Aphelion Issue 274, Volume 26
July 2022
 
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Lady of Knives

by Chad Banks


The sun was still glaring past the great dome of the House of Worms when Mule and I found the boy with his stomach ripped open. We were pursing in the Bazaar, Mule moving quietly through the thick crowds down on the street, picking his targets, me caterwauling, watching out for town men or worse. I had just jumped from one roof to another over a narrow alley, when I heard a low moan float up out of the shadows. I froze for a moment, on all fours, peeping down over the edge into the gloom. I couldn't see what had made the sound. I almost turned to leave. Be an urchin your whole life, you learn a thing or two. One of them's don't go looking for trouble in dark places by yourself. Better to be a scared dog than a dead cat. I fidgeted a little on the edge of the roof until the cat in me won out. The little bastard does that more often than can really be healthy.

I hooked my hands around the edge of the roof and flipped my legs down over the side. Carefully lowering myself until my arms were at full extension, I dropped the rest of the way, landing on the balls of my feet and then turning a quick somersault to lessen the impact. I pulled out my knife.

He was slumped against the wall a little ways from me, an indistinct blob down here below the sharp line of sunlight against the upper reaches of the walls. I took a soft step forward. He moaned again, shifting slightly, and I tensed up and hopped a few steps back, blade at the ready. I'm more for running than fighting, small as I am. That's why Mule purses and I look out, but when the shape didn't move again or make another sound, I got my blood up and stalked over.

He was in bad shape, I give you truth. He stank of blood, and his arm was wrapped tight around his belly. He was probably around Mule's age, somewhere in that indistinct area between me and grown. Another urchin to be sure. His clothes were ragged and dirty, but he had a pair of boots on. Boots of all things! I might have nicked them right there, but another of those things you learn as an urchin is never trust what someone's telling you when you don't know them. This boy was telling me he was dying, but maybe he was lying.

I ran straight up to the alley mouth and gave a shrill bird whistle that Moxie taught me when she made me a part of the pack. Mule was there quick as cats, a worried look on his face, but I gave him the carefree and motioned for him to follow me. When I showed him my find, Mule sighed heavily and shook his head.

"I know," I said. "He's got boots, though."

Mule ignored me and squatted down next to the boy. When Mule tried to pull the boy's arm away from his belly, the boy moaned again and jerked away. He had about as much fight in him as a slave at midnight though, and Mule was strong. When we finally got a look at the wound, I let out a low whistle. It was a ragged, ugly thing, all gape and horrible. Mule gave me a significant look, and I nodded worriedly. This was a hurting not a killing. The boy was dead, but he'd be a long while with it. By the look of him, he already had been.

I poked at the boy's shoulder, "Hey!" No response. I poked him again, a little harder, "Hey, knife, what happened? Who shivved you?" The boy moaned again but didn't say anything else. I frowned. "Yeah, I heard. What else you got? Who shivved you, knife? Wasn't growns? Town men? Who?"

So focused were we on the dying boy, that neither of us heard the footsteps behind us until a voice said, "Cor! What you done, knives?"

I jerked about to find a boy about my size standing behind Mule. He was craning his neck to try and see around the bigger boy. Mule turned and blocked him with one shoulder. I hid my knife behind my forearm and peeked around my packmate's bulk. "You can't afford it. It's ours. Scarper."

He stuck out his chin and put his hand behind his back. "Gettin' a Bladefish Boy's blood up, right? Maybe that's a bad idea."

I snorted, "What are you stupid? My mate's as big as both of us, and we're both armed. You'll be dead quicker than this other one. So it's ours. Scarper."

Mule cracked his knuckles ominously, and I could see the boy's shoulders slump slightly. "All right, knives. Were only playin'." We watched him slink back out into the chaos of the Bazaar. He kept looking back over his shoulder as he did it, which I didn't like much.

"Think he'll bring back more?"

Mule only shrugged and turned back to the dying boy. I put my knife away and was about to resume my questions when Mule's hand suddenly snaked out and grabbed the dying boy's arm. My heart jumped into my throat as my packmate turned the dying arm over to reveal a small tattoo on the inside of the wrist. A stylized wave.

"He's a Bathhouser!" It came out as a squeak, and I cleared my throat.

Mule was already running to the mouth of the alley. I started looking for the nearest drainpipe to climb, but stopped myself. My stomach sank as I remembered the things I'd said to the Bladefish Boy. Mule came back, shaking his head.

"Bladefish fool already gone?" Mule nodded, his face a mass of worry. I scuffed my toe against the cobblestones and whispered, "I claimed the kill, Muley. If he tells someone, and it gets back to the Bathhouse-" I didn't have to finish the sentence. I crouched down next to the boy. "Okay, now it's serious, knife. Who shivved you?"

I couldn't tell if the boy even heard me anymore. His eyes were lidded, and his breathing was shallow. I poked him in the shoulder, but all he did was moan. I growled, "He hasn't got enough fight left in him to talk. Maybe if Tinny were here." I perked up and had to stifle a yell, "Tin Boy! Maybe Tinny can give him some medicines, and he can tell us who shivved him. Then we won't be on the hook for it!" Mule gave me a doubtful look, but I just glared at him. "You got a better idea? Or would you just rather we all got shivved?" That was the end of our little one-sided argument. I left Mule standing over the boy we hadn't shivved and headed for home.

Moxie, Tin Boy, Mule and me live in a burnt out theater in Luckfall, right near where the last bits of the Bazaar tumble down into the canal that splits the two districts. It's not a long run, from where I started, especially when you're like me and do most of the trip on roofs, but it takes longer when there's a damn parade in the way. Some pasha's son had arrived in the city and he and his wealth and slaves where sporting through the streets on their way to the palace. There were soldiers in finery and house slaves in more finery throwing bread (whole loaves!) into the crowd. There were carts displaying alchemical engines, and even elephants! Whole real elephants to gawp at, and a little boy in a palanquin dressed in clothes that were worth my life. I wove through the crowds as quickly as I could, jealousy making me wonder what it must be like.

