MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
The boy was beautiful.
Caramel-smooth skin, honeydew-sweet smile. Black curls on the right side of unruly. Strong hands and hard muscle and his eyes, O, Daughters, his eyes. Five thousand fathoms deep. Pulling you in to laugh even as he drowned you.
His lips brushed hers, warm and curling soft. They’d stood entwined on the Bridge of Whispers, a purple blush pressing against the curves of the sky. His hands had roamed her back, current tingling on her skin. The feather-light brush of his tongue against hers set her shivering, heart racing, insides aching with want.
They’d drifted apart like dancers before the music stopped, vibration still thrumming along their strings. She’d opened her eyes, found him staring back in the smoky light. A canal murmured beneath them, its sluggish flow bleeding out into the ocean. Just as she wished to. Just as she must. Praying she wouldn’t drown.
Her last nevernight in this city. A part of her didn’t want to say goodbye. But before she left, she’d wanted to know. She owed herself that, at least.
“Are you sure?” he asked.
She’d looked up into his eyes, then.
Took him by the hand.
“I’m sure,” she whispered.
* * *
The man was repugnant.
Sclerosis skin, a shallow chin lost in folds of stubbled fat. A sheen of spittle at his mouth, whiskey’s kiss scrawled across cheeks and nose, and his eyes, O, Daughters, his eyes. Blue as the sunsburned sky. Glittering like stars in the still of truedark.
His lips were on the tankard, draining the dregs as the music and laughter swelled about him. He swayed in the taverna’s heart a moment longer, then tossed a coin on the ironwood bar and stumbled into the sunslight. His eyes roamed the cobbles ahead, bleary with drink. The streets were growing crowded, and he forced his way through the crush, intent only on home and a dreamless sleep. He didn’t look up. Didn’t spy the figure crouched atop a stone gargoyle on a roof opposite, clothed in plaster white and mortar gray.
The girl watched him limp away across the Bridge of Brothers. Lifting her harlequin’s mask to drag on her cigarillo, clove-scented smoke trailing through the air. The sight of his carrion smile and rope-raw hands set her shivering, heart racing, insides aching with want.
Her last nevernight in this city. A part of her still didn’t want to say goodbye. But before she left, she’d wanted him to know. She owed him that, at least.
A shadow wearing the shape of a cat sat on the roof beside her. It was paper-flat and semitranslucent, black as death. Its tail curled around her ankle, almost possessively. Cool waters seeped out through the city’s veins and into the ocean. Just as she wished to. Just as she must. Still praying she wouldn’t drown.
“… are you sure…?” the cat who was shadows asked.
The girl watched her mark slink toward his bed.
“I’m sure,” she whispered.
* * *
The room had been small, sparse, all she could afford. But she’d set out rosejoy candles and a bouquet of water lilies on clean white sheets, corners turned down as if to invite him in, and the boy had smiled at the sugar-floss sweetness of it all.
Walking to the window, she’d stared at the grand old city of Godsgrave. At white marble and ochre brick and graceful spires kissing the sunsburned sky. To the north, the Ribs rose hundreds of feet into the ruddy heavens, tiny windows staring out from apartments carved within the ancient bone. Canals ran out from the hollow Spine, their patterns crisscrossing the city’s skin like the webs of mad spiders. Long shadows draped the crowded pavements as the light of the second sun dimmed—the first sun long since vanished—leaving their third, sullen red sibling to stand watch through the perils of nevernight.
O, if only it had been truedark.
If it were, he wouldn’t see her.
She wasn’t sure she wanted him to see her through this.
The boy padded up behind her, wreathed in fresh sweat and tobacco. Slipping his hands about her waist, fingers running like ice and flame along the divots at her hips. She breathed heavier, tingling somewhere deep and old. Lashes fluttered like butterfly wings against her cheeks as his hands traced the cusp of her navel, dancing across her ribs, up, up to cup her breasts. Goosebumps prickled on her skin as he breathed into her hair. Arching her spine, pressing back against the hardness at his crotch, one hand snagged in his unruly locks. She couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t speak. She didn’t want this to begin or to end.
