The red brand steamed and hissed as it was dipped into the water, flakes of dead skin peeling off the mottled iron. Hook stood, watching, his eyes shining, but he shed not a single tear, nor did he move a single inch. His internal screams drowned out his own thoughts, even as his face remained passive, immobile, almost bored.
The old man tapped Hook’s jaw with his knuckles, and squinted. Hook could do nothing to stop him, as he was inspected like a piece of meat. “This is what you brought me?” the old man said. “He looks fit for fertilizer.”
The alsknight named Fisk didn’t say anything. He just watched as the man with the brands proceeded down the line, and the old man followed along behind him. Hook watched with his eyes, as he could neither turn his head nor his body to see them.
“Mm, a small one for her,” said the old man, clicking his tongue. “The other farmers like their girls unblemished. On her foot, there you are. Fisk, raise her foot.”
Hook didn’t even hear the buzz of the tabula, the command was so easy and automatic for the alsknight. It was a terrible power, one that Hook had severely underestimated. He realized now how foolish his dreams of easy living on the border between Shira Hay and Alswell had been. How could he have ever stayed out of the grasp of that kind of power? If only he could go back to warn himself. If only he could go back to warn anyone.
They had tried to warn him—him and all the boys—but Hook, and therefore Hook’s crew, had never listened.
To them, the alsknights had just been another kind of inferior racer. They were supposed to be clumsy and slow, easy to trick and outwit. Any plainsman worth his wits could outsmart an alsknight, or so they thought, but in the riots of Shira Hay, Hook had seen firsthand their training: their speed, their discipline, their precision.
Hook watched out of the corner of his eye as the bent-backed old man snapped and barked at all of his attendants. The row of human beings lined up before him were completely and totally his property. Hook almost could have laughed at himself, and a part of him, a shattering, tenuously sane part of him, wanted to. He had thought himself the pauper king of a peasant kingdom, but right here, right now, he saw what true power was, and how far he had been from it.
“They’re mangy vermin,” said the old man, as he came upon the last person in the line. “No better than ratbeasts. This is what you bring me?”
“My lord Greeve, with all due respect,” said the alsknight, Fisk. “I am fortunate to have left the plains with my own life.”
“Your life? As if your life is worth anything.” The old man’s voice was rising. “You return with not even a quarter of the force I sent to Shira Hay. You have not only failed to gain an ally in the duarchs but you have also made an enemy in them as well, and you think to compensate for your failures by dredging up the filth of the plainsmen gutters. Where is the help I sent for? Where are the men I sent to fight this war? Where is my son?”
Fisk stuttered. “Your son, my lord? Engers? He was not-.”
The line of slaves did not move as the old man struck Fisk squarely across the face. The other attendants froze, watching, as Greeve advanced on the alsknight. He put his cane to the quivering man’s throat, and said, in a low, husky whisper, “Finish that sentence, survivor Fisk, and make the loss of my forces in Shira Hay total and complete.”
The silence stretched on, as the cloying air grew hot in the dimly lit slave’s hut. Fisk did not finish his sentence. No one said a word.
Greeve took a deep breath and looked around, as if he was about to give some sweeping command, but no command came from his lips. He hobbled away without saying anything, and the line of slaves was left to stand and sweat as Fisk picked himself up.
Hook heard whispers behind them as the other fieldmen prepared the slaves’ new home for them. “We are lost,” whispered a balding man with ruddy cheeks. “Have you heard? The outer fields have already begun to burn.”
“And where’d you hear that?” hissed an old crone, sweeping away the soiled straw in front of Hook.
“Refugees, Gomora,” said the bald man. “The ones that flee into Alswell, anyway. The smart ones sneak out past the enemies, go out into the rest of Albumere, away from here.”
The woman grunted, but said nothing.
“I’m not staying. I’ll go to the coast, take a ship out to Farsea, and make my living in the wilds. If a wild clanchild of four springs can make it out there on their own, why can’t I?”
“What do you know of being wild, Saxdon?” The woman clicked her tongue and Hook marched forward to sit on the newly swept patch of dirt. Even if she did not hold his tabula personally, he did not dare disobey her. “The Ladies won’t be there for you in the wilds. It’s hollow magic, savage magic that rules out there.”
“Superstition and nonsense,” said Saxdon. The woman did not look convinced. “Either way,” he continued. “Wherever I am, tabula will work. I’ll just take one or two from the amber box and-.”
Hook flinched instinctively when Fisk appeared directly behind the fieldman servant. “I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that, friend,” said Fisk. Though his face was bruised and purpling, the cold light in his eyes made both servants pale. “We all need to bond together in these difficult times. Now I understand if recent events have demoralized you, but we need discipline more than ever now.”
Both servants bowed their heads deferentially, and Fisk walked away, but the moment he was out of earshot the woman named Gomora muttered, under her breath, “Coward.”
“That Fisk is a Summer-burnt coward and he knows it,” spat Gomora. “How was he the only alsknight to survive the plainsmen riots? He did it by skulking and hiding, that’s how. No wonder he brought nothing but rats here, he’s a rat himself…”
They drifted away, and Hook was no longer privy to their conversation. He sat, rigid and stiff, until all the fieldmen had left and the slaves were left to tend to themselves. Only then did he at last relax, slumping, and groans and winces stirred across the hut as the other slaves also became at ease and felt the new scars on their bodies.
They didn’t even have the courage to scream anymore. Hook was silent as he flexed his shoulders and back, even as the pain burned like lines of fire there. Once, in what seemed like a long time ago, he would have been angry. He would have been plotting terrible, terrible revenge.
Now he was just praying that they would leave him alone for the rest of the night.
Hook stared at the ground, his face not moving. Even when he could, now, he found it hard to change his expression. He wondered where Penna was, now. The kestrelgull had been there the whole time when Hook had been captured, but there had been hardly anything she could do as the alsknight nearly strangled Hook from behind. Of course, they hadn’t let Hook keep her tabula, and she had disappeared when they dragged Hook away.
Wherever she was, even if she was dead, she was freer than him. Envy crawled in Hook’s gut, but just as soon as it reared its ugly head he suppressed it. Hook hadn’t felt much of anything since he arrived in Alswell. It was better that way.
Slowly, gradually, so that no one would pay attention to the movement, Hook clamped his hands over his ears. It didn’t help to block out the buzzing. Even when his tabula was not active, Hook heard its humming, like the whine of a small insect inside his head. It was enough to drive a man insane.
Hook stared blankly at the ground, his hands so tight on his head that he imprinted red pressure marks on the side of his face. Even as his eyes began to dry, he didn’t close them.
When he had run his gang in Shira Hay, he had often giggled at the loons and fools that sometimes begged near the Twin Libraries. He and Scrabble, or Shimmy, or on some days even Stink, would laugh at the demented madmen, mock their odd manners, and after that had bored them, throw rocks at the beggars to get them to clear their turf. That kind of madness, the giggling, constant mirth, Hook would have now welcomed.
This madness was humorless. He could not think anymore. He seemed to hear everything, but the words drifting over his head he could barely process, while the constant, ceaseless buzzing inside his mind never seemed to stop.
As the other slaves settled in, Hook tried to summon his old anger. He remembered it, that blinding rage, but he could not seem to feel it. He traced the scars on his back, and the fresh wounds where the brand had been pressed into his skin.
“They ruined you,” he said, to himself. “They takes you away. Hurt ‘em back. Hurt them back. Hurt them.”
He stared at the ground, muttering to himself, waiting, but his heart only felt cold and clammy with fear. If they heard him saying that, they would take his tabula out again, and what little humanity Hook had hoarded to himself would be burned away. He couldn’t risk being anything other than perfectly obedient.
