The day of the harbor bombing I was a mile away, but I thought I was done in anyway, ‘cause I heard the blasts and then felt something slippin’ out my inners. When I ducked behind a building to piss, there was a bright red stain down there, already turnin’ brown around the edges, and more and more blood to make sticky my shakin’ hands.
Well what course did I have bein’ so far away from home as that and the city all wild with the bombs? I ran to Honeycomb, the closest safe place I knew, and begged for Meli. She didn’t like getting’ out of bed afore dusk, but it just wasn’t the kinda day for lazing. Let into her plush, golden room, I showed her the blood and begged her to get my body to the gang, not let me fall into the hands of organ reapers or the wayfarers.
Blue smoke from her kitaka clouded the air, and she made a snort deep in the back of her throat, the kinda sound I didn’t think a classy whore could make.
“You ain’t dyin’, kiddo, it’s just your monthly.”
I stared at her, heart still thumpin’ like a war drum, but slowin’. Ain’t dyin’.
“Monthly what?” I asked.
Well, she ‘bout fell into hysterics. When she finally stuttered out what it meant, that I was a woman real and true, I started to howl and didn’t think I could ever stop.
For twelve years I figured that one day I would wake up a boy. Bein’ a woman was worse than bein’ dead.
Meli tapped out the kitaka and crawled from the bed, naked as the day is long. She wrapped some transparent gauze the same shade as her honey-dark hair round her shoulders, knelt before me, and placed an awkward hand on my dusty head, and it was only then that I shut up my trap. The head whore of Honeycomb was not known for her condescension, and until that moment I’d always thought she just saw me as an annoying extension of Cas, but somehow I had been enough to get her out of her famous bed.
“Those boys touch you yet?”
I wasn’t stupid enough to pretend I didn’t know what she meant. I sniffed up a load of snot. “No ma’am, an’ they never would.”
Her clear blue eyes turned sad, and then hard, her hand still stroking me like I was a dog. “You’d be surprised how men are, Athena. Don’t tell them you’ve bled.”
“They never would,” I said again, my voice brittle as glass. I did not like her sayin’ my gang could hurt me, not one bit. Those were my brothers.
She sighed, stood. “Oh, kiddo, I hope you’re right. I’ll get Thais to clean you up. Stay careful of your boys, and remember, stay away from the wayfarers.”
“I always stay away from the wayfarers,” I grumbled, starin’ down at the floor. Meli turned on me, rough as a cat in heat.
“I mean it, Athena, this is not a joke. You know what they do with us, with anyone they think can make babies.”
“But I ain’t pretty,” I protested.
“Their pretty and our pretty…it ain’t the same thing. They’ll be able to smell the blood, no matter how you try to cover it up, so you remember to stay away from them when it’s on you. Far away.
There wasn’t so far you could go on the island, never far enough to be out of their reach. But I nodded a promise. At least I would try.
Who my parents were, only the gods might know, but I used to pretend they were a great lord and lady, rich and beautiful and favored by the wayfarers, the type of people the bombers meant to attack when they blew up the row house that orphaned me. Probably my mother was a lady’s maid who spent her days curling hair and probably my father was a charming scoundrel who offered nothing more than a squirt of sperm, but doesn’t everyone like to pretend?
But who I was never really mattered, ‘cause either way I woulda ended up where I did which was, at six months of age, on my way to the temple to be sacrificed. The row house attack had been the worst to hit the city since the resistance began, and there weren’t resources to care for survivors that couldn’t take care of themselves. I would be a blood offering to the wayfarers and the gods, a hopeful appeasement to stop the violence burning the city from the inside.
And that woulda been the end of my story, if not for Cas. He never, not once, told me what he saw in an infant girl that would make him risk life and limb (his two favorite things) to save her, and I ain’t never been stupid enough to ask. He was ten years old then, already quite a leader of scavengers. He stole me from under the eyes of the guard, called me Athena for luck, and ever since that day I have belonged to him.
The reason I’m tellin’ you all this? Well, I guess it’s ‘cause, in a way, my life started ‘cause of one bombing, and ended ‘cause of another. And both the starting and the ending happened ‘cause of Cas.