I got across the canal on one of the many lines that spanned it between high roofs, ran a short distance farther, and was home. I climbed through my window on the second floor and ran down the stairs past Moxie sitting on her couch and playing a flute and into Tin Boy's room shouting "Tinny! Tinny! Tinny!" all the while.

He was sitting at his workbench -- back to the door -- like most always, fiddling with the musket he'd been building for awhile now. I stared at the back of his head and panted heavily until I could muster enough breath for another, "Tinny!"

His head came up, and he stared at the wall in front of him instead of turning around. "I heard you the first three times, Monkey."

"Mule and I found a dead boy in the Bazaar. We need you to fix him up so he can talk."

He turned around fully at this. "I may be good with medicines, Monkey, but there are some things even I --"

"He's not dead yet. I'm not stupid." I glared at him. "I mean he's going to be dead soon. His belly's torn open. We need you to put some fight back into him so he can tell his tale."

"Hardly the sort of thing we usually get worked up about, Monkey," came Moxie's voice from behind me.

I turned. "It's really important, Moxie! Someone shivved him, and you're always saying 'Know who's about with knives, and you stand less of a chance of getting cut'."

I heard Tin Boy shift back around on his bench and say, "Probably it was just some other pack, or even town men. Anyway I'm busy --"

"Hang your stupid musket, Tinny! This is important!"

He shot a glare at me over his shoulder. "Not the best way to ask for my help, Monkey. Scarper."

I was about to retort when Moxie's voice cut me off, "Peace! The both of you! Tin's right, Monk. It was probably just --"

"He's a Bathhouser." That shut them both up for a moment. I watched as they gave each other a long look.

"Did anyone see --"

"A Bladefish Boy. 'Bout my size. Didn't know him." I took a deep breath. "Moxie I ... I claimed the kill." Moxie's face went blank as she stared at me. I shifted uncomfortably and murmured, "He has boots. When was the last time any of us got boo --"

Moxie chopped her hand at the air to cut me off and said quietly, "Get your powders together, Tin. Do it fast. Maybe we can get some answers before thirty screaming Bathhousers come breaking down our door and asking for them."

Back in the alley, we found Mule leaning against a wall and juggling some pebbles idly. The boy with his stomach ripped open was still alive, barely. Big black flies were crawling all over his middle, and he moaned a lot more now, but softer. Tin Boy knelt down and looked at the wound, then whistled softly. "This is a bad one."

Moxie frowned. "Can you get any fight back into him? Get him to talk?"

Tin Boy peeled one of the boy's eyelids back and poked at his neck, "I doubt it. I'm hardly a Guildsman, and none of my powders will be strong enough to do much." He sighed. "Monkey, how could you be so stupid?"

I wrung my hands. "He's got boots though! How was I supposed to know -- "

"Maybe if you tried using your eyes!"

I put my hand on my knife and snarled, "Maybe I could try using yours!"

From behind me, Moxie cuffed me across the back of the head. "Peace!"

Maybe the commotion roused him a bit because the dying boy suddenly shifted and moaned something that might have been words. Tin-Boy leaned closer so his ear was level with the boy's mouth. "What?" The boy moaned again, and Tin Boy sat back on his haunches. "He's saying something about a 'lady of knives,' whatever that is."

I fidgeted, "'Lady' of knives? Since when do we pay fealty to anyone?"

"I don't think that's what he meant, Monkey."

"So what did he mean?"

"How do I know?" Tinny thumbed back one of the boy's eyelids and grimaced. "His mind is gone. Won't wake again before he bleeds out. All I can do for him now is end it quicker."

Moxie sighed heavily. "All right, Tin. Make it quick."

Tin Boy rooted around in his satchel and pulled out a vial of some ugly yellow powder. He mixed it in a small bowl with a little water from his skin and then poured it down the boy's throat. The boy stopped breathing within moments. I made a sign against evil. "Peace, knife. Good haunts to you."

Tin Boy made his own sign and shook his head. "This is bad. We've no one to feed to the Bathhousers now. We're all as good as dead."

"Maybe not," Moxie mused. She reached in her pack and pulled out a big cloak. "Mule, wrap him up in this and get him off the ground. We're taking him to Damascus."

The sun was all the way down by now, and an almost full moon had come out to take its place. We crept along the darkened streets, darting from alley mouth to alley mouth, always on alert, always aware of our escape routes just in case. Damascus lives in Brokehill, on the other side of the Bazaar from our hideout. We took a windish route, avoiding the occasional smoking street lamp as best we could. Best not to attract attention, which is what we unfortunately did just a few stone's throws from Damascus' hovel.

Moxie and Tin Boy were flanking Mule who had the bundled-up dead boy thrown over his shoulder. I was bringing up the rear. Suddenly, Moxie stopped and darted her hand under her tunic to where she kept one of her knives hidden. We all stopped with her, and I could see her scanning the street ahead intently. Finally she motioned for Tin Boy to stay with Mule and beckoned me on as she started forward slowly, moving on the balls of her feet. I got my hand around my own knife, hidden in the small of my back, and followed. We'd only gone a short stone throw from the other two when a shadow moved on the steps leading up into a run-down hotel.

"Dangerous time to be out and about at night, lovely," came a voice from the place where the shadow had moved.

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed another figure move in the mouth of an alley. I gripped my knife tighter but didn't draw. Moxie shifted. "Make it a lie. We can handle ourselves."

A laugh sounded, and the shadow moved down out of the hotel's entranceway and sat on the bottom step. It was a boy, about Mule's age, lean and muscley in the usual, boring way. He was paring his fingernails with a curved knife and looking not straight at us, the way some do when they're full of fight, but want to give you the carefree.

