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Excerpt Reveal: Devil’s Kitchen by Candice Fox

Excerpt Reveal: Devil’s Kitchen by Candice Fox

Devil's KitchenDevil’s Kitchen is a fast-paced, heart racing thriller from Candice Fox, “a bright new star in crime fiction.” (James Patterson)

The firefighting crew of Engine 99 has spent years rushing fearlessly into the hot zone of major fires across New York City. This tight-knit, four person unit has faced danger head-on, saving countless lives and stopping raging fires before they can cause major destruction.

They’ve also stolen millions from banks, jewelry stores, and art galleries. Under the cover of saving the city, these men have used their knowledge and specialist equipment to become the most successful heist crew on the East Coast.

Andy Nearland, the newest member of Engine 99, is good at keeping secrets. She’s been brought on to help with their biggest job ever—hitting New York’s largest private storage facility, an expensive treasure trove for the rich and famous.

She’s also an undercover operative, charged with bringing the crew to justice.

Keeping Andy’s true motives hidden proves more and more dangerous as tempers flare and loyalties are tested. And as the clock counts down to the crew’s most daring heist yet, her cover might just go up in flames…

Devil’s Kitchen will be available on June 4th, 2024. Please enjoy the following excerpt!


ANDY

“We know you’re a cop,” Matt said.

Andrea had been waiting for those words. All the way out to the forest, as they pulled off the highway and onto the thin dirt road. The unsteady headlights between Matt’s and Engo’s shoulders cast the trees in a strangely festive gold. The killing fields. In a way, Andy had been waiting for the words a lot longer than that. Every morning and every night for almost three months. The potential for them clinging to the lining of her stomach like an acid.

We know.

Now she was kneeling on the bare boards of a run-down portable building in the woods, the sound of boats on the Hudson nearby competing with the moan of skin-peeling wind. The corrugated-iron roof rattled above all their heads. The property—a massive, abandoned slab of woods that probably belonged to some absent billionaire who’d had ideas of building a house here once—was dead silent beyond the little shack. Andy knew she was in a black spot on the river’s otherwise glittering edges, so close to safety, yet so far away. Ben was breathing hard beside Andy, sweating into his firefighting bunker uniform. The reflective yellow stripes on his arms were trying to suck up any and all available light. There wasn’t much. Matt, Engo, and Jakey were faceless silhouettes crowding her and Ben in. Strange what a person will long for at the end. A sliver of light. To breathe the sour air unfettered, as Ben did. They’d taped her mouth.

Matt put his gun to Ben’s forehead, nudged it hard so that his head snapped back.

“You brought a fucking cop into the crew.”

“She’s not a cop! I swear to God, man!”

“I raised you,” Matt growled. “I found you in a hole and I dug you out and this is how you want to play me?”

“Matt, Matt, listen to me—”

“Benji, Benji, Benji.” Engo stepped forward, put his three-fingered hand on Ben’s shoulder. “We know. Okay? It’s over. You got a choice now, brother. You admit what you’ve done, and maybe we can talk about what happens next.”

“She’s not a cop!”

I’m not a fucking cop! Andy growled through the tape. Because it’s what she would say. Andrea “Andy” Nearland, her mask. She wouldn’t go down quiet. She would fight to the end.

Engo came over to her and tried to start in with the same faux pleasantries and soothings and bargains and she flopped hard on her hip, swung her legs around, and kicked out at his shins. He went down on his ass and she let off a string of obscenities behind the tape. Andy had always hated Engo. Andy the mask. And the real Her, too. Jake got between them. Little Jakey, who had until now been hovering in the corner of the dilapidated portable and gnawing on the end of an unlit cigarette, muttering worrisome nothings to himself.

“Get her back on her knees.”

Jakey came over and helped her up. His hand was clammy on her neck.

Don’t fucking touch me!

“Benji,” Big Matt said. “There’s an out here. I’m giving you an out. You gotta take it.”

“I don’t—”

“Tell us that you turned on us. That’s all you have to do, man.”

“She’s not a cop!”

“Just tell us!”

“Matt, please!”

“Tell us, or I’m gonna have to do this thing. I don’t want to do it. But I will.”

Andy looked at Ben. Met his frantic gaze. She saw it in his eyes, the scene playing out. Andy taking the bullet in the brain. Her body ragdolling on the floor. Ben next. All the vigor going out of him, like his plug had been yanked from the socket. Matt, Engo, and Jakey strapping firefighting helmets onto their dead bodies and lighting the place up around them. Driving back to the station car parked at Peanut Leap. They’d make the anonymous call to 911. Then respond to Dispatch when the job came over the radio.

Hey, Dispatch, we’re up here anyway. Engine 99 crew. We took the station car for a cruise and we have basic gear on us. We’ll head out there while the local guys get organized.

It would look like an accident. The crew had taken the station car out for a spin, parked to watch the lights on the river and sink beers, and picked up a run-of-the-mill spot-fire call. They’d rolled up to the property, spotted the portable that had probably served as a construction-site office once, starting to smoke out. Ben and Andy had taken the spare gear from the back of the car and rushed in ahead of Matt and the rest of the crew, no idea that the blazing building was full of gas bottles and jerry cans that some local cuckoo had been hoarding.

Kaboom.

A tragedy.

Oh, there’d be an inquiry, of course. Wrists would be slapped—about the rec run with the station car, the beers, the half-cocked entry. There would be whispers, too. Especially after what happened to Titus.

But then everybody would cry and forget about it.