Turning, sighing as their lips met again, she fumbled with the cufflinks in his ruffled sleeves, all thumbs and sweat and shakes. Pulling their shirts off, she crushed her lips to his, sinking down onto the bed. Just she and he, now. Skin to skin. Her moans or his, she could no longer tell.
The ache was unbearable, soaking her through, hands shaking as they explored the wax-smooth swells of his chest, the hard V-shaped line of flesh leading down into his britches. She slipped her fingers inside and brushed pulsing heat, heavy as iron. Terrifying. Dizzying. He groaned, quivering like a newborn colt as she stroked him, sighing around his tongue.
She’d never been so afraid.
Never once in all her sixteen years.
“Fuck me…,” she’d breathed.
* * *
The room was plush, the kind only the wealthiest might afford. Yet there were empty bottles on the bureau and dead flowers on the nightstand, wilted in the stale smell of misery. The girl took solace in seeing this man she hated so well-to-do and so totally alone. She watched him through the window as he hung up his frock coat, propped a battered tricorn on a dry carafe. Trying to convince herself she could do this. That she was hard and sharp as steel.
Perched on the rooftop opposite, she looked down on the city of Godsgrave; on bloodstained cobbles and hidden tunnels and towering cathedrals of gleaming bone. The Ribs stabbing the sky above her, twisted canals flowing out from the crooked Spine. Long shadows draping the crowded pavements as the second sun grew dimmer still—the first sun long since vanished—leaving their third, sullen red sibling to stand watch through the perils of nevernight.
O, if only it were truedark.
If it were, he wouldn’t see her.
She wasn’t sure she wanted him to see her in this.
Reaching out with clever fingers, she pulled the shadows to her. Weaving and twisting the black gossamer threads until they flowed across her shoulders like a cloak. She faded from the world’s view, became almost translucent, like a smudge on a portrait of the city’s skyline. Leaping across the void to his windowsill, she hauled herself up onto the ledge. And swiftly unlocking the glass, she slipped through to the room beyond, soundless as the cat made of shadows following behind. Sliding a stiletto from her belt, she breathed heavier, tingling somewhere deep and old. Crouched unseen in a corner, lashes fluttering like butterfly wings against her cheeks, she watched him filling a cup with quavering hands.
She was breathing too loudly, her lessons all a-tumble in her head. But he was too numbed to notice—lost somewhere in the remembered creaks of a thousand stretched necks, a thousand pairs of feet dancing to the nooseman’s tune. Her knuckles turned white on the dagger’s hilt as she watched from the gloom. She couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t speak. She didn’t want this to begin or to end.
He sighed as he drank from the cup, fumbling with cufflinks on ruffled sleeves, all thumbs and sweat and shakes. Pulling his shirt off, he limped across the boards and sank down onto the bed. Just she and he now, breath for breath. Her end or his, she could no longer tell.
The pause was unbearable, sweat soaking her through as the darkness shivered. Remembering who she was, what this man had taken, all that would unravel if she failed. And steeling herself, she threw off her cloak of shadows and stepped out to meet him.
He gasped, starting like a newborn colt as she walked into the red sunslight, a harlequin’s smile in place of her own.
She’d never seen anyone so afraid.
Not once in all her sixteen years.
“Fuck me…,” he breathed.
* * *
He’d climbed atop her, britches around his ankles. His lips on her neck and her heart in her throat. An age passed, somewhere between wanting and fearing and loving and hating, and then she’d felt him, hot and so astonishingly hard, pressing against the softness between her legs. She drew breath, perhaps to speak (but what would she say?) and then there was pain, pain, O, Daughters, it hurt. He was inside her—it was inside her—so hard and real she couldn’t help but cry out, biting her lip to muffle the flood.
He’d been heedless, careless, weight pressed down on her as he thrust again and again. Nothing like the sweet imaginings she’d filled this moment with. Her legs splayed and her stomach knotted, kicking against the mattress and wanting him to stop. To wait.
Was this the way it should feel?
Was this the way it should be?
If all went awry later, this would be her last nevernight in this world. And she’d known the first was usually the worst. She’d thought herself ready; soft enough, wet enough, wanting enough. That everything the other street girls had said between the giggles and the knowing glances wouldn’t be true for her.
“Close your eyes,” they’d counseled. “It’ll be over soon enough.”
