[A rare peek at my current work-in-progress. Rough draft. I'm a putter-inner, which means my early drafts are often thin, especially in the case of world building, so I'm not sure yet if I need more explanation of things, or if more would just slow it down. Thoughts welcome, of course!].
There are three things I hate more than anything in the world:
1. New places.
2. Boring jobs.
3. Flying snakes.
4. New places.
Okay, four things.
In a single meeting, Granger had managed to throw all of those elements at me. I swore he did that on purpose.
Granger was my best client. If you defined best as offering me semi-regular gigs, paying mostly on time in the right currency, and leaving me alone long enough to get the job done.
If you defined best as legal, kind or honest, well, Granger wasn’t even on that list. But I owed the Crow and the Crow owed Granger, and that made us business partners, of a sort. Or at least put us under a geas of don’t kill each other. When he sent word that he had a gig for me, I showed up.
The bar Granger had chosen this time was buried deep in the The Char’s cobbled alleyways, one of the original chandleries, now turned dealhouse. There was a lot of that these days. Revitalization. Turning the past horrors of The Char into a hot place to eat, drink and fuck. All the cool kids were doing it. Not that I was cool. Or a kid.
In fact, I never would have found the place if I hadn’t seen one of Granger’s albino snakes fluttering around the front door light. The creature was cleaning up the local moth population with quick slides through the air. Gave me the shivers.
Inside, the place was what you’d expect — half-burnt bricks, the original scarred wickworking tables. Wall decor of chandler’s tools and stained aprons and a billion candles—plain ones, not lifelights, of course.
I didn’t know what the candlelight did for me, but it did a lot for Granger. He was abeautiful man in any light—if you liked your men ponytailed and cheek-boned and slightly brooding—but the flames made his pale blue eyes shine warmer than usual. A hundred percent flicker, mortal, as far as I knew, but in this light, it was almost impossible to tell.
“Katrine,” he said, as I sat down across from him. For years, I’ve tried to train him out of saying my name in public places, but when I realized he just did it to get a rise out of me, I gave up. At least this public place was too busy being full of itself to pay attention to our conversation. “You look …”
He eyed the edges of my face, where my hair fell over it. I reached up before I thought and tucked the long silver strands into my headwrap. I’d forgotten he hadn’t seen me since… well, since. I’d lost a little weight, sure. And the silver streaks in my black hair were new. I was just glad he couldn’t see the bloodthread that now wound its way up my abdomen.
I recovered in time to come back with the faltering, “So do you.”
He snorted into his drink, a dark liquid filled with even darker shapes.
A cup of something white and mucousy sat in front of me. I didn’t taste it. To say Granger’s tastes ran a little weird was like saying I was a little dead.
One of Granger’s flying beasts winged by my head and I resisted the urge to smack the creature away from my face. I’d done that once, and felt its wing crunch against my fingers. I’d had a second to feel bad and then the thing had bitten me. I still had a half-moon scar of pointed fangs on my pinky. Granger had found it hysterical.
“Call your serpent back,” I said. “Before I take off its tail.”
Granger did something—however one handles anomalies of nature that are in one’s care, whistled or thought or wiggled his big toe—and the creature was gone. “You’re snarly,” he said.
I didn’t have to tell him why. He was the one who’d chosen this place for the sole purpose of putting me on edge. Or maybe I was flattering myself; more likely Granger didn’t even remember that I had an issue with new places.
Granger picked something dark and oblong out of his purple-hued drink, looked at a moment, and then held it up on his flattened palm. In seconds, half a dozen white snakes were swarming over his hand, snapping and gurgling. As quickly as they’d gathered, they dispersed, leaving his palm empty.
“Ew,” I said. “How does something so small sound so … loud?”
“Tsk,” he said. He picked another something out of his drink, and I looked away. But he just popped it into his mouth and chewed. “Such a squeam. Such a hypocrite. What of your beloved kit?”
“Sel’s cute,” I said. “And she doesn’t do that swarmy thing.”
“Hunters are the same the world over,” he said.
“No, they’re not,” I said. Even though I’d seen Sel hunt, with her little fox teeth. I knew what she was capable of.
“The ones who survive are, yes? Otherwise they are not hunter at all. But prey. Eaten.” He pulled a cloth out of his breast pocket, carefully wiped his palm on it, then flipped it up to show it to me. “Disappeared.”
“What’s the job?”
He rolled his eyes. “Your manners are impeccable, as always.”