The air was starting to grow musty around him. Even though the stench made Hook light-headed, he didn’t move. He hardly moved at all, nowadays, unless someone told him to.
The alsknights, he had discovered, could do things with tabula he had never even dreamed possible. For him, the tabula had just been a means of mobility; he had prided himself on how he could sling Penna towards any of his enemies in the city with that old rod of his, but now Hook was learning how much of that power had gone wasted. He had never imagined the potential a man had if he could make someone do anything, feel anything, be anything.
The first time Hook had disobeyed, out in the grasslands as the escaping Alswell caravan wound its way back to the fields, he had been commanded to feel pain. It had been, without a doubt, the worst experience Hook had ever had in his life, for his mind had summoned all of his worst experiences and pushed them all just a little further in that one instant of pain.
When he obeyed the next time, he had been commanded to feel pleasure. It had been the polar opposite, a soft cloud to ride high into the sky of ecstasy and bliss, and as much as Hook didn’t want to admit it, the pain made the pleasure all the sweeter. It was…
It was addicting.
A hand touched his shoulder, and he flinched.
“Hey-hey, Hook,” said a boy, his face dirt-smeared, his skin cut and bruised, but his eyes bright. “It’s me! It’s Shimmy!”
Hook squinted. Was it Shimmy, his old crewmember? If so, what did it matter? They were both slaves now, both powerless.
“Come on-and-on,” said Shimmy, and his voice was so energetic that Hook had to look up. What did Shimmy have to be so happy about? “We all Shira Hay here, right? We all together! Now they say we gon’ get split up-and-up soon, but we ain’t gon’ let that happen, right, boss?”
“Who say what now?” said Hook, suspiciously.
“Get up,” said Shimmy, pulling on his hand. “Quiet now. I show you!”
Hook trudged along behind the fellow slave, his sore legs protesting as he rose to his feet. He edged his way around the cramped floor, around other captured plainsmen sleeping or resting or simply staring at nothing like he had been, following Shimmy towards wherever they were going. Perhaps, Hook mused, Shimmy had also gone insane.
“Right here. See him? Don’t make no fuss now, he’s a hidin’,” said Shimmy, pointing, and Hook followed his finger towards the near grown-old sitting with his back to the wall. He was nursing a girl that Hook almost recognized, tending to the new scars on her foot.
The near grown-old looked up and met Hook’s eyes, and Hook felt a cold flash as he realized who it was.
“You wit’ him?” asked Hurricane, gesturing with his head toward Shimmy.
Hook nodded slowly, not trusting himself to speak.
Hurricane grunted in approval. “You helpin’ us get out of this shithole, then.” He stood, rolling his head and cracking his neck, and as he shifted his stance Hook saw something glint gold in his hand: a tabula. Whose was it?
Shimmy grinned widely and nodded when Hook looked questioningly at him. “He ain’t no slave,” said Shimmy, in an excited but hushed whisper. “He come to break us out!”
“I come to break her out,” said Hurricane, putting an arm around the girl’s shoulders. “You two comin’ if you can pull your own weight.”
“Wait-wait,” said Hook, shaking his head. It didn’t make sense. “How you still got your tabula? What you do, huh?”
“Followed y’all. Snuck in. Never caught in the first place,” said Hurricane. He was constantly looking to the side, although what he was watching out for Hook did not know. “Tattle got some sort of a plan. Gon’ do what she says to get Veer out, is all.”
“You go and get yourself branded just for her?” asked Hook, incredulously.
Hurricane’s arm tightened around Veer’s shoulders. “They ain’t branding you if you already branded,” he said, and his eyes dared Hook to ask another question. Hook didn’t.
“So what’s the plan?” asked Shimmy, eagerly. “How you getting us out?”
“You want spe-ci-fics, ain’t none. Ain’t no plan ‘til Tattle make one. She working on it, now. But we thieves, and we gon’ steal you out.” Hurricane sniffed and gave the hut a long look. “Anyone else here feel like making free, you find them. We gon’ need all the help we can get.”
Shimmy was nearly bouncing on his feet with excitement, but Hook remained more skeptical. The girl, he noticed, also looked subdued.
Hurricane let the girl go. “I go now. Meet up with Tattle, see what we can do. We gettin’ you out, I promise.”
“Why can’t we go with you now?” asked Shimmy, a pleading look in his eyes.
“How you gon’ get out of here without you tabula? No way, no how,” said Hurricane. “Gonna take the amber box, first. That’s the only way to do it.”
With only a curt nod, he walked away casually, through the opening of the hut, into the deepening night. No one made any attempt to stop him. No one made any move to hold him back. Why would they?
The girl shuffled away to a private corner, and Shimmy did as well, after a lengthy pause where Hook did not speak to him. Hook did not feel like talking now, too busy pondering the possibilities in his head.
Escape. As Hook considered it, his thoughts immediately turned to the potential punishment. It would hurt if they were caught, and they would be caught. The alsknights had demonstrated that. It was simple: they had the power, and the slaves didn’t. There was no way this would ever end well for Hook. Unless…
Hook realized with a sickening twist in his gut that he would be given the pleasure again if he ratted these people out. Was Hook really going to sell out their last chance for freedom for some temporary high?
Of course he would. He was doing them a favor: their last chance was no chance at all. They would never escape. The power of the alsknights was absolute. Hook laid down to sleep, betrayal already on his mind. The old man had called them all rats, and Hook wasn’t about to deny it.
Inside the hut, the air buzzed. Chaff sat on the hard stone, pensive, the bricks digging into his skin, waiting for Hurricane or Tattle to say something. They didn’t. Chaff kept his eyes cast down on the ground. He couldn’t bring himself to look in their faces.
“If you need me to find her,” said Lookout. “I know where she is. But I can’t-.”
“Of course you know where she is,” snarled Tattle, and Chaff flinched. In his short time knowing the girl, he had never heard her raise her voice like that. “That’s only thing you’re fucking good for.”
Lookout wrinkled her nose and looked away, but didn’t say anything else. The owlcrow’s screech from on high was audible even inside the hut, though, and it was harsh and angry.
“Amateurs,” said Tattle. “I run a team of fucking amateurs.”
Hurricane put a hand on her shoulder, and immediately Tattle twisted and slapped his hand away. “Don’t touch me, Lonwal,” she hissed.
“What you expect?” he said, his voice accusatory. “You pick gutter rats and kids off the streets. You think you get a crew like we used to run like that? You got amateurs ‘cause you picked amateurs. Ain’t no one’s fault but you’s.”
Tattle buried her face in her palms, and Chaff could see how her shoulders slumped, how she seemed to crumple under some unseen weight. He hugged his knees and traced the tabula on his belt. It was a little comfort knowing that if the girl was ever taken from him like Veer, he would be able to save her.
“She’s not dead,” said Bull, suddenly. The boy had been leaning on a wall in the corner, jaw stuck out, burly arms folded across his chest. His voice was surprisingly soft. “Fieldmen prefer slave over dead.”
“Lucky her,” Tattle said, and there was murder in her eyes as she looked up. “All of you, get out. I need to think.”
Chaff didn’t waste time in sliding over the windowsill and out of the hut. It wasn’t hard to find the big guy once he stepped outside. Wiping crumbling clay off his clothes, he walked very quickly towards the camelopard, still clutching the girl’s tabula tight.
He had barely made it two paces when someone caught him by the collar of his neck, and Chaff flinched. He twisted, arms raised, but Lookout grabbed his forehead and held him at arm’s reach easily.
“You were going to run,” she said. A statement, not a question.
“So?” Chaff said, angrily, trying to pry Lookout’s fingers out of his tangled hair. “You hear her, yeah? Nobody here knows what they doing! I never ever should trust you-.”