"Bet you can too," he said.

I almost heard Moxie frown. "Scarper, knife. We want about as much trouble as I bet you could give us."

He shook his head, "I don't want to give you trouble, lovely. Just telling the tale as it is."

"How do you mean?"

"Lot of urchins getting shivved the past week or so. Three in Cane Harrow. Four more across Luckfall, the Bazaar, and Brokehill." He looked up and locked eyes with Moxie for a moment. "You hadn't heard?"

I felt Moxie relax slightly. "Can't say we run with other packs much. They all yours?"

"Four of them, actually. Plus two Pocket Rats from Brokehill and a Bladefish Boy in the Bazaar."

"That's too bad."

He gave her a flat look for a few seconds, knife still, and then looked past us at Tin Boy and Mule. "What you got there?"

"You can't afford it." I felt Moxie tense again. "Like I said, knife. Scarper."

The boy grinned and started paring his nails again. I saw his eyes dart off to our left for just a moment, and the figure in the alleyway shifted again. Moxie went loose in her stance, which anyone who knows her takes as a warning sign. "Think about it. There's four of us and two of you. We don't want trouble at all, and you can't afford it at these odds. Scarper. Now." Moxie had noticed the figure in the alleyway, of course. I grinned, ready for a fight, but the boy on the steps flicked an eye past us and shrugged.

I felt a pang of disappointment as he sheathed his blade. "May be you're right, lovely. But odds have a way of changing. Stay sharp. Like I said, it's a dangerous night to be out and about." He and his packmate melted away into their separate shadows with impressive skill and were gone. Moxie took her hand out from under her tunic and motioned for Tin Boy and Mule to catch up.

As we continued on, Moxie walked with her arms folded behind her and her head down, which meant she was thinking hard. I tugged at her elbow and gave her a questioning look. She sighed. "His tale worries at me, Monkey. Dead urchins are as news as hungry ones, but this many at once is dark work. Especially with what ours was saying. Like somone's hunting us."

Damascus' hovel wasn't far. It actually has two rooms, so he's pretty rich I guess. Don't know how, but there it is. We quickly laid the dead boy out on the table in the front room and then crowded around the door into the bedroom. There was a little moonlight spilling in through the front room's window, but the bedroom was completely dark. Moxie rapped lightly on the doorframe. "Damascus?" She spoke softly. Temple tones. The answer came as a rustle of cloth and a low mumbling. Tin Boy lit a little candle, and Moxie took it and moved into the bedroom where she set it down on a low table.

The bed was piled high with furs, so the only visible part of Damascus was his crumpled old head. He always seemed more wrinkle than man to me. Deep lines furrowed his face, and his hair was just a few straggly wisps of gray. He blinked at the candle and mumbled something. Moxie knelt down at the edge of the bed like a penitent. "We have a boy here who died today. We need to know who or what shivved him, or it might as well have been us where his pack is concerned. Will you look at his death?"

I saw a bony hand scuttle out from under the covers and pat lightly at cracked lips. Moxie shot a look over her shoulder. Mule and I went back and hurriedly searched the cupboards until we found a bowl and a crust of bread. I filled the bowl with some water at a trough outside and brought it to Tin Boy. He mixed a little white powder into the water, swirling it until the powder was gone, and I brought bowl and bread back to Moxie. She broke a corner off the crust, dipped it in the water until it was soft, and placed it on Damascus' lips. He worked them until the lump fell into his mouth, moving his jaws slowly, eyes closed, a slight smile on his face. Moxie fed him a few more bits of bread -- trying not to hurry and shooting me a reproachful look as I fidgeted -- until, finally, the old man sighed and snuggled around a bit on his pillow.

"Will look," he rasped. "Won't promise."

Back in the front room, I watched as Tin Boy cut into the dead boy's arm with a knife and squeezed a small portion of blood into another bowl. I brought the bowl to Moxie. She felt in her pockets and then frowned and looked at me. I reluctantly gave her a handkerchief I'd been saving.

Dipping a corner of the cloth into the blood, she carefully squeezed a single drop of blood into each of Damascus' eyes. The old man's head arched back into his pillow violently and he grunted, probably the loudest sound I ever heard him produce. The shadows in the bedroom tilted crazily as the candle flame bent weirdly toward the bed, and Damascus began to speak.

"It's hot. Bright. Smoke. The Bazaar. Loud. There is a girl with breasts. Silk. Veils. I am erect. Tired. Sweaty. I have a knife under my shirt. My name is almost empty. I am an urchin?"

"Yes," said Moxie.

"Someone taps me on the shoulder. I turn. I move. We walk awhile. Alert. Cane Harrow. I recognize temples, hotels. We have been moving for awhile. There are five of us." Damascus sucked in a deep breath through his nose. "There is a horrible stink in the air. Like death. The kind that breathes. A shadow moves in an alley." Damascus flinched under the sheets. "The boy in front is screaming. His arm is gone below the elbow. A figure moves between the two boys in the second rank, and one falls, his blood on the air."

Moxie shifted, "What is it? Town man?"

Damascus flinched. "The third boy's head snaps back, his bottom jaw gone. It is a woman, head shaved. A slave?" He groaned, "She is blinding fast. Talons. Like knives on her arm. Metal and steam. The fourth boy beside me adds his screams to our companions'. She has buried her blades in his chest, his breath is blood and pain. She's looking at me! There is a strange redness on her upper lip and nostrils. Her eyes burn. Madness! Her mind is gone. I bury my knife in her thigh, but she doesn't seem to feel it. She wrenches her claws from the other boy's chest and spins. My hilt is torn from my hand, and - Aaagh! My belly is open, my life spilling on the stone! It hurts, child!"

