In the city of Duatra, decay is as pervasive as air or sunlight. Every day since the King disappeared, a little more of the country crumbles, eroded by civil wars, droughts, and plagues. The King’s Marked, who might have had the magic to heal the city, are gone as well, scattered and hunted to near extinction by the people they once protected.
Three Marked have survived: Chay, a cunning street urchin, struggling to hold the members of her ragtag family together. Leti, a river princeling, dreaming of the day his clan will regain the peace they once knew. Del Nyla, an exiled mercenary, craving absolution from the mistakes of her past.
It doesn’t take much to draft these three into the insurgence. But it will take more than a battle to claim their birthright and heal the city; they must first unmask the true traitor, and discover the truth that has been hidden in the past.
“Get outta our spot, dung-eater.”
There was a thump, and a squeal of agony echoed down the street.
Chay wished she could see what was going on, but she didn’t dare turn her head to look. The dark linen blindfold was thin enough she could have made out some of the scene, but she was supposed to be blind.
So she tilted her head and concentrated. The voice belonged to Frog, leader of the Raven Street ring. She didn’t recognize the squeal.
If she backed into the shadows against the buildings she would be able to see through the cloth better, but perhaps it was best that she really couldn’t see. She couldn’t risk acting out of character, not with Frog. He might be as slimy as his namesake, but he wasn’t stupid, and he was older and stronger than she was.
Chay stayed slumped in the gutter, hand outstretched and open. Occasionally a bit of cloth brushed her fingertips as someone on the street passed too close. A wagon rattled by, showering Chay with globs of mud and pebbles, stinging cold where her rags didn’t quite cover her bare skin.
Her attention remained on the squabble a few paces away. The Raven Street ring held the best spot of any of the streetflies that begged here, where Jackal’s Alley met the Ox Path. Frog frequently had to fight to hold it. This didn’t sound like that kind of fight. This sounded like someone who didn’t know the rules.
Skin hit skin. Chay shifted, dropping her hand. She took a deep breath, tasting the blood in the air.
The new boy babbled, slurring across a swelling lip. “Please, I didn’t know, please…” Another smack and he only sobbed incomprehensibly.
Chay gritted her teeth and sat up. “Oy, Frog, so gutless ya gotta beat on greenlings?”
“Stay outta this, it ain’t your concern.”
Chay turned her head slightly, keeping an ear toward Frog’s voice. She heard the scuff as Frog stepped nearer.
“Ah-ha.” Frog’s tone was exultant. “Where’s your ghoul, blind Batty?”
Chay silently cursed her recklessness. She hadn’t stopped to think how far away Wade and the rest of her ring were, working the busy afternoon streets. They should return soon, but not soon enough.
A shadow fell over Chay, blocking the dusk light and sharpening her blurred view of the street. People passed quickly, without a glance at the drama playing out on the fringes of their society. A cluster of adult beggars watched from across the street, faces no more than mottled shades of gray.
Chay heard the rustle of fabric and rolled away. The rush of wind on her cheek told her Frog’s foot had just missed. She squeezed her eyes closed to keep from using them. She’d been playing blind so long, usually it was second nature. But in a situation like this, she couldn’t rely on her subconscious. Giving herself away to Frog was worse than the hit she’d receive if she didn’t dodge fast enough, but her body didn’t know that.
So Chay crouched, straining for the sound of another attack.
“Frog, the greenling ran,” said Tors, Frog’s second.
“Catch him then!”
This time, Chay didn’t hear the kick until too late, distracted by their words. Frog’s foot connected with her shoulder, knocking her onto her back. “He deserves what he gets for squattin’ in our corner, just like you piece of dung deserve it for interferin’ with another ring.”
Chay covered her head with her arms and squeezed her eyes shut until her eyelids ached. Frog kicked her in the stomach, and her breath rushed out of her lungs. Another kick, and pain shot from spine to fingertips. Her eyes popped open in time to see Frog lift his foot again.
A figure jumped over her and tackled Frog, all dark limbs and fury.
Chay checked her blindfold. It hadn’t slipped. Thank the King.
“Chay!” Kap appeared at her side. A dark brown cap cast his thin face in shadow, but Chay could still see the tic in his cheek pulling at the corner of his mouth spasmodically. “Wade’s got him. She’s got a shard.”
Wade had her opponent pinned, and although she couldn’t see it, Chay could envision the shining length of broken glass hovering inches from Frog’s throat. She forced herself upright. “Wade, I’m whole. No need for blood.”