Matt and his crew did that: they made people forget.

Andy watched Ben weigh his loyalties. His crew, against the cop he’d brought in to destroy them.

“I don’t want to do this, Ben,” Matt said. The huge man’s voice was strained. He shifted his grip on the gun. “Just tell us the truth.”

The wind howled around the shack and the boats clanged on the river and Little Jakey started to cry.

THREE MONTHS EARLIER

BEN

Fire is loud. It calls to people. Probably had been doing that since the dawn of time, Ben guessed. When it was old enough, when it had evolved through its hissing and creeping and licking phase and was a good-sized beast learning to roar—that’s when they came. Stood. Watched. Felt the heat on their cheeks and felt alive and part of something, or some hippie shit like that.

By the time Ben’s boots landed on the wet sidewalk of West Thirty-Seventh Street there were huddles of people in darkened doorways across the street and gawkers hanging out of apartment windows above them. The pinprick white lights of phone cameras. He hardly noticed, was hauling and dumping gear onto the concrete, his mind tangled up with the next eighteen steps. Engo had a cigar clamped between his jaws and was drenched in sweat, started stretching the line.

“This is a mistake,” Ben told Matt as the chief jumped down from the engine. The flashing lights were making Matt’s angry red neck stubble a sickly purple.

“It’ll be fine.”

“A fucking fabric store?” Ben ripped open the hatch on the side of the engine and started grabbing tools fast and efficiently. A looter in a floodlands Target. “It’s a tinderbox.”

“The building is right on our path. It was the best way in.”

Clouds of singed nylon were pouring out of the building above them. “It’ll go up. And Engo and Jakey won’t be able to—”

“Stop bitching, Benji.”

Ben stopped bitching, because you didn’t bitch too long at Matt. By now, two windows on the third floor of the fabric store had blown out and the crowd in the street had doubled. The windows were glowing up there, not just the ones that were blown. Ben had been doing this ten years, longer. The window glow told him the fire was big enough that it was probably into the foundations.

He tanked up, slapped on his helmet, shouldered a gear bag, and went in. Engo was in front, of course, his chin up, the hose hanging over his arm like a great limp dick. A guy walking into a fancy museum. Engo made a show of marching into fires like that, like it was all routine. Like nothing was a big deal. What happened? Granny left the iron on? Ben had seen the guy step over bodies as if they were kinks in a rug. His tank was unhooked because smoke worried him the way water worried fish.

Ben dropped his hose, split from Jakey and Engo, and went down the stairs while they went up toward the fire. Things passed before him, curiosities his mind would pick over later as he tried to sleep. Walls of buttons in a thousand shapes and colors. Giant golden scissors. Cutting tools and rulers. There were stacks of leather lying folded on shelves, colors he hadn’t imagined possible. He was glad they’d decided to set the spark device that ignited the fire on the third floor. It was all fur and feathers on the basement level—this part of the store was going to vaporize when it caught.

Ben dropped his bag and helmet. The bag was so heavy with tools it shook the floor, made a jar of pins jump off the nearby cutting counter. He took a knife from his belt, slit a square in the carpet, raked it back, and exposed the boards. Lifting up six floorboards with a Halligan tool took fifteen seconds. He dropped his gear bag down onto the bare earth below the building and slipped in after it, landing right on top of the concrete manhole. He didn’t have a pit lid lifter but the Halligan did the job, slid nicely into the iron handle of the forty-pound manhole cover. He adjusted his mask, worked his jaw to make sure it was sealed tight before he popped open the cover and stepped down into the blackness.

Something about being surrounded by toxic gas makes a guy breathe harder. He’d thought about that for the first time as he hauled bodies for overworked paramedics in COVID times, then while putting out car fires while the NYPD doused the streets in pepper spray during the George Floyd days. It had occurred to him again now in the dark, working his way along the disused, hand-bricked tunnel beneath West Thirty-Seventh Street, he thought of the hydrogen sulfide swirling in the air around him, built up from decades of moss and sewage and whateverthehell percolating in the old, sealed subway access. It made him suck on the oxygen like a hungry baby at the tit.

He didn’t use the flashlight down here. Engo had tried to argue that H2S wasn’t that flammable, and an LED didn’t spark like that anyway, but Ben wasn’t going to turn that corner of New York into Pompeii because he didn’t like the dark. He had about eleven minutes to get where he was going, do the job, and get back again. The blindness would make the timing tight. The radio crackling in his ear canal with the voices of the crew behind him made him twitchy.

“Engo, you on-site?”

“Yeah, boss. We got a nice little campfire here.”

“Ben?”

“Checking for a secondary ignition site,” Ben lied. His voice felt trapped behind the mask.

“We better black out the whole block,” Matt said. “We don’t know who shares a distributor.”

Ben fast-walked, imagining Matt on the street, ordering the backup crews, who were probably already arriving from Ladder 98, to shut down the power to the whole Garment District. The guys from 97 and 98 would probably think that was over the top, that blacking out the singular block would do. But Matt needed to make sure that not only the fabric store was powered off, but also the jewelry store on West Thirty-Fifth, where Ben was heading.

Left, right, left, he reminded himself. Just like the marching call. He turned the last corner, walked for three minutes, his gloved fingers trailing the wall, all sorts of landscapes passing under his boots, most of them wet and squelching. He found the steppers he was looking for—rusty iron rungs concreted into the wall—dropped his gear bag, and went up. His arms were shaking as he lifted the second manhole cover. Nerves.