I tensed and reached for the bowl of water at my knee, but Moxie placed a hand on my arm. "Where Damascus? Where are you?"

"Cane Harrow," he groaned.

"Where?!"

"A copper sun! A copper sun above a door!" His voice was a thin shriek now.

Moxie took her hand off my arm and quickly picked up the water bowl and poured it over Damascus' wildly staring eyes. He relaxed suddenly with a loud sigh and closed his eyes tightly. The candle flame flickered back to its normal position. Moxie kissed her fingertips and brushed them lightly against the old man's head. "Thank you, Damascus. We will bring bread when this is done."

"Peace, Damascus," I said. "Thank you." Mule and Tin Boy echoed me from the doorway.

We stole out of there as quietly as we could, Mule carrying the dead boy again. Moxie was lost in thought. Tin Boy gave her a long look. "What are you thinking?"

She returned the look. "I know you heard what I did, Tin. Steam and metal on her arm, and redness on her face. These things smack of the Guild and their 'art'."

Tinny nodded solemnly. "I have heard of powders that are shields against pain. And metal and steam? An engine of some kind, but no kind I've heard of before. Something new? Do you think the Guild ..."

"What I think is even town men don't kill us if they have a choice. The Guild think they are above the law, and if that's true, then we're beneath it. And that makes us fair game." We were quiet after that. Lost in thought as we were, it's not surprising none of us saw the ambuscade coming.

As ambuscades went, it was a mild one, just shadows moving on all sides, no flashing knives. Not yet. And a voice coming out of the dark. "You need to learn to listen, lovely."

Moxie hissed, and she, Tin Boy, and me all drew knives. Mule set his burden down on the cobblestones and then cracked his massive knuckles audibly. Moxie glared in the direction of the voice. "I listen fine, when there's something worth hearing."

Jackal laughter on all sides and a new voice from ahead of us. "Peace, Moxie. For now. We've you outnumbered two to one." A boy stepped into the light of a streetlamp about a stone throw ahead of us.

I saw Moxie tense up. "Peace, Spins. We want no trouble."

The boy -- Spins? -- leaned idly against the lamppost, no weapons visible, and folded his arms. "Maybe you've none. One of my pack tells me a nothing tale tonight, but I bring some knives along to humor him. Now I find you coming from the seer's house with a corpse on the ass's shoulder." Mule's fist tightened and his knuckles cracked again. Someone laughed off to the side. Spins grinned. "There's a tale there, I think, to beat the one I've already heard."

"We didn't shiv this one."

Spins frowned and I saw his fingers tighten around his upper arms. "Why do I care who shivved your corpse, Moxie?"

My throat caught and I leaned up onto the balls of my feet as Moxie said, "Because he's one of yours."

Silence on all sides. Someone shifted their foot slightly and I heard gravel crunch. Spins' face went blank, and he stood up from the lamppost and barked, "Catch!"

The boy from before stepped out of an alley and stalked over to where Mule stood over the dead boy. He ignored the knives we held, as was his right given the odds, and knelt down to flip the cloak back from the dead boy's face. He hissed and took a step back, hand going under his tunic. "It's Gather!"

There were a number of strangled cries from the shadows, and I half launched myself at Catch before Moxie's sudden hand on my collar brought me up short. Spins' voice rang out over the street, "Peace! Shut up! Catch, get your hand off your knife, now!"

The yelling died down, and Catch did as he was told. Spins hadn't relaxed. He just stood there giving Moxie a searching look. His eyes were cold. Moxie held on tight to my collar and steadily returned Spins' stare. "We didn't shiv him, Spins. I give you truth."

"One way or the other, you're going to give me more than that. You come along, mouse-quiet, sing pretty for the boss, and maybe you and your mates live through the night." Moxie opened her mouth to say something, but Spins just raised his eyebrows at her and she thought better of it. Spins made handsigns at the shadows and said, "Catch, tap two and take Gather down past the harbor. Give him to the sea." Catch called two other boys out of the shadows and they picked up their dead packmate and moved off. The rest of Spins' cronies closed in around us and we all started for the Bathhouse.

The Bathhouse stood, long abandoned by gentler folk, in an orange grove on the border between Brokehill and the Bazaar. Its inhabitants were the Bathhousers, the biggest pack in this part of the city, which is why we try to tangle with them about as not at all as we can. Outside the main entrance was a girl, even littler than me, hanging by her knees from a low branch, long black hair twitching entrancingly a breath above the cobblestones. Spins made a handsign at her. "Peace, No Coin."

"Swallow your pretty nothings," she piped, "Lest I shiv you quick as cats!"

Spins rolled his eyes. "Where's What For?"

"Under water! Maybe he drowned!"

"Make it a lie," he said, "Lest he shiv you quick as cats!"

She squeaked and flipped off the branch, making an impressively skilled landing. "He wouldn't. Would he?"

"Show me where he is, and I'll talk him out of it."

She led us inside -- me and my mates still surrounded by twice our number -- and through a series of candlelit rooms to one in the back containing a large bath full of what was probably rainwater if the hole in the roof had anything to say about it. It was thick with algae and bits of plant. No Coin pointed at the bath. "I gave you truth."

Spins nodded and said nothing, just stood and watched the surface of the water. I fidgeted a little until Mule gave me a look. Finally, the silence was broken as the water exploded upward and a naked girl burst out of the depths with an explosive gasp. Tin Boy cursed, and I nearly fell over hopping back. A few seconds later, the surface was broken again as a boy followed the girl back into the land of the breathing, his fist pumped high above his head. "Three out of five!" He whooped and swam to the edge of the bath where the girl clung, breathing heavily. He wiped at his face and spat scummy water. He made a handsign at the girl, "Next time you want to talk big where it'll get back to me, Wimple, be ready to back that talk up." She grimaced at him as laughter and catcalls sounded from my pack's escort and the boy hoisted himself, dripping and naked, from the pool.