“You were going to run,” Lookout repeated. “Like you ran from her.”
“Not my fault,” Chaff muttered.
“It’s not my fault!” Chaff screamed, and he didn’t care that the girl urchins were staring at him as he screamed. He wanted them to know, he wanted all of them to know. “I do as you tell, yeah? I see them come, I run. That’s my job, yeah?”
“Your job is to get us all out,” said Lookout.
“And I get that job today! You throw me into this job TODAY!” screamed Chaff, red in the face. His jaw hurt from shouting and he could feel the blood rushing through his temples. Behind him, the big guy reared and stamped his hooves, tossing his head. “What about your job? You supposed to keep watch out for us, what about that?”
Lookout’s face twitched. The bird overhead landed on her shoulder, its claws digging in tight to her skin, its eyes bright despite the dying sunlight. “That has nothing to do with the fact that you were the one who left her behind. You were the one who-.”
“If you don’t go and try to get closer, it never happens! If you don’t talk to- talk to that slave, it never happens!” Chaff was on the verge of tears now. His fists were shaking. His breath came in great shuddering gasps. The big guy, clearly agitated, had begun to canter to the boy’s side.
“Don’t pin this on me, you dirty, scrawny, little shit of a wild child,” said Lookout, and the owlcrow screamed, a harsh, raucous sound. “If you’re going to blame someone, then blame the girl in that house- the girl with the vendetta and the death wish that dragged us all into this.”
“At least she’s thinking of a way to save her,” said Chaff.
“And you would have helped by running away, would you?” Lookout sneered, and pushed Chaff away. “Go ahead and do it. I’ll find someone better and cheaper than you in no time.”
Chaff choked on his words. He felt so tired. He had felt tired and hungry and desperate for years, and the girl that had masked that for just a few hours had been snatched away. It wasn’t fair, it was cruel, and Chaff had to either blame someone or else believe that the world was just that cruel. And it couldn’t be, not if he wanted to believe it was worth living in.
He put his hand on the big guy’s side, leaning on him for support as Lookout walked away. The bandages around the big guy’s side were soaked red now. They were both hurting. He hugged the camelopard, even as he wished for someone who could hug him back, talk to him, support him, have a face that Chaff could recognize as a reflection of his own. It was a treacherous thought, and Chaff squeezed the big guy all the tighter for it, but he couldn’t help but think it.
He wanted to be friends with someone who owned their tabula. He wanted to be friends with someone who was free.
“It’ll never happen to her, yeah?” said Chaff, leaning on the big guy, gripping the disks in his belt. “So long as we got this, we can find her. We can get her back. We can…” He trailed off, mouth open.
And, in the depths of Chaff’s tired, hungry, desperate mind, lit the spark of an idea.
“Lookout!” he shouted, letting go of the big guy and sprinting towards the girl as she walked away. “Lookout, Lookout, Lookout!”
The owlcrow noticed first, and squawked, and Lookout turned around with a look of utmost confusion. She put a hand on her hips. “What do you want from me now?”
“You- you know where Veer is, yeah?” asked Chaff, breathless. He could feel the pressure under his eyes. He needed to sleep, and soon, but not now. There was no time now.
“Of course I do,” said Lookout, quickly, almost offended. “In the middle of the fucking caravan. But we have no way of getting her out without probably getting caught ourselves, and this time they’ll be ready for us, and-.”
“Do you know where her tabula is?”
Lookout’s automatic response began, but was then cut short. She looked at Chaff, her eyes slowly widening. “Veer doesn’t keep her tabula on her?”
“Yeah,” said Chaff. He stared into Lookout’s eyes, daring just a glimmer of hope.
With a furious humming to egg it on, the owlcrow launched into the sky, wheeling in tight circles that slowly expanded outward as Lookout’s vision glazed over. Chaff bounced on the balls of his feet.
“Do you know where she keeps it?” he asked, biting his lip. “In the house, maybe? In- in one of her favorite places? Where she eats?” It dawned on Chaff just how little he knew about Veer, how much more he could have known if he had just a little more time with her. He would get that time. He was sure of it.
Lookout’s answer was partial and distracted. “She’s got…places. Places that, uh…” And she trailed off, not finishing her sentence. She began to walk forward, and Chaff had to stumble out of the way as Lookout stumbled haltingly down the street.
Chaff looked over his shoulder. Should he tell Tattle and Hurricane? No, it would take too much time.
And, anyway, this was their fight. Their fault. Their battle to win, their chance to redeem themselves.
The boy hauled himself onto the big guy’s back and pushed him on to follow close behind Lookout. Chaff’s mind raced through the possibilities. Where would a girl like Veer, an urchin and a racer and a wild child, hide her tabula, her most precious thing, her one and only resource left to her in the world? Somewhere safe. Somewhere no one would look. Somewhere she could check daily.
She would hide it, Chaff realized, wherever I would hide it.
If only he knew this district as well as he knew his own. Chaff cast his gaze around, his throat dry. How many nooks and crannies would he have to comb? How many hiding places were there in the ruins of the city?
The big guy tossed his head, and Chaff let go of his belt, reminding himself not to channel too much of his emotion into the tabula. It might bleed over into the girl, too, and Chaff certainly had enough anxiety for the both of them. His head was beginning to spin, but he took several sharp breaths, trying to force himself to calm down.
It would be somewhere commonplace, but surreptitious. Not a place people went too often, but a place where no one would question him if they saw him going there.
The whole city pulsed around him. Shira Hay, a chaotic sprawl, unfolded in Chaff’s mind. Where, where, was the best place to hide a tabula in this city?
“Lookout!” Chaff screamed. “What do you see?”
Lookout’s answer was a distracted mutter. “Her friends, her favorite place to eat, where she sleeps, where she walks, the routes she takes, the race road, the rooftops, a quiet place, a quiet place, a quiet place…”
Chaff ran a finger through his hair. How long had it been since Veer’s capture? An hour or two at best. The sun had not yet even fully set. The fieldmen must have figured out by now that Veer wasn’t carrying her tabula on her.
Would they try to break her first, or just kill her?
Thinking and fretting would do no good. Chaff grit his teeth, and despite the sores developing on his thighs and the ache in his legs, he hauled himself onto the big guy’s back once more. It was just like the plains, he reminded himself. This was easier than days on days of endless riding.
“Lookout, get on!” Chaff shouted, as the big guy trotted forward. Dazed, Lookout turned slowly, her eyes unseeing, the tabula vibrating violently in her hands. Chaff reached out to grab her hand and pull her up, and Lookout moved as if she was sleepwalking, brow furrowed, still muttering under her breath. Just how much could that owlcrow of hers see?
“Where to?” asked Chaff, holding tight onto the big guy’s mane. He turned around and grabbed Lookout’s chin, shaking her head. “Lookout, where to? Where do we check first?”
The girl blinked, and she seemed to finally look Chaff in the eye. “There’s the house. Where she sleeps. We could go back and-.”
“Too obvious,” said Chaff, immediately. “Too close to people, too easy to find.”
“She trusted us. She trusted them, at least,” Lookout said. She sounded hurt.
Chaff did not know how much he believed that. She had said so, yes, but to honestly trust someone enough to leave her tabula out in the open for the taking…Veer would have been a fool. “The hut’s not a good place,” said Chaff. “Too easy to get into. Everybody know she live there, yeah? No good, no good.”
“There’s the way she races. We could check her usual routes, maybe she has some kind of hideaway where-.”
“Come on, big guy!” Chaff shouted, not waiting for Lookout to finish. He could not push the camelopard too much, not with the wounds the big guy had suffered from the fieldmen.