The harbor bombing that day was a big one, and no mistake. There hadn’t been a direct attack in the city for years and years, and the harbor was the lifeblood of us all. The wayfarers controlled all the imports and exports. They lived all along the waterfront in their blinky ring houses, keepin’ the rest of us in check. I could hear their screechy screams following me all the way home, even as the press and pull of crowds grew. People wanted to watch, people wanted to cause trouble, people wanted to get their hits in before the guard was organized enough to push the little bit of rebellion down. It wasn’t safe to be out on the streets, and I tried to make myself as small as I could, sneakin’ round the edges of places.
Our row house was as chaotic as the streets. The landlord’s dogs were kenneled in the courtyard, baying mournfully and pulling at the length of their leads. The wayfarer’s screams made ‘em crazy, but if anyone let them off their leads, well, then there’d be no more dogs, would there? Kids baited them, or each other, daring each other to run to the edges of the road, where their caretakers had warned them not to go. The old men who usually gambled on the boards outside on sunny days were helpin’ each other drag the boards inside. Some of the women were coverin’ the cistern, in case smoke or worse came through. I woulda helped ‘em, but most of the women in the house hated me, ‘cause I wouldn’t act like a girl or look after their kiddos, called me Cas’s slut when they knew I would hear it.
I pushed aside our board and went into our room. No one was in, which was nice, ‘cause there was this ball of sick rolling inside me and I just wanted to lie down. I could still hear all the mess and noise outside, but here I was safe behind the walls. I grabbed my blanket and found my niche, and lay down tryin’ to shut it all out.
I wasn’t worried about the boys. Once the bombs had gone off they would scatter, flit around a bit and then come back to the nest, quick as you like.
When I opened my gummy eyes, it was full dark. Linos was poking at my shoulder. “Thena. Thena!”
I groaned and my tummy grumbled. “What, fishface?”
Everyone was home, but too quiet. Simonides was tryin’ to kindle up the wayfarer lamp we stole the winter before. A devilish thing, that lamp, that shined the brightest light you ever saw, if it ever decided to catch. Kyros and Demon and Hyakinthos were gathered at the table, talkin’ soft. And AgAr—Agathon and Argyros, our very own twins—were hunched up together in their niche, faces splotchy and wet.
Well at that I sat up, fast. My sleepy head buzzed. “What is it?”
“You’re dyin’,” AgAr wailed. It was always hard to tell which one was talkin’, so everyone always thought of the two of them as one. “First the bomb, and then Cas, and now you’re dyin’!”
I looked down and saw that the blood had gotten fast and come through, and frowned. So much for that secret. But then somethin’ they said caught up with me.
Where was Cas?
Linos looked at me, the stonefruit bobbing in his throat. “Cas got took.”
Panic flushed through me. How could Cas, the best of us, get caught? And by who?
Please be the guard. Please be the guard. If it was the guard, if he got picked up bein’ too enthusiastic about the riot or drinkin’ too hard, he’d be cooling off in a cell somewhere, makin’ friends and waitin’ for us to show up with coin to spring him.
“Who?” I croaked.
No one was talkin’. Shit, no one was talkin’.
Simonides finally got the damned light kindled. It made everything in the room orange or shadow. Demon, his black hair pulled low over his eyes, was the only one brave enough to finally open his mouth. “Wayfarers.”
Hell. All the hells rolled into one. If Cas got took by the wayfarers, it meant he was in a ring house, and if he was in a ring house, he was already good as dead.
I was so afraid, I felt hollow.
“You left him?” I didn’t even recognize my voice. “You left him? Who saw him last?”
In the glare of the light, Demon raised his hand. I woulda whacked him, if he weren’t three years and six inches bigger than me.
“What could I do?” he groaned, ashamed. “It was all confused. And I knew if I tried to help, I’d get took, and I knew you’d know what to do, so we had to leave him.”
Me? The hollow feeling turned to wind, whistling through my empty bones. I saw what they thought. They thought I could save Cas.
