The Duke’s Cat

Beneath the clockwork streets of Trinity lay the city’s bones. The countless building projects, infrastructure updates, and new efficiency standards that modernized the empire’s illustrious capitol turned its underworld into a twisting warren of rigorously maintained sewer systems, ancient alleyways, and built-upon history.

Here, below the streets and between crumbling stone and plaster, sharp-eyed men and women met to discuss the future of Trinity. They jabbed fingers at maps and argued over buzzing surveyors lamps. Their rumbling discontent never boiled past low tones. No one really knew how the empire’s god-kings seemed to hear and see so much.

Most of the rebels were barrel-built with thick limbs. They bore the rough hands and occasional scars of the empire least valued peoples, the laborers, farmers, and unskilled craftsman. Of the rebels though, a few were nimble-minded students with soft palms and monologues of hegemony, subversion, and moral imperative. The rebels suffered these lofty words for the heavy purses and family fortunes that came attached. A rebellion only lasted as long as rebels could eat.

Of the students, Ari was the most recent addition to the movement. He spoke less and listened far more than the others, prone to jest and the occasional game of dice. This endeared the willowy youth to most, but not all.

It was over one of these games, as Ari teased out a bitter life story from an ex-farmer, that Rolf, one of the laborers who’d never liked Ari’s wide-eyed inquisitiveness,  interrupted with a growl. The farmer stopped before she could explain the manner and location to which she’d been conscripted, and Ari blinked at Rolf.

“Shut up,” Rolf’s glare grew when it shifted from her to Ari. It stayed fixed on the student, twisted in the ugly yellow lamps they used to light the tunnels. “No need to blather when you don’t need to. Never know who could be listening.”

“Just me really,” Ari said and collected his dice for the next throw. The farmer spooked, gathered her winnings and left with an excuse about checking dinner. Ari shrugged and offered the dice to Rolf.

Rolf twisted the side of his nose and drew out a thick-bladed knife from his belt. The larger man began to oil the blade, a rag wrapped around his knobbed fingers. Ari put away his dice. “Who do you think is listening?” Ari asked.

“You’ve heard of the Chosen.” Rolf stated and flicked his eyes up to catch Ari’s expression and found it casually curious. “They are the god-kings’ generals, their apprentices, their spies.” Rolf rolled the last word of his tongue into the stale air. “They’re immortal, can’t be killed, immune to pain. Demons.”   

“And you think–”

“Don’t lead my words.” Rolf snapped again, looking for support from the others. Many of the camp were looking at them now.  Rolf raised his voice, bolstered by the serious expressions. “We have a spy. We all know it. The guards have swept these tunnels three times this week. We need to cut this spy out, even if it’s one of them.” Rolf gestured with the blade.

“But, like, with actual knives.” Ari snorted at the brandished weapon. Around them the tension broke with a few smiles. “I thought they were immortal.”

“They are. The Warlord’s jewel, the Duke’s iron dog, the Mage’s bird. There’s others. You see them around if you work in this infernal city long enough. They don’t die, don’t age. Makes it easier to pick them out if you’ve seen them before.” Rolf hadn’t let his eyes off Ari as he spoke, tracing the lines of Ari’s delicate jaw and crooked nose. Rolf’s mouth grew so tight it trembled. “And I’ve been in this gilt city a long time.”

Rolf shattered a lamp when he lunged at Ari. The student yelped and fell backwards in his chair, only to have his shirtfront caught by Rolf’s rough hands. Rolf jerked the thick-bladed knife deep into Ari’s belly. The youth gasped without breath, eyes white around their edges as he hung, bug-eyed, in Rolf’s grasp.

Rolf threw the Ari down and watched Ari clutch at his stomach with growing confusion. Ari twitched a final spasm, spat blood, and then went glassy-eyed on the crumbling floor.

Agast students and Rolf’s stony faced companions stared at the grisly scene. Rolf gestured at Ari’s corpse with the knife, “I saw him, this one, when I was little, he was as smarmy and smirking then as he–” Rolf stammered, gaze darting between the rebels and his victim. A pool of blood spread from Ari’s body, cast yellow like dark oil in the surveyors lamps.