It had been a year or more since they’d done a high-end job like this, something that required blueprints to be memorized and on-site scouting in the lead-up. A dry spell ended. Ben didn’t like these kinds of jobs; scores they needed.

Don’t rob when you’re broke. That was a mantra he’d always believed in. Desperation makes guys stupid, dissolves trust. Because at the end of the day, did Ben really know for sure that Matt had gotten the best fence for this take? Someone who could move what they stole tonight without making ripples? Or had Matt settled, because the crew chief had three ex-wives with their hands out and a bun in the oven with baby mama number four? And did Ben really know for sure that Jakey had double-checked on all the construction sites in the Garment District for late-night workers who might be in the tunnels? Did Jakey know the local police response times? Or was the kid into the horses again? Was he hocking old PlayStation games to fend off loan sharks?

Ben realized, as he hauled his gear up through the manhole and into the two-foot-tall crawl space beneath an apartment building on Thirty-Fifth, that he didn’t trust his own crew on a job anymore.

And that was bad.

But there were worse kinds of mistrust.

There was the one that had made him write the letter to the detective.

Ben lifted the manhole cover back into place, raked his oxygen mask off, and lay panting on the compacted dirt floor. The crawl space was as black as the tunnel, but years of working in roof cavities and basements and tunnels and collapsed buildings had given Ben the ability to maneuver in the dark like a night creature. He found the flashlight on his belt, clicked it on, and got his bearings. Wide, raw-cut floor beams stretched into the nothingness just inches above where he lay. They’d probably been built when they still called this place the Devil’s Arcade, and it was an army of prostitutes and bootleggers, and not fancy types shopping for diamonds, stamping over them. Ben started crawling west, found a gap in the brick foundations that separated one building from another, and kept on. A hundred yards from the manhole, three buildings over, the subsurface power-distribution board belonging to the jewelry store was just where he expected it to be, bolted to a brick strut.

He pulled wire cutters and a charge tester and the bug from a vest strapped under his turnout coat, started working the board to insert the bug. Sweat ran into his eyes. His mind kept trying to wander away from what his fingers were doing and drift two blocks over to the fabric store, to twenty-three-year-old Jakey, shoulder-to-shoulder with an eight-fingered, potbellied psychopath who wanted to die in a blaze of glory. The two of them battling a decidedly glorious blaze. The men trying to let the magnificent thing eat through enough cotton and satin and jersey and whatever else to give Ben the time he needed to do what he had to do; but not so long it would become a monster and turn and eat them, too.

Ben finished installing the bug in the jewelry store’s security system and was shifting around to crawl back to his gear bag and tank and the manhole three buildings away when he heard a woman’s voice.

“Hello?”

Ben froze. Instinct made him flatten on the dirt like a threatened lizard. His toes were curled in his boots. His eyes bulged and his lungs expelled all the air that was in them. He heard the floorboards somewhere to the right of where he lay creak with footsteps.

The radio in his ear crackled.

“Engo and Jakey, you got it in hand?”

“Yep. Yep. We got it.”

“It don’t look like it from here.”

“I said we got it.”

“Ben, give me an ETA. They need you up there.”

Ben didn’t breathe. Whoever was in the jewelry store above him walked across the boards right over his head. He heard a muffled snap, and then, even through the layers of carpet on the boards above him, he saw the glow of a light.

“Fuuuuuuck,” he mouthed.

“Hello?”

“Ben, give me a sitrep,” Matt insisted.

He didn’t speak. Slowly, achingly, he lifted his hand from the dirt and reached for the radio on his shoulder. He clicked the transmit button twice, the code for trouble.

There was a long pause. Ben counted his breaths. The counting made him think of time. Seconds ticking off. With a recognition so filled with dread it sent a bolt of pain through his spine, he remembered the PASS alarm on his belt and reached down and shook the safety device so it wouldn’t sound a pealing alarm at his immobility. Sweat was dripping off his eyelashes.

“Two for hold, three for abort,” Matt finally said. Ben could hear the tightness in his chief’s voice. He clicked the radio twice.

Another three minutes. Ben counted them. The woman in the jewelry store moved some stuff around, opened and closed a cabinet.

“Ladder 98 crew are comin’ up to join you, Engo,” Matt said. Ben could hear the quiet fury in his voice now.

“Tell those pricks we got it!”

“I’m telling you to haul ass!” Matt said. “They’re comin’!”

Ben swore under his breath. It probably sounded to anyone monitoring the radios that Matt had been talking to Engo, encouraging him to get the fire under control before another crew came in and claimed the knockdown of the fire. But Ben heard the real message. Matt was telling him to haul ass out from under the jewelry store and back to the fire before the guys from 98 geared up and entered the site, climbed to the second floor, and asked where the hell Engine 99’s third guy was.

Or worse, they came looking for him. In the basement, maybe, where he’d opened up the hole in the floor to access the tunnel.

The light clicked off above him. Ben guessed whoever was in the store had decided the sound she heard wasn’t a person. He counted off ten breaths, then slithered for his life back to the manhole, tanked up, and popped the cover and dropped his gear into the shaft.

He was sprinting so hard down the home stretch his fingers almost missed the steppers on the wall under the fabric store. He grabbed on and yanked himself to a stop, almost slipped in the toxic sludge. Ben climbed to the top of the ladder, shouldered open the manhole, got out and threw it back into place, then heaved himself up through the hole he’d cut in the floor. His body was screaming at him to just lie there, take a minute. Three-quarters of his oxygen tank was gone just from his own panicked breathing. The air in the mask tasted rubbery and thick. Soon it would start shuddering on his face, a sign he was about to max out. He rolled over instead, got up, and dragged a heap of furs to the edge of the hole. He lit them with a cigarette lighter and bolted up the stairs.

