Sunday, June 7, 2015
First 5 Pages June Workshop - Bell
Name: Terry Bell
Genre: YA Fantasy
Title: The Merciful Crow
Pa was taking too long to cut the boys’ throats.
It had been near ten minutes since he’d vanished into the quarantine hut, and Fie had spent the last seven of them glaring at the gilded door and trying not to pick at a stray thread on her ragged black robes. Taking one minute likely meant Pa found the boys dead. Taking three meant he had mercy to hand down.
Taking ten was taking too long. And it likely meant something had gone sideways.
Fie gritted her teeth until the queasy pinch in her gut retreated. There was no call for trouble. The other Crows flanking the drag-cart were stiff as posts in the torchlight, even Hangdog to her left, who hated being ogled even more than Fie did. He had to be itching under the stares of the courtier crowds wreathing the quarantine court galleries. The Sinner’s Plague didn’t often strike the Peacock caste within the capitol, but apparently when it did, it was a spectator sport. They certainly seemed to be waiting for a show.
But those wreaths were thorny with soldiers. And they were staring like they wanted the Crows to make a move.
The queasy pinch came back.
From the tilt of Hangdog’s beaked mask, he was eyeing the incense burners outside the fancy little hut. Fie’s own nose wrinkled. Plague-stink she was used to; she couldn’t fault the royal palace for trying to daub that over. She could, however, fault them for their taste in patchouli.
She pursed her lips. Probably there was enough time to kick the burners over before Pa finished up with the two plagued sinners. Probably Hangdog would help.
Probably that was why Pa had threatened to toss them both off Mile-High Bridge if even one toe went out of line. And that was if the Peacocks didn’t get to them first.
The Merciful Crows hadn’t been summoned to drag plague bodies out of the royal palace for somewhere about five hundred years. Being summoned now was no honor, just a dangerous oddity. Higher castes got fussy when the Sinner’s Plague ate one of their own. Capitol Peacocks were about as fussy as you got, and it was even easier for them to make people vanish off the Mile-High.
Fie huffed in her mask, and let the patchouli be.
As if Pa had heard her, the gold-painted hut door squawked on rare-used hinges, and he stepped out. A broad dull streak swallowed all light hitting the front of his robes, and it only spat a little dark, damp crimson back.
A ripple fluttered through the galleries of Peacock nobles, all rich silks, flitting fans, and rainbows of greasy mourning paints, as garish as the frothing lattices they crowded behind. The sight made Fie’s skin crawl.
But the Hawk soldiers were worse. The moment the hut door opened, hundreds of hands went to hundreds of sword hilts in a single smooth motion. And then they stayed there.
The beak of Pa’s mask turned toward the soldiers, orange light sliding off its glassblack disc eyes. A hush slithered into the courtyard as even the Peacocks froze, Pa’s warning settling over them like a chill.
In the city streets, in millet fields, from Abharin’s western merchant bays to its cruel mountains of the east, Fie had never once met someone happy to see the Crows coming, but there wasn’t a single town that didn’t need them just the same. Plague bodies could rot a town down to stone before year’s end. Only the Crow caste could handle the corpses without catching it themselves.
Anywhere else, and the higher castes could cut them down like a harvest for any invented slight. But here in the quarantine court, with two bodies that could bring the palace down in less than a half-moon – here was where the Crows could not be touched.
First one Hawk hand lifted from a hilt, then another and another, until the only threat came from hundreds of razor-sharp glares. Then Pa’s rough voice rumbled out: “Pack ‘em up.”
The order was meant for Fie and Hangdog, as befit them as his chieftains-in-training. Fie nodded, swallowing, and ducked through the doorway as hundreds of Hawk eyes followed her inside.
The only illumination was what little torchlight bled through the canvas window screens, smearing over two pale, formless lumps. The boys had already been shrouded up in the customary linen, a blot of darkness at the head of each. Her mouth quirked in a grimace. It was a mercy to put sinners out of their pain, but only a mercy for the sinners. At least Pa had taken care of the mess.
“Think we made him mad?”
Fie jumped at Hangdog’s voice. “What?”
He jerked his head at the bodies. “Should’ve been our job, bundling the stiffs. Maybe Pa didn’t trust us to get it right.”
Fie’s stomach twisted. “If Pa’s got reasons, he’ll tell us,” she lied. “Sooner these scummers are on the cart, the sooner we clear the damn patchouli.”
There was a short, muffled laugh as Hangdog picked up one shroud by the shoulders. Fie took the feet and backed through the door, feeling every gaze in the courtyard land on her again – and then slide to the bloody shroud.
Quiet shrieks ruffled through the Peacock galleries. Fie sighed and nodded to Hangdog. They heaved the body onto the cart with an unceremonious thud.
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 five of ‘em faint if we drop it, and wager Pa hires a skinwitch to take our hides when 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 pull the cart toward the hall leading out of the palace, the Peacocks overcame their sorrow enough to cluster by the golden lattices as the cart passed by, jostling for a better look.
Of all the bodies Fie had ever dragged off to burn in her sixteen years, 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.
At this rate they’d be throttling the viatik fee out at the gate. No chance it’d be anywhere near fair recompense for marching the twenty miles here double-time.
Fie’s fingers tightened on her rope. Caste law was good as iron, even if the sneering arcade of Peacocks thought themselves above the plague. One broken taboo and they could leave death itself in this fine hall, and let them learn the price of sin firsthand.
Then her gaze snagged on a curiosity. The ground-floor gallery for palace staff was silent as the bodies in the cart – and not for want of watchers. The servants nearly outnumbered the courtiers above, and their grief was more than ornamental.
The hairs the back of Fie’s neck rose. Nobody liked Peacocks that much.