Spins handed him a blanket to dry off. "What For. I've got a tale needs your ear."

What For studied him a moment, then gave me and my mates the once over. "This have something to do with the current crisis? Because I've my hands full with that, or didn't you notice?"

"I think it does."

The bigger boy got a thoughtful look on his face as he looked over Spins' shoulder at us again. Finally he simply said, "Peace, Moxie."

"Peace, What For." She gave him and Spins each a long look. "Where's Terrier?"

What For got a slightly funny look on his face and said, "Terrier's dead. Two days ago. He and some of our mates were pursing in the Bazaar, and they ran afoul of a murder of town men."

The room got quiet, everyone in the room but What For pointedly looking away from Moxie until she said in a soft earnest tone, "I'm sorry I asked."

He nodded his acceptance of the apology. "Kind of an irony I suppose, in the middle of all the rest of it."

"You mean all the killings?"

"Heard about that have you?"

"Word gets around."

He gave her a dark look. "I notice you and yours are all in good health."

The Bathhousers murmured darkly as Moxie shook her head. "We've had no hand in any of it, What For, I give you truth. But I have information you don't."

What For looked to Spins who shrugged. "We found them coming from the seer's hut. Maybe they do know something."

The newest leader of the Bathhousers looked back at Moxie. "Tell me."

So Moxie told What For the tale, starting where I'd shown up at our hideout to get Tin Boy and going on through the point where we'd left Damascus. She left out the first encounter with Catch. What For listened intently, and when Moxie finished, he shook his head. "A 'Lady of Knives' said Gather. Dark work." He looked at Spins. "Twelve dead now. At least five of them ours."

Spins nodded slowly. "Question is, what's to be done about it?"

"What else? Now we know where to look, we go and we add one more to the reaper's tally and that be the end of it."

He and Spins smiled grimly at each other, but Moxie shook her head. "Don't be so quick to go looking for a fight. If Damascus had the right of it, no one's seen anything like this 'lady' before. She's mad, and she doesn't feel pain. We'll need some kind of a plan, real strategy. Especially if the Guild's involved somehow."

Spins spat on the floor. "Hang the Guild. We aren't afraid of them."

Moxie growled at him. "Make it a lie. Anyone says that is either crazy or stupid. Or both."

There was an angry muttering from the gallery, and I tensed. I'd seen urchins get shivved for less. Spins' eyes were wide and his hand was on his knife. "You think you can-"

"I think if a merchant's child had gotten shivved in this, town men would be swarming over this part of the city like flies, but instead it's urchins and there's no one. You going to break bread with that?"

Spins started to retort, but What For cut him off. "Peace! Blunt your tongue, Moxie. I can see your point, but you're in my house now. And you'll act like it." Moxie looked about to say something, but Tin Boy put a hand on her arm and she closed her mouth. What For gave her a steady look then raised his voice so it carried to everyone in the room. "Strategy's well and good, Moxie, but we are many and she is one. Right now strategy is knives and it's blood behind a copper sun in Cane Harrow." A whoop went up all around as the Bathhousers cheered their leader's bravado. He continued, "You four come with me. Spins, tap as many as can be found within two stones' throws of the Bathhouse. Get them together and get them ready."

He led us back through the Bathhouse to a small room (or a big closet maybe) off the main foyer. We barely all fit inside, filled as it was with sundry trinkets and junk and a boy, who was thick fat like a bull with (of all things) blond hair shaved on one side like a scribe. The boy's face was a mass of bruises and swellings, one eye pinched shut and blue-black. He caught me staring and I looked away, embarrassed. What For gave him the carefree. "Peace, Trove."

Trove mumbled something that sounded a little like "Peace, What For." The bigger boy gave him a hard look until he ducked his head and flashed a handsign. What For stared at him a moment then flashed it back and said, "Let's show Moxie and her pack our prize."

Trove gave him a blank look. "Which prize is that?"

What For gave him a hard look. "Did I maybe beat the memory out of you?"

Trove shifted uncomfortably. "It's a precious thing, boss. And so far no one knows we have it."

"And so far I've been very patient with you, but things have a way of changing, don't they?"

They locked eyes for a moment (I noticed Moxie studying the exchange intently) until Trove finally had to look away. Muttering to himself, he pulled a chain out from under his shirt. At the end of the chain dangled a key that he took to a safe set in one corner of the closet. Opening the safe, he pulled out something wrapped in a bit of cloth and handed it to What For, who turned to us and said, "When we found Terrier and his group, the first thing we did was search the dead Town Men around them. One of them carried this. Wish it had been more than one, I give you truth, to lose the boss as we did." He flipped the cloth aside. In his hand rested a cylinder gun.

Mule grunted, and Tin Boy yelped. "Make it a lie," he said. "You'll be a Master Guildsman before you get your hands on another of those. If the town men knew you had that, they'd burn you out of here before you could say it."

The room got quiet all of a sudden, What For and Trove not looking at us but visibly tensed. Moxie and Mule and me turned our heads away from Tin Boy. He continued staring in awe at the gun until he noticed the silence and looked around. He sucked in a breath audibly in the quiet and carefully said, "Of course, they'd burn us out just as fast if they knew I've a musket I built out of spare parts in my bedroom."

The rest of us relaxed, and What For nodded. "So you see, Moxie. Hard as this 'lady' of yours may be, me and mine are just full of surprises."