He arrived in the foyer as the Ladder 98 guys were marching up the stairs to the second floor. Ben came up behind them. He couldn’t think what else to do. A guy he didn’t recognize whirled around on him.

“Da fuck?”

“We got a secondary ignition site in the basement,” Ben said. The Ladder 98 guys looked at each other for a moment, probably trying to decipher how the hell a secondary fire could start on the basement level of the building when the main fire was on the third floor. And what the hell Ben was doing down there looking for a secondary site before his own crew had taken hold of the primary site. But they shook it off. They probably guessed Engo was behind the split in manpower, and they’d all seen stranger things happen with ignition sites. Fires creeping through walls and popping up in two apartments on opposite sides of the same building. Fires reigniting two weeks after they were put out. Fire had no rules. It was the only magic left in the world.

“Go to your crew,” the 98 guy said. “We’ll take the basement.”

Ben watched them go. He could see flames licking up the walls of the basement stairwell. Just as he’d predicted, the basement was already just a room full of ash and memories.

***

It was 4 A.M. and they were in the squad room before anybody could talk about it. Matt’s crew had a room of their own, mainly because nobody from the other crews could stand the idea of Matt coming in and sitting down to watch the TV and them having to sit there with him like there was a full-size lion lounging on the end of the couch. Ben and the guys, they all stank. Ash and sweat and monoammonium phosphate. Engo was in his armchair nursing his paunch, a wet basketball under his T-shirt. Matt was throwing shit around in the kitchenette. Jakey stood by the door, wincing like he was expecting to be the next thing picked up and hurled against the wall.

“Who the fuck was she?” Matt bellowed.

“How do I know?” Ben shrugged. “Hard to make her out through the floorboards.”

“It was your job to watch the ins and outs.” Matt turned and stabbed a sausage-sized finger at Engo. “You said nobody would be there.”

“So somebody pulled an all-nighter,” Engo said. “What do you want from me? I watched the store for two months. Nobody ever stayed past nine.”

Did you watch the store?” Ben piled on. “Or did you sit in your car eating burgers and jerking off?”

“This guy.” Engo shook his head sadly at Ben.

“’Member that time you landed that nineteen-year-old on Snapchat? You let those security guards creep up on us at the Atrium.”

Engo sat grinning at him.

“What if we’d put you on watch duty at the fabric store instead of the jewelry store? Huh?” Ben asked. “What if someone pulled an all-nighter there, and you didn’t notice them? We could have had a civilian on the second floor when the fire started. Or in the basement, when I was cutting through the goddamn floor.”

“You’re really mad, huh?”

Ben held his head.

“Would it help you feel better if you took a swing at me, babycakes?” Engo tapped his stubbled chin. “Because you’re welcome to try.”

“Jesus Christ.”

“Yeah. That’s what I thought.”

“We can’t go on with this job.” Ben’s hair was still plastered to his skull with sweat. He thought about giving up and going home to bed. He made one last appeal to Matt. “The 98s saw that I was split off from my crew. They’ll know something was up. They’re going to wonder why I went looking for a second site when the primary site was getting so out of control.”

“It was never out of control,” Engo said.

“If I hadn’t got back when I did, you and Jakey would be sandwich meat between the third and fourth floors of that place right now.”

“You’re delusional.”

“It was into the foundations!”

“No it wasn’t.”

“Maybe we should think about it,” Jakey piped up, already glowing red in the neck and cheeks like a parakeet. “Because there was, uh … You know. There was the radio call, too. ‘Hold or abort.’ That’ll be on the record. That’s not good.”

“We’re not pulling the pin on this job,” Matt finally said. “We’re too deep.”

“We’ve been deeper before and walked away,” Ben reasoned.

No one spoke.

“The woman. What if she figures the noises under the carpet were rats?” Ben asked. “Maybe she sends a pest guy down there.”

Matt was white-knuckling the kitchen sink, staring out the window at the training yard. “Some dumbass rat guy’s not going to know anybody else was down there messing with the electrics. He’ll be looking for rats, not bugs.”

“‘Rats, not bugs,’” Engo laughed. “That’s funny.”

“What if she doesn’t figure it’s rats,” Ben said. “We hit the jewelry store in three weeks, and she remembers the noises she heard under the floor. Reads about the fabric-store fire in the papers. Sees it was the same night she heard the noises.”

“So we wait a month,” Matt said.

“We can’t go ahead,” Ben insisted. “A job this size has got to be perfec—”

“I said we’re doing it!” Matt grabbed a mug off the counter, gripped its rim and handle and sides like a baseball. Like a grenade. “You got a hearing problem I don’t know about, Benji?”

He didn’t answer. No one did.

In the end, Ben just shrugged, because he was tired and he didn’t need a coffee mug to the temple right then.

And what did he care, anyway? They were all going to jail, whether it was a month from now or sooner.

***

He was staring into his plate of eggs at Jimmy’s when she came in. Ben’s hands were still shaking. Had been all morning. But he couldn’t figure out if it was last night’s near-miss under the jewelry store or The Silence, as he’d come to think of it. The great big Nothing-At-All that had happened since he’d left a handwritten letter on the windshield of a car belonging to a homicide detective from the South Bronx.

Eighteen days. Not a phone call. Not an email. Not a sound.

