Most Daring, Least Scrupulous

The little boat slunk beneath the river bridges. With its sharply cut prow, the vessel’s progress was silent and swift. Its occupants held their breath as they passed under any bridge marked with swaying guard lanterns. But the night was deep and those on watch looked towards the roads, not the inky water below them.

As they neared the city and its great, river-made moat, the smugglers shifted their shoulders and bowed over to make themselves small against the curve of their boat. Here, discovery would ensure a short drop and a sudden stop on the nearby gallows, possibly even before the sun rose. The duke’s justice was quick for those that denied him his tariffs and taxes.

But the smugglers did not turn away, and turned their boat to the grates allowing water to flow beneath the streets and the main city squares. As swift as justice was in the city, the rewards came faster, at least for those who knew their way round the trading metropolis’ winding waters.

Gruff whispers were exchanged by the grate and it was opened on well-greased hinges. They entered the city, quiet as a leaf bobbing on a creek’s gentle current.

The dark tunnels of rushing water providing a warren for the smugglers and their ilk, entrepreneurs as much as any of the fancy clothed merchant princes who dined on the bay’s pleasure barges. Here, beneath the street-side markets that pitched gaudy stalls and tents during the day, another market bloomed in the slimy dark.

The smugglers followed the greasy pricks of light that marked the sides of the underground canals, candles set and burning on the melted corpses of their waxy ancestors. The wax growths provided little real light, but guided the most daring and least scrupulous merchants to their night’s business.

When the muggy tunnel opened up to series of wide causeways set over the underground water, each one of the smugglers’ smiles flashed in the low light. Now came the easy part.

 

Advertisements

Portentous Star

The sun simmered red as it slunk towards the jagged horizon. Tristan opened the morning room window to the sickly gold air and leaned outside. Distant fires turned the treeline to a nebulous grey silhouette and the sun was the worst of it, a hazy swollen orb defying the prospect of rain. He frowned at the ominous star.

Behind him, three books lay open on the settee. All had failed to distract Tristan from the pinched tension between his temples. It was the smoke and ash. Even their monstrous house, impenetrable to ancient armies, civil upheaval, and seemingly time itself, could not keep it out.

An uncannily dry summer had baked the trees brown; now somewhere they burned unseen, belching black smoke into the country air like the worst factories of London. Beneath his annoyance at the ash-laden ache and ugly scenery, Tristan knew that if his neighbors estate could burn, so could his.

At the window, an itch grew in the corners of his eyes. With a fanciful but deeply ground logic, Tristan was hesitant to ignore the red portent hanging over his lands. Fate usually prepared the worst for those who willfully snubbed such signs.

“Tristan.” His name came patiently, but as if it’d been repeated. Tristan turned. Arianne had come into the morning room and stood with her hands clasped in front of her skirts. A fine sheen of sweat made her cheeks shine. All else about his sister was perfectly in place.

Tristan was down to his shirtsleeves. Decorum could only survive so long in this heat. He smiled at her, “I am quite distracted apparently. Sorry.”

Arianne moved to the window and pinched her face against the thick, burnt, air. She hustled him back and snapped the window closed. With the glass between, the haze seemed even thicker, the sun bigger. Arianne went to gather the books he’d carelessly left gaping. “The doctors already been called on account of Sally. We cannot have you falling ill.”

Tristan nodded. She was right. With the fires so close, and the sky imposing down on them, he was probably expected to do… something. He went back to the window, looking out over the alien landscape that he was supposed to be lording over. “Doesn’t it look peculiar? All the strange haze and smoke– like something from Revelation.”

“Do not say such things,” Arianne said without real reproach. From another, it would be crass, from her brother it was fancy. As it always was.

Tristan’s smile acted as apology. He did not say anymore, but as he followed her from the room, his eyes slid distant across the glass of the windows and the simmering crimson sun outside them.