“Thank you,” I said, with almost no hint of sarcasm. I used manners at work. This was hardly that.
He waited, as if he expected me to say something else.
“Got places to be, Granger.”
“No you don’t,” he said. “Girl gone missing about two months ago.”
“A missing girl case? Really? You couldn’t find one of your regulars for that?” I couldn’t believe I’d come here for a missing girl. Girls, women too, went missing all the time. He didn’t need me for that. You could get a regular Joe off the street to sniff out any of those girls. They only went one of two places.
“She was pregnant.”
“Still not in my line of work. You know that.” I didn’t do missing cases, and I didn’t do babies.
“There’s no baby. That’s half the problem.” Granger hesitated a moment, his hands curled around his glass. Then he put a small box on the table, then slid it across the wood with the very tips of his fingers. Built of bone and skin, the edges sewn shut with red thread, the pattern intricate. I knew what was in there. I didn’t touch it.
“A burial box,” I said. “Someone’s dead?”
Granger shook his head. “Someone’s alive.”
“Not following,” I said.
“She’s not dead. Neither is the baby. But both are missing. And the Coronas brought her parents not one, but two burial boxes.”
I traced the very edge of the box with my fingertip, feeling the loop-over-loop of the red stitches. It was a clean thread job, lightly magicked. Almost perfect.
“Where’s the other?” The baby’s.
“The parents still have it.”
“The Coronas found the bodies?”
I lifted a brow in Granger’s direction without lifting my gaze from the box.
“The girl’s linked. She connected to one of the seers at the Votive after her supposed death. Showed her some things.”
“That’s part of what I’m paying you to find out.”
“We’re sure she wasn’t ghosting? A message from the…” I waved my hand in the air. Whatever that thing was that followed death. I’d been there once, but I’d forgotten it long ago.
“Can’t be sure,” he said.
“The parents hired you?”
He shook his head, his lips tight. Someone opened the near door and the flickered candlelight gleamed Granger’s eyes to a steely blue.
“Let me get this straight. You’ve got a missing maybe not-dead girl who’s captured the attention of the Coronas and of someone else. A someone else that’s hired you, but who wants to remain anonymous.”
“You’re good when you want to be, Katrine,” he said. “Does that mean you won’t do it?”
“It means I want double,” I said. “And half upfront.” I wasn’t about to tell him that the job had just gotten interesting. If he wanted to see my response as reluctance, I was happy to let him do just that.
“I’ve already told Quidlin to expect you,” he said. Quick enough that I knew he’d already been expecting my request. Had probably even figured it into the budget. Which also meant I hadn’t raised my fee high enough. Bastard.
“What else do you have?” I asked.
“Very little. The seer she linked to is named…” He snapped his fingers. His snakes appeared at the gesture, but he waved them away. “Alma.”
I almost captured the air the fled out of me at the sound of Alma’s name. Almost.
Granger leaned forward, his elbows hovering just above the table. The candlelight played to his features like a lover. It was a good thing I didn’t lean that way, or I might have done something stupid right then. Like try to kiss a man I mostly despised.
“You know her?” he asked.
“I know where to find her.” Illums don’t lie, but we have a million ways to evade the truth. Some Coronas wield sarcasm like surgeon’s scalpels, so you don’t even know you’ve been sliced to death by truth. That’s not my strength, sadly. I’m a fan of sarcasm when it’s done well. I’m more of a dancer, finding the beat of the truth and moving to its rhythm, twirling through it so you don’t see the step-side. I don’t have to do that much with Granger; he’s oblivious, mostly. By fault or choice, I don’t know.
The near door banged open, and a crew of stumbling boys made their way in. Without even turning around, I could tell they were wicked. Flickers feeding off someone else’s lifelight. Time for me to go. I pushed myself up and gave Granger a nod, pulling my headwrap down over my forehead.
“Don’t forget…” Granger said. He tapped the burial box with one finger. “May be a clue.”
I reached out and took the skin and bone box, feeling the odd weightlessness of it. It wasn’t empty, but it wasn’t filled with the end of someone’s life, either. Cutting the threads open to lift the lid was not something I was looking forward to. But Granger was right. I needed all the clues I could get.
I wove my way through the cluster of boys near the door, feeling the lit power flowing from them, an odd heat that licked the edges of my skin. Outside, the night was clear and cool, and I welcomed its push into my lungs. I called Selene, but she didn’t come. It was just me and the burial box of a living girl left to find our way out of The Char.