She can’t have been dead more than an hour, most of the night still to come, when she staggers up to her feet in the rain. She’s sick with anger and stiff as if she’s all over bruises, and save the rage she’d keep to cobbles, grow still as wet stone, but—
It was her life riven from her, and she’s set on finding whoever snatched it away.
She’s lost her own name. There’s a blood-sluiced rent in her coat and side where the blade went in, and her own knife’s gone, and her cheap rings and coin pouch besides. But she still has her shoes.
She understands someone leaving her coat, but not her shoes. Not every corpse gets up and walks, but it’s near a sure thing with the murdered dead, and every idiot knows that if you kill someone you take their shoes to keep them down.
Grows colder as she stumbles down streets, closer to matching the night’s chill and side under split-in coat is aching, but now the cobbles fit her feet and she recognizes these windowed smears of light. Hides rip in coat’s folds, hoping blood will pass for mud, and goes in. The air is stinking warm and thick with voices, lit by greasy tapers and a sulking fire. Rain’s plastered thick coils of hair over her face; mattered less outside, and her not needing to blink, but now that there’s something to see she pushes it clear of her eyes, stares at the dim shapes.
“Scarrow,” from a table near the fire, thick old man twisted round to call her as she enters, and the name sounds in her bones and strikes to her still heart. Blinks as she remembers it and then sudden she’s standing at the table in the room’s patchy light, sodden limbs feeling stone-heavy and cold.
He stares up, worry edging out confusion. “Girl, you look like hell.” He’s older than she, olive skin starred with broken veins and old pits from the burning ash of thirty years back. No mind for why she remembers that and not his name. Scarrow looks to her own hands and sees he’s paler than her, not so much they couldn’t be kin.
“Bad luck,” Scarrow says, spends last of the old air in her lungs on words in a raw voice. “Ran into a fancy man, and a hard run away.” It feels some true when she speaks it. “You know.”
“Guess I do,” he says, still watching. Rough skin like a dull coal, banked fire, a stove not quite hot enough to glow. She can feel it in the air around him, like the smoldering fire and the chips of candle flame. Scarrow, and the name helps, and comes to her she knows his; Jettery, Jettery Carr, not master nor father to her but tutor and maybe kin…
More of the night comes clamoring back to her, and she sits down, stool’s feet scrawling on the filthy floor. Keeps table between them, lets the fire press against her back through her wet coat and heat begins to soak in as he’s asking what happened, where, when.
“Trouble down the lanes by the bonemill and factory.” Where streets spider between buildings, too thick for alleys and too scrambled for proper names.
“What’s a fancy man doing there to give you trouble?”
Scarrow shakes her head, unknowing. It’s no place to go looking for much of anyone, anything, ever. Between shifts the doors are locked and streets empty of anything but trash, and not even that with the rains running. Come shift change it’s all huddle and rush, poor pickings, people hurrying in clumps through passages, hoping to get out and uphill before their companions peel away from them.
Jettery reaches towards her and she blinks at the motion, and there’s that slip and grit and blur again. Then she’s standing off the stool and closer to the fire with her coat steaming dry in the dim close air, and no action nor stretch to cross the gap between where she sat and where stands now.
May be that slipping that way is no great wonder, but she’s too poor to buy such tricks and too ragged to manage them herself, and this time Jettery notices, starts looking to her some sharper.
And here’s the danger, true as stars and stone and salt; if he sees what happened, she’s done for, as no corpse can walk once one who knows them understands they’ve died. Being seen that way is surer pinning to ground than any spike of iron or ash, and even the murdered dead go down and stay.
But it’s not the first time he’s seen her scattered and licking her wounds, and while world and nights have scuffed the shine off them both, he’s hardly quick to give room to the idea she’s bled her life out while he turned aside a minute. That’s a thing as’d need a moment to sink in even if he was looking on her unmoving corpse; it’s not in his bones to know her as dead for only being a little strange. Sick, hurt, cursed maybe, having pieces of herself picked away, but not dead.
The relief’s near warmer than the fire, for a second.
“What’d I be doing there?” she asks him back and he answers best he can.
“Don’t know, do I?” low and calm. “Can’t have been after the meatwagon’s lockbox. Told you it was a bad idea, you said you’d not try it.”
“Oh.” Thinks on that a minute. “You believe me, then?”