The farmer who’d told Ari her story earlier shook her head. “Chosen are immortal, you just killed some kid who was trying to help us.” She and the other rebels shared a glance. The remaining students who were beginning to flinch towards the exits.

The rebels left Ari’s body to the pests and scavengers that lived in the undercity. It was a sad thing, but Rolf was half-frantic and they had work to do. All were nervous about the frayed whispering among the students and the hateful looks sent towards Rolf’s back.

Once the clanking of packs and the light of the surveyor’s lamps had vanished down the old tunnels, darkness fell over the abandoned camp. Ari’s body spasmed and breathed again with a bloody gasp that sounded like, “ta-da.”

“You did not mean to do that.” The voice of the Duke thrummed in his head with the pulse of his own, now renewed, heartbeat.

“I did. Planned the whole thing.” He murmured to the plaster digging into his cheek and the god-king inside his head. The man who’d recently been called Ari folded himself into a fetal position and waited for the agony in his gut to subside.

The Duke’s presence hovered dryly concerned until his Chosen could push himself onto his knees. The god-king’s magic kept his body working, but Ari pressed a hand to his stomach as he stood and looked blankly into the dark. “Dissent sowed, rebels dissolving. Now how do I get out of here?”

“Planned the whole thing?” 

Ari ignored the voice, flicking his head to clear the hair that had fallen over his eyes. He started down the tunnel, going slowly on uneven footsteps.

“Go left.” 

Ari’s mouth flickered with a smile and did as the Duke instructed.

A thief this week, as I am most weeks. Thanks to the Legal Theft Project and CC’s dialogue line “But, like, with actual knives.”, I managed to write a bit this round. See CC’s original here.  

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Liminal Space

Abbi hunched her shoulders and trudged across the parking lot. In the misty drizzle, the street lamps were dandelions of hazy light. Beneath the glow of the store’s exterior sign clear-paned doors parted before her with a loud swish.

Three in the morning and there wasn’t even a sunken-eyed checkout teenager to greet her. Abbi’s flicked to one side and then the other. No one presented themselves. Abbi set off, trying to keep her wet boots from slipping or squeaking too loudly in the silence. She left a trail of pale brown water on the dingy linoleum as she walked.

A muffled pop song played through the empty air without a discernible source aside from brief fame decades ago. Abbi moved her mouth to it without any real memory of the words. Bright colors advertised first clothes, then food, then toys. Abbi squeaked towards the pharmacy article, breathing out of her mouth and occasionally sniffling to explain her witching hour presence to the unseen employees.

Amidst the off-white aisles, Abbi found the draughts and capsules that promised sleep and relief to the brewing pressure behind her face. She gathered the medicine into her arms and considered her solitude in the long aisle. “Hello?” She asked and regretted it when the word fell flat in the vacant air.

Abbi looked up as if she could find a source of the emptiness. The warehouse stretched upwards like a cathedral, supported with thin triangles of metal, industrial chrome tubes of air, and dotted a the occasional escaped and dying balloon. The pop song, maybe a different one, Abbi couldn’t tell, kept playing just loud enough to cover the thrum of the air system.

Around her the aisles stood tall, separated occasionally by the racks and bundles of folded clothes. Featureless mannequins enticed the absent shopper into the polyester forest with thin alabaster arms.

Abbi took the toy section back to the front, walking quickly past the brilliant pink and blue. Blank matte faces stared out from behind plastic film of the packaging. Painted white teeth and fixed coiled hair, their hands stuck in claws. They were the only faces she’d seen so far.

Abbi hustled herself, growing cold beneath her sweatshirt. She shivered and stopped to check that she’d gotten something for the fever. A tremor skimmed the back of her neck and made her skin jump down her spine. She looked back the way she’d come.  Only the fixed faces stared out in profile from their shelves. Abbi skittishly jogged towards the checkout.

The numbers over the black belts were dull. Abbi waited. She grit her teeth before opening her mouth and again asking “Hello?” of the empty air. The word couldn’t fill the behemoth space over the aisles, racks, and empty faces she’d passed.