Moxie shook her head, "It might not be enough. If it was the Guild that made her, then it was the Guild that broke her. We have no idea what their 'art' has made her capable of. She must be put down for the good of us all, but caution's the way with this. If we took the time-"

He cut her off, "I'm lousy with time like you're lousy with wealth." He gave her a considering look. "Truth is, the tale you got from the seer said Gather got his wounds in the Harrow, but you told us you found him in the Bazaar. So I have to wonder how exactly his last moments went. Of course, if you feel like you're in the clear with me and mine, you can always try walking out the door." He looked pointedly at the door, through which could be heard the sounds of his pack gathering. If ever I heard a pack with its blood up, it was then. Moxie stared back at What For, her jaw visibly clenched. I started to slip my hand toward my knife, but Mule caught my elbow and shook his head at me. Finally Moxie flashed one of the few handsigns I knew. It meant something like "take the lead for now." He smiled meanly at her and stuck his head out the door. "Hey, No Coin!"

She materialized out of the crowd and he continued. "Graver's got nine where they shouldn't be in Brasstown. Sniff him out and tell him to drop that work and get back here and guard the hideout."

She saluted. "And then I'm after you, boss!"

He snorted. "No. You stay here with them." She planted her fists on her hips and glared at him. He jabbed a finger at her and growled, "I give you truth, Coin. You come anywhere near Cane Harrow tonight and I'll bleed you myself." She screwed up her face at him, and he screwed up his right back until she huffed angrily and flounced off.

He watched her go and shook his head, "Last thing I need right now is our youngest getting where it's easy to get shivved."

Cane Harrow's not exactly a large district, but what it lacks in big it makes up in twist, alleys and streets coming at you crooked and sideways. We spread out across the whole of it, weaving between hotels and temples and looking for the copper sun. I was excited, I give you truth. The Bathhousers' bloodlust was infectious. When one of them finally found it, they let out a whistle, which was repeated by everyone with earshot and on out to the edge of the group so that we all slowly swirled in around our goal in groups that met and joined like the folds of a tightening net. The copper sun marked the lintel of a four-floor hotel on one side of a small plaza. I found Moxie and Mule with What For and his captains crouched in the shadow of a temple's steps not far from it. I crept in amongst them and tugged at Moxie's elbow. "Where's Tinny?"

She kept her attention on the hotel, but patted me on the shoulder and whispered, "He's complicating our 'plan' for me."

Nearby, What For was whispering to Spins. "Tap two and scout it out. Walk soft. Just make sure she's in there and get out. And then we all go back in."

Spins looked at an alleyway not far off where a number of Bathhousers were hidden. He gave a low whistle and, when they turned to look at him, he flashed a handsign and called "Ripple" in a low voice that wouldn't carry much farther than their position. A girl about Moxie's age detached herself from the shadows and moved towards us. Spins started to call another name out when What For made a sign at him and hooked a thumb at me and my mates. Spins nodded and whispered, "Monkey."

I looked to Moxie. Didn't look like she liked that much, but I could see she had no choice. I was fine with that. The Bathhousers had gotten my blood up, and I was itching for a fight. I started to hop over to where Spins and Ripple waited, but Moxie caught my elbow.

"Remember who you run with, Monkey," she whispered darkly. "Don't get caught up in their tide." I started to give her the carefree, but she yanked me around and gave me a serious look. "I mean it. The whole of their pack is going a little mad. Terrier brought the Bathhousers together, and they loved him. But now he's gone and got killed at a time when they've got mates getting shivved all over. I think What For's holding them all together by sheer force of will."

"Lessons later, right?" I tried to tug my elbow out of her grip, but she held firm.

"I'm serious, Monkey. Look at me! I don't think What For cares how many of them die in this just as long as those that are left are truly his afterward. He's been needing something like this for the past two days, and now he's got it." She lowered herself so that her eyes were level with mine. My blood cooled a bit at the calm in her eyes. "Remember who you run with, Monkey. Walk softer than you've ever walked, and take care of yourself." She tried to give me a quick hug, but I fidgeted out of her arms and hopped over to where Spins and Ripple waited. I gave her and Mule the carefree as I went, but my heart wasn't in it anymore.

Spins gave me a scornful look. ""Are we through gaming? Can we work now?"

Nothing moved as we approached the hotel. I could see Bathhousers secreted all along the plaza, none closer to the hotel than we'd already gone, and even some caterwauling on the neighboring buildings. The hotel was a rotted old thing with that sullen look that most empty buildings get. We got up to the front steps. Still no movement ahead of us. Spins watched the darkened entryway -- door hanging askew -- for a moment then shook his head and pointed at a balcony on the third floor and made climbing motions to me and Ripple. It was an easy climb, and soon we were getting through a window into what must have been the dustiest room I have ever been in. We crept over to the door, my companions drawing knives just in case. They took up positions, and, knowing my place, I got so I'd be behind the door and pulled it open silently. Urchin's luck the hinges didn't squeak. I could feel my heart pounding with what was definitely excitement and not fear. Moxie's words still burned in my ears. It didn't take us long to find the stairs. The hotel may have had four floors, but they each had only five or six rooms.

We started up the stairs to the fourth floor, Ripple in front of me and Spins behind, and were about halfway up when a door banged somewhere below us. It had come from somewhere on the third floor. My breath caught in my throat. We'd been focused on finding the stairs first and starting the search on the fourth, so we hadn't searched the third floor at all. I heard footsteps. Whoever was behind the copper sun had been on the same floor with us the whole time. Spins grabbed me by the arm and shoved me behind him. He and Ripple crouched on the stairs below me and listened.

The first thing I noticed was the stink. It was just as Damascus had described it, like death that breathes. Old blood and dirt and shit. Or like you kicked open a rotting tree stump and got beetles and muck all over your leg. Or like the mouth of a sewer below a Guildsman's workshop. Or all of those things at once. She came on without trying to creep or anything, her footsteps hissing on floorboards as though she dragged her feet. Silent and still, we watched as she rounded a corner and came within sight of the stairs. She was a grown. Younger than Damascus, of course, but a grown nonetheless. Long black hair fell in ratty strands around a thin, mean-looking face with small darting eyes. I took all this in in a flash, before my attention was caught by the engine on her arm. Damascus had had the right of it. Talon-like blades extended from the fingers of a big metal gauntlet covering her to the shoulder -- all straps and twisted steel and little puffs of steam at the elbow and wrist. The blades moved back and forth in lazy arcs emitting low clicks as joints straightened and bent.