This post is part of the Legal Theft Project (also the Mindlovemisery Menagerie prompt here that I run). Some thieves have stolen my first line to write their own. See if any show up below: 

The Girl with Thin Fingernails

Dawn cracked ripe and ready for a downpour. Zak eased the front door closed with silent practice. He didn’t mind running in the rain, but it turned the roads to mires and the hillsides to slosh. Better to get his daily circuit in before the skies opened up over the isle.

His route took him from mother’s front door, through the village he’d spent all of his sixteen years racing through, and up along the island cliffs and their winding, overgrown heights. Zak stopped on the main overlook to let his chest swell at the sight of his concave world. Cradled on all sides by jagged obsidian peaks, the wetly green interior and mist-hazy lake still slumbered.

Except… a single light nestled at the back of the manor house. In the dark of the valley, a small lantern gleamed like a dandelion fluff in the wet air. Someone was up early, Zak thought as he stretched.

The distant little light continued to hook his eye between the trees and sharp glassy boulders as he ran. And as he found the valley again with its rolling hills and easy sodden paths, his feet slowed and paused. The village and his morning chores waited on his left, and to his right, a much smaller trail would bring him to the manor house and the dawn-lit lantern.

Zak shook his dribbling hair and started down the smaller trail. He’d not been near the manor house in years, not since cajoled and convinced by other children, he’d stuck close to steal a hanging chime off a window sill. Sick with guilt and fearing the stories of the manor’s occupants, he’d crept back alone to replace the little chime.

Now, with a longer stride and wider shoulders, Zak moved around the exterior of the peculiar house. He slid his eyes along the the strangely peaked roofs and the mismatched doors adorned with fearsome carvings. Around the corner, a clear dirt back yard housed a chicken coop and a single step set below that pale lantern. Bathed in the splash of light, a very young woman sat on the step and stared blankly into the yard. Tears ran freely down her cheeks.

Zak exhaled his held breath, disturbing the cold quiet of the yard and she snapped her head to him. Her sheet of black hair swung around her face so that strands of it stuck to her tear-sodden cheeks. They blinked at each other before Zak thought to ask if she was alright.

She shook her head, eyes lost somewhere far away from him. Zak guessed that’s where her gaze had been when he’d interrupted her, in thoughts worlds apart from the house and their glass-cradled isle. Her thin, uneven nails caught on her finely woven robe as her fingers worried the fabric. It looked like she’d been shredding them.

“Can I make it better?” He spoke the thought aloud as it occurred to him.

He expected to be scoffed at. Zak was well-accustomed to rolled eyes and huffed dismissals whenever he dared speak his mind in the village. But the girl stilled, drawn back to the isle, the kitchen yard, and the stranger offering help he couldn’t possibly understand. Then slowly, she pressed her lips together in a feeble smile and wiped her hair back from her face. “Maybe. Share some breakfast?” She asked in a small rusty voice.

Zak nodded and waited for her to stand. He followed her over the step and into the manor house.

Another Music Challenge. This week I challenged Raw Rambles to write something to or inspired by The Decemberists’ Make You Better and I did the same. I’ll link her’s here when it goes up.  

 

Shades and Gunman

He almost smiled when he heard the click of the pistol. Almost, being right offset the impending bullet wound only so much. Reid raised his hands to his ears in surrender and turned around slowly. “It was that damn blue blood wasn’t it?” He asked the man with the pistol.

The gunman’s arm was steady but he was wearing too much black, cutting a hard silhouette against the cluttered darkness of the living room. Still Reid was impressed, he’d gotten into their flat without Reid noticing. At least until that click. “They just pay me.” The man twitched a shrug. “But yeah.”

“I won’t insult you with a counter offer then.” Reid hoped the man would look disappointed but the gunman just rolled his lips back in an ugly smile. Of course that bastard’s family was paying well. “You’re enjoying this.”