Wade hopped back from Frog, on the defensive now, heels up and bent low. She swayed between Chay and Frog, uneven ends of her short pale hair bristling out in all directions. She looked like a territorial cat, ready to switch from defense to offense in an instant. Frog scrambled to his feet, snarling like the beaten tomcat he was, but he knew better than to ask for more. He backed away and disappeared into a nearby alley.
Wade stood and turned. Her dark skin always made it hard to make out her expression through the linen, but Chay couldn’t mistake the set of her shoulders or the way she tilted her head. She was furious.
A trumpet rang out.
“Herald!” Kap called. Everyone in the street fled to the edges, and suddenly they were battling a crowd as close-packed as a brick wall. Wade pushed through the press of bodies, Chay and Kap following close behind.
The trumpet called again as they made it to the mouth of an unnamed alley. Wade picked up speed, running toward the end of the alley and Dove Way. Behind, whips snapped as the Blackcoats drove people back and cleared a wider path. The ones they hit cried out, but a third trumpet blast cut them off. A wave of silence rolled down the street outside.
Chay stopped so abruptly that Kap bumped into her. “Wait, I wanna hear the herald.”
Kap paced, tic jumping wildly, but he didn’t argue. Wade returned and leaned against the opposite wall. She crossed her arms.
“Hear the word of your Steward.” The herald’s voice bounced off the buildings, ricocheting from ear to ear. Chay found herself holding her breath.
“From this day forward, all citizens and visitors within Duatra must be within their homes or inns by the third chime of the night. All persons, be they men, women, or children, who are found on the streets after the third chime of the night shall be deemed traitors to the realm and imprisoned. This is your Steward’s word.”
The trumpeter blew, and the cadence of hobnailed boots echoed down the alley as the procession moved on. Chay watched the flashes of light bob past overhead, no doubt from the Blackcoats’ halberds. The crowd remained still for a few heartbeats, and then everyone started talking at once.
Chay sighed softly. Through the linen, she met Wade’s eyes.
“It ain’t enough we gotta scrape to eat, now it’s illegal ta exist.” Kap kicked at the ground, cutting the air with wild, angry gestures. “What’re we supposed to do? Bastard Steward –”
Wade cut him off with a sharp push, knocking him a step to the side.
Kap glared at Wade, then spat. “’S true,” he said.
“So we break more laws.” Chay tugged at the linen covering her eyes. “Anyway. Where’s Prissa?”
Kap shrugged. “Hiding ‘hind the cooper’s shed on Wren Lane.”
“Let’s get her and go; light’s fading.”
“I’ll catch up,” Kap said, and disappeared into the milling crowd on Jackal’s Alley before anyone could reply. Chay wouldn’t have stopped him anyway; the disturbance from the herald’s passing created the perfect opportunity for a grift or two.
Chay took Wade’s arm, expecting her to lead the way as usual. Instead, she pulled free, frowning.
Chay stepped back before her disapproval. “Yeah, I know. I shoulda kept my mouth shut.”
Wade reached out and tapped Chay’s forehead.
“And I shoulda thought first,” Chay said.
She rolled her eyes skyward.
“And I’ll bring ruination on all of us.”
Wade nodded, face serious.
“I promise never to do it again.”
Wade snorted and shook her head. She grabbed Chay’s forearm and pulled her down the alley.
* * *
Wren Lane crossed a poor, desperate part of the city. Despite the poverty, it was safe enough, packed end to end with tiny cottages bursting with large families. An outsider might be hard-pressed to tell the difference between their children and streetflies like Chay’s ring, but those who lived along the Lane would rather die than be compared with thieves and beggars. Here, mothers patched and re-patched the same clothing year after year, older children hired themselves out as hawkers, and fathers sweated away years of their lives on the factory lines. It was a place of stoic dignity.
So rather than attract the combined wrath of the mothers of Wren Lane, Chay and her ring approached the cooper’s shed from behind. Wade and Chay waited among the discarded, rotting barrels and rusting hoops while Kap snuck across the cooper’s yard to where he had left Prissa.
Kap reappeared almost immediately. “She ain’t there, Chay!”
Chay’s stomach dropped, the blood draining from her face.
Wade tapped Kap on the shoulder and pointed across the lane at a cluster of girls. Prissa leaned over the puddle with the others, sprinkling dirt into it while another girl stirred it with a stick.
“She’s fine.” Kap sighed with relief and his cheek twitched. “She’s playin’ with some kids.”
The girls erupted into giggles and began to chant a nursery rhyme.
The King has gone away
The Marked did disobey—”
“Pris!” Chay called, and the girls broke off and sat up, squinting at the three older children.