“Smart girl,” he says, and corner of her mouth hitches up as his does same and yes, she’s sure they’re kin. Not father-daughter, but may be he’s uncle to her, or they’re cousins both; he’s the old man who taught her all she knows that doesn’t hew to matter of law. “Believed you. You’d think it over, an’ you’d see it’s a bad idea.”
She holds her hands back towards the fire smoldering in the gritty alcove and the heat creeps into her from the sullen coals. Fingers wicking up the dim warmth. Ache in her side like splinter of stone, not getting warmer, but all rest is easing.
“Hell, sit down, already,” concern under casual vulgarity, “you look rattled.”
Scarrow shakes her head. “Cold night out.” He looks at her fingers stripped raw where her rings were pulled off and then at the muddy sag of her coat and even if he’s not knowing she thinks he’s wondering too much. She drags herself away from the fire, like yanking cloth out of skin that’s healed over it, going for the door and wrapping the coat ’round her.
The fire’s not been enough and she wants to reach out for him, the heat banked and waiting to roar under his skin, and that’d do him no good, none at all.
“Be back.” Through door and into night and running halfway to cross-street before he can clear door chasing after her, and she’s sure she’s spoken him a lie. She knows him well, name come up out of shadows and trust still settled in her with all she’s lost, but he’ll see too much. Shoes give her chance to keep walking, but they aren’t proof against someone recognizing what she is, and Jettery’s a danger to her now.
It looked like a child the first time Sill saw it, and it fooled him for scarce three minutes.
He’d known, arriving, that there was something odd about the contract. He could tutor as requested, dead languages and metaphysics and empirimancy, but tutoring was hardly a valet’s primary duty. And that held even truer with so young a charge as described.
He was waiting in the office, looking at the finely figured walls and trying not to shuffle his feet in the rich nap of the rug, when Walsingston swept in with his charge in tow.
Walsingston was large and vigorously grey, the crisp edges of his tailored clothes cutting the air. The child was a thin and deeply forgettable thing hurrying after him, dressed in something akin to green. As Sill hadn’t presumed to sit he executed a passable bow, a little stiff but very sincere, and kept his eyes down until Walsingston spoke.
“I appreciate promptness,” Walsingston said, and Sill straightened. “Education. Discretion.” He paused weightily after that and Sill nodded, decided to murmur an of course and found himself cut off. He broke into a light sweat; letters had been exchanged, but the contract proper hadn’t yet been signed and sealed. Certain requirements of payment were looming large in Sill’s mind; he was in dire need of a position that would allow him to secure the sanatorium quarters that Emmeline required.
“My ward—” Walsingston waved idly at the small figure that was watching him intently— “requires certain accommodations. Sit down.” Nervous, Sill took a moment to place the nearest chair and was grateful for his own delay, since it gave him time to realize that the man had been talking to the child—girl or boy, he couldn’t tell, and didn’t like to stare—and not to him. It scrambled up to kneel in a seat with an oily grace, gazing at Walsingston the while, and Sill folded his hands and nodded attentively. His neck hurt from not looking at the desk; he could imagine the contract waiting on it, the vellum a clean split sheet waiting for signatures.
“When this man comes to the desk with me,” Walsingston said to the child, “he will be agreeing to follow my instructions and take care of you. You will remember that he acts on my behalf. While he follows my instructions, you would no more hurt him than you would hurt me. This man.”
The child turned its head to consider Sill, and he saw it properly for the first time.
Its face was white as the smears before the sight of a drowning man. Its eyes were starlight, gangrene, a roiling iridescence. Though it fixed its gaze full upon him, its neck was quite twisted; its body still leaned towards Walsingston, attentive as a dog. He could see teeth but no mouth, and the edges of its form blurred.
“Ah,” he said. The child-thing blinked its rotting gaze and Sill managed to turn his gaze to Walsingston. His eyes were stinging a little, watering; he understood, faintly, that the weeping was a protective reaction, a useless attempt by his body to clear away the sight of the thing.
Walsingston was considering him, and Sill realized he had spoken aloud, tried to gather himself up and say something of sense. “Ah, sir, your ward…”
“Yes,” Walsingston said. “Unusual. But for a ward, we can tolerate certain peculiarities.”
“Ah,” Sill said again, and one hand went to his heart. He understood what any decent man must say and knew he would fall short.
