me one. It felt lighter than a pebble so it seemed less real, less predictive of a terrible future than those butchery blades. It made murder easy.
I hid it in my gown. “Why not poison instead?”
“There’s a cutting edge and a sharp spike for sale on every corner, but we don’t know the first thing about poisons. We don’t know how they take, how fast they work, or where they’re sold. And we don’t have much time. We better act before they get mama.”
We did. We hurried back to the alley outside mama’s hut and spied on her through the window. She still knitted her flax bundle and sipped her tea, but now she chatted with someone. Sita and I crept closer ’til we saw them. Nurul. He sat ‘side mama and nibbled a biscuit and held his own teacup with two fingers. Big man, acting like a prissy preena. He saw us and a speck of smile flashed ‘cross his face, but he kept on talkin’ to mama. We stormed in.
Mama’s face lit up. “Kaani. Sita. This nice gentleman says he knows you.”
Sita and I sat on either side of mama like her bodyguards.
“Nurul has a daughter your age, Kaani. You and her would get along.”
I wanted so bad to ram my new murder tool into Nurul’s temple, all my hesitations gone when I stared down that sleazy scumbag, and I knew Sita felt the same. But mama was here.
“Nurul says he knows of a job where you could be servants to the pale princes! Oh, it sounds so wonderful.” Mama stroked Sita’s hair. “And it’s a lot of money. You girls should do it.”
Even heaven itself couldn’t have given Nurul a wider smirk. His smugness filled the air. I simmered, my fingers on my weapon, my legs shaking.
Sita slid her hand inside her gown, no doubt clenched on her knife too. “Where’s Tcha?”
“His youngest fell ill. He went home and took care of his boy.”
“It’s a beautiful day. Why don’t we talk outside?”
Nurul chuckled. He saw our hands inside our gowns and I bet he knew we held tiny knives, and he saw our quivering legs and heard our quivering voices and he’d have to be an idiot not to guess we had murder on our minds. But he set down his teacup and went outside anyways. I bet he knew we’d never harmed a rat in our lives, and he trusted his brawny arms to fend off any pathetic attacks we tried. We followed him.
We wended through the shanty maze of the old quarry, so far away that mama would never hear a word or cry. The gravel cracked underfoot and the blistering sun beat down hard on us ’til sweat danced down our pits and foreheads and the scent of woodsmoke from every rotting oak shack wafted by as we climbed the stone terraces. We came high above all the shacks, all the way to the quarry lip. Nurul put hands to hips. Sita’s face twisted and her knife came out, but the sight of that baby-sized spike only made Nurul guffaw.
Nobody moved for a long time. The sun stretched our shadows ‘cross the whole chasm.
I rubbed my wrist. “Nurul, your daughter’s my age. How would you feel if the Gutterking pimped her to pay your debts?”
I wanted an explanation, a long-winded, blubbering bundle of justifications. I wanted Nurul to squirm as he imagined what she would go through, and then I wanted him to squirm when he thought about it happening to Sita. I wanted the weight of empathy to hang heavy on his neck and shake his soul. But he, eyes empty, just shook his head. “No.”
And that was that. There was no reasoning with Nurul. He had his people he’d look out for, and we had ours, and there was no reconciliation, no future where we compromised, where we went our separate ways with a future for us, for him, for his daughter, for our mama. I swallowed my hopes and steeled myself.
I slammed into him. I tried to shove him off the quarry rim, but he was Pier Thirty-three and I was Brynn Bay. I crashed, he swayed but stayed solid, and I splashed off. Sita lunged too, her blade a glint of rage under the bright sun. He caught her wrist and twisted it ’til she screeched and wriggled and was useless. I unsheathed my knife. Nurul ignored me, too busy trying to get Sita to drop hers, so I jammed the blade into his leg, right near his crotch. He howled and kicked me and the sun blinked out.
I thought I tasted spikeberry wine.
Light blinked in. My head pounded, and a little lick of lightning crackled inside my skull with each heartbeat. The sky shone brighter than heaven. I heard rasping, choking sounds. I clawed the gravel and came to my feet. Halfway down the quarry, Nurul dragged Sita by her neck. He’d taken our knives and his pant leg was soaking red. All I had was two handfuls of broken pebbles and a bruise the shape of Nurul’s boot. Useless. But I gave chase anyways. I skidded down the stone walls and raced towards Nurul and peppered him with a shower of small rocks. He ignored me. I found chunks of shale and shattered them on his back ’til he cursed at me. I found a heavy brick and lobbed it at his neck, and it cracked and sent him reeling and Sita broke free.
She scurried into my arms. We hugged while Nurul groaned and climbed back up. All around us, people peeked out of their shacks and stared at the commotion, but not a soul intervened. Nobody ’round here risked a finger for anything or anyone else. They watched the scene from the comfort of their shadows.
Nurul stood tall and cleared his throat, his voice an ocean of rust. “I’ll kill your mama.”
Then he toppled over. I flinched. Sita clutched me. For many moments, we waited for him to move, but he never did. He never moved again. And only then did I notice the long, thin trail of dark red that ran from the quarry rim down to his leg. I’d killed him many minutes ago when he’d kicked me.
We ran and ran and ran and ran, through empty street, through busy street, through plaza, through alley, through the entire city, and we somehow found ourselves on the banks of Brynn Bay, our legs dangling off the side of Pier Thirty-three once more.