He poked his eggs with his fork and listened without really listening to the people bustling in and out of the diner, their moaning about the heat. A Ferris wheel of possibilities was turning in his head, each carriage a different explanation for why nothing had happened since the letter. Maybe the guy had figured it was a prank. Maybe the wind had swept the envelope off his car. Maybe his girlfriend and her kid going missing had fucked Ben’s brain up so bad that he’d imagined the whole damn thing—choosing the detective, writing the letter, putting it on his car. He’d been so jacked, walking there and placing the envelope under the windshield wiper, that he barely remembered doing it.

Maybe it was much worse than any of those things.

Maybe Engo or Jakey or Matt had followed him the day he left the letter. Maybe they’d taken it off the windshield. Read it.

Maybe they knew.

His fork was doing Morse code on the edge of his plate. One of Jimmy’s guys banged a fry basket into the hot oil and the fork leaped clean out of Ben’s hand. He had to stop thinking about it. He looked at Jimmy’s terrible clumsy handwriting on the greasy whiteboards above the fry station and picked off items and tried to think about them instead. About salad. About burgers. About soup.

Ben stared at his eggs.

The woman had to say his name a couple of times before he heard her.

“Benjamin Haig?”

He looked over. The woman was sitting on the stool next to his, her hand on the countertop near a steaming coffee. He had no idea how long she’d been sitting there, got the feeling that it might have been a while. Her bobbed blond hair was slicked behind her ears and she was watching him through navy-blue reading glasses. His rattled brain took down some things about her. She was beautiful. She was expensively dressed. She was a stranger. That was all he got.

When the woman knew she had his attention, she unfolded the newspaper on the counter in front of her and set about scanning the headlines.

“I’m here about the letter,” she said.


Click below to pre-order your copy of Devil’s Kitchen, available June 4th, 2024!

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Excerpt Reveal: Hopeland by Ian McDonald

Excerpt Reveal: Hopeland by Ian McDonald

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Hopeland by Ian McDonald

A time-traveling, futuristic saga of a family trying to outlast and remake a universe with a power unlike any we’ve seen before.

When Raisa Hopeland, determined to win her race to become the next electromancer of London, bumps into Amon Brightbourne—tweed-suited, otherworldly, guided by the Grace—in the middle of a London riot, she sets in motion a series of events which will span decades, continents and a series of events which will change the world.

From rioting London to geothermal Iceland to the climate-struck islands of Polynesia, from birth to life to death, from tranquillity to terror to joy, Raisa’s journey will encompass the world. But one thing will always be true.

Hopeland is family—and family is dangerous.

Please enjoy this free excerpt of Hopeland by Ian McDonald, on sale 2/14/23.


1

Love falls from the summer sky

It is twenty-three minutes past twenty-two and London burns. Flames roar from the shattered windows of a Brixton Foot Locker. White skeletons of torched Citroëns and Toyotas lie broken along Wood Green Lane. In Enfield a barricade of blazing wheelie bins defies police and riot-dogs. The Turks of Turnpike Lanes, baseball bats ready, form a phalanx between their shops, their cafés, their livelihoods and the voiceless roar of street-rage. Jagged teeth of bottle-smash, car-crash windscreen-sugar, bashed-in shutters. Scattered shoe boxes and a single flat-screen television, dropped on its back, face shat- tered by a fleeing foot. Waltham Forest to Croydon, Woolwich to Shep- herd’s Bush, riot runs like molten lead from BlackBerry to iPhone, Nokia to Samsung, flows down into the heart of the city, to Islington, Sloane Square, Oxford Circus.

‘What are you doing here?’ the woman in the TfL vest asks the young man stepping from the train. White, wide-eyed, a coxcomb of red hair flopping into his eyes. Tweeds two sizes too small, brogues, a leather bag slung across a narrow shoulder. A thin, unworldly thing caught out of time and space: a fawn in a foundry. She and this fey boy are the only people on the Central eastbound platform.

‘I’m trying to find Meard Mews?’

‘Meard Mews?’

‘Yes. It’s around Broadwick Street somewhere. I think.’

‘Are you out of your head?’

‘I am at Oxford Circus?’

‘Did you hear what they said? Avoid inessential travel?’ The woman in the hi-viz holds up her BlackBerry. ‘It’s kicking off up there.’

Subterranean winds whip shoe-dust, rattle chocolate wrappers across the tiles and carry the rumble from the street, at times voices, at times a soft, surging roar. Crashes. Splinterings. The sounds swirl through the tubes of the colossal instrument that is Oxford Circus station and the young man looks up, antelope eyes wide.

‘Can you help me?’

‘Exit 7,’ the woman says. ‘Please be safe up there.’

‘I have a charmed life,’ he calls back up the platform.

He emerges into riot. Hands shy rocks, bricks, pieces of smashed litter bin and bus-timetable off the shutters of Nike’s flagship store. Every hit on the swoosh raises cheers. He ought to slip behind them into the narrow ways of Soho but the sight, the sound, the smell of anarchy are so contrary to everything he understands about the city that he lingers a fascination too long. Mob radar registers him. Mob turns. Mob sees him. Pale, tweeded. A bag over his shoulder. Effete. Elite.

His hand goes to the leather satchel, soft as kisses from age and love. The same satchel once accompanied his great-uncle Auberon as he pur- sued sensitive misdemeanours in Lycia and the Dodecanese. These men can take it from him. These men can do whatever they want. Flesh is so much more satisfying to rattle rocks from than clattery steel. Flesh can cry and bleed. Four men break from the group and move towards him, shards of street furniture in hands. He backs away. Glass cracks under the heels of his brogues. He stands in a shard-crop field of smashed bottles, car- window sugar, shop glazing.

