Sunday, June 14, 2015
First 5 Pages June Workshop - Bell Revision 1
Name: Terry Bell
Genre: YA Fantasy
Title: The Merciful Crow
Pa was taking too long to cut the boys’ throats.
Near ten minutes were spent out since he’d vanished into the quarantine hut, and Fie had spent the last seven of them glaring at its gilded door and trying not to pick at a stray thread on her ragged black robes. Taking one minute meant the Sinner’s Plague had finished the boys inside off already. Taking three meant Pa had a merciful end to deliver.
Taking ten was taking too long. Ten meant something had gone sideways. And rustling whispers from the throngs of onlookers meant they knew it too.
Fie gritted her teeth and stared at the courtyard’s tiles until the queasy pinch in her gut retreated. As the only caste that survived handling plague bodies, the Merciful Crows were duty-bound to answer any summons. And as Pa’s chieftain-in-training, she was duty-bound to keep steady now.
These were no different from the hundreds of bodies she’d burned in her sixteen years. No matter that only a few dozen had ever been from the capitol. No matter that fair fewer had been this high-caste.
No matter that Crows hadn’t been summoned here, to the royal palace, in nigh five hundred years.
But the press of flesh in the galleries of the quarantine court said it mattered to the high castes . The aristocrats of the Peacock caste were all flutters and fans and garish rainbows of mourning paint, gawking at the thirteen Crows below like they waited for a show.
The Hawk caste warriors, though – they were much worse. They ringed the red walls of the courtyard, hands anchoring on sword hilts the moment the Crows had dragged their cart through the gate. Those hands hadn’t budged since. And their stony stares said they were waiting for things to go sideways.
The queasy pinch came back; Fie kept her eyes nailed on the door. It stayed damnably shut.
There was a slip of a movement to her left. Hangdog, Pa’s other trainee, had shifted. Torch-flame charred his silhouette, edging it in vivid orange where the light caught tattered robes or the long curve of his beaked mask. From the tilt of his head, he was eyeing the patchouli burners squatting around the hut.
Fie’s own nose wrinkled. She’d stuffed a fistful of wild mint into her own mask’s beak to ward off the plague-stink; she couldn’t fault this fine palace for trying to daub it over as well. She could, however, fault them for their terrible taste in patchouli.
Hangdog’s fingers curled and uncurled. His shoe idly inched toward the burner.
Pa had already threatened to toss them off the Mile-High Bridge if one toe went out of line, but Hangdog was likely itching under so much high-caste attention. She couldn’t fault him either. Those high-caste sneers were begging for some nasty surprise.
But not here, not now. Fie tugged at the hood of her robes, a sign only the other Crows would ken. Don’t make trouble.
Hangdog’s foot slid another half-inch. She could practically smell his grin behind the mask.
Fie looked at the soldiers, then at Hangdog, and resolved to scalp him if they made it out of the palace alive.
There was a squawk from the hut’s rare-used hinges as Pa stepped outside. Weight peeled from Fie’s shoulders. A broad dark streak stole any light from the front of his robes, spitting only a little damp crimson back. There had been mercy killings after all.
A snaking rattle from behind choked her momentary relief. Any Crow knew the song of quality steel leaving its sheath. Pa turned toward the sound, orange light flashing off his mask’s glassblack eyes. And then he waited.
A hush slithered into the courtyard as even the Peacocks froze, Pa’s silent threat settling over them like a chill.
In the city streets, in millet fields, anywhere from Abharin’s western merchant bays to its cruel mountains of the east, a higher caste could cut the Crows down like a harvest for any invented slight and never lose a blink of sleep.
But plague bodies could rot a town to stone before year’s end. Here in the quarantine court, with two dead boys that could bring the palace down in less than a half-moon – here was where the Crows could not be touched.
There was another rasp as the blade returned to its scabbard. Fie didn’t dare look back. Instead, she fixed on the rumble of Pa’s rough voice: “Pack ‘em up.”
The order was for her and Hangdog. Fie nodded and ducked inside.
The second the door swung shut she cuffed Hangdog upside the head. He cursed in the hut’s thicker darkness.
“What in the twelve hells were you thinking, fooling like that?” she hissed. “The Hawks near gutted Pa for walking out a door, and you’re aiming to try their patience?”
“Aiming to make you mad.” This time she heard Hangdog’s grin. “They can’t afford to cross us anyway.”
“You’re the only one keen to test that,” she snapped, then stopped cold.
Her eyes had adjusted to the little torchlight that bled through canvas window screens, smearing over two pale, formless lumps. The boys were already cocooned in tight linen shrouds, a dark reddish blot seeping through at the throat of each.
Bundling up the stiffs was their job, not Pa’s.
“Maybe he didn’t trust us to get it right.” Hangdog didn’t sound like he was grinning anymore.
Something was sideways. Worry sparked up her spine. “If Pa’s got reasons, he’ll tell us,” she lied anyway. “Sooner these scummers are on the cart, sooner we clear the damn patchouli.”
There was a short, muffled laugh as Hangdog picked up one body by the shoulders. Fie took the feet and backed through the door, feeling every gaze in the courtyard land on her – and then slide to the bloody shroud.
Quiet shrieks ruffled through the Peacock ranks as Fie began to swing the body up onto the cart. Hangdog gave it an extra heave. It toppled onto the wooden boards with an unceremonious thud. A collective gasp swept the galleries.
Pa cleared his throat, muttering pointedly, “Mercy. Merciful Crows.”
“We’ll be nice,” Hangdog said as they headed back inside. He’d just picked up the last body by the feet when he added, “Wager someone faints if we drop this one.”
“Wager Pa hires a skinwitch to take our hides if we do.” Fie shook her head. “Let’s just get out already.”
The second body was met with another round of sobs. Yet once it was loaded and the Crows began to haul their cart toward the hall leading out of the palace, the Peacock courtiers overcame their sorrow enough to jostle at the frothing lattices for a better look. Apparently when the plague struck Peacocks here, it was a spectator sport.
Fie’s skin crawled. Of all the bodies she had ever dragged off to burn, she decided she hated these two most of all.
The long walk down the main corridor was no better. Its tapestry of slick marble tiles whined against the spikes bristling her shoe soles, dulling them with every step. Instead of patchouli, perfume oils now smirched the stagnant air. And worst of all were even more galleries of Peacocks, shuddering daintily in their silks as if the hooded, torch-clutching Crows were no more than a parade of rats.
This was bad business. At this rate the Crows would likely be throttling their payment out at the final gate.