Sita leaned against me. Our hearts hammered in unison. We stared at ourselves in the water. Not a blot of blood on either our hands. I had a bruise on my forehead and she had one on her neck, but we looked about the same as we always did. We’d graduated from thieves to murderers, and we looked the same. We looked the same.
Sita tucked her head to my chest. Sobs hung in her throat like dew. “It’s not over yet.”
I knew it. “Tcha.”
Sita and I stayed on the rooftops all day. We watched over mama, we watched over Uncle Amit’s bar where we last saw Tcha, we watched over Nurul’s corpse, which a pair of watchmen soon dragged off to the crematorium by Lyten Temple, where they turned it into black smoke and memories. We watched a woman our age come to the crematorium just too late to see her father’s body, we watched her cry and wail at the watchmen who, with contempt in their eyes, shoved her off. The woman took her tears to Lyten Temple and we followed.
We found a shrine near her and pretended to pray. She sat on her knees before the six-headed elephant statue and rocked back and forth and murmured as the sandalwood incense smoke spiraled ’round her in a comforting cocoon. Her grief touched the priests and the other patrons and they too gathered round and prayed and swayed with her. Sita welled but my heart was steel. I skimmed a few fingers from the collection plate.
In time, the sorrow dulled. The sun went down, the patrons filtered out, the priests wandered away, the cocoon dissolved, and Nurul was still ashes in the sky. His daughter, gait careless, eyes twelve oceans away, left, and we did too.
Sita went home to mama while I stayed on a nearby rooftop and watched over them all night. The next night we traded watches. Mama ran out of tea and biscuits and lamb shanks to cook, so I went to the market on Yellowcask and Sweetriver and bought some with the fingers I’d stolen. Mama seemed happy, and she never asked where I went all night, or where Sita went all night, or what became of Nurul and his job serving the pale princes. And Tcha never appeared again.
It bothered me. It bothered me enough that one warm night when the black smoke from all the chimneys had swallowed the stars, when the looming Tomb Keep seemed invisible in the sky, when Sita and mama had fallen asleep, the yellow glow of the hut faded to red embers, I left my post. I crept across the roofs back to Uncle Amit’s bar and slipped inside.
This late, there were few patrons, but one of them was Nurul’s daughter. I took a seat ‘side her and ordered a glass of millet wine. She didn’t recognize me. Her eyes brimmed no more and her poise was stone. For an silent minute, we drank our drinks, the only sound the clink of glass on the marble countertop and the murmur of the other patrons and the nervous scuffling of Uncle Amit behind the bar. He knew both of us, and his shifty eyes couldn’t help but clue me in that this woman and I together was bad, bad business.
I didn’t care. “It’s late for someone young as you.”
Nurul’s daughter barely looked at me. “And you.”
“I’m looking for a man named Tcha. Ever heard of him?”
Yaela’s eyes widened and I leapt over her walls of disinterest. For a while, she looked me up and down, down and up. “Tcha’s dead.”
“The Gutterking cut one of his balls off. The wound got infected. He was already in debt to the Gutterking so he couldn’t afford a doctor. The crematorium ate him last morn.”
So that was it. It seemed too easy, almost silly. This threatening monster that me and Sita feared had died of an infection. I wouldn’t have to murder anymore. We were free from this mess. The black sky loosened its grasp from my neck and I exhaled.
“Tcha was widowed with six kids. I support them now, because no one else will.”
“I’m so sorry.”
I stiffened under Yaela’s hellish gaze. I swallowed and ran my next words through a few filters. “I’m sorry because it must be hard for you.”
“It is. And since dad died, I have to support my mom too.”
“Maybe I could help.” I slid to her half a silver hand that I’d pinched from Lyten Temple earlier that day.
Yaela swatted the fingers away and they clattered on the floor and sent all the patrons’ hands to the blades and Uncle Amit’s hands under the bar top. Yaela’s eyes held heaven’s hate. “I don’t need your charity.”
I collected the fingers. “How else will you support seven others?”
“The Gutterking offered me a job. If I nab the thieves that pinched his wine and killed my father, he’ll pay me well. All I need is their heads.”
I shivered. “You ever killed anyone?”
“Do you really want a future as a murderer, Yaela?”
“No. But all the guilds refused me work because I was a woman. One man even winked and said he had a job for me in Sava District. And that is one possible future, me posted on the street corners. Or me as a thief, slipping my hand into the odd purse or breaking into the quiet mansions by the Tomb Keep. Or me as murderer.” Yaela sipped her drink and her eyes glazed over. “I think I’ll take the last future.”
“You might die.”
“I know. And then Tcha’s eldest might take the job and avenge me. And the Gutterking will have us little folk running ragged, killing each other for fingers, killing each other for revenge, killing each other for a future, and it’ll never end. The slums will burn and churn and the Gutterking and all the pale princes and princesses will till our corpses and keep on living their grand lives and I’m just one drop of blood in the battle for this city’s soul.”
I shut my eyes. We were too damn similar, me and her. If we’d met under different circumstances, we’d have been silt and shale. But now she was going to kill me. Or I her. Someday. Somehow. And if I killed her, another would come for me, and if she killed me, Sita would come for her. All over a keg of wine. What a waste. I downed my drink and went to leave.
Yaela called out, “My gut says I’ll see you soon. That our futures are intertwined.”
She raised her glass. “To our futures.”