The seconds ticked by, no one emerged and Abbi eyed the exit doors. Another whir of air kicked up, Abbi’s arms ached from cradling the unpurchased medicine. She opened her mouth again but before she could speak, something flat slapped the linoleum.

Abbi’s heart jolted and her legs moved. With the squeak of wet rubbed boots Abbi bolted past checkout and out the barely opened automatic doors, clipping her shoulder and losing a pill bottle. That sound had echoed from the toy aisle.

Because its May, Raw Rambles challenged me to write something to NSYNC’s It’s Gonna Be Me.  This is what happened. Check out Raw Rambles blog to see what she did with the now meme’d pop song.  

 

Yellow Lanterns

“Don’t bother the manor folk.” His mother tugged Alex out the vine choked gate, her hand tightly curled around his small one. Alex dug his heels into the muddy path and flopped his entire six-year-old self back with rag-doll dissent.

“Why?” Alex howled the mournful word into the evening sky as he was dragged down the towards the proper village paths. The mismatched arches, needle-spires, and squat sides of the strange house vanished behind the steep hillocks.

Alex’s mother heaved him up with arms thick from harvest work. “Hush, they don’t want any of your nonsense,” she scolded into his hair. Alex turned over her shoulder, round eyes fixed back the way they’d come. Below them, the village’s yellow lanterns began to show one by one in the valley.

******

“We aren’t supposed to bother the manor folk–” Zak’s said distantly, as if half-remembering the rule. Alex blew out a breath in response. Both of them watched the manor’s window between its soft blue curtains. From outside, bellies pressed to the evening’s wet grass of the nearest hill, they could see shapes move within the steam.

At twelve-years old, with wiry limbs and unreliable voices that faltered when they needed them most, all they had was their bravado. That, and the stolen glances of immortal golden skin they’d trade later with the other village boys. Alex slipped words into his friend’s ear. “We’re just looking, not bothering anyone.”

Zak nodded satisfied, “how old do you think they really are?” His eyes locked themselves on the open window and the promising darkness within. They stole every splash of water, soft laugh, and glossy sheen on dark hair for themselves.

Alex didn’t get a chance to guess. A massive hand closed on his shoulder and hauled him up and onto his feet. Two manor folk loomed over Alex and Zak both bullishly built and frowning. Under the darkening evening, the two boys were marched back towards the yellow lights of the village, Alex spinning innocence as they went.

******

“Keep out of the way and don’t bother the manor folk,” The sailor snapped at Alex and pushed him to a section of railing. The small crew avoided the prow. There the brothers from the manor house looked out over the water. The shorter brother rolled his angular shoulders and the wind crashed down on the ship.

In his eighteen years living in the village that sat beneath and served the strange house, Alex had learned their names and habits. He knew who courted whom, who visited the village to fix fences and help harvest, who brought small festival gifts for the children, and who never left the strange mismatched place. The larger brother was Cole, broad of shoulder, jaw, and judging looks. The shorter was Aren, fair haired, who spoke and dressed with precision. Alex knew they didn’t know his name, none of them did.

The rigging creaked, the full sails cracked, and the entire sea seemed to beat at Alex’s skull as they darted forward into the open ocean. His knuckles were white on the rail, gripped tight lest the ship pitch him into the sea and the razor bits of rock hidden just beneath the water. Alex closed his eyes and imagined the yellow lanterns, lit one by one beyond the sharp island mountains.

*****

“And the manor folk? Do they really live forever?” The six-year-old asked Alex, a small finger tracing the pastel pictures in the book between them.

“Well,” Alex said, looking down at the curly mess of his son’s head and catching the inquisitive green eyes they shared. “I think so. The young ladies certainly stayed all dewy and bright like spring mornings. The men never stopped their brash pecking around like peacocks.”

His son chortled in the crook of Alex’s arm, attention darting between the stories on page and the ones hanging in the air.  The laugh was interrupted by a yawn and Alex drew up the blankets. “Why did you leave?” His son asked, sleepy and distracted by the illustrations of a fiery, armored woman next to her black-cowled, snow-haired sister. The boy turned the page to a verdant scene where a young druid wandered a forest path.