“Ah, sir,” and he bowed his head. “I must say, I am—” Horrified, since I have some idea of exactly what you must have done to acquire this thing. But there was Emmeline, thinner than the thing in the chair and running with sores. His daughter was half-orphaned by rot and must have a room of her own, and months to heal, and the services of those better trained than he.
“I am deeply honored by the trust you place in me.” Walsingston’s gaze grew no less watchful, and Sill gathered himself for the plunge. “I will of course do my best to fulfill it.”
Rain’s thickening as Scarrow runs, not sure where to go but away, fleeing the chance to touch Jettery’s pitted face and the blazing warmth behind it. Holes in her shoes let running rain in as she bolts across slippery stones. Clutching her coat too close around her and never mind it took a knife to split its threads, it’s breaking under her fingers and the rain’s plashing in and soaking her colder, colder yet.
Miserable night, empty streets save for Jettery following behind, lost to sight but he knows her well enough she worries he’ll find her if he tries. Let that happen and she could draw his heat down, leave him still and cold; she’d grow warm enough to chase her rage and she guesses there may be no one else left to know her, no one to understand who she is that’s died.
The hunger’s clamoring for her to turn back to him and she’d sooner grow cold than let that happen. He’s seen her through the teeth and knocks of all their days, he’d put a knife to anyone who really hurt her, she’d do same for him.
So needs must stay well clear of Jettery while she’s after getting her nails and teeth into whoever it is stole the thready bright grit of all the days she once had coming. She bolts ’round corner, feet slipping out from under in wet street muck, flinches and throws out hands as she falls.
And opens eyes from flinch to find herself back in the alley where she died with near the last of the heat steaming off her skin.
Scarrow takes a moment, sure enough that whatever’s come to pass Jettery’s considerable less close behind. Dull chill still in her wound but building’s lee gives shelter from the storm and she’s thinking clearer now, starts with what she has. Fingers up into the raw split of her side, the wet press of liver and lights pushing back, too many cut ends slipping around cold inside her.
She digs for the ache in her lowest rib, feels something slice at her fingers before she gets a proper grip and tugs.
It comes out of the bone with a damp tocking sound that shivers all the way up to her shoulder.
Sharp metal far more delicate than needs be, edged with filigree thorns where it’s not broken. She holds it up, rubs clotting blood off it and memory sparks. Three dozen delicate teeth on some stupid confection of a knife, the blade shining in the rain—
Her hand’s tight around the metal lace and she remembers.
The prissy-neat man looking sick and scared, hands up and out. Fluttering words, so sorry and beg your pardon, and then the blade split her hip to rib and up deeper inside, a guttering noise like a sick sad cat in her throat.
But he came hands empty, him calling her, making excuses and looking near to fleeing in tears; not wielding aught but playing sad distraction so’s another could take the knife to her and then she died.
Scarrow knots her hair back out of her eyes and goes looking for whosoever can tell her where someone fool enough to not take shoes off the murdered dead might go to buy this glossy confection of a blade.
Tockeledo’s shop is closest and closed but the lantern at his sign’s yet lit so she hammers on the door until she hears him moving, then yells her name through the keyhole.
The door doesn’t open, for he’s no fool either, but the little hatch behind its grill does. His glare’s too clear for her to be what woke him, though she cares not for whyever else he was up.
“The hell’re you after?”
She holds up the blade’s slick edge. “Where’d you go, to get something like this?” and seeing the patience leave his face jams fingers through the grill, pulls herself close and pleading. “Tock, please. Some fancy man was creeping down by the factory and bonemill,” she says. “Came at me when he saw me, an’ I took a hard run. But I went back to look after an’ found this in the brick, where I dodged clear. Give me some word of where to seek it?”
Tock snaps his fingers and she passes the metal careful through the grill and steps back, waits as he closes the hatch. Lantern at his door’s still burning, and Scarrow touches the glass, pressing fingers as you’d press against the cool of a shadowed stone wall in summer heat.
Snatches her hand away as she hears steps come back again. The flame’s guttering, buffeting shadows across her sight.
“Where the hell did you get this.”
“It’s special, then?” He doesn’t answer what they both know, and she gathers up her shreds of story. “Only as I told you. One as didn’t care be seen saw me watching, and left that behind.”
“Jettery was by,” Tockeledo says after a moment, and Scarrow’s glad of the strangeness that dragged her back to the alley she died in, made her late enough getting here she missed her old man who’s been and gone. “Asking after anyone who might’ve been selling your rings, anyone you’d be asking after.”