Well, maybe I was the best hope. I love my gang, but let’s not try to shine a turd. Most of ‘em were dumb as piss. If you have any brains at all, any desire to be anything but a follower, you have your own gang by the age of ten. I was youngest, outside of Agathon and Argyros, but I was smartest, outside of Cas. He was trainin’ me, he liked to say. Groomin’ me up. Like a favorite dog.
They were all lookin’ at me. I had to think.
First things first, I went out to the cistern to clean myself up. AgAr tried to follow me, the babies, but I kicked them back inside.
The whole worked reeked of kitaka smoke.
I have always hated the smell of kitaka smoke, nostril-tickling sweet like a damp, rotting flower. It smells like them. But half the island was hooked on the stuff. Either the rioters had broken into the stores to celebrate, or the wayfarers had sacrificed a bunch of their precious weed to get everyone calmed down.
It made me sleepy. I had to think.
When I got back inside, everyone was still starin’. I sat down in the middle of the floor and tried to corral my spiraling thoughts.
“What, exactly, happened?”
“A guard gave him over to one of the wayfarers,” Demon said. “I think he said he was hidin’ packages that coulda been bombs. But they were takin’ everyone, Athena!”
There was no way Cas was part of any resistance. Even if I didn’t know his every movement of every day, I knew Cas. He cared about his own pretty skin, and a rotating roster of maids at Honeycomb, and us, his kiddos, in that order. Even though he was just about old enough to remember some of life before the wayfarers, it wasn’t a life he mourned or pined for. With or without wayfarers, his life woulda been pretty much the same. He didn’t want revenge, and he didn’t have high ideals.
There was someone behind the bombings, that was sure. They probably knew Cas, and others, had been taken for it. And maybe they wanted it that way, ‘cause it kept them secret and safe.
Our gang had no chance goin’ up against the wayfarers alone, not if any of us wanted to make it back alive. We needed allies, and maybe we needed to find out who set the bombs, too. It all seemed too big, too impossible. But if there was a chance, even a little one, I had to grab at it.
That night I dreamed about the gods.
I never really believed in the gods, which might sound funny since I was named after one of ‘em. But they didn’t feel real—or, if they had been real, I think the wayfarers killed ‘em. But that night I dreamed about them all up on their mountain, eating olives and grapes. Just mouths and teeth and olives and grapes.
First thing I did when I woke up was send Kyros to the olive groves and Simonides to the wine merchants. Linos I dispatched to the Guardpost to put his ear to the ground and find out where Cas and the other prisoners were held.
Hyakinthos wanted a task too, so I sent him up to Meli to ask for help. Not that I thought she would, mind. But whores know people, lots of people, so maybe she’d put a word in for us with some of the bigger, braver, or stupider men who patronized her. Demon was the best second, even if I was mad at him, and AgAr were scared, so I kept them with me.
Our job was to go out callin’. We walked down to where the Dog Tooth gang lodged and I stood in the courtyard, all the time thinking I am a woman now, tryin’ to look big, and shouted out that we wanted a parley, and where to meet. Same across the city with the Black Rats. Then Apollinarias’s crew. Along the way, Demon gathered up men and boys and even some girls who had winesick heads from a night spent protesting and looked like they knew how to use a weapon or two.
Last was Diokles, the Nine Fingers, the biggest hero or biggest drunk on the island, dependin’ on who sang the song. It was said he’d been inside a ring house once. Didn’t know if it was true or not, but what better person to lead a resistance? Maybe, I thought, he knew where to find the black powder that made bombs.
One of his minions, a wiry little cross-eyed kiddo, came into the courtyard and told me to stop my bellowin’.
“Tell your master to come to amphitheater to parley.”
“Parley?” He tasted the word in his mouth and didn’t like it. “What for?”
‘Cause I think he got us into this mess to start with, I thought but didn’t dare say.
“Diokles Nine Fingers is legendary.” I tried to take on the cast of a bard. “Today I am making a legend.”
The cross-eyed kiddo burst out laughin’. Even AgAr started to snort, and I cuffed one of ‘em on the back of the head. Yeah, it had been a dumb thing to say, but how else was I to convince someone that people sang about?