The sky beats with sudden noise. A television news helicopter comes in low and hard over the roof of Debenham’s. The swivel camera hangs like a testicle from the helicopter’s thorax. It turns above Oxford Circus, seeking newsworthy shots. Mob looks up, poses: its CNN moment.

He spins on broken splinters and vanishes into Soho.

The narrow, tight streets open onto a parallel world. Soho ignores he- licopters, breaking glass, rattling shutters, jeering voices, the fact that this is the year 2011. Soho life moves as it ever has, shoaling in sushi restaurants. Chinese buffets, coffeehouses, corner bars. Lads in plaid shorts and Ha- vaianas stand loud-drinking on the pavements. Young women smoke in cut-offs and summer shoes. Televisions play live rolling feed of the riots. Amy Winehouse sings how love is a losing game.

He pauses to consult his phone. Google doesn’t know Meard Mews.

‘You want to be careful with that,’ a street drinker calls. ‘Someone’ll have it off you.’

‘I’m trying to find Meard Mews?’

Shrugs. Giggles.

‘Meard Mews?’ The glass collector flickers his fingers over the phone screen. ‘Map doesn’t show it, but it’s there.’ A tap on the glass.

━━ ˖°˖ ☾☆☽ ˖°˖ ━━━━━━━

Meard Mews is a shoulder-wide crevasse between two brick walls, crowded with pungent shadows. He flicks on his phone torch: heaped black refuse sacks, cardboard pulped by rain and feet. Reeks of August rot, garlic, over- heated cooking oil. Kitchen chatter. Radio gaga and Soho beer piss. A set of black double doors, the email said. There are three such doors in the narrow passage.

He buzzes the intercom on the first door.

‘Crumble?’ he asks.

‘What?’

‘Crumble. It’s, uh, a club.’

‘Fuck off.’

Sirens, amplified by the brick trumpet of Meard Mews. Next door, next intercom.

‘Crumble?’

A long stream of swift syllables in a language he does not recognise ends in a dead intercom. To the final door.

‘Hello, I’m the music.’

‘What love?’

‘The music. For Crumble. I’m playing a set.’

‘Never heard of it love.’

‘It could be small.’

The voice calls someone out of the range of the intercom. ‘Sorry, noth- ing like Crumble round here love.’

‘This is Meard Mews?’

‘Yes.’

‘I got an email to come to Meard Mews. A black door.’ ‘Not here love.’

The news helicopter passes overhead again. He taps up the promoter’s email again.

Then love falls from the summer sky.


2

‘Hey hi hello?’

He stares at the intercom on the final black door.

‘Here. I’m up here.’

The light from his phone scampers up the walls, over the barbed wire and broken glass embedded in cracking concrete, along the gutters. And strikes a young woman’s face above the rotted brick parapet. Her skin is light brown, her cheekbones sharp, her face freckled, her eyes green, her hair held back by a Nike headband.

‘Maybe turn the light off? You’re blinding me.’

‘Oh. Sorry.’

‘How much charge have you got?’ the woman calls.

‘Uh?’

‘On your phone.’

‘About eighty percent.’ A fire escape ladder drops to the street. Shoes descend first. Such shoes; soft, like gloves for the feet. Then he sees old- school skater tube socks with the proper red, white and blue bands at the top. Next, Adidas capri tights; three-striped, hole in the back of the thigh. A backpack over a crop top. Light, tough fingerless gloves. Around her left forearm, a phone in some kind of harness. The woman descends with equilibrium, momentum, glory. Angels descend like this on their ladders from heaven. Angels of Soho.

‘Bluetooth me.’

She crouches in the alley, her face lit by screen-shine. She swipes a fin- ger. His phone plays a small snatch of the music he would have performed at Crumble: a notification. The package had arrived.

‘Accept it. It’s safe. If this goes dead, I’m dead.’

‘What?’ he says.

She peers over his shoulder and taps the app. His screen fills with a map of Soho, bisected by a vertical translucent green band. ‘Yes,’ she hisses and snatches the phone from his hand. A jump, a vault, a grab and she is half- way up the fire ladder on the opposite side of the street.

‘My phone!’

She turns on the ladder and throws a tablet of glow down to him. Her phone. As he holds it in his cupped hands like a sacrament, it drops into power-saving mode. Five percent. He switches it off.

‘Recharge it,’ she shouts. ‘It’ll find me.’

‘What?’ he says again, and ‘Wait . . .’

A moment is all. Seize it. At some point in eternity random quantum fluctuations will re-create this universe in its every detail and this moment will present itself again. Myria-years are too long a wait to redeem unre- quited desire.

He pulls himself onto an industrial trash bin. The fire escape is a stretch but he is skinny and lithe. He swings his satchel behind him. The soles of those gecko-grip shoes are vanishing over the parapet above him. He winces as he scrapes toes on brickwork. These are handmade brogues.

She is a rooftop away already, crouching against the air-glow of Rich- mond Buildings like a superheroine. The higher lights of Soho Square hang like a sequin curtain behind her.

‘I’m coming with you.’

‘You can’t.’

‘But you’re in trouble.’

‘What?’

‘You could die.’

‘What?’

‘You said, “if this goes dead, I’m dead”.’

She shakes her head.