“I ran myself straight to getting robbed, bad cut down alley from lane,” she says. “Tock, please. My work cut short an’ me robbed, not the night I planned. But think I can make something of what I saw.” That’s a lie but it rings true, hurt pride and lost wealth hoping that well, may be the beer’s spilt but least it can wash blood off the floor. “With the fancy man’s face an’ where he was, may be a name from a smithshop means I pull together enough I’ll have some word to sell to the right ear? An’ he was fancy, Tock; only look at that joke of a knife, you can see it. It’s not us I’m looking to spill words on.”
“What was it he was doing?”
“Tell you that, you’ll maybe put together enough you sell word before I do.”
He frowns at her, and looks past her down the street. She guesses Jettery’ll be back, soon or later, trying again to find her. She and Jettery both have traded fair with Tock for a year and more, and here’s no bad place to spend her goodwill for favor of a word. Best she’s out of here before Jettery comes back; best she hurries because she guesses she doesn’t have enough goodwill to buy Tock’s silence on the matter, and wherever he points her he’ll point her old man as well.
“If it was made in-city,” Tock tells her, “it was made on White Lane. Try the finesmithing shop by the fountain.” And he shuts hatch in door, leaves her to the rain.
Scarrow touches lanternglass before she’s gone, thin and gritty heat slipping down cold nerves from hungry fingertips as flame gutters and dies. Then upstreet, quick as she can, knowing somewhere behind her is Jettery—not knowing what’s wrong yet as she’s still moving, but seeking her as she’d seek him and seeing something wrong in the weird of the night.
Sill’s duties included feeding the child-thing. The act itself wasn’t so bad; it only fed on animals, and before they were left in its circle Sill drugged them to insensibility. He would have killed them himself before handing them over if he could, to spare them even the dream of contact with the thing, but it needs must feed on the moment of dying.
He told himself the worst of it was the anodyne he prepared for the meals, and that was not so much. He had prepared more noisome concoctions when his last master had studied the generation of homunculi, and once he had crafted the candle to sit aback a dead man’s hand. But it was knowing what he fed that disturbed him; an inchoate hatred plucked struggling down from the green stars, and bound into a body of tallow and offal.
He did not like to think about where the tallow had come from. Children died everywhere, and surely it would have been less trouble for Walsingston to find one already dead than to take a more active role in the procurement. When his mind turned that way, he reined it in and forced it to Emmeline, and to the work of keeping her from being one of the young and soon-forgotten dead. She needed a father with a life and a fine job, and he understood that Walsingston would take both from him with little concern if it became necessary.
While he follows my instructions, you would no more hurt him than you would hurt me. The words were a leash. Sill knew he was not compelled, as Walsingston compelled his creation; he was only frightened, and could see no way to remove himself from the man’s service.
The feeding grew more difficult. When he tidied away the small (and then less small, but still mercifully furred and tailed) corpses of the child-thing’s meals, he imagined he heard their whimpering. He grinned at his charge like a sick and frightened dog when he could not avoid its gaze, and bowed his head to Walsingston, and thought of his daughter, with new flesh slowly forming on the swamp of her skin.
While he follows my instructions…
When the season had turned and the moon was black and the child-thing’s last meal had been large enough that Sill struggled to lift its remains, Walsingston looked on in approval. He told Sill to give the thing a knife so that its first kill would look like a common murder, and take it down the hill, and let it take a human’s life by its own hand.
Sill bowed and said he understood.
And when Walsingston had gone back to his high house that night, and the child-thing was resting in its circle and all Sentinel House was dark, Sill was sick in the privacy of his own room, and he began to think of the particulars of his task.
White Lane has space enough between and aback buildings that every street comes with a handful of alleys. The fountain Tock spoke of is clean grey stone, and the finesmith’s a light stone’s throw from it, sign a scrollwork of metal gilded by a streetlamp. Scarrow stares hungry at the light, but it’s clear out of reach; she’s as like to warm herself by starlight.
To the shop, then. The back door’s grilled and grated and locked and she hisses in frustration, heaves at it and hears a dull crack. There’s shifting noise inside, something that might could be rats if rats were larger, faint warm weight behind wooden shell. Any other night she’d step back and look again, but thought of the fancy man’s a weight and a drag in her still-split body, a promise that someone meant this done to her. So heaves again, and the door comes open.
Not rats. Dog.