She saw us almost immediately and froze, head up like a wolf testing the air. I watched, unable to move, heart pounding. Spins raised his knife and slid a foot onto a lower step. Ripple tried to hold him back, fear in the set of her shoulders echoing my own, but Spins shrugged her off. "What? You want to jump out a window? She's between us and the exit."

He glided down the stairs in a hunter's crouch, making little clucking noises with his tongue. "There now, lovely. Thought you could just waltz through the streets shivving whoever you liked, eh?" Ripple gave me a grim look and followed her packmate. The lady watched them come, her stance relaxed, unconcerned. Spins was close. "I give you truth, Guild bitch. You picked the wrong pack to hunt!" The shout became a roar as he leapt at her.

My eyes could barely track the movement as she twisted her shoulder, Spins' blade glancing off the metal of her engine, and her arm shot straight up from her waist. There was a horrible ringing sound. The lady simply stood, arm extended above her head, and stared Spins in the eye. He stood still as stone -- his back to me -- for a moment and then fell to one knee with a strange gurgling sound. The motion twisted him around a bit and I could see him in profile. My gorge rose. Half his face was gone.

I extended my knife and ran down the stairs as Ripple shrieked and charged. The lady's normal hand snaked out and caught Ripple by the wrist of her knife arm. As though she were merely waving a feather about, the lady yanked the little Bathhouser around and slammed her against a wall. I screamed as the engine on the monster's arm belched steam and shot forward, burying those horrible blades in Ripple's chest and pinning her to the wall. Ripple screaming was all I could hear as I launched myself forward, knife leading. A foot snapped out and caught me below the chin, smashing my teeth together painfully and knocking me on my back. I propped myself up on my elbows dazedly. There was blood in my mouth.

And she was just standing there, staring at me dispassionately and twisting her metal wrist back and forth as the girl pinned to the wall writhed and screamed so horribly that I thought my ears would be full of the sound forever. I met her eyes for one long, horrible moment and saw the madness in them. There was a well of hatred there unlike anything I could ever have imagined, cold and indiscriminate. She was nothing but a vessel for her own mindless rage. What had been done to her that she could feel nothing but this?

The sound of the doors on the ground floor crashing inward and the Bathhousers invading the hotel snapped me out of the trance her gaze had put me in. I found my knife on the floor next to me and threw it at her with all my might, but she deflected as she had done Spins'. Ripple's strength was leaving her, her convulsions getting less by the second, and the lady finally ripped her blades free. Ripple collapsed to the floor and was still. Seconds later, a tide of screaming Bathhousers burst up out of the stairwell and streamed toward their quarry. In a flash, she was gone around the corner, leading them a merry chase.

I felt a hand on my arm, pulling me up, and looked up at Mule. He tried to pull me toward the stairs, but I yanked at his grip. "No, Mule! She's that way!"

"Moxie says 'pull out' Monkey. Let the Bathhousers handle her."

"No! We have to help! You're bigger than anyone here and she's fast and she's horrible! We have to make sure we get her!" I chopped my hand down on his wrist, and he let go of my arm with a curse. Before he could stop me, I ran after the Bathhousers.

When I rounded the corner, awful was waiting for me. Several Bathhousers lay along the hallway, ripped and broken, some moaning, some not. Two more stood at the end of the hall, peering around the corner. Suddenly, one of them jumped out from hiding with a roar of fury. She appeared in a flash of steel, making almost no sound. Her arm whipped out and tore the roaring boy's throat out. The other boy screamed and lunged forward. She took one of his legs off at the knee, and, as he fell, her arm whipped out again, blades stabbing into his belly and up under his ribs. The force of her lunge pinned him to the floor until she ripped the blades out of him.

"No!" I couldn't hold the scream back. Her eyes snapped up and locked with mine for the smallest of moments before she charged. I tried to backpedal but tripped over my heels and landed flat on my back. Helplessly, I watched as she came for me, blades extended, and I could almost imagine I felt her steel rending me when a howling Mule appeared and the two of them clashed at my feet. He caught her around the middle, putting himself inside her reach, and lifted her off the floor to pin her against a wall. As I watched, she writhed almost bonelessly around in his grip and kneed him hard in the groin. Mule roared and pulled back but didn't take his arms from around her waist. In a tangled, howling mass, the two of them tumbled through a doorway and out of sight. I heard crashing and splintering wood and Mule howling fit to shake the rafters. Then that howl turned painfully shrill before cutting off suddenly. The lady stumbled back into view, shaking her head confusedly, her normal arm hanging crooked and useless at her side. One of the straps on her engine was hanging loose. Mule was nowhere to be seen, but there was new blood on her dress.

At the realization, I sucked in an agonized breath. Her head whipped around, eyes finding me once more. As she lunged, I could see a quartet of Bathhousers boil around the corner behind her. Too far. I turned to run and found myself facing What For just a few steps behind me. He leveled his arm at my head, and I threw myself flat just as the shot sounded. The world disappeared in sound for just a moment. When it came back again, she was screaming. I turned to find her clutching her broken arm to her side where fresh blood was streaming down her dress. Her mouth open wide, she screamed again at the boy behind me. I laughed and spat at her, but I heard What For curse angrily. Before anyone could react, she leapt through the door she'd just come from. After another bit of crashing and splintering from inside the room, a relative silence fell.

Behind me, I heard What For cursing and caught the word "jammed" amongst other, meaner words. I ignored him as I ran to the door I had last seen Mule tumble through. Inside was dark and dust. There was a gaping hole in one wall. I gulped, "Mule?"

