Sunday, June 21, 2015
First 5 Pages June Workshop -- Bell Revisions 2
Name: Terry Bell
Genre: YA Fantasy
Title: The Merciful Crow
Pa was taking too long to cut the boys’ throats.
Near ten minutes were run 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 off the boys inside already. Taking three meant Pa had a merciful end to deliver.
Taking ten was taking too long. Ten meant something was fouled up. And from the whispers sweeping the courtyard, their throngs of onlookers knew it too.
Fie gritted her teeth and stared at the tiled ground 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 her head 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, for nigh five hundred years.
But the crowds of soldiers and aristocrats packing the quarantine court said it mattered to the high castes . It wasn’t easy to search their faces by torchlight, and it only got harder if she found family in the audience, but Fie had kept the habit since the first time an angry next-of-kin had trailed them out.
From the looks of it, the latticed galleries were all Peacock-caste courtiers, fluttering in mourning paints and ornamental woe as they gawked from a safe distance, hungry for scandal. Fie relaxed a hair. If any of the sinners’ kin were there, their shame would be the Peacock’s main attraction. Instead they were transfixed by the spectacle of thirteen Crows below, awaiting a show.
The Hawk-caste warriors ringing the red walls weren’t likely relations, but Fie eyeballed them anyhow, taking no chances. Their hands had anchored on their sword hilts the moment the Crows had dragged their cart through the gate, and hadn’t budged since. There was no grief in their stony stares. They weren’t waiting on a show. They were waiting for the Crows to foul up.
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 by the cart. 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 wrinkled her nose. 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. His shoe idly inched toward the burner.
Anywhere else and she’d have ‘accidentally’ punted the patchouli herself. Hangdog was likely itching under so much high-caste attention, and the sneering arcades above 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 toward the burner. Fie could practically smell his grin behind the mask. Pa called him two-second clever: too fond on making fools of others, never catching that his purse got cut while he ran his mouth.
Fie looked at the soldiers, then at Hangdog, and resolved to scalp him if the Hawks didn’t do it for her first.
There was a squawk from the hut’s rare-used hinges as Pa stepped outside, a broad damp streak down the front of his robes. There had been mercy killings after all.
Fie’s relief lasted half a heartbeat before metal rasped horribly behind them.
Any Crow knew the song of quality steel being drawn. She’d missed kin in the crowd after all. But Pa only turned toward the sound, torchlight flashing off his mask’s glassblack eyes. And then he waited.
A hush iced over the courtyard as even the Peacocks froze at Pa’s silent threat.
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.
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 rattle 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.”
“I’ll handle the moppets,” Hangdog said, starting forward.
“Not on your own.” Pa shook his head and motioned for Fie. “They’re bigger than you.”
Fie blinked. She’d expected tots, not lordlings near grown.
She followed Hangdog inside. The second the door swung shut she cuffed him 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 filtering through canvas window screens. The overgrown lordlings were already cocooned in tight linen shrouds on red-stained pallets, a blot seeping through at the throat of each.
Bundling up the dead 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 off. “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 alight 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.
Fie wanted to kick him.
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.”
Fie shook her head. “No ‘we’, halfwit. Pa can sell your hide to a skinwitch, not mine.”
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 Peacocks overcame their sorrow enough to jostle at the lattices for a better look.
Fie’s skin crawled. Of all the bodies she had ever dragged off to burn, she decided she hated these two most of all.