The lodging house had many kinds of quiet. There was the quiet of sleep, children packed shoulder to shoulder on the threadbare carpets of the various rooms, with only an occasional snore or rustle to break the silence. There was the quiet of daytime, when the house was all but deserted; then they were not children but Fingers, sent out to pluck as many birds as they could, not coming home until they had purses and fans and handkerchiefs and more to show for their efforts.
Then there was the quiet of fear.
Everyone knew what had happened. Ondrakja had made sure of that: In case they’d somehow missed the screams, she’d dragged Sedge’s body past them all, bloody and broken, with Simlin forcing an empty-eyed Ren along in Ondrakja’s wake. When they came back a little while later, Ondrakja’s stained hands were empty, and she stood in the mildewed front hall of the lodging house, with the rest of the Fingers watching from the doorways and the splintered railings of the stairs.
“Next time,” Ondrakja said to Ren in that low, pleasant voice they all knew to dread, “I’ll hit you somewhere softer.” And her gaze went, with unerring malice, to Tess.
Simlin let go of Ren, Ondrakja went upstairs, and after that the lodging house was silent. Even the floorboards didn’t creak, because the Fingers found places to huddle and stayed there.
Sedge wasn’t the first. They said Ondrakja picked someone at random every so often, just to keep the rest in line. She was the leader of their knot; it was her right to cut someone out of it.
But everyone knew this time wasn’t random. Ren had fucked up, and Sedge had paid the price.
Because Ren was too valuable to waste.
Three days like that. Three days of terror-quiet, of no one being sure if Ondrakja’s temper had settled, of Ren and Tess clinging to each other while the others stayed clear.
On the third day, Ren got told to bring Ondrakja her tea.
She carried it up the stairs with careful hands and a grace most of the Fingers couldn’t touch. Her steps were so smooth that when she knelt and offered the cup to Ondrakja, its inner walls were still dry, the tea as calm and unrippled as a mirror.
Ondrakja didn’t take the cup right away. Her hand slid over the charm of knotted cord around Ren’s wrist, then along her head, lacquered nails combing through the thick, dark hair like she was petting a cat. “Little Renyi,” she murmured. “You’re a clever one…but not clever enough. That is why you need me.”
“Yes, Ondrakja,” Ren whispered.
The room was empty, except for the two of them. No Fingers crouching on the carpet to play audience to Ondrakja’s performance. Just Ren, and the stained floorboards in the corner where Sedge had died.
“Haven’t I tried to teach you?” Ondrakja said. “I see such promise in you, in your pretty face. You’re better than the others; you could be as good as me, someday. But only if you listen and obey—and stop trying to hide things from me.”
Her fingernails dug in. Ren lifted her chin and met Ondrakja’s gaze with dry eyes. “I understand. I will never try to hide anything from you again.”
“Good girl.” Ondrakja took the tea and drank.
The hours passed with excruciating slowness. Second earth. Third earth. Fourth. Most of the Fingers were asleep, except those out on night work.
Ren and Tess were not out, nor asleep. They sat tucked under the staircase, listening, Ren’s hand clamped hard over the charm on her wrist. “Please,” Tess begged, “we can just go—”
“No. Not yet.”
Ren’s voice didn’t waver, but inside she shook like a pinkie on her first lift. What if it didn’t work?
She knew they should run. If they didn’t, they might miss their chance. When people found out what she’d done, there wouldn’t be a street in Nadežra that would grant her refuge.
But she stayed for Sedge.
A creak in the hallway above made Tess squeak. Footsteps on the stairs became Simlin rounding the corner. He jerked to a halt when he saw them in the alcove. “There you are,” he said, as if he’d been searching for an hour. “Upstairs. Ondrakja wants you.”
Ren eased herself out, not taking her eyes from Simlin. At thirteen he wasn’t as big as Sedge, but he was far more vicious. “Why?”
“Dunno. Didn’t ask.” Then, before Ren could start climbing the stairs— “She said both of you.”
Next time, I’ll hit you somewhere softer.
They should have run. But with Simlin standing just an arm’s reach away, there wasn’t any hope now. He dragged Tess out of the alcove, ignoring her whimper, and shoved them both up the stairs.
The fire in the parlour had burned low, and the shadows pressed in close from the ceiling and walls. Ondrakja’s big chair was turned with its back to the door so they had to circle around to face her, Tess gripping Ren’s hand so tight the bones ached.
Ondrakja was the picture of Lacewater elegance. Despite the late hour, she’d changed into a rich gown, a Liganti-style surcoat over a fine linen underdress—a dress Ren herself had stolen off a laundry line. Her hair was upswept and pinned, and with the high back of the chair rising behind her, she looked like one of the Cinquerat on their thrones.
A few hours ago she’d petted Ren and praised her skills. But Ren saw the murderous glitter in Ondrakja’s eyes, and knew that would never happen again.
“Treacherous little bitch,” Ondrakja hissed. “Was this your revenge for that piece of trash I threw out? Putting something in my tea? It should have been a knife in my back—but you don’t have the guts for that. The only thing worse than a traitor is a spineless one.”
Ren stood paralyzed, Tess cowering behind her. She’d put in as much extract of meadow saffron as she could afford, paying the apothecary with the coin that was supposed to help her and Tess and Sedge escape Ondrakja forever. It should have worked.
“I am going to make you pay,” Ondrakja promised, her voice cold with venom. “But this time it won’t be as quick. Everyone will know you betrayed your knot. They’ll hold you down while I go to work on your little sister there. I’ll keep her alive for days, and you’ll have to watch every—”
She was rising as she spoke, looming over Ren like some Primordial demon, but mid-threat she lurched. One hand went to her stomach—and then, without any more warning, she vomited onto the carpet.
As her head came up, Ren saw what the shadows of the chair had helped conceal. The glitter in Ondrakja’s eyes wasn’t just fury; it was fever. Her face was sickly-sallow, her skin dewed with cold sweat.
The poison had taken effect. And its work wasn’t done.
Ren danced back as Ondrakja reached for her. The woman who’d knotted the Fingers into her fist stumbled, going down onto one knee. Quick as a snake, Ren kicked her in the face, and Ondrakja fell backward.
“That’s for Sedge,” Ren spat, darting in to stomp on Ondrakja’s tender stomach. The woman vomited again, but kept wit enough to grab at Ren’s leg. Ren twisted clear, and Ondrakja clutched her own throat, gasping.
A yank at the charm on Ren’s wrist broke the cord, and she hurled it into the woman’s spew. Tess followed an instant later. That swiftly, they weren’t Fingers anymore.
Ondrakja reached out again, and Ren stamped on her wrist, snapping bone. She would have kept going, but Tess seized Ren’s arm, dragging her toward the door. “She’s already dead. Come on, or we will be, too—”
“Come back here!” Ondrakja snarled, but her voice had withered to a hoarse gasp. “I will make you fucking pay…”
Her words dissolved into another fit of retching. Ren broke at last, tearing the door open and barreling into Simlin on the other side, knocking him down before he could react. Then down the stairs to the alcove, where a loose floorboard concealed two bags containing everything they owned in the world. Ren took one and threw the other at Tess, and they were out the door of the lodging house, into the narrow, stinking streets of Lacewater, leaving dying Ondrakja and the Fingers and the past behind them.