He followed the street down where he and Veer had raced just hours ago, the course still fresh in his mind. The evening bustle of the city was beginning to emerge, and even in this broken down corner of the city the people of Shira Hay still found room to mingle and haggle and brawl in the dusk as the Lady Fall’s eye slowly opened. Chaff had to twist and turn through the pods of people, squinting to make out the high rooftops.
Overhead, the owlcrow screeched. A couple people on the street cast wary glances upward, and Chaff in turn kept his eye on them, but in a few seconds they all looked away.
“You see anything?” whispered Chaff. Talking loudly about tabula in a street full of hungry eyes and desperate ears was not prudent.
“Up,” said Lookout, her response terse. Her finger drifted as she pointed toward the building that her owlcrow was circling over. “Up.”
“Take care of the big guy, Lookout,” Chaff said, hopping off the side of the camelopard. “Take care of Lookout, big guy!”
The camelopard brayed an affirmative, although Lookout said nothing else.
Chaff had to feel the handholds out, rather than see them, in the dim light. It was hard work, groping blindly at the stones until his hand found a grip that might not even be sturdy enough to hold his feet. Chaff was glad that all it took was the light of the sun to dispel his blindness. He didn’t think he would have risked the climb if it was for any other reason.
His bandaged hands and feet provided enough traction that Chaff made steady progress. He felt, rather than saw, the stares of other junior Kennya Noni fighters watching him from below, wondering if they dared to challenge this newcomer, but while the danger of a daytime race was thrilling, the danger of a nighttime race was just foolhardy. It was not worth the risk.
All the same, Chaff kept a wary eye on the bare-sleeved racers down below. Some of them, no doubt, had nothing left to lose.
He hauled himself over the lip of the roof, his muscles aching in protest as he tumbled over the side. He laid on the flat clay, breathing heavily, ignoring his spine’s fervent protests as he curled up into a sitting then standing position. The owlcrow landed in front of him, flapping its wings as its claws clicked on the clay, and Chaff did his best not to flinch as he looked into its beady eyes.
“Lookout, where?” he asked, half-shouting in case she needed to hear him from below. The owlcrow preened its feathers once before, with a sudden jerk, hopping and flapping towards an alcove on the roof.
Chaff nearly tripped over his own feet as he ran to the odd depression, and he stuck his hands into the shadows, feeling for something, anything, that felt like a tabula. If he looked at it from the right angle, there was the glint of something in the shadows…
He pricked his hand on something sharp and metal and winced, withdrawing reflexively. A thin line of red oozed down his palm and, grimacing, Chaff reached in with his other hand just to see what it was. It wasn’t a tabula. Tabula didn’t cut.
His heart sank. Just a shattered piece of bronze, from some pot or pail, the hoardings of a spring magpie or some such creature.
Chaff threw the shard aside, and the thin, corroded metal cracked on the tiles. He looked around, trying to quell the fluttering in his chest. It was one roof. There were many more to search.
There were so many more to search.
Chaff could almost feel his own pulse inside his fingers as he climbed back down. It would have been so much easier to let go and fall, but he made the painstaking climb until his feet touched the cold, unyielding ground.
“Where next?” asked Chaff. He tried to climb onto the big guy’s back again, but his legs folded under him before he could. He knelt in the middle of the street, not caring how vulnerable he was, not caring the weakness he showed. He was just so tired.
Lookout stared at him for a while. “I know you’re exhausted,” she said, finally.
Chaff didn’t have the energy to come up with a reply.
“There are too many places. Too many hiding holes in this rotten city, too many streets where Veer liked to go. She never stuck around much in one place.” Lookout paused. “Chaff, it’d be easier to just take Veer back than try and find where she hid her tabula.”
He glared at Lookout. “We’re not giving up,” he said.
Lookout seemed like she wanted to say something testy. Her face twitched as she opened her mouth to speak, but after a moment looking at Chaff, she just said, “OK. We’re not.”
Holding tight onto the big guy’s side, Chaff hauled himself up. “Where now?”
The girl shook her head. “I don’t know,” Lookout said, haltingly. Her voice caught as she said it. “There are too many good places in this city to hide a tabula.”
“I don’t care about good places to hide it,” said Chaff. “Where would Veer hide it?”
“I don’t know,” said Lookout, and Chaff turned to look at the girl’s face contorted in frustration. “I’ve never known- I don’t- Tattle’s always been better with people than me. I just see things. I can’t see inside people’s heads.”
Chaff looked at the ground. There didn’t seem to be anything else to say. The owlcrow flapped overhead, on its lonely patrol in the crepuscular gloom.
Abruptly, Lookout gasped. “They’re moving,” she whispered.
That made Chaff look up. Lookout’s owlcrow had flapped away, screeching, and the boy’s head snapped around to see where it was going. “Who’s moving?”
“The caravan,” said Lookout, hoarsely. “The fieldmen. There’s…there’s an elector with them. Inviting them…somewhere. Gesturing towards the river, towards the bridges, towards the Libraries, towards…oh, shit.”
“Lookout, what is it? Tell me,” hissed Chaff.
“The duarchs. They’ve come out of the towers. They’re getting ready to talk with emissaries.” Lookout choked on a strangled sob, and Chaff’s eyes widened. “We’re out of time. The robbery, the rescues, everything. There’s not enough time.”
Chaff licked dry lips. The echoes of three years ago still seemed to haunt him.
“I know you’re tired, big guy,” said Chaff, rubbing the camelopard’s neck. “But we got to go fast one last time tonight, OK? Just one last time.”
The big guy nodded once, twisting to turn back towards the river.
“Hold tight, Lookout,” said Chaff, lowering his body and gripping the camelopard’s mane. The camelopard started at a slow trot, sidestepping around the pedestrians on the crowded street, but Chaff could already feel the wind starting to stream around his face.
It had worked last time, hadn’t it?
Chaff had barely re-entered the slum where their headquarters were situated when someone stepped in his way. The big guy reared and pranced aside as Bull stood in front of them, bent low as if he was going to tackle the camelopard to the ground.
“Where you guys go?” said Bull, his voice low and guttural. His lips curled like a dog’s as he spoke. “You skipping on us?”
The beginnings of an indignant reply built up in Chaff’s head, but before he could think of something to say Lookout spoke over him. “Bull, they’re moving. The fieldmen are moving! Tell Tattle that we have to-.”
“There’s no need for messages, I can hear you from here,” said Tattle, pushing the door open with her shoulder. She looked odd, standing outside, her skin oddly pale and her hair thin. Inside the hut, there had been a courtly aura to her; now, she looked like any other homeless urchin, except she stood a little taller and spoke a little louder.
Hurricane followed close behind her, and Chaff noticed a reversal there as well. Inside, he had been Tattle’s lackey. Outside, he was a brooding menace.
Tattle clapped her hands together. “Details, Lookout, details!”
“They’re at the bridge now,” she said, closing her eyes. “The electors are standing at the middle while the fieldmen are waiting at one end, on our side of the river. It looks like…like the duarch- no, the arbiters are talking with the farmer lord, the one in the shawl. No one’s moving much. There’s a crowd gathering.”
“What now?” asked Hurricane, low enough so that it was directed only at Tattle but loud enough that the rest of them could hear. “Do we go through with it?”
Blinking rapidly, Tattle twitched her head, as if she was shaking off some buzzing pest. “Through with the plan? We got our supplies. We got a fucking lionox’s weight in stones inside, we got months’ worth of preparation. I know each and every alsknight on that fucking wagon train like they were born in the same hollow as me. I been working this plan over for- for years.” Tattle shook her head again. “And everything that’s happening right now just about fuck that all over twice, so you know what? We’re improvising.”