“The wayfarers took people last night,” I started again.
“The wayfarers take people all the time. Forget ‘em and go find a blind man willing to poke you!”
“What, like you, Cross-Eyes?” I growled. My blood was hot. “Wayfarers take me first!”
He flung his hands over his heart in mock agony and stumbled back. “Tell Upstart Cas to stop sending his minions to do his work. We won’t parley with someone who sends girls while he sets a trap.”
“They took Cas,” I said. “And One-Eyed Anaxagoras. And dozens of others. Men. When was the last time wayfarers took men?” I let that sink into his thick head a bit, then folded my hands in front of my chest. “They have taken too many this time. Tell the Nine Fingers we need him. We will be at the amphitheater. And if he is too groggy-headed to leave his bed, tell him there will be much wine.”
I turned on my heel and smiled to myself, thinking, I am a woman.
Long, long ago, before they ever came to our shores, the wayfarers lost the knowledge of how to make babies. It seems a stupid thing to lose, everyone knows how to do that, but one day it just stopped workin’ for ‘em. And so they came for us.
Not at first, mind. At first they let us be awed by their big blinky ships that hung in the sky. They taught us their clicky, screechy tongue. They towered over us like gods, and brought all kinds of shiny new trade. Medicine. Technology. This was all before I was ever born, but I know the stories same as everyone. I know what they gave us, and what they took away.
After a time, when we had become used to the wayfarers, they stopped letting us sail. They took over the harbor, and said they were in all other cities, all other places, all around the world. We didn’t know if it was true or not. They wouldn’t let us leave to find out.
And then they started taking women.
Even after years and years of it, no one knows quite what the wayfarers do. No one comes out alive to tell. Corpses show up once in a while on the beach, piecemeal and unrecognizable, picked over by seabirds. There are other corpses with them, sometimes. Scaly, eyeless little halflings. Humanish babies with no mouths to cry. The wayfarers are beautiful, but the things they try to make with us are anything but.
The resistance started with those bodies. We tried to use their own technology, their black powder, to hit their ships that had turned into houses. They put down those uprisings quick, and the resistance moved on to other humans, those who were seen as colluders. That did not go over well. But still the resistance kept on, until one day the wayfarers emerged from their houses, sent away those who had become their guard, and started roundin’ up men.
When we saw those corpses, the resistance stopped for good. As far as an unimportant girl like me had known, anyhow.
As I sat in the bright, hot bowl of the amphitheater, I tried to puzzle out what had started it again.
“Why are we meeting here?” Linos whined, helpin’ the others roll in barrels.
‘Cause it was the only place big enough for all the people I hoped would come. ‘Cause the wayfarers never ventured so far from the sea during daylight. ‘Cause there were easy spots to post lookouts, and if anyone saw a guard coming, we could fall on him quick.
I ignored Linos and kept on tryin’ to think.
Cas had done lots of favors for the wine merchants over the years, and I called them all in now, and then some, until we had barrels and barrels to offer the crowd. Wine and kitaka are ‘bout the only things that get people in the city motivated, and I didn’t have any of the weed.
As for the olive growers? Well, I’d heard a rumor once that their guild kept hold of the secret of the Fire, our best weapon before the wayfarers came, which had once been made with one of their cunning oils. I was hopin’ to ring it out of ‘em.
Apollinarias’s crew showed up first, with fish to offer to the communal meal. The Dog Tooth gang came with their signature axes strapped to their sides. No sign of the Black Rats. The stragglers we’d picked up across the city were not impressive in number or stature, and only wanted wine to chase their hangovers. But Apollinarias and the Dog Tooths. That was something, maybe better than I’d hoped.
I came up with a whole speech, but I made Demon say it. No one wanted to hear an ugly girl preachin’ about goin’ against the wayfarers. Demon was tall and well-spoken and near fifteen. I didn’t think the speech would work, mind. But I wanted Cas back, so bad. The pit of my stomach was on fire with hate. And this was the only path I could see.
