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THE EMPTY THRONE
Pa was taking too long to cut the boys’ throats.
Near ten minutes had run dry 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 worry a stray thread on her ragged black robe. Taking one minute meant the Sinner’s Plague had already finished off the boys inside. 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 pristine tiles of the courtyard, their throngs of onlookers were catching on.
Fie gritted her teeth until the queasy pinch in her gut retreated. Pa knew what he was doing. Twelve hells, just yesterday morning he’d led their band of Crows to answer a plague beacon, collected corpse and coin, and had them all back on the roads before noon.
That town had no shortage of gawkers either: a man slipping looks through his loom threads, a woman steering her goat herd past the sinner’s hut to steal a better view. Children had twisted from their parents’ grasp to stare at the Crows and ask if monsters hid under the beaked masks and black robes.
Fie reckoned the answer changed depending on whether a Crow was in earshot.
But Fie had seen gagglers and worse near every day she could recall. As the only caste untouched by the plague, the Merciful Crows were duty-bound to answer every summons.
And as Pa’s chief-in-training, she hadn’t the luxury of a faint heart. Not even here. Not even now.
The boys they’d been called to take tonight were no different from the hundreds of bodies she’d helped burn in her sixteen years. No matter that few had been this high-caste. No matter that Crows hadn’t been summoned to the royal palace of Sabor for nigh five hundred years.
But the needle-sharp stares of warriors and aristocrats told Fie the plague mattered to the high castes tonight.
Pa knew what he was doing, she told herself again.
And Pa was taking too long.
Fie yanked her gaze from the door and searched for trouble in the crowds packing the walls of the royal quarantine court. She’d 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 courtiers, fluttering in mourning paints and ornamental woe as they gawped from a safe distance.
Fie grimaced behind her mask as she caught whispers all too familiar: “… such disgrace…”, “… his father?”, and the pestilent “… bone thieves.” An old, tired kind of trouble. The scandal-thirsty Peacocks were transfixed by the spectacle of thirteen Crows below, awaiting a show.
Hawk trouble was wholly a different beast. King Surimir fancied the war-witches as his palace guards, warriors who healed wounds just as easily as they tore their foes apart from within. Double as dangerous and, since the Hawks knew it, thrice as easy to vex.
These war-witches’ hands had anchored on their sword hilts the moment the Crows dragged their cart through the gate. They hadn’t budged since.
Fie found no grief in their stony stares. The Hawks weren’t waiting on a show. They were waiting for the Crows to foul up.
She caught herself rolling another thread betwixt two thin brown fingers. The queasy pinch slunk back; she nailed her gaze to 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 and the long curve of his beaked mask. From the tilt of his head, he was eyeing the patchouli burners squatting about the hut.
Fie wrinkled her nose. She’d stuffed a fistful of wild mint into her own mask’s beak to ward off 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 sandal 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 of gentry 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 toe-length toward the burner. Fie could all but smell his grin behind the mask.
They’d both been born witches, and for Crows, that meant they were born to be chiefs, too. Fie’s gut gave a hard little twist every time she thought on it … but she doubted Hangdog thought on being a chief at all. Pa called him “two-second clever”: too bent on making fools of others to catch his own purse getting cut.
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 finally stepped outside.
Fie let the loose thread go, head and heart steadying. Damp red streaked down the front of Pa’s robes. He’d dealt a mercy killing, then.
Wretched slow mercy, Fie reckoned.
Her relief lasted half a heartbeat before metal rasped, dreadful, from the wall behind them.
Any Crow knew the song of quality steel being drawn. 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.
In the city streets, in sorghum fields, anywhere from Sabor’s western merchant bays to its cruel mountains of the east, a higher caste could cut down Crows for any invented slight. Brothers, aunts, lovers, friends—every Crow walked with the scars of loss. Fie’s own ma had vanished down a dark road years ago.
But for now, the Hawks kept to their walls. The Sinner’s Plague spread swift once its victim died. One body could rot a town to stone before year’s end. Here in the quarantine court, with two dead boys guaranteed to 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 dead moppets,” Hangdog said, starting forward.
“Not on your own.” Pa shook his head and motioned for Fie. “They’re bigger than you.”
Fie blinked. The steward had called the sinners “boys” when he led the Crows in. She’d expected tots, not lordlings near grown.
Text copyright © 2019 by Margaret Owen. Map copyright © 2019 by Virginia Allyn