“Not everyday you get to kill a shade,” The gunman said. He took a step forward and Reid knew he should shrink back, cower a little, humor the man capable of putting a bullet in him.

But Reid didn’t bend that way. Instead, he frowned at the gun encroaching into his personal space and flicked a thin smile up at the amateur.  “Not everyday, no.”

A stocky shape moved in the dark behind the gunman. Like a blade of spring grass sliding up from winter soil, an arc of silver sword erupted from the gunman’s chest. The gunman blinked in surprise at the metal protruding from his front, so did Reid, but with less surprise. The sword was yanked back with a whispery wet grunt and the failed assassin folded on the fake hardwood.

Two brothers looked down at the body. Vin drew his chin up first with a narrow look. Reid gave an apologetic grimace and drew his hand flat from his mouth and down, signing thanks. Vin nodded, both knew that something like this would happen eventually. The two brothers went about rolling the body into the rug in silence.

A victimless crime? We shall see, I took this first line from The Gate in the Wood as part of the Legal Theft Project. 

Flash Fiction: The Watch

Time ground on. It chipped down on the country of Eristae, its memory, its anger. As the years flowed through them, people forgot their anger at the imperial ships and new rules. They grew familiar with the tithes and the soldiers on street corners. Their daughters married those street corner soldiers, and their grandchildren left for foreign schools. The next generation returned to the ancient dukedoms and quiet fiefs with hard accents, soft hands, and voracious intentions. They abandoned the country groves and seaside villages of their birth to build up cities in the image of imperial metropolises.

And a century after the first imperial fleet landed on their southern banks, with a foreign official in every office, dean’s seat, and city council, the peoples flocked into the streets to celebrate their newfound dependence. Parades and floats coursed through the main cities, streaming banners that snapped in-time to the peoples’ cheers. The empire unfolded its arms and took ancient Eristae into its progressive embrace.

Cole tried to keep to himself that night. While the city of Kallais streamed around him, broiling with dance, drink, and music, he glowered his way into a corner of the most unpopular tavern he could find.

It worked for a time, well into Cole’s fourth ale. But the streets eventually poured their way in to the dirty little bar. Cole shouldered open the tavern door before he broke the nose of a loud patriot. Though he shoved a few shoulders in the process, Cole got into the night air without starting a brawl.

The streets were strewn with the aftermath of the celebrations, but the air was clean and growing quieter by the hour. Cole left the stuffy taverns to the new imperial citizens and used the sound of waves to guide him. He walked, using the winding streets and narrow staircases running the city to burn the alcohol from his veins. Beneath the foot of the bay wall, Cole looked up. The thick stone walls curled around the city protectively, solid and wide enough for three armored men to walk abreast.

Cole climbed a stair and flashed an ancient badge. The old design and crest should have had him stopped and questioned, had the watchman been sober enough to protest. But the outdated token got Cole to the top of the wall, where he set elbows against stone and watched the city settle. As the dark deepened in the sky and then eventually began to glow in the east, the last of the imperial chants and cheers died entirely. The city could have been his again, as it had been before, stretching out at the end of a long graveyard shift.

Flags would come and go, as would the people who sat behind desks and on thrones, but Cole knew he would always come here, to watch over his city, his country.

Terribly late, this thief ran off with More than 1/2 Mad‘s line to serve the Legal Theft Project. This is the result of that heist, prompt, and challenge. 

Beneath The Breastbone.

His skin was freshly washed and it caught on the latex of her gloves as she arranged his limbs. Familiar scents of soap, bleach, and inert flesh permeated her medical mask. A young man, feathery wet hair, flat brown eyes, twenty-seven with lines around his eyes, waited for her. Laid out, bared, she could see his ribs pressing up beneath his skin. She dropped her hand to hover over the waves. The plateau of his chest was firm, all lean muscle. Perhaps not a healthy man in life, but a beautiful one in death.