Its lunge takes her down to the cobbles, puddled rain soaking her coat as it snarls above her. Arm thrown up before her face and throat and she snatches at its neck with her other hand, hoping there’s a collar she can twist into a choke. It’s a thick animal, heavy with muscle and padded with folds of skin, and her fingers slip through its fur as its jaws fasten on her arm.
And the liquid sheeting heat running down her arm is not her blood, there’s no blood and the ache’s like dipping hands in hot water on a cold night, shock but not pain. The dog staggers slackening above her, falls, and she struggles from under it.
Looks down at herself, and her sleeve is tattered by teeth but that’s all. The dog lies there shivering in the rain, and she knows how that’ll play out. A door or lock you can replace, rich folk will let it go, but a dog, a good dog, you might as well kill a horse.
The apprentice is gawping at her from the dry shadows. Scarrow thinks to lay hands on him afore he speaks, and instead snatches up the nearest threatening thing to hand—a heavy pair of tongs, clumsy weight but long enough to brandish—and points them at the animal.
“Get that inside,” voice raw and rough, matched with glare as leaves him disinclined to argue, “or I’ll knock your brains out.”
Scarrow takes look around as he obeys. She’d humor someone who broke the lock of a door like this, she thinks; the iron bolt’s torn clear through the frame, still shot, jutting like a raw end of bone . Looks down at her own coat, the rips where her fingers went easy through the cloth when she fled Jettery, easier than the dog’s teeth did just now.
Apprentice heaves the dog inside, laying it down in a dry corner. Scarrow can see he sleeps here, poorer security than the dog but cheaper and like counts some against paying him wages.
Dog’s still breathing, which is to the good. She wants to be in and gone and call it done, and less she leaves for the city’s haruspex to work on, better it is. She waves tongs at him and the dog, catches his attention away from eyeing the door. “Dry the damn thing off.”
While he’s to that, she looks to the door. Can’t bar it proper, settles for shoving a bench over against it to slow him if he tries to run.
“You keep books here?” Shops change slow on this street; a place like this has been here years, and she guesses that when you make fine metalwork you plan it out first and keep record.
He looks worried. “We’re a finesmithing shop, ma’am,” and to credit him she barely hears a faltering over the title. “Jewelry and knives and seals. There’s a bookbinder’s up on Sallamath street, by the peach tree—”
“Know it, idiot.” Not the part about the bookbinder but you’d need be drunk or mad to not see this is a finesmith. “Records. Receipts. Work done. You keep that? Shop books?”
“Yes ma’am sorry ma’am,” hurried and head down, and he gets up off his knees, drops aside the cloth he was using to dry the dog. “I can get those for you. With your permission,” and he doesn’t move which calms her a bit. There’s like to be more books than she can look through in a hurry, poor as she reads, and the apprentice’s help’ll make it quicker. She has no interest in being here longer than needs be.
“Need word of a knife made here,” she says. “Some fool’s fancy; thorny edge on the blade, rows of teeth but all scrolling and curved. You know to find the one I mean?” and he’s blinking all relieved, but no way to settle if that’s I can help her, maybe she won’t hurt me or I know nothing of use to her, maybe she’ll leave.
“Are you a guard?” and she draws herself up, lifts the tongs a little. “Apologies! Nothing… no matter.” He holds his hands up, empty, and for a minute she’s all back to the man coming up to her in empty alleys and steels herself against blinking at the memory, not wanting to lose how far she’s got, manages to keep to a stare. “I might know where to find something about that, ma’am?”
She waves the tongs in a get-along gesture.
He turns up the wick of an oil lantern that’s at low ebb on a table, picks up the lantern and gestures to an inner door, leads her through at her nod. Next room has a piecework desk, top covered in leather old enough to scuff and fine enough to look decent despite it. He takes a deep breath as he’s unlocking it, and she clenches the tongs, but he doesn’t relax as if he’s found himself a weapon or a reason to feel safer. Just pulls out the books, sets them down on the desk so he can shut the drawer and stand over them.
Pages whispering like rain.
“Was it just a few spikes?” He holds the book towards her, showing her a drawing of something thin and sharp with a pair of jags at the base, and she shakes her head. More pages, and he turns the book to her again. “Like this?”
Scarrow’s mouth is dry. She can feel a grating on her ribs and does not blink.
“Who’s it for? Where’s it from?”
