When I was a kid, I dreamt of living in the castle that loomed over our city, a place of magic and intrigue. As I got older, I started to learn that even the slums had their own kind of magic. If you knew where to look, you could feel the power of ancient kings thrumming under the stones beneath your feet.
Tonight, warm lights shone through some of the windows through the fog, and the sound of a distant piano floated on the wind, winding between narrow alleys. No one was out here, just me and the salty breeze, the shadows growing longer as the sun slid lower in the sky. The mist curled around brick tenements that groaned toward each other, crooked with age. Fog skimmed over the dark, cobbled street.
I didn’t care what anyone thought—this city was beautiful.
I shoved my hands in my pockets, glad the day was over. Like every Friday night, I was heading for the Bibliotek Music Hall. Some lovely chap would buy me a drink. I’d dance till the sun came up and the blackbirds started to sing.
I knew every alley, every hiding spot, every haunted corner where pirates once hung in gallows. I’d grown up to the sound of the seagulls overhead and the lapping of the Dark River against the embankment.
But tonight as I walked, the sense of wonder started to darken a little. The shadows seemed to thicken.
Every now and then, the crowded streets could feel like a trap. Because as much as I loved the place, it wasn’t necessarily populated by gentlemen.
And right now, the familiar magic was being replaced by a sense of menace. It lingered in the air, making goosebumps rise on my skin, but I wasn’t sure why.
I picked up my pace, envisioning the fresh bread and cheese I’d get at the Bibliotek Music Hall. Maybe I just needed a proper snack.
But why did I feel like someone was following me?
When I sniffed, I smelled whale oil, pitch pine and turpentine. Ah. Bloody hell. That was what had me on edge. The Rough Boys—a gang who lived on an old boat in the docks—always reeked of their ship. I could smell them from here, even if I couldn’t see them yet.
Were they following me? Had I stolen something that belonged to them? I spent my days on the docks, in and out of ships and warehouses. I pilfered tea and other valuables, passing them off to a network of thieves.
Not glamorous, admittedly, but it was honest work.
Okay, fine. It wasn’t honest either, but it meant I got to eat.
I glanced over my shoulder, and that was when my pulse kicked up a notch. I swallowed hard. Three of them stood at the end of the street, fog billowing around them like ghost ships on a misty sea. I recognized them right away by their signature look—shaggy hair and pea coats.
“Oi! Pussycat!” One of them shouted for me, voice booming off stone walls. “I got a message for your mum! She needs to pay up.”
“No thanks!” I shouted.
I knew how they sent messages—with their blades, carved in skin. Mum owed them money, which meant I owed them money. And if I didn’t pay up they’d take a knife to me fast.
I whirled and raced through the narrow street.
“It’s not exactly optional!” One of them shouted after me.
Where were the bloody coppers when you needed them? Always around when I pinched something, but never when cutthroats were after me.
At least I knew these streets as well as I knew my own body. If I could keep up the pace, I could lose the bastards.
My feet hammered the pavement, arms pumping as I ran. My brown curls streamed behind me. Puddles soaked into my socks through the holes in my threadbare shoes. I wanted to look behind me, to see how close they were, but that little movement would cost me. I knew if I slowed down, there’d be more of their gang crawling from the shadows. Fear was giving me speed.
The Rough Boys took people’s noses, eyelids, ears. If I could avoid it, I’d prefer not to walk around like a mutilated horror show for the rest of my life.
So as they chased me, I dodged from one dark alley to the next, rounding the labyrinthine corners, keeping to the shadows, trying to lose them.
But the Rough Boys were taller than me, and just as fast, sprinting like jackals over the stones.
“Lila, is it? Pretty lady.” One of them shouted. “We just need to have a little chat.”
Did they think if they called me pretty I’d simper over to them, blushing?
I was good in a fight—better than most men, even—but a fight with a gang in their territory was always a losing prospect. There were always more of them ready to slink out of alleys. My sister Alice taught me never to draw your knife unless you knew you could win.
Except I couldn’t run forever, and I needed just a moment to catch my breath. At twenty-five, I was already getting slow. Embarrassing.
Breathless, I took a sharp turn onto Dagger Row. Then I darted into a shadowy alley between two brick walls. I hid deep in the darkness, listening with relief as the cutthroats ran on past. Oblivious.
A smile curled my lips. You lived another night.
Perhaps I’d make it to twenty-six with my face intact.
For just a moment, I rested, hands on my thighs. Crowded tenements rose up on either side of me. Dirty water ran in the gutters. I straightened again and peered out from the alley.
No one around.
I pulled the hood of my coat tight, then started walking at a fast clip.
The winding streets had taken me on a jagged path back toward the river. Before I crossed onto the next street, I peered around the corner to the right. I shivered at the sight of Castle Hades.
The ancient fortress was still breathtaking, every time I looked at it. Its dark stone loomed over a bustling city of merchants and beggars, holy sisters and street crawlers. We all looked up to it with awe.
The castle’s four central towers rose up like ancient obelisks against the night sky. Two enormous rings of stone walls fortified the exterior, and a moat surrounded it.. Once, the castle had gleamed white in the sun, and lions roamed the courtyards. Just fifty years ago, ravens had swooped over its twenty-one towers, and true Albian kings and queens danced in the courtyards.
Back then, we used to think the ravens protected Dovren. That they were good luck.
But the ravens had done nothing when invaders arrived on the Dark River—an army of elite warriors, headed by the ruthless Count Saklas. The ravens didn’t help at all when Count Saklas beheaded our king in his own dungeon.
Now, the count ruled the whole kingdom from the castle’s stone walls. Our citizens hung from gallows and gibbets outside, macabre warnings. Anyone who opposed his rule got the death penalty.
Pretty sure the bastard killed the ravens, too, because of course he did.
Two years ago, the last time anyone saw my sister Alice, she was carrying red silks into the castle. Then, she just disappeared. No idea what happened to her. It felt like the castle had swallowed her up.
Shivering, I turned away, thinking warmly of the Bibliotek Music Hall. My friend Zahra would be waiting for me, probably already with a cocktail in hand. In my pocket, I had a tiny nip of whiskey, and I pulled it out to take a sip and warm myself up. Cheap and strong, it burned my throat.
Maybe the count had conquered my country, but we still had the best music in the world. And we knew how to throw a party.
But just as I was starting to let down my guard, the sound of footfalls echoed behind me. I whirled, and fear jolted me as dark shadows emerged from the fog.
Bloody hell. The Rough Boys had found me again.