Men are a lot like boys, and they like to argue and throw fists at one another. Soon enough my proposal for a rescue mission turned into a crazy plan for an assault, and everyone wanted to lead it. So the arguin’ grew louder and knottier, and the fists looked like to turn into full brawls, and I figured the whole thing was gonna fall apart before it started.
Then a bright voice rang clear across the amphitheater. “Why don’t you speak, girl?”
I looked up, shading my eyes against the sun. Diokles Nine Fingers stood there, a woman at his side.
His minions, Cross-Eyes among them, scampered down the steps of the amphitheater, and Diokles Nine Fingers took the woman’s elbow and led her slowly down after them. She was wrapped in white, holding a small parasol to shade her skin from the sun. I gawped. It was Meli.
“I think she’s started enough trouble,” Meli said, acidly. “Didn’t I tell you to stay away from the wayfarers, kiddo?”
I swallowed, desperately. “Don’t see any wayfarers here, do you?”
Diokles Nine Fingers chuckled.
He was the handsomest man I ever saw. Brown skinned and wide shouldered with a two-tooth gap in his smile and soft, soft gold eyes. I imagined him touching my skin with his four-fingered right hand—where had that come from?—and a bitter taste shuddered onto the back of my tongue.
“Didn’t I say she had a tongue on her, Mels?” he said to Meli, who was pale and furious. Then he turned his attention to me. “You woke me up with your screamin’ in my courtyard, girl. So, since I’ve dragged my ass all the way out here on this shitstain day, why don’t you tell me what for?”
I stuttered out the plan, locked in place by his spell-casting eyes.
When I was done, he looked around the amphitheater. “You want to go up against the wayfarers? Truly?”
I shrugged. “All I care about is getting’ Cas back. The ship with blue lights, that’s where everyone says they took the prisoners.” It was the men who wanted to make something bigger out of it.
“Upstart Cas? Kiddo, no one is here for him. No one likes that schemer.”
“I like him,” Meli and I protested, in unison.
A smile tugged at the corner of his mouth like an eager fishhook. “No one likes Upstart Cas except for little girls and indulgent whores. And most people are too smart to go against the wayfarers in broad daylight. Yet somehow you managed to get all these people here for a little bit of free wine?”
My teeth ached, I was so on edge with his voice. I looked down at the dust. “There’s food, too.”
He laughed again, a great, belly-rolling laugh. “Honey, you got a spark. If I’da known Cas was hidin’ someone as interesting as you, I might have been paying attention to him all these years.”
Meli was not as amused. She looked down at me with her lips pressed tight together. “Athena, I’m sorry about Cas. I really am. He was a sweet boy. But he’s dead, and this is dangerous.”
“I gotta do something. You don’t understand. The wayfarers never took nothin’ from you.”
“Of course they’ve taken stuff from me, you little fool. But I don’t go around hatching battle plans out in the open where anyone can hear!”
I stared up at her, tryin’ to look at things the way Cas would want me to see them. What she was really sayin’. And when I got it, it hit me like a fist.
Meli never left Honeycomb. She had dozens of girls and servants to run her errands, didn’t like to dirty her feet with the city streets. But she had come here today. She was tryin’ to make out like she was concerned about me, when it didn’t make sense that she would care. She didn’t want me doin’ what I was doin’, and it wasn’t for my own safety.
“You planned the bombing,” I said.
She sucked in a breath. “Don’t talk about things you don’t understand, Athena. You’re just a girl.”
I stretched my spine tall. “You planned the bombing. Did you get Cas to help? I don’t think he’d be so stupid for anyone but you.”
“Cas wasn’t involved. I don’t know why they took him.”
“But it was you.”
“If I say yes, will you shut your mouth?”
I could see it now, clear as the sea. Meli and her girls were about the only women in the city who didn’t live in constant fear of bein’ taken by the wayfarers. They had struck some sort of deal, ages ago. And so under the wayfarer’s noses they could meet with men, all kinds of men, and they could talk, and they could plot.
I didn’t care about why. I cared about how.
“Then you can help us,” I said. “You know where the black powder is!”