Tattle kept running her hands through her hair as she looked around, walking into the center of the triangle that Hurricane, Bull, and the big guy formed. “Lookout, scoot up. Lonwal, get on. We have to move fast.”
Hurricane grit his teeth. “I can run faster than-.”
“I need you fresh, ready for action,” said Tattle. “Don’t worry, I can think while I run.” She turned around. “Bull…Bull, you stay on the ground with me.
The boy raised a questioning eyebrow.
“Because you’re fat and you won’t fit and you need the exercise anyways,” said Tattle, exasperatedly. “Now come on, get moving.”
As Hurricane clambered onto the big guy’s back, Chaff gripped the big guy’s tabula and nudged him forward. The tabula began to hum as he lent what strength he had to the camelopard, and the big guy ran forward at a steady pace despite the unprecedented amount of weight on his back.
The hum of two tabula at once was enough to make it feel like the air was buzzing around them. “There’s too many people around the bridge, Tattle, we’re never going to be able to get close,” said Lookout, eyes closed.
“Alright, good,” shouted Tattle, a little breathless as she dashed through the streets. Chaff could see it now; streams of curious watchers gathering towards the Libraries. “Getting close isn’t part of the plan!”
“There’s a plan?”
“There will be! And getting close won’t be part of it!”
They ran, and while Chaff had no idea where the next step would take him, it was better than not moving at all.
People had gathered around the bridge, and they whispered and muttered at the solemn congregation of electors at the center of the bridge. Chaff stopped the big guy once the crowds grew too thick, and nodded to both Lookout and Hurricane to disembark. He rubbed the big guy’s neck as he got off, and whispered, “You did good, big guy.”
The big guy shook his head and nickered.
“Shoo, now,” said Chaff, pushing the camelopard away. “Get some rest.” He craned his head back to look the big guy in the eye. “I’ll be fine. You draw too much ‘tention anyways, yeah? Go and eat and sleep and all that, yeah? I call if I need you.”
The camelopard trotted away, wading through the growing tide of spectators.
“Lonwal! Lookout!” shouted Tattle, as she shouldered her way towards them. A clearing opened around the group; no one wanted to stand too close to an urchin, for any number of reasons.
“Planned out yet?” said Hurricane, taking Tattle’s hand and pulling her forward through the last press of bodies. Bull followed in the gap close behind.
“Still working on it,” said Tattle, breathlessly. “Lookout, I need eyes.”
“You got them,” said the girl, and her voice had lifted back up to her old, confident self again. Chaff stared. The change had been so sudden. “What am I looking for?”
“Wagons, near the bank. See them? Half the alsknights are there, half the alsknights are escorting the big shot fieldmen. She’s…” Lookout stopped talking for a moment. “Never mind,” she said hoarsely.
Chaff opened his mouth to press for more details, but Tattle stuck a palm over it and glared at him. “Walsh?” she asked, after Chaff closed his mouth and looked away.
Walsh? Chaff thought. “With her,” said Lookout. “Same state.”
Tattle nodded. Sweat beaded down her red cheeks. “Tell me what the electors are going to do.”
“It’s formal,” said Lookout, closing her eyes tight. Chaff looked up, and saw that her owlcrow wasn’t the only one flying overhead. A menagerie of screeching, flapping things ducked and wheeled over the bridge. How many were watching with just their own eyes? “It’s public, too. They’re waiting for people to gather, but I doubt they’ll wait much longer. By the Ladies Four, both the duarchs have come out of the towers. Kobarr and Teyya Lay are all dressed up and everything.”
“What does that mean?” Chaff asked, before he could stop himself.
Lookout opened her eyes, and the humming Chaff had long ago stopped noticing fell silent. “They wouldn’t need something this public for a refusal.” She gulped. “I could be very wrong. But I think it’s more likely than not that Shira Hay is going to war.”
Tattle cast a dark look around. “These people aren’t going to be happy about helping fieldmen…” she muttered. Her eyes lit up. “Which is a good thing.”
“Everyone here gets all angry,” said Chaff. “That’s a lotta angry people. How’s that good?”
“This isn’t going to be clean, Chaff,” Tattle said, shaking her head. “But we’ve got an opportunity here and I mean to use it. Bull, Lonwal, get to the edge of the crowd.” Her gaze flickered from Bull’s adolescent face to Hurricane’s near grown old one. “Bull, you go first. Lonwal, stay back. They might still recognize you. I’ll join up with you in a bit, the timing on this one is going to be tricky.”
Terse nods from the both of them, and they set off. “Lookout, stay with me now,” said Tattle, and she had to raise her voice to be heard over the growing chatter of the crowd. “We’re going to give a lot of people a lot of reasons to be angry.”
“And me?” asked Chaff.
“Saving you for last, new kid,” said Tattle, smiling. “Remember what I told you? One race, that’s it. You get out there, by the river, and you wait. Don’t summon your pet yet, I don’t want anyone noticing you until it starts. And when it does, I want you to grab whoever Lonw- Hurricane tells you to grab and run, got it?”
It was simple enough, but Chaff felt that there was some piece of the plan he wasn’t getting. “How will I know when it starts?” Chaff shouted. It seemed like every man and woman, slave and wild, had come out to the bridge now. Were the electors waiting for the whole city to come out?
“Oh, trust me, you’ll know,” said Tattle. “Get going, it’s going to be impossible to get anywhere soon! Come on, Lookout, with me!”
Tattle slipped away, worming through a crack in the push and shove, but Chaff grabbed Lookout’s hand as she turned to leave.
“Lookout!” said Chaff. He met her eyes. “Before we goes, I got to know—what’s with you guys? Who are you, really? ‘Cause you sure ain’t like any urchin I ever see.”
Lookout just smiled, and ruffled Chaff’s hair. “Neither are you. Make it out of this alive and I promise I’ll tell you.”
And she slipped away, leaving Chaff alone, to be buffeted by the surge of onlookers.
Chaff was small enough that navigating the crowds was no great difficulty. He had to duck to make his way through a collection of dirt-smeared nomads, stumbling out into the fringes of the crowd where he could walk unobstructed. He straightened himself, looking for a good place to wait.
At that point, he heard a familiar voice.
“Wazzat? That Stink?”
Chaff froze. His hand fled to his tabula immediately, but he remembered Tattle’s warning. He couldn’t draw attention to himself. Not now. Now until…whatever it was started.
Hook sauntered up to him, grinning ear to ear. The smile didn’t reach his eyes, though, which were bloodshot and wide open. Scrabble wasn’t with him anymore, although lanky Shimmy, a year or two older than Chaff, walked close behind, and Chaff could see Crook watching from the roof.
“What’sa matter, Stinky?” said Hook, swinging the tabula on a string in front of him. He had not yet found a replacement rod, it seemed. “Where your boooyfriend now?”
“No trouble, yeah?” said Chaff, backing up to the safety of the crowd, but like a tide the spectators watching seemed to be pulling away from him.
“No trouble, sure. No hard feelings,” said Hook, and Chaff knew from experience that it was a complete lie.
“Come on, Hook,” said Chaff, grinning weakly. “Big two gon’ say something. Let’s have a look-see listen, yeah?”
He saw Hook’s hand coming but was still too slow to get out of the way. Hook grabbed him by the collar, his face twisted in a mocking smirk. “Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah,” he said. “Look-see listen, alright.”
Chaff closed his eyes. Fighting back would just prolong what was coming, and he needed it to be over quickly.
And then, like the angel voice of the Ladies themselves, Chaff heard the criers shouting, “There will be silence!”
Hook looked up. He didn’t let Chaff go, but he didn’t move either. A hush of anticipation fell over the crowd, and the sudden quiet was almost eerie. All Chaff could hear was the screech of the birds overhead, the seep of the river as it sucked at the pebbles on the shore.