But he was so heavy, and she was trying not to cry, and she wished this wasn’t the way it had to be. She’d dreamed of this, hoped it some kind of special. But now she was here, she thought it a stumbling, clumsy affair. No magik or fireworks or bliss by the handful. Just the press of him on her chest, the ache of him thrusting away, her eyes closed as she gasped and winced and waited for him to be done.
He pressed his lips to hers, fingers cupping her cheek. And in that moment there was a flicker of it—a sweetness to set her tingling again, despite the awkwardness and breathlessness and hurtingness of it all. She kissed him back and there was heat inside her, flooding and filling as his every muscle went taut. And he pressed his face into her hair and shuddered through his little death, finally collapsing atop her, soft and damp and boneless.
Lying there, she breathed deep. Licked his sweat from her lips. Sighed.
He rolled away, crumpled on the sheets beside her. Reaching between her legs, she found wetness, aching. Smeared on fingertips and thighs. On clean white linen with the corners turned down as if to invite him in.
“Why didn’t you tell me this was your first?” he asked.
She said nothing. Staring at the red gleaming at her fingertips.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered.
She looked at him, then.
Looked away just as quickly.
“You’ve nothing to be sorry for.”
* * *
She was atop him, knees pinning him down. His hand on her wrist and her stiletto at his throat. An age passed, somewhere between struggling and hissing and biting and begging, and finally the blade sank home, sharp and so astonishingly hard, sinking through his neck and scraping his spine. He drew sucking breath, perhaps to speak (but what could he say?) and she could see it in his eyes—pain, pain, O, Daughters, it hurt. It was inside him—she was inside him—stabbing hard as he tried to cry out, her hand over his mouth to muffle the flood.
He was panicked, desperate, scrabbling at her mask as she twisted the blade. Nothing like the dreadful imaginings she’d filled this moment with. His legs splayed and his neck gushing, kicking against the mattress and wanting her to stop. To wait.
Is this the way it should feel?
Is this the way it should be?
If all had gone awry, this would have been her last nevernight in this world. And she knew the first was usually the worst. She’d thought she wasn’t ready; not strong enough, not cold enough, that Old Mercurio’s reassurances wouldn’t be true for her.
“Remember to breathe,” he’d counseled. “It’ll be over soon enough.”
He was thrashing, and she was holding him still, and everything about her wondered if this was the way it would always be. She’d imagined this moment might feel like some kind of evil. A tithe to be paid, not a moment to be savored. But now she was here, she thought it a beautiful, balletic affair. His spine arching beneath her. The fear in his eyes as he tore her mask aside. The gleam of the blade she’d thrust home, hand over his mouth as she nodded and shushed with a mother’s voice, waiting for him to be done.
He clawed her cheek, the vile reek of his breath and shit filling the room. And in that moment there was a flicker of it—a horror giving birth to mercy, despite the fact that he deserved this ending and a hundred more. Drawing back her blade, she buried it in his chest, and there was heat on her hands, flooding and sluicing as his every muscle went taut. And he grasped her knuckles and sighed through his death, deflating beneath her, soft and damp and boneless.
Sitting atop him, she breathed deep. Tasted salt and scarlet. Sighed.
She rolled away, crumpled sheets around her. Touching her face, she found wetness, warmth. Smeared on her hands and lips.
“Hear me, Niah,” she whispered. “Hear me, Mother. This flesh your feast. This blood your wine. This life, this end, my gift to you. Hold him close.”
The cat who was shadows watched from its perch on the bedhead. Watched her the way only the eyeless can. It said not a word.
It didn’t need to.
* * *
Muted sunslight on her skin. Raven hair, damp with sweat and hanging in her eyes. She pulled up leather britches, tossed a mortar-gray shirt over her head, tugging on wolfskin boots. Sore. Stained. But glad in it, somehow. Somewhere near content.
“The room is paid up for the nevernight,” she’d said. “If you want it.”
The sweetboy had watched from the other side of the bed, head on his elbow.
“And my coin?”
She motioned to a purse beside the looking glass.
“You’re younger than my usuals,” he’d said. “I don’t get many firsts.”
She looked at herself in the mirror then—pale skin and dark eyes. Younger than her years. And though evidence to the contrary lay drying on her skin, for a moment, she still found it hard to think of herself as anything more than a girl. Something weak and shivering, something sixteen years in this city had never managed to temper.