“No, Athena, I know where the black powder was. We had a guard on our rolls, but he was taken yesterday with the others, and the wayfarers are sure to have moved it by now.”
Diokles grabbed hold of the cup that was bein’ passed around and tipped back a swig of wine. “Hittin’ the rings now won’t get you much of anything anyway. Most all of ‘em will be in the one you mentioned, with the blue lights.”
“We can make ‘em homeless!” a short, stocky man declared excitedly. “Get rid of all the rings they ain’t in!”
“And then, what?” Diokles sneered. “You want ‘em movin’ in with you?”
“The rings are protected anyway,” one of the Dog Tooths added. “They have those…what are they called? Fields, all around ‘em.”
“What you need is a way to get people in,” Diokles said. “They’re all consumed with the men prisoners right now. You need a distraction, to get their attention off ‘em, and get a rescue party inside.”
Meli’s fingers clenched and unclenched in the empty air. “Nine Fingers, you snake, you ain’t supposed to be encouraging ‘em. You said you’d help me knock sense in ‘em!”
“Thought I would. But your way didn’t work, Mels. And if we can’t strike ‘em all down this time, well maybe we can at least get a good hit in.”
Fury did not sit well on her. Her skin splotched over like a rash and she growled in the back of her throat. She turned away from Diokles.
“Any girl here who wants sanctuary at Honeycomb, come with me now. Let these men come up with their suicidal plots on their own.”
She was afraid, and who could blame her? The reprisals, whether we succeeded or failed, would be terrible. She must have seen some sort of gain to be had in the harbor bombing, but that had gone wrong, and now there was no way to win.
But maybe there were better ways to lose. Ways that meant something.
Meli reached for my arm and tugged, half pulling it out of the socket. I tugged back. “I ain’t goin’ with you.”
“Stop,” Meli said. “Just stop this. Cas would want you to be safe.”
“Cas would want me to fetch him,” I retorted. A terrible idea was hatching in my head. The stupidest, most terrible idea I’d ever had.
“I’ll be the distraction,” I said.
Every eye in the place turned on me then, and I shook under the weight of it all. “I…I…they will know I am a woman. Even with men prisoners, they always want women. I will be the distraction.”
At least in the end, I wasn’t sacrificing myself alone. Two older girls, Korinna and Gaiane, offered to go with me. They were both sallow-skinned and underfed, tall and raw and ugly as me, and I had no idea why they would do such a thing. But some things you just know not to ask.
Meli was havin’ a fit, used to dictating what others would do, but the three of us stood firm together. We would try to lure the wayfarers away from their prisoners, as far away as we could before we were caught, and the men would attack. There was no black powder and, to my dismay, no Fire either, but they had axes and clubs and strong hands. And it turned out they had no second thoughts about using weak girls as live bait, which I was kinda hopin’ they might.
Even my gang didn’t seem too cut up about it. They were psyching themselves up to get Cas, and none of ‘em so much as looked my way to say goodbye.
Near dusk, Korinna took one of my hands, Gaiane the other, and together we walked down to the harbor.
The only grown women you ever saw down by the ring houses were the desperate ones—streetwalkers lookin’ to entice on-duty guards—or old grandmothers. A few months ago, I’d come home glowin’ with pride for a particularly good market haul I’d taken in. Cas counted out the spoils, smilin’ big as you like, but later that day he’d looked at me, and his eyes burned holes in my skin.
“Athena, no more market for a while, yeah?”
I know my face fell, ‘cause I didn’t know what I had done wrong. But Cas just rubbed my shoulder and smiled, only this time the smile looked like chipped paint.
Now I knew why. He saw I was gettin’ too old. No one ever tells you not to walk the streets alone or to stay away from certain places, not precisely. You just know it. And no one ever tells you why, either. Probably ‘cause it makes you feel sick at your own body, the way I did now.
The harbor was grey and cold, empty. The only thing that broke the grey was the lights of the ring houses, blinkin’ in patterns. The wreckage from the bombs and their aftermath had not been cleaned up yet. Wood and cloth from the market stalls lay everywhere in piles; the road was pitted and marked.