“Chay!” Prissa leapt up, throwing her handful of dirt into the air. It sprinkled down onto her playmates, who screeched. Pris ignored them and ran over, throwing her arms around Chay’s waist.
“What happened to hiding?” Chay asked, ruffling her silky hair.
“Oy!” A woman appeared in the nearest doorway, brandishing a broom. “Get away from here!”
Pris giggled and grabbed Chay’s hand, pulling her along behind as she ran.
They ducked into the big carriage-house on Boar Street, weaving between the lines of parked black carriages. Prissa hiccuped for breath, face flushed from running. Kap shushed her with a nervous glance toward the off-duty drivers who sat drinking in a dilapidated carriage nearby. They either didn’t notice or didn’t care that the children were there, because the group exploded into raucous laughter and passed their flask around.
“What’s the take?” Chay asked when they’d all settled onto the floor behind a wheel-less carriage.
Wade pulled out a scrap of cloth and unfolded it. Kap picked through the little pile and named each item. “Good stack a coppers, some kerchiefs, one’s got stitching. Wood pipe, some leaf, couple bits a parchment and a nub of charcoal.”
“Good haul! We’ll roll in vittles tonight.” Chay grinned and Pris clapped her hands over her mouth to stifle her delight.
“And somethin’ else… I dunno, but it’s gotta be worth silver, at least.”
Chay held out her hand, and Wade passed her the item in question. The metal weighed heavy and cold in her palm. It vibrated faintly, like the buzz of an insect’s wing. Chay ran her fingers over the engraved surface, tracing whorls and leaves that wound over the oval surface top to bottom, back to front. She felt around the edges, and a tiny clasp caught her fingertip. She pressed, and it sprang open with the whirr of tiny gears.
“A watch,” she breathed. Chay remembered how proud she’d been when Pa’d let her hold his. It had been larger, cased in plain pewter, but the weight was familiar in her hand.
“What?” Kap crowded closer.
Chay snapped it shut. “A watch. Like the chime tower, only little. Definitely worth silver.” She handed it to Wade, trying not to think of when she’d handed Pa’s watch over for food. “We gotta get rid of it quick — it’s dangerous kept long. Georgo’ll take it. Wade, you go with Kap; make sure he ain’t cheated. Pick up vittles on your way back, we’ll meet at the grease vats.”
“Oh please Chay, can I go? Please?” Prissa grabbed Chay’s hand and squeezed.
“It ain’t safe, Cica,” Chay said gently.
“Then I won’t go in Georgo’s. I’ll wait outside. I wanna go to the vendors, I’ll help carry an’ everything.”
“It ain’t so bad, Chay, we’ll watch her,” Kap said, smiling indulgently down at Pris.
“Oh please! I’ll be good!”
“I dunno…” Chay said, uneasy.
“You ain’t getting one o’ your feelin’s, are ya?” Kap whispered, suddenly serious.
Chay hesitated. “No… it ain’t like that.” At least, it didn’t get worse when she thought of Pris going with them.
“You sure? We can wait til tomorrow, maybe the greaseman put out bits for us tonight.”
Everyone’s eyes were on her, waiting. Chay shook her head. “No, go tonight. You all go.” Pris stifled a squeal of joy. “Come get me here when you’re done. We’ll go back to the vats together.”
As they left, Wade paused beside her. She searched Chay’s face, eyes concerned.
“Go, it’s all right,” Chay said, smiling to hide her tension.
Chay waited alone, listening absently to the lewd jokes and gossip of the drivers. All the while, a tiny worm of alarm chewed and chewed.
When she couldn’t stand it anymore, Chay got up. Trailing her hand on the wall, she walked to the wide open back of the carriage-house where she could taste the breeze. She took a deep breath in through her nose and closed her eyes, listening to the city, trying to hear what her gut was trying to tell her.
Wooden wheels rumbled over uneven cobbles, fastenings and fittings jangling. Horses snorted and stamped, leather snapping against their flanks as drivers urged them on their way. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of voices melded together into incoherent babble. Underneath it all, the rumble of the twin falls and the sister rivers, so constant she never noticed unless she tried.
And clear, like a bell ringing, she heard the warning’s shriek: Run!
Someone grabbed Chay from behind, forearm tightening across her throat. Chay bucked and kicked, and they overbalanced and fell. She scraped and clawed at her attacker, trying to pry the arm across her throat free. Her lungs burned and pressure built in her head, pushing and pushing outward, about to explode.