‘Not literally. Dead. More like . . . look, I haven’t the time. I’m in a race.’ She is fleet, but he follows. Those light roof-ballet shoes barely touch the asphalt, the splitting slates, the moulded leads. His brogues run sure. She flickers across the Soho rooftops like low summer lightning. He is the small thunder in her wake. In the lee of a flaking chimney stack she stops, hands on thighs, breathing deep. He arrives beside her.

‘That’s tweed,’ she says, surveying him.

Victorian men scaled Alps in tweed, he is about to say, but she is run- ning again, down the sloping roof slates to a brick parapet overlooking a narrow alley more a punctuation between buildings than a thoroughfare. She stands on the edge, shifting her weight from foot to foot, judging distances. The no is in his throat as she steps back, finds her balance and makes the short, strong run. She jumps. She seems suspended over the dark void filled with Soho heat and the odour of Thai food: the sole still point in the seething city. She lands with a crunch on the tiles, crouched, finding her balance.

‘A race against whom?’ he shouts across the gap.

‘My kynnd,’ she calls back.

‘Your what?’

‘Kynnd Finn. And did you say “whom”?’

He measures up the gap. Run in, launch, the landing, traction: all against him. For him: the Grace. He makes his run, throws himself over the street, lands hard, pitches forward, breaks his fall with his hands.

‘Gods,’ she whispers.

‘So.’ He dusts off his grit-pocked hands. ‘Race against whom?’

The sky behind the woman is wreathed with yellow, sodium-lit smoke. Sirens weave a web of alarm. ‘Listen. There’s a thing I can inherit. Some- thing so rare and magical you wouldn’t believe it. Finn also has a claim to it. So: We race. First one to bring it to life, keeps it. We start at opposite ends of a line that runs through London.’

‘Like a train line?’

‘No shut up listen. A map line. Zero degrees eight minutes two point one two seconds west. Me in Streatham, him up in Muswell Hill. If we stray more than twenty metres off the line, it’s game over.’

‘Even, people’s houses and private property and things?’

‘Shit on private property, tweed-boy. I had to swim across the Thames. There’s a wetsuit in the backpack. It’s a bit stinky.’

‘You put a wetsuit on in central London?’

‘And took it off in front of a dozen pervs. I got the river, Finn got Euston and the West Coast Main Line. So, if the line says run over the roofs, jump over alleys, I run, I jump.’ She turns to show him his phone shining from her left arm. ‘GPS. The Arcmages are watching. Now, I got a race to win?’

‘I can be useful,’ he calls as she works her way up the roof, fingertips brushing the slates.

‘Really, tweed-boy?’

‘Really. I have a charmed life.’

It’s true, and more than true. It is the defining truth in his twenty-four years. It is why the doors in Meard Mews hadn’t answered to Crumble. It is why the rioters on Oxford Circus sniffed, growled and moved on; to bring him here, to this rooftop. And she won’t turn him away. The Grace will always favour the Graced.

‘Well come on then.’ And she is along the ridge tiles. He follows on her heel.

A small crowd talks and drinks outside the Nellie Dean on Dean Street. Intent on their blunt gossip, their blaring laughter, they never look up. Half the universe is unseen, like dark matter. A city burning ten streets away, women slipping into wetsuits, a spandex superheroine and her tweed-and-brogue sidekick running the ridge tiles, like a quirky sixties spy-show cancelled mid-first-season: dark energy.

The girl checks a red pin on the appropriated phone.

‘He’s fast.’

‘How far is it?’

She flicks her chin towards Soho Square. ‘Carlisle Street.’ She drops to a high porch and peers down into the street.

‘Five, six metres.’

‘There’s a fire escape down that side.’

‘Off the line.’

‘Not to me.’

He takes the forbidden fire escape and descends to the Dean Street drinkers. ‘Um, could I ask a wee favour?’ The Grace can never be sum- moned or commanded. It is a shine. It goes out from him and touches hearts made wide by beer and summer and the drinkers help him drag a picnic bench across the street, upend it and position it under the drop point.

‘What’s it now?’

‘Maybe three metres.’

Now the drinkers see the girl on the porch and they are in an adven- ture. She turns, lowers herself over the edge of the porch, hangs from the lip, drops. She hits the slope of the bench, skis down into the street and is across the road, over the bonnet of a tight-parked Peugeot 205, down an alley, up an industrial bin, then a wall, then a fire exit to a high coaming.

‘It’s that free running thing, isn’t it?’ says a skinny bloke in a plaid shirt. He watches her striped socks vault, jump, climb out of his life up among the crumbling chimneys and the rooftop weed-smoking dens, chasing her prize beyond price.

The Grace is not cheated so easily. He is not tied to her strict desire line. He can go anywhere in this city. So: up Dean Street to Carlisle Street to Soho Square. With the last of the power in the girl’s phone he sum- mons the app and faces north, the direction of the other racer. The kynnd, whatever that is. There, moving against the groups of drinkers headed for the earlier tube, the safer bus. Early twenties, tall. Damn fit. Olive skin, prominent nose, gazelle eyes. Dark waves of thick, glossy hair. He wears the same Adidas capri tights as the girl. Same shoes. Same socks. A hydration backpack over a compression top, grippy fingerless gloves. The defining glow of a phone mounted on his left forearm. His wide eyes are turned to alleys and fire escapes and rooflines. Eyes on the prize. And that is how he misses it, the Grace whispers in the chambers of his heart.

At full speed he runs into Finn. They go sprawling to the street.