A hitched breath caved her mask as she leaned over him.  She paused to check its elastic tight against her cheek and the plastic cap covering her hair. The plastic, paper, and latex kept little pieces of herself from betraying them, their time, their togetherness.

She held herself there, parallel over him, feeling the emptiness of the body under her. He was alone now, a mirror to the lonely ache beneath her breastbone. When he had searing skin and a heartbeat, his smile and soft words hadn’t soothed the emptiness in her, they were only hers to borrow. Someday he would have taken his warmth and left. Now, silent and growing cold, they could be alone together.

Until the chime of the phone broke from the purse in the corner of the hotel room. She snapped her head to the side, breath moving the mask in and out with shallow breaths, a paper heart beating at her mouth.

She rose at the waist and picked her way off him, careful where her body weighted the bedspread. Her plastic wrapped feet crinkled on the carpet. A quick snap of latex, a crumple of paper, she freed her hand and mouth and picked up the phone, dangling it next to her ear. “Remy?”

She used her time listening to calm her breath. “You got the right number, sorry I change it so much, its the travel.” Bent at the knees in a crouch, she held very still so her scrubs wouldn’t rustle. The person on the other side of the line continued.

“Brunch, yes, don’t worry about it. We’ll go another time, its really fine. I’m in town for a while.” She smiled, fondness crinkling the corner of her eyes. “Can’t wait to catch up. Bye Remy.”

She left the phone in her bag, found new gloves, reset her mask and bowed to her feet like a dancer. The man still waited on the bed, still and entirely hers. She returned, gliding above him, never touching, just feeling the profound emptiness she could share.

This weeks music challenge is born from Florence + The Machine’s song Hunger. As I was challenged by Raw Rambles make sure to check out her original here.  

A Promising Project

Noticing the covetous glint in her eye, Roshan closed the book. The dull slap of paper  broke the silence of the library and a few students looked over annoyed at his table and the young woman looming over it. Etta’s gaze raked the book’s cover before she sat next to him. Roshan bit down his groan.

“Blueprints. Did you find something then?” Etta watched him, jaw jutted forward and head cocked to the side like a fisher bird considering ripples.

“Maybe.” Roshan said, moving one shoulder in a shrug. He did not unhook his fingers from around the book. Roshan didn’t think she’d gotten a look at the map, but he wasn’t going to give her another. Etta was notorious for sniffing out promising projects that didn’t belong to her. “I don’t know yet.”

“Those old planning documents can be really hard to decipher.” Etta pouted her lip in false sympathy. “Between the translation, and the notation. Unless you’ve taken classes…?”

Roshan held his breath inside his chest. Etta knew he hadn’t. Those classes were reserved for the daughters of the elite families, the future architects, chroniclers, and civil servants of the city. Expensive preparatory classes were not wasted on sons. Roshan was an oddity,  a man that had clawed his way into college to everyone’s discomfort. Including, Roshan was learning, his own.

“No,” Roshan said what they both knew. His fingers were beginning to cramp, but Roshan didn’t let go of the book’s cover. “I don’t even know if I’ve found anything yet. Maybe I can let you know, when I need help.” Roshan forced a plaintive, almost unsure tremor into his voice and hated himself for it.

Annoyance twitched at the corner of Etta’s nostril. It would brutish for a woman of Etta’s class to press him now, and cruel to refuse. “Of course. If you need the help.” She pushed herself up with straight arms. “Good luck Roshan.”

“Thank you Etta.” Roshan returned her false sentiment with one of his own. She sniffed and walked away, crimson skirts swishing agitated against the library’s floor. The librarian at the desk glared at him once Etta was gone. Roshan shrugged only somewhat apologetically. He’d learned quickly his presence alone was enough to cause disruption, and he wasn’t going anywhere.

A scoundrel and a rogue, but not a thief this week. For this round of Legal Theft I supplied a line Noticing the covetous glint in her eye, Roshan closed the book. Lets see who takes off with it…..