He pulls through another book, gives an address and a name. She shuts him in the office, jams the lock shut and takes his coat as she leaves, a dull thing but unstained and fat with thread. Where she’s going there’re lamps unbroken all up the streets and watchmen guarding the sleepers, and she needs to pass for better than her own coat will let her.
Sill didn’t try to hide the shaking or the tears. It shamed him, but he understood that Walsingston would take desperate silence as a sign of pride, which would be next door to defiance. Walsingston allowed his lessers to take pride in serving him well, not in clinging to their dignity after he’d clubbed them to the ground with a chair that was worth more than they made in a year.
Across the room, the child-thing was lying limp and seeping in its circle. Sill had a reasonable hypothesis as to why that was the case, and a deep interest in not divulging the information.
“I obeyed, sir. I obeyed!” He pulled in a sobbing breath. “All particulars of ritual and duty, I swear it. As you instructed.”
“Then why is it like this?” Hardly a question, really. “It’s sick, Sill! It’s poisoned!” Not possible in any traditional sense, but Sill nodded and curled tighter in on himself, bracing for another kick. He had his forearms around his temples, his hands tucked behind his head and away from Walsingston. He’d known this would come and had decided that, no matter what else happened, if he lived through it he’d need his hands. After. Pages and pens were the life he was suited for, not the care and feeding of— “What did you do?”
“I had a knife made for it,” he said, struggling to keep the words clear. Walsingston snorted in disgust, and Sill was grateful that Walsingston had seen how the thing frightened Sill. That he’d believed the impractically edged blade was foolish sycophancy, rather than an attempt to make a murder weapon easier to trace. “I gave it the knife, in your sight, at your bidding. I took it out, down the hill, to find someone of no consequence.”
Doubtless the woman had had no legitimate purpose to be out in that part of town between the shift changes at the factory. Sill did not think that grounds on which to murder her, but he understood that having enough station to be of consequence generally meant that one engaged in illicit activity in better surroundings. Walsingston himself was an excellent example. “I approached her and begged her time. Then it struck her with the knife.”
“Did it touch her blood?”
“No.” He was sure of that. Walsingston’s desire to keep the thing from touching its victim had lain in wariness of the haruspex the city could bring to bear, if Sill had misjudged and the victim had been anyone who mattered. But Sill himself had no desire to let the thing take human blood as well as human life if at all avoidable. “Once she fell, I stood between them. Her and it.” It had bared its teeth at him, but no more.
“I t-took her valuables,” such as they were, cheap knife and rattling-empty wallet at her neck and thin fingers slipping out of his grip in the rain until he’d had to dry her hands on his coat to wrench her rings off, “and left her there.” A small wet heap growing cold on the stones, and the rain had been falling into her open mouth, and she had not moved. Let Walsingston take the weeping as a sign of weakness. “Wounds just as if she’d been murdered in a robbery.”
There was a glittering hiss from where the thing lay in its circle. Sill felt his breath catch and stared at it from between his arms, wondering if it had grown formed enough to understand intent or to warn the man whose will bound it to the world. But he’d been truthful; the wound was exactly as described and the rifling of the corpse the same. He’d even gone downhill and spoken to the pawnbrokers beforehand, claimed to need to dispose of a poor relative’s belongings and asked what commonly was and wasn’t found to be of value. Cheap shoes and ratty coats weren’t, so you wouldn’t take them in a robbery.
He also hadn’t done anything to keep the corpse from walking. The child-thing had fed on the woman’s death, and Sill could only imagine that her not lying quiet would cause it problems. Like eating a handful of berries only to find that they’d revived in one’s stomach and begun sprouting brambles.
But that was nothing to do with robbery, properly speaking, and after a long moment the child-thing’s gaze turned away from him and back to Walsingston, and Sill could begin to forget what it looked like again.
Were the address that of a proper rich man, Scarrow’d be having no luck. But Sentinel House is a tutoring home, a tall stone place with so few children that they rattle around in rooms empty as glass eggs. It’s for bastards with blood too fine to be thrown aside as foundlings, or orphans whose dead parents left them too rich to be ignored and too unwanted to live with family that has better business. It’s a place to be safely forgotten.
It’s for children, and the man who came up to her surely wasn’t that. A tutor, maybe, but anyone here’s sure of a place to sleep, work coming steady and safe, and she’s no mind for why such a one’d set upon the savage nonsense of her murder.