“We’re lookin’ for our brother,” I reminded the others. I was proud of this little bit of the plan, this reason three girls would be wanderin’ ‘round the wreckage when they should be smart enough to stay away. They nodded and clutched my hands tighter, ‘til our skin was hot and damp pressed together.
“Cassander!” Gaiane called, when we were close enough. “Cassander, darling, please come home!”
Then all three of us were off, wailin’ and teary-eyed, pretendin’ to search for a lost little boy who could be buried in the wreckage or hidin’ in some hole.
We roused the Guardpost first, as I thought we would. The guards yelled at us to shut our traps, and one even tried to chase us off, but we circled closer and closer to the water, and the rings, and eventually, behind us, their voices stopped. We had not really come alone, after all, and if there’s one thing people hate more than wayfarers, it is guards, who betray the rest of us every day for tarnished bits of coin.
I knew they were gettin’ the life choked out of ‘em just behind me, but I didn’t turn to see. I kept walkin’ closer and closer to the lights, closer than I ever should have dared, callin’ “Cassander! Cassander, dear!” Please be alive to hear, I prayed inside my head. Please be alive to hear and know it is me callin’ for you.
And finally, finally, we found our way to the ring house with the blue lights, the biggest, scariest ring house the wayfarers had. And we cried and cried and cried until the door opened wide.
Our chain of hands fell apart, and we scattered.
There’s only so far you can run when you are human. Only so far you can run with a bloody cramp in your inners and shaky legs and a stomach empty of anything but bile. But that turns out to be pretty far.
For a minute, or an hour, there was only the slap of my feet on stone, the hot push of air through my lungs. I knew they were there, right there, behind me, and oh my gods I wanted to turn and see ‘cause they were so beautiful and I’d never once been so close, but all I could do was run and breathe and run.
Not for long enough, of course. It was never gonna be for long enough.
Everyone knows the songs of that night, now, the songs about rising up for good and all. Songs that taste of the ash on the air, the salt on our skin. Songs of how the hero Diokles slaughtered one wayfarer for each of his fingers. Songs of how six of our boys or men died for every one of theirs. Songs of how Upstart Cas turned out to be alive after all, and remembered that wayfarer houses were once ships, and that all ships could sink. Songs of how an army of women, led by the best of all whores, came to save their stupid, reckless menfolk, and ended up changing the whole damn world.
I don’t get to be part of the songs, unless someone, somewhere, sings of three girls who ran away with the wind while men and wayfarers first fell upon one another.
But I can tell you three things I learned that night that you will not hear in songs.
The inside of a ring house is bright metal; the smoothest, brightest metal you ever saw, and colder than a winter sea.
Wayfarer hands are even colder than that.
And their blood smells the same as ours.
I spent most of that night, the night everything changed, chained to a wall in a ring full of red lights. Korinna had been caught with me, but she had slammed her head back against the smooth metal until she bled, and I might as well have been alone. The wayfarers hadn’t done much more than chain us up, ‘cause they had realized what was really going on before they had the chance to get started, but soon enough they would be back, and I had plenty of time to imagine those cold hands on my skin.
For hours I listened to the soft slap of waves against the hull. The screams of men, the screech of wayfarers. I smelled blood—Korinna’s, and my own. And I waited, and I waited, until I realized that no one was ever gonna come for me.
It turns out is just possible, if you are a small girl who has spent her life underfed, to pop the bones in your hand until you can wiggle it out of a tight metal cuff. It is just possible to break someone else’s bones, if they are unconscious and can’t hate you for it, if it is to save their life. It is just possible to drag an unconscious girl through a maze of cold metal halls, while bright lights pop and blink in your face.
It’s possible for the world to change so much in one night that you will never recognize it again.
My best friend drowned taking a ship to the bottom of the sea. My home burned. And the wayfarers kicked us down, but for the first time in my life, we kicked right back.
“Oh, Athena, you’re done in now,” I whispered into the dark, when I’d gotten myself free. And I found I didn’t want any of this, I didn’t want it at all. But there was no turnin’ back from what was, and I took a deep breath and started towards the fray.