“Sometimes the island felt like a prison.” The honestly spoiled the air and Alex sighed. He quickly smiled and stood before his son could make anything more of the words. Alex bent forward, taking the book and tucking the six-year old into the blankets.  “There was no room for me there, an island so full of other people’s stories, I wanted to make my own. And so I have.” Alex tapped the tip of his son’s nose, causing the boy to snort.

Alex set the book aside. As his son yawned and turned over, Alex reached up to light the lantern hung in the window. With the soft yellow light keeping watch and the worst of the darkness away, Alex left his son’s room with a smile.

Perpetually late as usual, but not a thief this time. The line Sometimes the island felt like a prison. was taken by a few larcenous writers as part of the Legal Theft Project. See them below. 

A Mad Writer….Legal Theft Project: Practiced Escapes

An Animal Lover…. Favors

A Librarian … The Sea Serpent 

Or A Morning…

Dawn called, and he wasn’t going to answer. James watched her smiling face agitate his phone’s screen silently for the obligated twenty seconds. He looked up at the tap of footsteps.

“Avoiding someone?” The waitress said when she placed his fruit speckled oatmeal down with silverware. She flicked attentive eyes around the table, her gaze lingering on the phone, the protein shake from the place down the street, his journal.

She didn’t leave and James felt the response pulled from him. “She’s my cousin.”

“So you don’t get along? My family is the same.” The waitress cocked a hip and set a hand on an empty chair back, settling in. James eyes widened in alarm as her fingers curled comfortably over the metal. He was the only customer on the restaurants patio, there was no one to call her away .

James held his breath through a forced smile. “No, we get along. Dawn is just– talkative.” When this didn’t seem to satisfy the waitresses desire for conversation, he pressed the point, “I like my family. But I also like time to myself.”

“I’m the same way,” She said. James’ distrust intensified. He twitched his fingers towards his pen and unfinished thought waiting on the journal page. The waitress spoke to the air, eyes cast distantly to the other side of the restaurant’s low, ivy-covered gate, “Sometimes you just need those nights, all by yourself, a show to binge. Totally get it.”

“Or a morning.” James said.

The waitress nodded like a woodpecker until the smile slid off her lips. She hummed a quick sound in her throat and turned away from him. Her footsteps safety tapping away, James shook his head and returned to his journal.

I’ve stolen the first line from The Gate in the Wood‘s original adorable piece and did something else with it. All part of the Legal Theft Project.   

Hidden in History

Like birds flushed to the sky by a hunting horn, whispers swelled as Raven entered Luna’s most prestigious University by the main walk. The muffled discontent followed her sharp footsteps up through its halls.

While some students watched her go with hungry reverence, she preferred those who met her eyes with firm jaws, whose hands slid to hide the spines of the books they carried. Violent books on violent empires, collected essays on breaking gilt cages. They objected to her presence in their halls. Raven did not remind them who’d designed the sweeping staircases, towers, and stained glass displays centuries ago, who eagerly funded their thesis fieldwork on dissent, revolution, and the undersides of history. Instead, Raven maintained the imperious tilt to her chin as she climbed the staircase up to her office. Nothing squashed rebellion more swiftly than official sanction.

Raven was pleased to see no broken glass when she entered her office. It’d been a week since anyone had managed to lob a brick through her window, impressive in itself considering her office was located on the top-most floor of the library.

As much as Raven appreciated student engagement with the current political discourse, the rain from the ruined window had destroyed several borrowed and irreplaceable ancient texts, then open on her desk. Raven had found the pulpy mess a day too late. Their original owner, the University’s true founder and Raven’s master, had responded with predictable fury. Raven winced at the memory as it pulsed anew in her mind.

Rolled within the raging mental onslaught came his demand, do something about the brewing disrespect at the University. Raven was to find the culprits and stamp out any insurrection before more priceless knowledge was lost. Someone was spreading dissent in Luna.