A form shifted by the wall to my left, and I moaned as I picked my way over to him. I ran my hands over his body, tears streaming down my face. His arms were ripped up bad, his left ear hanging by a thread. Most of his belly was gone. I batted at his chest ineffectually and sobbed. "It's okay, Muley. It's okay. Tin Boy will --" I sucked in a shaky breath, "Will --"

He shushed me gently. "I'm dead, Monkey. I give you truth." He chuckled and then let out a gurgling cough. "Gave her my fair share, though. Broke her arm. Almost got that cursed thing off her, too." He paused and then said quietly, "And stopped her from getting to you."

I moaned and rubbed at my face with my sleeve. "No. You'll be -- " I stopped up the lie in my throat. My hands were soaked with him. He wouldn't. "No, Muley." It came out a low moan, and I wrapped my arms around his neck, and he put an arm around my shoulders. I sniffled again. "Does ... does it hurt?" He gave me the carefree and died.

I clung to him for a few more long moments. I could hear voices outside the room, and finally I pulled away from him, choking back another sob, and stumbled into the hall. Moxie and What For were standing by the stairwell. The hotel was eerily quiet at the moment but for the moans of whatever Bathhousers were still dying nearby. I could see five of them working on it in this hallway alone. What For was fiddling angrily with his cylinder gun, and Moxie was speaking to him in urgently, "She's tearing us up in these narrow spaces! I tried to tell you, but you wouldn't listen! We have to get outside and regroup. Make her come to us where our numbers can do us some good, and maybe we've got a chance!"

What For cursed and threw his broken weapon down the hallway. He glared at Moxie before giving out a loud whistle that was quickly echoed by a few voices above and below us. Moxie saw me approaching, and gave me a horrified look. I looked down at myself to find I was covered with gore. I shook my head at her and sucked in a shaky breath. "It's not mine."

She looked closely at my face and then at the door I'd emerged from. I saw her eyes go flat and her jaw clench. She wrapped her arm around my shoulders and started me down the stairs. We got out in a disordered rush, Bathhousers spilling out the front entrance or any window they could find. As Moxie and I stumbled, holding close to each other, down the steps, we were met by Tin Boy. His back was straight and his jaw set. When he saw me, bloodied as I was, and the tear tracks in the dust on my face, he let out a grunt and scowled over my head at the copper sun above the door. In the crook of his arm rested his musket. When the Bathhousers saw him standing there with his weapon, they all cheered. What For shouted orders and they began throwing stones, breaking windows, and screaming challenges and hate.

It wasn't long before she appeared in the entranceway, mangled arm still clutched to the wound in her side, walking shakily. Stones rained down on her, and she held up her engine in front of her face to shield it. She howled back at us, her madness almost drowning out our fury, but she did not charge. Our numbers were clear now.

Calmly, Tin Boy stepped out in front of me and leveled the musket. He took aim for a long moment. Then I saw him pull the trigger. The roar of the shot drowned out all other noise. It shook me down to the soles of my feet, blinded me with white from the flashpan. When I could see and hear again, I found the Bathhousers had gone quiet, cold. She was screaming now. It seemed the ball had punched into her engine just above the wrist. Her nose was broke, where her arm must have rebounded from the impact and slammed into her face. Blood streamed down and over her mouth as she screamed. The engine's blades had stopped moving, and the contraption vomited black fluid across the bloodied material of her dress. She sagged back against the doorframe, stones from the Bathhousers starting to rain down on her again. Slowly, she twisted and slumped back into the darkness of the hotel. Cheers went up from the urchins all around us, but I concentrated on Tin Boy. He had moved behind me and knelt down next to a cask that came up to around my knee. I watched him pull out the bung and start stuffing a wet rag into the hole. I gasped. "Is that what I think it is?"

He cackled. "It's certainly not wine!"

"Where did you get it?"

He looked up grimly and said, "Not so important as where it's about to get."

Moxie turned to the hotel and made a sign against evil. When she spoke, her voice had taken on a strange quality, "Make of her and her house a pyre for our dead."

Tin Boy took a match from his pocket, lit the rag, stood up quickly, and ran to the door where he rolled the barrel into the hotel. When he stood and turned, he looked more beautiful than anything I'd ever seen. His white hair and the copper sun over his head almost shone in the lamplight. He looked at us all watching him in reverent silence and his eyes widened in alarm. "Run!"

He made good on his own advice, and this started a wave of fleeing bodies. Moxie and I had made it almost halfway across the plaza when the world roared behind us and a fist of air punched us to the ground. Bits of flaming wood rained down around us briefly, and when I turned it was to find the whole first floor of the hotel in flames.

We all stood there and watched it burn for I couldn't guess how long. I clung to my packmates and cried for Mule until Moxie finally shuddered next to me and looked to What For. "Scarper, knife. Town men are coming."

He grinned back at her madly and let out a loud whistle. As the Bathhousers melted away around us, Moxie grabbed me and gave me a tight hug. Tin Boy stood next to us silently. I sniffled and whispered against her cheek. "It's different when it's a knife you know isn't it?"

"What is?"

"Dying."

Her arms tightened around me. "No, Monkey. It's always the same at the end. What changes it is what and how much leads up to it."

I wiped at my eyes. "I wish I'd been nicer to the boy in the alley."

She stared into my eyes for a while, running her fingers through my hair and humming softly. Finally she stood and took my hand. "Come on, knife. Let's go home."

THE END


© 2009 Chad Banks

Bio: Chad Banks lives in Dallas where he spends much of his time struggling with his poor work ethic, a battle royale from which he takes occasional breaks to play tournament chess and poker. His work has appeared previously in Reflection's Edge.

E-mail: Chad Banks

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