She’d pushed her shirt back into her britches. Checked the harlequin mask in her cloak. The stiletto at her belt. Gleaming and sharp.
The hangman would be leaving the taverna soon.
“I have to go,” she’d said.
“May I ask you something, Mi Dona?”
“… Ask then.”
“Why me? Why now?”
“That’s no kind of answer.”
“You think I should have saved myself, is that it? That I’m some gift to be given? Now forever spoiled?”
The boy said nothing, watching her with those fathom-deep eyes. Pretty as a picture. The girl drew a cigarillo from a silver case. Lit it on one of the candles. Breathing deep.
“I just wanted to know what it was like,” she finally said. “In case I die.”
She shrugged, exhaled gray.
“Now I know.”
And into the shadows, she walked.
* * *
Muted sunslight on her skin. Mortar-gray cloak flowing down her shoulders, rendering her a shadow in the sullen light. She stood beneath a marble arch in the Beggar King’s Piazza, the third sun hanging faceless in the sky. Memories of the hangman’s end drying in the bloodstains on her hands. Memories of the sweetboy’s lips drying with the stains on her britches. Sore. Sighing. But still glad in it, somehow. Still somewhere near content.
“Didn’t die, I see.”
Old Mercurio watched her from the other side of the arch, tricorn pulled low, cigarillo at his lips. He seemed smaller somehow. Thinner. Older.
“Not for lack of trying,” the girl replied.
She looked at him then—stained hands and fading eyes. Old beyond his years. And though evidence to the contrary was crusting on her skin, for a moment, she found it hard to think of herself as anything more than a girl. Something weak and shivering, something six years in his tutelage had never managed to temper.
“I won’t see you for a long time, will I?” she asked. “I might never see you again.”
“You knew this,” he said. “You chose this.”
“I’m not sure there was ever a choice,” she said.
She opened her fist, a sheepskin purse in her palm. The old man took the offering, counting the contents with one ink-stained finger. Clinking. Bloodstained. Twenty-seven teeth.
“Seems the hangman lost a few before I got to him,” she explained.
“They’ll understand.” Mercurio tossed the teeth back to the girl. “Be at the seventeenth pier by six bells. A Dweymeri brigantine called Trelene’s Beau. She’s a freeship, not flying under Itreyan colors. She’ll bear you hence.”
“Nowhere you can follow.”
“I’ve trained you well. This is for you alone. Cross the Red Church threshold before the first turn of Septimus, or you’ll never cross it at all.”
“… I understand.”
Affection gleamed in rheumy eyes. “You’re the greatest pupil I’ve ever sent into the Mother’s service. You’ll spread your wings in that place and fly. And you will see me again.”
She drew the stiletto from her belt. Proffered it on her forearm, head bowed. The blade was crafted of gravebone, gleaming white and hard as steel, its hilt carved like a crow in flight. Red amber eyes gleamed in the scarlet sunslight.
“Keep it.” The old man sniffed. “It’s yours again. You earned it. At last.”
She looked the knife over, this way and that.
“Should I give it a name?”
“You could, I suppose. But what’s the point?”
“It’s this bit.” She touched the blade’s tip. “The part you stick them with.”
“O, bravo. Mind you don’t cut yourself on a wit that sharp.”
“All great blades have names. It’s just how it’s done.”
“Bollocks.” Mercurio took back the dagger, held it up between them. “Naming your blade is the sort of faff reserved for heroes, girl. Men who have songs sung about them, histories spun for them, brats named after them. It’s the shadow road for you and me. And you dance it right, no one will ever know your name, let alone the pig-sticker in your belt.
“You’ll be a rumor. A whisper. The thought that wakes the bastards of this world sweating in the nevernight. The last thing you will ever be in this world, girl, is someone’s hero.”
Mercurio handed back the blade.
“But you will be a girl heroes fear.”
She smiled. Suddenly and terribly sad. She hovered a moment. Leaned in close. Gifted sandpaper cheeks with a gentle kiss.
“I’ll miss you,” she said.
And into the shadows, she walked.
Copyright © 2016 by Neverafter PTY LTD.