Chaff turned to look and saw two silhouettes standing alone in the center of the bridge. The first man’s voice echoed as he spoke. “Bax of Alswell,” he said, his voice clipped, pointed, and harsh. “I am Kobarr, duarch of the grove that does not move. You speak for Engers of Alswell, whose liege is the farmer Greeve.”
The second man’s voice wheezed, but still his voice carried over the hushed masses. “Bax of Alswell,” he said. “I am Teyya Lay, duarch of the grove that does not move. Your intent is to make Shira Hay an ally against the aggressor Banden Ironhide. Make your case.”
As the Alswell emissary stepped up and began to speak, Chaff recognized it as the same tired speech each of the fieldmen had shouted over Shira Hay for so many weeks. A disgruntled muttering built up among the crowd, and the sudden torpor that had come over them broke slightly.
As people began to move, someone emerged from the fringes. Chaff turned to see Lookout glaring, and closed his eyes. As much as he was glad to have someone on his side, he did not know how good Lookout was in a fight.
“Violence while the duarchs are speaking?” she said, her nostrils flared wide, as the fieldman continued to argue his case. She had affected a different tone of voice, and stood like Tattle, tall and imperious. To his surprise, it seemed like Lookout pretended not to notice Chaff.
And, to Chaff’s even greater surprise, Hook looked down. “Sorry-sorry, ma’am,” he said, backing away, although Chaff could tell he was smoldering. “We was just-.”
“Just what? Are you prepared to make a thorough and convincing case, boy?” said Lookout. Chaff blanched. Boy? Lookout looked barely a summer older than Hook.
“Nothing, elector ma’am,” stuttered Hook, and then Chaff knew.
It was the scarf, the beige scarf around Lookout’s neck. Chaff had almost stopped noticing it, but to Hook, it must have been the first thing he saw. Poor, stupid, simpleton Hook, who did not know that the scarves of the electors were always red, who did not know that women had not been electors for centuries in Shira Hay.
“Leave,” hissed Lookout. “Before you cause further disruption.”
Hook backed away, gesturing for Shimmy to follow. Chaff saw Crook disappear over the lip of the rooftop, and Chaff’s shoulders slumped as he breathed a sigh of relief.
“How did you know?” he began, and Lookout just smirked. Chaff took Lookout’s hand gratefully to stand up. “Who says you’re bad with people?”
He saw Lookout smile before she tried to hide it. “Shut up, before a real elector notices.”
“Where’s Tattle?” whispered Chaff. “You done what you had to do, yeah?”
“Tattle’s with the boys, she’s waiting for the right time to get them moving,” said Lookout. “And I did the best I could.”
Chaff fell silent, as the fieldman Bax concluded his speech. He could only hope that the best Lookout could do was good enough.
“We have considered your argument,” said the first duarch, Kobarr, and from the speed with which he said it was clear that they had already come to a decision beforehand. “And we have decided thus.”
“Bax of Alswell,” said the wheezing one, Teyya Lay. “Approach to receive your arbitration.”
From afar, Chaff could only see the silhouette of the fieldman as he walked forward. He made a dramatic figure against the sun setting over the river.
“So what’s the plan?” hissed Chaff.
“The moment the duarchs announce that Shira Hay is joining the war,” said Lookout. “There’s going to be some…shall we say, discontent. Tattle’s going to take that and see if we can start a small riot with it.”
Chaff’s eyes widened. “A small riot?”
Lookout shrugged. “Just enough to distract the fieldmen. Just enough to grab Veer and Walsh in the chaos. It’s the best plan we got. By the Ladies, it’s the only plan we got.” She hunched. “Shh, get ready, he’s almost there.”
“Alswell is a nation of great bounty,” said Teyya Lay. “Alswell is a nation of peace. This, we know to be true.”
“Here it comes…” muttered Lookout.
“However,” said Kobarr, and Chaff saw a sudden look of consternation flash across Lookout’s face. “Alswell’s peace is one founded on oppression.”
“Alswell’s bounty is one hoarded from the hungry,” said Teyya Lay.
“You have not respected our borders.”
“You have offended our people.”
“You have been arrogant in times of prosperity.”
“You have been self-righteous in times of need.”
“This is our answer, Bax, who speaks for Engers, whose liege is Greeve,” said Kobarr, and before the emissary could run the duarch grabbed him by the shoulder and pulled him in close. “Shira Hay will go to Alswell, and Alswell will burn.”
Chaff saw the glint of the knife for just a second before he heard the strangled, gargling choke of the fieldman who had spoken so eloquently. There was a dead silence as the emissary staggered away and tumbled over the edge of the bridge, and a collective breath being held as he fell down, down, down to the water. He hit the river with a dull splash, his blood mingling with the orange light of the sun bleeding over the horizon.
And then everything fell apart. Immediately, the crowd roared, some in outrage, some in shock, but many more in celebration. The solemn cluster of electors on the bridge moved into action, pulling from beneath their great cloaks weapon after weapon, as tabula buzzed and hissed all across the riverfront. Both groups of alsknights reacted immediately, mounts stampeding over civilians who had become casualties of war, and over it all Chaff could hear the high cry of the fieldman noble shouting, “Away! Away! Out of the city!”
Mouth dry, Chaff reached for his tabula. He needed to keep the big guy safe from the chaos. He turned to Lookout, eyes wide. “What now?”
“Now?” Lookout shook her head. “Now, we really have to improvise.”
A hyenavulture flapped its spotted wings and cackled as it circled around Chaff, while the spring lizard shuffled forward and hissed, claws digging into the cracked earth. The merchant tapped a wooden baton on his other palm, shaking his head as he walked up the alley. “What are you doing, kid? Never steal without back-up.”
Chaff pursed his lips, unimpressed. He skipped back, hands held behind his back. “I got back-up.”
“Really? I don’t see it.”
Chaff snorted. “That’s a first, yeah?” He whipped out his tabula and focused. The world contracted around him and, in a sudden flash of bright light, exploded.
With a crack like thunder, the big guy materialized in the cramped alley. He brayed, annoyed, swinging his head at the hyenavulture while he kicked at the grounded spring lizard, and Chaff shrugged as he grabbed the big guy’s fur with one hand, the other holding onto his precious onion. “S’not my fault, big guy, he made me,” he said, shaking his head to clear the traces of the dizzying summoning.
The merchant gripped his own tabula in his hands, screaming and shouting, and suddenly the earth began crack under them as the spring lizard hissed, glaring with its one good eye as the bruised other began to swell.
“Let’s go, big guy!” shouted the boy, swinging on the big guy’s side as the camelopard galloped forward.
With a frustrated scream, the merchant grabbed out at Chaff, but the boy swung himself out of the way easily and gave him a smack on the noggin for his trouble.
“Yeah, yeah, I know,” said Chaff, holding the onion in his teeth as he clambered onto the camelopard’s back. “I doesn’t like the stealing either, but I has to, yeah? No other choice, yeah?”
The big guy turned his head to respond but at that point his hoof caught on a widening fissure in the street, and he tumbled over, screaming. Chaff curled up on the camelopard’s back and tried to dodge the worst of the impact, but he still bounced painfully off the cobblestones.
Its legs skimming the ground as it waddled forward, the spring lizard flicked out a forked tongue and held its head haughtily over them.
Chaff snarled, trying to help the big guy up as the merchant approached, breathless, baton in hand. The boy looked around. No one walked on the streets except disinterested passersby and other merchants who would have no sympathy for a common thief. On the roofs, though…
“Wazzat? That Stink?” shouted a familiar voice, and a dirt-smeared, sun-browned face poked over the eaves.
“Ooh-hoo, Stink in some bout’a kind of trouble now,” snickered another voice, from the roof opposite.