It’s dark of the night now, sky wiped clean of clouds and stars burning green against the black. She finds smooth chinks behind ivy and between stones of the low-enough wall, climbs up, drops garden-side to cross still and well-groomed ground. There’s something pulling her forward. Warmth promised to her heart, or the smell of salt and ashes.
No one ought be up at this hour, surely; the air’s wet and chill, and the night too deep for minded children to be awake. But there’s light on the third floor of the western wing and Scarrow can barely drag her eyes from it, feels her teeth set edge on edge as she gazes.
She thinks of climbing, but the wall’s too slick and cold; the warmth of her hand gutters as she touches it. Finds a door and feels its bolt break before her blow. Her shoes drip and squeak in the stairwell. Everything’s smooth and neat and yet the air itches; clear as the sky yet feels full of sand and smoke, growing thicker as she makes her way upwards.
My time. That’s the thought that scrapes shivering up from her fingertips, down from her teeth. My time, my days. Riven from her split-open self.
Scarrow hears anger mutter in the air, sees shadows shiver like milk in water. “Idiot,” comes down the stairs and a swallowed oh, sir. Blinks at the voices and finds she’s atop the staircase at a door dark as wet earth, the heat left inside her aimed sharp and hungry. “Taking a life shouldn’t do this to it.”
“It was a woman, sir.” Younger man’s voice, wavering through a mouthful of wine or blood or tears. “Might that be the cause?”
“No.” Pause after the snapping word, then a grudged “Unlikely. Unless she was a woman virgin and devoted, which I doubt,” a fancy man’s dismissal in the voice, “or well-advanced in pregnancy?”
“No, sir. I mean, she was not— I had a chance to see she was not with child.” An awkward noise, the scuffle of someone gathering self up slow from a floor. “Nor dressed as a member of any order, although perhaps if, if she was a novitiate of some kind, in that part of town, perhaps she—”
Scarrow opens the door.
She counts three.
An old man, maybe old as Jettery, but with a rich smooth face and a look of iron—solid shoulders, grey hair, sharp eyes. He’s holding a knife, that knife, like Jettery might; could use it if needs must, but only making a point for now. She can see the gap of its missing teeth, and her side throbs with anger.
A young man, half-risen from the floor, fresh-beaten enough that bruises are still blooming. She knows him from the alley, and when he sees her his face fills with a deep and shocking relief.
A child, naked on the wooden circle laid into the floor, a circle rich as gold and dark as old blood. Pale and drawn and sexless and seeping, flesh weeping an unhealthy shine as it lies huddled on its side.
There’s a sound like a rotten garret in a high wind, a pained and creaking groan. Scarrow tastes it coming from her throat, running angry past her tongue and teeth. Thinks of shutting the door behind her and finds she can’t bring herself to move back, reaching out as the old man raises his hands and the young man crawls back away.
“Sill,” the old man says, “what is this?”
“That’s her, sir,” and the old man’s gaze runs across her, takes in the bared teeth—and oh, Scarrow can feel her teeth as never before, aching to reach and sink deep, her jaw cracking with hunger—and the new coat and the rain-logged shoes.
“Yes, sir?” The young man sounding shocked and faint and exhausted to indifference. His jaw is purpling, and of everything in the room Scarrow doesn’t understand why she doesn’t hate him most, the man who called her to the knife, but it’s true.
“Why is she wearing shoes, Sill,” and Scarrow is still moving forward. “Stop her!”
The slick-raw child on the floor cracks to its elbows, up on toes knees fingertips and launches itself from its circle. It coils legs around her leg, grabs her arm and pulls her off-balance when she tries to strike it away. Where it touches her flesh shrivels back like wet leaves in a fire. There’s no warmth in it, nothing like flame nor the dog nor what she craved from Jettery, and its flesh seethes like a flood of beetles under her fingers but stays smooth unbroken.
Scarrow hears the young man say, “I didn’t think taking the shoes would help make it look like a robbery, sir, they’re very bad shoes,” before the old one starts kicking him. She’s trying to reach the old one but the child’s grip balks her, spindles around her like a swarm of rats. Every limb of it squirms and sinks in, teeth in her belly deeper than anything that needed to breathe could ever bite, one leg locked around her thigh and a foot pushing her other knee out of joint, hand on a wrist and fingers digging in around her collarbone and doesn’t this thing have a bone in its body?
