Growing up an orphan in Sector Five limits your career choices. Neil was a typical urchin. Hungry. Dirty. First blood at five. Initiation at six. At nine he was running diplomacy between Jenna North and Earl. Other gangsters often tried to intercept this kind of correspondence. It served them well to keep their enemies from forming alliances. Neil’s predecessor in this post had emptied his guts into the Two-Five watchwall gully and Neil was determined not to adhere too closely to that job description. His work was risky, but so was that of his would-be assassins. He always struck first. No questions asked.
Sometimes it ruined North’s attempts at diplomacy, but Neil always managed to spin these failures. He’d been attacked. Lying, too, comes naturally to those raised in Five.
At sixteen, Neil was a respected member of North’s cadre. He wore her colors and double-dagger insignia. Earl and his lieutenants recognized Neil on sight and treated him with courtesy. North’s gang and the Dusk Knights were on relatively good terms when the city danced to the beat of falling masonry. When the dust cleared, leaving smoke and rubble and a monstrous tear in Citadel, North had sent Neil out to assure Earl that the attack was not her doing: the alliance was to be preserved at all costs.
“Of course North didn’t do it,” leered a mustachioed Dusk Knight reeking of alcohol.
Neil nodded in confirmation and turned to leave.
“Any further comment?” Neil asked, keeping it professional.
“North had best stay low.”
Jenna North had of course done the opposite. Her fighters were out in force within seconds of Neil’s report, and after a few curt words with him she herself had taken to the streets. The situation was clear, and grim: Earl had been planning this for years. It was a coup. And if the DK took the whole city, there wouldn’t be an inch of room for the rest of the gangs to operate.
Neil’s orders were simple: he was to contact Earl in Sector Two and find out whatever he could. The prospect seemed suicidal, but that’s what made it simple. He was good at carrying messages and fighting off his attackers but memory had never been Neil’s strength, nor had reasoning. He was the worst spy North had, likely, save other Five urchins. His only advantage was diplomatic immunity. Still, especially given his own track record for murder, he expected to be treated the same way he treated his own assailants. No questions asked.
So Neil embarked on his suicide, mind full of dim thoughts about that one meatery girl he’d never see again.
Getting into Sector Two was not difficult. The Dusk Knights had set up barricades in the streets of Five, but Neil didn’t travel at ground level. Moving roof to roof, he crossed the sector at a brisk pace. Soon he found himself scaling the abandoned watchwall and slipping into the far less chaotic sector in which Earl made his home. As he left Five behind, the fighting broke out.
That sealed the deal in Neil’s mind. He would show up at Earl’s door and that would be the end. No more gangs or job, no more meateries or alleyways, no more slop or Grace Valence posters.
“Earl’s busy,” proclaimed one of two halberdiers at the entrance to the compound.
The other began thrusting his hips at the air and laughing.
Neil kept it professional.
“When will he be available?”
“Knowing those two—” started the first halberdier.
“—or at least their reputations—” interjected the second.
“—they’ll be at it all. night. long!”
The two Dusk Knights exchanged a secret handshake. Neil didn’t know what to do with himself. He’d visited Earl more times than he could remember, delivered countless messages directly to the commander of the Dusk Knights. Never once had he been turned away at this door. This was not the first time that these jesters who called themselves Earl’s doormen had given Neil a hard time. But this was the first time they had brought up sex. It was well-known that Earl liked his women, but his women never got in the way of negotiations. Tonight’s guest of honor must be someone special, Neil figured.
He shook his head. This mission was supposed to be simple.
“Let me see Earl.”
“Kid, he’s busy.”
“Wanna know who’s in there with him?”
Neil’s orders resurfaced: he was to find out whatever he could.
The halberdiers burst out laughing.
“Come on, kid. Let the boss have his privacy.”
Neil’s hands twitched under his mantle. His twin daggers, Death and Kill, were calling him. Three thoughts raged in his head, vying for dominance: that he was to preserve the alliance at all costs, that he was to actually talk to Earl, and that he was to remain professional. These clowns were in the way only of the first, so he slit their throats before they knew what was happening and let himself into the compound.
Neil tensed. Trent, Earl’s right-hand man, had spotted him. Of course he was going to be spotted, walking down the hall in plain view. He kept it professional.
“Halberds A and B let me in,” he said. “I need to talk to Commander Earl.”
“He’s a bit… indisposed,” said Trent.
The lieutenant seemed out of sorts. He kept fidgeting with his outrageous costume. Bizarre dress was a staple amongst the DK, and Trent was usually a brazen paragon of the DK clothing creed. Self-consciousness fit him as well as an ordinary tunic and breeches.
“Is something wrong?” asked Neil.
“Aside from Citadel being in shambles and the city imploding?”
Trent opened his mouth as if to speak, then thought better of it and simply wandered off. That was answer enough. Something was terribly wrong. Neil continued unobstructed to Earl’s apartments. He lifted a hand to knock on the door, then paused. From within, Neil heard the soft sound of crying.
He could hear Earl’s voice under the sobs, but could not make out the words. Slowly the sobs faded, replaced with the rhythmic sound Neil quickly matched with Halberd B’s hip movements. Whoever was in there with Earl seemed to be getting into it, but the sobs stayed with Neil.
It was the same sound his favorite meatery girl, Lorrie, had made after a Brinksman mishandled her.