Chaff held out his arms expectantly and glared at the roofs.
“Hey, hey, you see that birdy-by up in there?”
“Oh, I sees it,” said the first voice, and on the roof the other boy stood. He hefted a rod with a thin string at the end, holding it over his shoulder as he shielded his face from the sun with his hands. “Good eats on that one, uh-huh.”
The merchant paused, his gaze flickering upward. He crouched and whistled for his hyenavulture, which landed beside him with a heavy thud.
The big guy had regained his feet, but Chaff made no move to mount him again. He stood, watching, resolute. He couldn’t show any weakness- not to any of them.
“Take your damn onion,” snarled the merchant. “Next time, I catch you without your cronies.” And he walked away backwards, not letting his gaze slip from any of them.
“You taking the old man from the one side, I take him from the other?” said the second boy from the roof.
“Mm-hmm, mm-hmm,” said the one with the rod on his shoulder, preparing to run.
“Hey, wait, no,” said Chaff, waving his hands. “We let him go now, yeah? Not worth it.”
The boy with the rod swung himself over the roof, dangling with one hand before dropping neatly on the ground. “You still eating that shit, Stink?”
“Told you not to call me that, Hook,” said Chaff, one hand on the big guy’s side. “I’m not Stink, yeah?”
“You Stink ‘cause you stink,” said Hook, still holding his rod over his shoulder. An amber tabula dangled at the end, and swung as he swaggered forward. “Hey, Scrabble, you think he still Stink?”
“He stink awful,” said Scrabble, landing on the ground as well. He brushed off the bandages on his hands and wrists, rolling his shoulders like the adult Kennya Noni fighters did. “It’s the food he eats. I ain’t never seen him eat him some real meat before.”
“Yeah, why don’t you eat meat, Stink?” Hook gave him a not so friendly shove in the chest. “It’s good. You should try some.”
Chaff looked to the big guy, hoping for an answer, but the camelopard looked away pointedly. “I do,” said Chaff. He gestured with his head to the big guy. “He doesn’t so much, though, yeah?”
Hook glared at Chaff for a good minute before his face split in a wide grin. He punched Chaff in the shoulder, guffawing, and ripped the onion from his hand. The older boy took one large bite before throwing it aside. “Come on, Stink, let’s get on back to the boys.”
Scrabble followed, laughing, and Chaff did his best to smile with them. When both their backs were turned, though, he bent down to retrieve his onion. He wiped off the worst of the dirt with his hand and kept eating, his belly rumbling.
“Mm-mm, don’t you no go riding now,” said Hook, shaking his finger. “What you, some Alswell fieldboy?” He grinned at Scrabble and cackled.
Scrabble puffed out his chest like one of the Alswell farmers. “Get up on that pony, boy. Do some laps for me, boy.”
Chaff laughed weakly with them, although he didn’t leave the big guy’s side.
Hook rubbed his hands together. “Come on, come on. Let’s race, Stinky.”
It wasn’t an offer Chaff could turn down. He bounced on the balls of his feet, chewing his lip. “Alright. Alright, yeah. On my mark?”
“Nope,” said Hook, pushing Chaff down with a nasty grin. Chaff hit the ground, wincing. “On my mark.”
And Hook began to run.
Chaff scrabbled to his feet, whistling for the big guy to follow. Hook was scaling the side of the nearest building, Scrabble close behind him.
Heaving, Chaff struggled to catch up. The cobblestones felt hard on the soles of his feet, and he could already see Hook and Scrabble pulling ahead. Chaff had enough stamina to sprint up to them for a few seconds at most, but he couldn’t hope to beat them in a regular race.
He tightened the bandages on his wrists and leaped. This wasn’t a regular race.
He clambered over the stone walls, onto the clay eaves, and up onto the flat rooftops. Up on the buildings, he could almost look the big guy in the eye. He nodded to the camelopard, and took a deep breath.
His legs screamed as he ran forward, but he had Hook within his sights. Sweat blurred his vision, but he kept his focus constant.
There was a gap in the roofs! Chaff leaped, his arms wheeling to keep balance as he slammed back onto the solid stone. He kept running without slowing, his momentum threatening to send him tumbling forward.
Hook was just ahead of him. Chaff lunged, swinging his fist out to catch Hook’s collar, falling forward recklessly. Hook was ready for him; he spun, swinging his fist out to catch Chaff as he was pulled backwards.
They danced, half-fighting, half-falling as they hurtled across the rooftops. More than once Chaff’s hands and feet scraped painfully against the stone roofs, but he didn’t let himself slow down. Every punch and kick carried him forward, even as Hook tried to knock him back.
There was another break in the buildings. Chaff noticed just as Hook swept his legs out from under him; Chaff threw his arms out behind him to catch his fall, and his neck bounced painfully off the rim of the building. Hook stamped his foot on Chaff’s face, sneering.
“Little help, big guy?” screamed Chaff.
The camelopard bit out and snapped at Hook, even as the men and women inside the building jeered and shouted at the animal to go away. The big guy’s teeth managed to snatch the string and tabula hanging on Hook’s rod, and pulled. The urchin stepped off of Chaff’s face immediately to get it back. Hook’s hand snatched the rod just as the big guy was about to pull it out of reach, and there was a moment of frozen silence as a look of consternation crossed Hook’s face.
Then something exploded out the big guy’s mouth, flapping its wings and screeching as Hook yanked his tabula back.
The kestrelgull circled once before, after a short bark from Hook, diving directly at Chaff’s face. He raised his hands to defend himself, flashes of a night a lifetime ago coming back to him, long talons and pure terror.
“That’s right, that’s right,” cackled Hook. “Stinky don’t like birdses, do you? You gonna do what now, run crying back in your hollow?”
The kestrelgull’s sharp beak tore at Chaff’s forearms, and he felt hot blood oozing down his elbows. He tried to back away, but his head was already hanging precariously over a long, long fall to the ground.
And then Chaff saw out of the corner of his eye Scrabble leap over the gap in the buildings. The look on Hook’s face froze, and immediately the kestrelgull pulled off to join him as he began running again.
Everything was staked on the race in Shira Hay: dominance, position, support. Hook might have wanted to humiliate Chaff, but he wasn’t going to lose his minion to do it.
Chaff rose to his feet unsteadily, watching the two run into the distance. He looked to the big guy, who snorted and tossed his head. Chaff sighed, slumping. He might have had a chance before to win, but now his head pounded and his feet hurts and his arms throbbed.
“Come on, big guy,” he said, clambering onto the big guy’s neck and sliding down. “We go the rest of the way together, yeah?”
The big guy’s neck shifted as he nodded, and he strolled away at a reserved, contemplative pace.
Chaff wondered what the gang would do to him when he returned so defeated from the race. At best, they’d take his dinner and make him sleep outside the hideout for the night. At worst…
Chaff buried his face in the big guy’s fur and sighed. It was tiring to think about.
His hand drifted to his belt, making sure none of his tabula had been dislodged in the hectic run. He held the girl’s tabula a second longer for good luck, and straightened his back, cracking his neck and knuckles.
“Hey, big guy, you want to visit Hadiss?” he said, his voice raising a little at the thought.
The big guy didn’t respond.
“Let’s go check the usual spot,” said Chaff, patting the big guy’s back. “Just to see if he’s there. Just to talk to him before we go back, yeah?”
They set off. After three years of living in the city, Chaff still wasn’t sure where the merchant district began and ended. As far as he could tell, people with stuff simply walked out in the streets and yelled for more stuff until a satisfactory trade was made.
It was a different matter altogether with the butchers’ shops, the bakeries, and the inns. Chaff knew where all those were; his breakfast, lunch, and dinner often came from the choicest scraps they threw out, if he could get to them quick enough.