Raven sighed and went to her personal bookshelf, kept in the corner and locked away from the University’s library books and her master’s borrowed texts. This collection was hers. Most were violent books on violent empires, collected essays on breaking gilt cages. She was proud of them, written under different names she’d tried on over the centuries, hoping one replace the one stolen. But among those bold and popular texts, were soft first editions of hidden histories. Understudied and in Raven’s delicate spidery hand, they spoke of bearing tyranny, surviving servitude, and keeping hopelessness at bay with small resistances.

I am obsessed with the song Death of Communication by Company of Thieves, so I challenged myself and Raw Rambles to write something to it. Check out what she did here. 

The Romantic Art of Restraint

Something was burning. At four in the morning, Lark was near to admitting it was time to join Alec in bed when he wrinkled his narrow nose. The blackened smell grew in the air, chasing away scents of paper, ink, and oxidized wine.

Lark tossed the report he’d been blearily reading for too long, didn’t bother buttoning his coat over his chest, and left his study with bare feet. He took the stairs surefooted and quiet. The foyer was dark, but a thick crack of light shown from under the kitchen door and stretched down the main hallway. Lark followed the light and smell to the clumsy clank and bustle moving behind the door.

Inside the kitchen, smoke wafted from the stove to fill the air and baked-on black covered piled pans and pots. A tall someone bent over a bowl, picking eggshells out of egg. Lark recognized the young villager whose name he’d never bothered to learn.

“What is happening?” Lark enunciated at the young man as very little in the kitchen seemed to be under anyone’s control.

“I’m trying to surprise Nora.” The stove interrupted them as it coughed a belch of smoke.

“By blighting her kitchen? Good job, she will be surprised.” Lark leaned back as the young man fanned at the spoiled air with his hands.

“No, with breakfast. She brings me breakfast all the time. I wanted to–” The youth trailed off as Lark eyed the ball of char that could have once been, if one used their imagination, a fruit pastry.

“Does she now, got it,” Lark said tightly, inviting as little acrid air into his mouth as possible. “Now that I know who to blame for all this, I am going to bed.”  Lark left the kitchen quickly before stupidity became catching.

It was only a matter of time until the rest of the house roused at the smell or the villager killed them all slowly with smoke inhalation. Lark was not inclined to scrub charred dishes nor council a lovesick boy on the romantic art of restraint.  He climbed the stairs, abandoning both the responsibility and his coat in favor of bed and Alec’s slumbering company.

I am a late thief again. The stolen first line comes from More Than 1/2 Mad and the Legal Theft Project.  

Join the Dead

Cris watched with gloom as her planet swirled around her in an ever agitated mass of lightning and volcanoes. The storm drowned out the audible screams, sobbing, and thrum of the gibbering mad, but Cris could feel them. A sickly flash of electricity lit up above her and Cris tore off the headset before she joined the fallen.

Lined eyes looked down at her. A set of hands gently adjusted the needle and tubes entering the groove of her arm. Another gingerly took the headset before she could break the intricate Psy equipment. “What did you see?” A voice asked.

Cris’ head lolled. Crimson echoes churned when she let her eyes unfocus. The white room, the acidic smell of disinfectant, and murmur of the research team kept the pulse at bay, but barely. The storm waited for her. “It’s grown. More people are there, trapped. I could hear them, so many of them.”

“Those who succumbed to the mental disruption.” A researcher clarified. Cris nodded, but they both knew those people were gone. The storm’s fire and chaos call beat in all their heads, begging to be listened to.

They got her up and out of the white room. Cris kicked the vision into the corners of her mind, to the spaces behind her eyelids, as she showered and put on civilian clothes. Her training allowed her to hold on to her sanity, to the mundane world she was supposed to live in.

Cris left the compound. She went grocery shopping, stood in lines, and huffed at red lights. She turned on music when she entered her empty apartment, not willing to tempt the storm with silence.

She watched the street from her bedroom window.  When the storm fell on those outside the white rooms and halls, on the people driving to work and picking up their children from daycare, regular people at dog parks and laundromats, those praying, laughing, eating dinner, something very different happened.  Cris could pretend the end wasn’t coming, once they saw it, they could not. It would sand them all down.

Cris closed the blinds.

CC threw a curve ball at me and the rest of the thieves this week with the first line. Check out her original here and tune in each week for the Legal Theft Project.