Neil remembered the cocktail of disgust, pity, and rage that had coursed through the mistress of the establishment. She was furious with the customer, she was furious with Lorrie. Neil, waiting in the lobby for his turn, had quickly come to the conclusion that it was all the Brinksman’s fault, but he’d kept it professional. He’d stepped forward to join Lorrie and claim his bowl of slop. Lorrie had demurred, but the mistress wasn’t having any of it.
“Take him to your room, you piece of shit.”
Neil hadn’t kept his cool.
He wasn’t paying for a piece of shit. He was paying for a piece of meat. Determined to get his money’s worth, he went at it with gusto.
It was the worst sex of his life. Her face remained tear-streaked even when he closed his eyes. Her voice, usually full of joyous vigor, was a weak shrill. He didn’t finish, neither Lorrie nor his slop. He dashed from the establishment half-dressed, caught up with the offending Brinksman in a dark alley, and fed his knives.
Now Neil stood on the other side of a door, one of his few lucid memories triggered by some woman’s sobs. The mystery woman was now either enjoying it or doing a wonderful job of acting. Neil understood that some couples played at this kind of thing, and he suppressed the urge to barge in with Death and Kill in hand.
Instead, he knocked.
The cries of pleasure crescendoed momentarily and then subsided.
The door creaked open. Earl towered above Neil, glistening with sweat and sporting a sheet around his loins.
“My men told you I was busy.”
Earl’s muscles rippled, and Neil remembered the mission’s suicidal element. Death and Kill had nothing on the larger man’s mitts.
“North sent me, sir,” he said. “We need to talk…”
“I’m doing some negotiations of my own.”
“Will be dead shortly.”
Earl moved to close the door, but Neil blocked it with his foot.
“Persistent little bastard. What do you want?”
“She wishes to preserve the alliance.”
“You have fifteen seconds to preserve the alliance. I’m listening.”
Neil kept it professional.
“Sir I heard from your men that it was DK attacked Citadel and you’re taking over the whole city but why why now things were going well North and you had something good let’s work something out like always—”
“Enough. Listen, kid, you might be a fast runner but you’re not the fastest. Long before you got here, I had news of the fighting. Your ‘mistress’ is out in the streets killing my men. DK attacked Citadel? Hilarious. You think we have the means to do that kind of damage? Citadel’s down, the king’s missing, Watch’s ranks are decimated, and my Dusk Knights are going to fill the power void. That’s all there is to it. Your people would have been wise to stay low as they’d been advised.”
“And now, you kill me for knowing too much?”
“No, Neil. Now, I get back to my negotiations. Which, coincidentally, include fucking the most beautiful woman in the world. Move your foot if you value it.”
Neil stepped back just in time. Earl slammed the door shut.
The diplomat stood dazed for a moment. His diplomatic immunity had worked out—though it was the only thing that had. The information he had acquired was not simple, nor was he dead.
There was no point in trying to rendezvous with North in the thick of combat; they had an arranged meeting time of dawn back at the headquarters. Neil returned to the Two-Five watchwall, where he lingered amongst the battlements. Citadel stood tall as ever, now rent through and pumping out smoke. The black pillar cast a shadow across Sectors Three and Four, but Two and Five were crawling in the starlight.
It was only upon scanning Five for the tenth time, imagining himself to be one of those layabouts from Watch, that Neil noticed the torches hovering near the top of the Bay. He crept closer along the watchwall, then along Shell, until he had a clear view of the action.
Three Dusk Knights were dismantling the fencing and shacks of the Bay, throwing the detritus off the cliff. They were bantering about Earl and Trent. Their intention quickly became clear: they were opening the Bay.
Neil’s mind raced. The explosion, the DK decision to forget the alliance, Earl’s “negotiations,” and now this. None of it added up.
Something else had to be at work.
As Neil stared off into the distance, he noticed something approaching in the sky and froze. Flying in from the east was a short black creature, about four feet wide, larger by several magnitudes than insects, the only other airborne things Neil had ever seen. He instinctively ducked, but he could not wrench his eyes from the thing and it was homing in on him.
There was no way to keep it professional. Neil couldn’t contain his horror. As the monster alighted on the rampart, he cried out in fear. The Dusk Knights below asked each other if they’d heard that, but it was agreed that there was no source and they returned to work.
The thing folded its wings into itself, shrinking considerably, and cocked its head. Its black beady eyes glimmered. It cawed once and extended a thin leg Neil’s way. He saw a small scroll tied to it with a red ribbon.
As Neil watched, immobile, the creature grew impatient and began hopping around on its unbound leg, pecking at the ribbon.
Catching on, Neil hesitantly reached for the scroll and untied it. The monster shrieked in appreciation and took flight once more.
Neil took several deep breaths to calm himself before he opened the scroll.
Growing up an orphan in Sector Five limits your career choices. Neil, chief envoy between Jenna North and the Dusk Knights, was maybe not a typical urchin. His job demanded some modicum of literacy, and so he was able to make out the neat handwriting on the scroll.
“Consider tonight’s events a warning to the King or Queen, and to all citizens of the capital city of this land. Our livelihood has been stolen. When the city dried first, we gladly shared our crops with Queen Joans and her court. When the plains dried next, and demanded reciprocation, rather than aid Joans sent soldiers to slaughter us. The decades have not been kind to us, but we have persevered. We are stronger than ever, and we will reclaim what is ours.”
The message was signed “Your Dustfolk.”