Hadiss liked the bars around the Twin Libraries best (which Chaff knew to be a bit stingy with their trash). They conveniently combined his three favorite hobbies of drinking, reading, and arguing.
Chaff rode along the edges of the river, watching the sluggish waters trundle past under the great bridge. He looked around, his eyes skimming over the crowds to the scarves among them. He didn’t see Hadiss at first; he heard and recognized his raucous laughter instead.
Standing on the big guy’s back to get a better view, Chaff almost raised a hand and waved. He stopped when he saw that Hadiss was with two others. They wore no scarves, but they were grown old like him, big and burly with their tabula hanging visibly from their necks. They were talking together, laughing and joking.
Chaff sat back down. Friends of Hadiss they may have been, but they were still strangers to him. As a rule, he didn’t trust strangers anymore.
He stared at the passing crowds for some time, and watched as Hadiss crossed the bridge with his friends and walked away.
“Let’s get back to the boys,” said Chaff, softly. He yawned. “Tell me when we gets there, yeah?”
Chaff tried to sleep as the big guy rode, but couldn’t do it. He wasn’t as small as he once was, and found it difficult to balance on the big guy’s back; more than that, he couldn’t bring himself to close his eyes with so many people around them. At the slightest bump or jostle, Chaff would start, hands raised in self-defense.
He crossed his arms and sighed, letting the sounds of the city wash over him. As the big guy passed over the bridge, Chaff’s eyes slid over a group of electors holding debate with some foreigner.
“House Alswell beseeches you,” shouted the foreigner, his fieldman drawl thick in his voice. “Even now the usurper king marches to burn the land that feeds all of Albumere. Will you stand by and let this tyrant rule over you, or will you rise up to stop him?”
“A plea of the heart does you no good in the halls of power,” said one of the electors, his arms crossed. “We have neither the inclination nor the ability to assist you. Take your case to the duarchs, fieldman.”
“Duarchs who will not make a decision until they have heard open debate by the electors!” the fieldman shouted, his voice cracking slightly.
Chaff rode on, not listening. There had been quite a lot of fuss in the last few weeks about Alswell, but as far as Chaff was concerned the fields were too far west to be any concern of his. A couple of the boys entertained fancies every other night or so of riding out and living along the border to raid the farms for easy food, but the reality of the farmer’s slave-catchers always deterred them.
“Nothing worth risking becoming an Alswell slave, yeah?” said the boy to the big guy, as they walked off the other end of the bridge. “The boys is stupid, that’s right. It ain’t worth it.” He crossed his arms and nodded his head, even as his belly started to rumble again.
Chaff could tell when he was near the hangout when he saw the crumbling buildings, their inner walls collapsed to form a kind of network of smaller houses. It reminded Chaff of the stables where Loom-.
He didn’t let himself finish that thought. His chest hurt enough as it was.
“Hey, hey, there he is!” Hook shouted, hopping over a waist-high brick wall, Scrabble close behind him. From the look on Scrabble’s face, Hook had ultimately won the race. “What the double fuck taking you so long, huh? You get lost under the bridge, Stink?”
Chaff didn’t say anything. It would be better for him if he didn’t.
He dismounted the big guy and saw others coming out of the ruined buildings, all with the same dirty clothes and dirty hands and thin faces: Clatter, Crook, Shimmy, Spill. All colleagues, even allies at times- but none of them friends.
Hook’s kestrelgull flapped up from behind the wall suddenly and Chaff flinched. Hook grinned, tapping his rod on the ground.
“Maybe he see a birdy and he piss himself. That it, Stink?”
Chaff led the big guy to his corner of the complex, avoiding eye contact with Hook. He stared at the ground, trying to make it clear that Hook was the superior here. If he didn’t fight back, maybe Hook would be satisfied with his power and position and leave it at that.
And then something cracked on the back of Chaff’s head, and he saw stars.
“What, you too good to talk to me? That it? That fucking it, Stink?!”
Chaff put his hands on the ground and tried to respond, but all the wind was knocked out of him as Hook kicked him, hard, in the stomach. No one made a move to help. They just watched, curious.
“You talk big,” sneered Hook, and his voice was livid. The kestrelgull screeched on his shoulder, flapping its wings wide. “You too good for swearing. You tell me what to do. Ain’t never seen you eat proper food before. I don’t like you, Stink.”
Struggling for breath, Chaff croaked, trying to speak.
“What’s what you say now?”
“Sorry,” Chaff whispered. He rose unsteadily to his feet, clutching the big guy for support. He looked up and met Hook in the eye. “I’m sorry.”
“Sorry?” Hook nodded, walking away. He scuffed his bare foot on the dirt. “Alright. Alright, yeah. You sorry.” He stroked his chin, still nodding, eyes flicking from Chaff to the big guy to Chaff again. “Yeah, you sorry.” He flicked a hand in Chaff’s face and walked back to Scrabble.
And then Chaff reeled backwards as Hook twisted and planted his fist into his nose, and gasped as hot blood gushed down his face. He raised his hands to defend himself, but before he could make one move, Hook was pummeling Chaff’s gut, forcing him backwards against the big guy so neither he nor the camelopard could move.
“I’ll make you SORRY!” screamed Hook. “You sorry yet, Stink?! You fucking sorry?!”
Chaff fell to the ground, and Hook began bashing his rod on the back of his head. The wood splintered on the back of his neck, and Chaff curled up, whimpering. The big guy was bellowing, prancing and trying to find an angle to kick at Hook even as the kestrelgull pecked at his eyes and head.
At that moment, Chaff wished for Loom. He wished for her so bad it hurt more than anything Hook could do to him.
“Back off, Hook,” snarled a voice, and suddenly the beating stopped.
“Loom?” Chaff whispered, deliriously.
But no, it was just another urchin boy. Almost grown old now, standing near twice as tall as Hook and Chaff. Chaff blinked. Kids as old as him usually didn’t come around to the younger hideouts.
Hook stood, breathing heavily. He was red in the face, and a line of spittle dangled from his chin. He wiped his mouth, and stared at the older boy for quite some time. The other boys watched as ever, their eyes dark and sullen.
“We was just messing around, Hurricane,” said Hook, shrugging. “That’s all, that’s all.”
“I don’t care. I said back off, skinny bitch.”
Hook snorted and ripped the tabula and string off the end of his now broken rod. He tossed the pieces of wood at Chaff’s feet and spat on the ground, then walked away. The boy named Hurricane gave one glance over the rest of the gang, and they scattered.
He looked down at Chaff. “They call you Stink?”
“Yeah,” said Chaff. He did not feel like saying more.
Hurricane sniffed. “Sound foreign to me. They make fun of you or somewhat?” He held out a hand.
Chaff took it and stood up. Blood continued to drip down his chin, and he had to lean on the big guy to prevent from collapsing from the twinges in his stomach. Nonetheless, if this almost-grown-old wanted him to stand, he would stand. “Thanks,” he muttered.
“You go on and say sorry, please, and thank you,” Hurricane scoffed. “You a ‘ristocrat. Shit, I’d beat your ass too if I was one of them.”
Chaff tensed, hands gripping the big guy’s fur. He wasn’t sure if he had strength enough to ride, and even if he did the older street urchins were always very, very fast.
“That fella o’ yours,” said Hurricane, pointing at the big guy. “He take more than one?”
“Yeah,” said Chaff, looking at the big guy’s broad back. “Never tried it, but…yeah.”
Hurricane nodded his approval. “Well, saddle up then, ‘ristocrat. You coming with me.”
And Chaff watched the urchin boy walk away, wondering what a stranger could possibly want from him this time.