Frog’s breath seared Chay’s ear just before she lost consciousness. “Your ghoul ain’t comin’ to save you now, Batty.”
* * *
Chay woke with a start, jerking against the hands holding her. To her relief she could still feel the linen across her eyes, but it was too dark for her to see more than shadows and a faint orange glow. Warmth beat against her skin, and her clothes were already damp with sweat.
Her captor slammed her to the ground and sat on her back.
“She’s awake, Frog,” Tors said.
Chay heard the rush of air through valves. The sensations felt familiar; she knew this place, or something like it. Soot and sulfur tickled her nose. Cooling metal pinged, and she realized where she was.
A boiler pit. They were in Dog’s Tooth, beside one of the factories. During the day, a fireman would work the pit to stoke the fires below the boiler so the machines on the line would run. Now, at night, it cooled and the pit was empty. A good place to sleep in the winter, but the heat could be deadly in the summer.
Chay heard the scuff of footsteps approaching. The warning thrashed in her belly, and her heart pounded, sending shocks through her whole body with each thump. This was not the kind of thing a streetfly would survive; tomorrow she would be nothing more than ashes beneath the boiler.
“Shoulda left well enough alone, Batty.” Frog’s voice echoed strangely in the confined space, bouncing from walls to boiler and back.
There was a thud, and someone groaned. She wasn’t alone. Panic made her fingers go numb. Not my ring, please, not my ring.
“A bit louder, squatter. Batty can’t see you suffer, so you gotta let her hear it.”
Not her ring. But that realization didn’t clear the sour acid in her stomach.
Chay struggled with all her strength, but she couldn’t move; Tors was too heavy. In the end, she had to lie there and listen to Frog beat the greenling. Waiting for her own punishment.
Another thud. And another. The boy wailed.
Chay ground her teeth, fingers and toes curling into the ash-dusted brick floor. Her nails scraped and tore against the seams. Frog wouldn’t stop after he killed them. He’d take out her entire ring, he wouldn’t even hesitate to hurt Prissa. There were things in the city worse than death, and Frog knew them all.
The crack of a fist, and the boy didn’t cry out again. Frog snorted. “Didn’t take him too long, did it? Soft little shit.”
Anger flared, different than before. Bigger. She couldn’t find fear any longer. She was surrounded by heat, fire both inside and out.
Sweat streaked down her face, dampened her hair. She imagined her skin cracking and peeling back; she was already burning.
“Stop it!” Tors screeched, his voice cracking with panic. He smashed her face into the ground and brought his elbow down on her back, but the pain was distant. Unimportant.
Bright gold light grew, lighting her blindfold like daylight, too brilliant to see through. Wind rushed against her exposed skin, cooling her sweat to beads of ice. Blows rained down on Chay’s head as Tors beat at her with both hands.
“Get away!” Chay yelled into the ground, and the air pulsed with each word.
Frog screeched, and Tors’ weight lifted away. As suddenly as it came, the light died and the wind fell. Tors collapsed on top of her, and Chay fell into blackness.
* * *
Chay felt a clammy hand pat at her cheek, and peeled her eyes open. She couldn’t see anything, not even a dim glow from the dying coals beneath the boiler. She must have been out a long time.
She tried to sit up, but something pressed her into the ground.
“Here, hang on,” the boy said, and Chay recognized the greenling’s voice. The weight on her back shifted.
Chay struggled out from under Tors, kicking his limp limbs away. She sat beside the body, breathing heavily. What had happened?
“Is he… is he dead?” The boy’s voice shook.
“I dunno.” Chay didn’t know what she’d done, but if Tors was dead, it was her fault. That thought made her a little sick.
Chay hesitated, and then reached out with trembling fingers. She found Tors’s face, and held her hand over his lips and nose. When she felt the faint warmth of breath, she shivered with relief. Not dead.
But he’ll wake up. And where’s Frog?
Past time to go then, but it was pitch black, darker even than it should have been through her blindfold. She would never make it back like this.
“Can you see?” she asked the boy.
“Uh… yeah. Got a blacked eye, but the other’s fine. Moon’s bright tonight.”
That gave Chay pause. Why couldn’t she see? Tonight should have been a high moon. The coals beneath the boiler ought to glow. She had never been so completely unable to see, on the blackest night or brightest day she had always been able to make something out through the linen.
She would have to worry about it later, in safety. “What’s your name?”
“You gotta place to go, Arny?”
A long silence answered Chay’s question.
“You’re in my ring now, Arny. I help you, you help me. Help me outta here, and you can sleep safe.”
She only hoped she wasn’t lying to him.
* * *