She falls, struggle stopping for a moment and it stops trying to break her; hangs on and in her like a tick but stops digging and her flesh stops withering away. Scarrow blinks, but it’s got her close and in place of earlier slip and grit there’s only a strange trembling, and opening her eyes again she’s still on the floor, mauled and angry with its nothing weight keeping her down.
“Kill her,” the old one says, over the young man’s sobbing and the sound of footsteps, and it doesn’t do anything. “Look at me.”
Its head screws up and around with a mouthful of her meat still in its teeth, but it only stares at him when he says again, “Kill her!” as footsteps are growing louder and faster and then Jettery’s at the door and the old one’s crying “Stop him!” and it’s off her cat-quick.
There’s time to see Jettery’s eyes widen before its teeth are in his throat, his flesh peeling back and a thin spatter like hot oil on her skin and seems she’ll never stop screaming. Lurches to her feet with pieces of her falling down and others badly jointed, but there’s nothing between her and the old man now as she lunges at him.
“Kill her,” screaming, and he catches what he’s missing and starts on “Take her apa—”
And then Scarrow puts her hands on his throat and the heat of his blood knits her peeling flesh smooth, this is what she’s meant for now, teeth cracking with delight as the hunger dies. He’s striking at her face, with fist and with that blade, the same blade again, and the child-thing is harrowing her, and there are pieces coming off her but no pain, nothing but raging joy, and when she squeezes her fingers burst in through his skin, and the heat runs down her arms, and the rage is answered.
And there is nothing left of him, no word or breath or deed. Scarrow holds on until he’s cold as the air, and when she lets him fall the air is clear of that smoky greasy feel and the child-thing is unstrung on the floor, still now as the old man’s breath. She pushes it with her foot, and it rolls onto its back looking no more alive than a jumble of tallow. It’s lying near the old one’s shoes, and she looks at those a moment before she bends to pull them off. Feels his foot break as she does it.
They’re good boots and she thinks they’d suit Jettery, a little big but you can stuff the toes and it’ll serve, and she drops them then and goes to Jettery and he’s not moving. His blood is wicking into the cracks of the floor and the cold’s growing in it, same cold she’s been running from all night, stealing flickers and gasps to outpace for a little longer.
Kept ahead of that better than she kept ahead of him, in the end.
“I’m so sorry,” the young man says behind her, and Scarrow looks back across her shoulder to see him sitting bloody and battered on the floor, bares her teeth at him and he bows his head. “I’m so sorry, ma’am. I couldn’t— break with him.”
“My life.” But the anger’s grown thinner, sated now, and it’s grief that’s a thin and steady weight against her tongue. Looks at the old one’s body and spits and the words come clearer. “You helped him take my life.”
“I’m so sorry,” again, and you think that matters, fancy man? But if his regret doesn’t then neither does her grief, not for changing things. Jettery’s dead on the floor, bled out in a room richer than either of them ever dreamt of crossing threshold to, and the hunger in her’s been answered. Thought of taking the young man to pieces leaves her no warmer, and’d make no change to what matters.
Cries down the stairs, children woken and servants alert, and surely someone going for the watch; and here, they’ll come quick. Scarrow looks to her hands, the peeling flesh knit smooth, looks past them at Jettery’s face.
She knows him. Wants that to be enough, but she’s not sure; dead herself, now, and no one ever talks about whether it matters if the one as knows another dead is dead themselves. And was any of it her fault? Him coming after her same’s she would for him, and seeing her down under a wretched spidering thing, and coming in to be caught by a fancy man’s monster? No, no fault, but…
Touching his face, the old pits of ash, and the mouth that used to grin is a horror of slackness now.
“See him buried,” she says to the younger man, the only living thing in the room. The cries below have gathered direction, and she hears footsteps on the stairs. “My…”
It breaks something in her that even now she can’t say if he was uncle nor cousin nor godparent to her, and there’s no one left to tell her, no one who knows her name. “Jettery Carr. Tell them what you like but you see him still and buried, fine an’ well, you see him at peace or it’s never him you’ll need worry over.”
And Scarrow closes Jettery’s eyes, and then closes her own, last time of the night, and what she’ll see when or if she ever opens them she does not know.
|Frances Rowat lives with her husband and a not-quite-startling number of cats, and is currently spending nearly all of her time behind a keyboard. Her work has previously appeared online and in print, in venues such as Cossmass Infinities, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and Fireside Magazine. She enjoys earrings, rain, and haunted house stories.|