‘Sorry sorry.’ He helps Kynnd Finn up. A moment of legerdemain. ‘You okay? I think this is your phone.’ And the trick is done. ‘I’m so sorry.’

Finn slips the phone into the armband and runs on, eyes on the top of the city. Now the final act.

Finn glances at his left forearm, as he must. Glances again. Takes the phone and shakes it.

He sees the moment the life and hope run out of a man. He sees him go to his knees. He hears a thing he hoped never to hear again, a man howl as if his bones were wrenched through flesh. In the name of love, he has done the worst thing in his life.

━━ ˖°˖ ☾☆☽ ˖°˖ ━━━━━━━

He walks away from the scene of the phone-switch. On Finn’s stolen phone he can easily locate the Prize. This battered street door leads to a courtyard. There is a fire escape. Of course. Before he climbs the ladder in his inappropriate footwear to a flat roof he makes sure to switch off the purloined phone. Seal the crime. Across a few metres of abandoned barbe- cues and bottle-smash rises a stained-glass cupola, patterned with branches and leaves like a Tiffany lamp. At the four corners of the roof stand slender metal pillars, twice his height, each capped with a metal sphere the size of his head. Are those arcane markings etched into the roof lead beneath his feet, or the hieroglyphs of pigeon shit?

The stained glass is old and carbon-greasy, etched fragile by decades of light pouring through it. He peers through the panes. Glow and shadows. He sits and leans his back against the dome to wait for the girl to come up the long, strict way dictated by the line. Columns of smoke rise against a sodium sky. Sirens and shouts. The city growls, sullen and disobedient. The helicopters have flitted away to districts more newsworthy.

A gloved hand comes over the parapet. A second hand reaches. He is there to offer his own hand.

She stares up into his face. She is exhausted, eyes sunken, face jazzy with sweat and dust, nails chipped.

‘What?’

‘I knew another way in.’

She takes his hand and clambers onto the roof with the last of her strength. She sees the glass dome and every muscle tightens.

‘Oh my God.’ She freezes. ‘Am I . . . is he?’

‘He didn’t make it.’

‘You saw him? Finn?’

‘His phone . . .’ He thinks about the truth. Truth and Grace are not necessary lovers. ‘His phone died.’

‘I win,’ she says simply and because the words cut no night, speaks them again, speaks them to the heedless city. ‘I win!’

The phone on her forearm flashes a four-digit code. She squats to turn tumblers on a lockbox beside the dome. Inside is a ring bearing two keys. She unlocks a section of the dome, opens a panel and steps inside.

‘Come on then. You need to see this. You need to.’

Copyright © 2022 from Ian McDonald

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Excerpt Reveal: The Cage of Dark Hours by Marina Lostetter

Excerpt Reveal: The Cage of Dark Hours by Marina Lostetter

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The Cage of Dark Hours by Marina Lostetter

The Cage of Dark Hours is the second novel in the epic fantasy trilogy from acclaimed author Marina Lostetter, where the defeat of a serial killer back from the dead has pulled the mask off the myths and magics of a fantastical city.

Krona and her Regulators survived their encounter with Charbon, the long-dead serial killer who returned to their city, but the illusions of their world were shattered forever.

Allied with an old friend they will battle the elite who have ruled their world with deception, cold steel, and tight control of the magic that could threaten their power, while also confronting beasts from beyond the foggy barrier that binds their world.

Now they must follow every thread to uncover the truth behind the Thalo, once thought of as only a children’s tale, who are the quiet, creeping puppet masters of their world.

Please enjoy this free excerpt of The Cage of Dark Hours by Marina Lostetter, on sale 2/14/23.


2

Krona

Krona watched with a pained grimace—well hidden behind her helm—as the crack of the Matron’s whip drove the line of prisoners forward, toward the Penalty Block. The noise was sharp, and the gathering crowd jumped at its snap. The prisoners, however, were desensitized to it, plodding onward evenly, approaching Krona and Tray’s position at the base of the Penalty Block listlessly.

The lawbreakers had walked there in a processional from the nearest House of Penalty—a place very different from any other jail or prison. It was both coterie and confinement—a place for those who’d earned the gods’ wrath to repent before receiving their punishment.

The sky was clear overhead, bright and still—in a way that made the pentagonal shape of the public gathering place seem cheery. But being well lit and the air calm only guaranteed the gore to come would shine all the starker. Sunlight would glint off the fresh blood, and any screams of pain would not be muffled by the wind.

There were six who would pay Knowledge’s penalty today. Six with their heads hung low, and their shoulders hunched and their wrists bound—the last time their hands would make a tidy pair. Six who’d fancied themselves deserving of forbidden knowledge.

And one of them Krona had personally apprehended.

His name was Yonder Jamiss. An academic—which was no surprise, really. Those who most often slighted Knowledge’s orders were those most enamored of the very thing fey represented: wisdom, intellect, discovery. Knowledge knew hubris often accompanied a keen mind, and that’s why fey had tried to temper intellectual hastiness with feir commandment.

Monsieur Jamiss was a bit different from his fellow prisoners today; the forbidden advancements he’d attempted to make weren’t in mechanical engineering, nor chemistry, nor medicine, nor enchantment.

No, his crime had been astronomy.

Well, his crime had also been stealing an enchanted spyglass, which was why a Regulator had been assigned to the concern in the first place, and why Krona had made the arrest. But that was not the crime for which he’d lose a hand. Optics had been what interested him, and his desire to develop a better telescope by which to see the planets and the stars had so overwhelmed him that it had condemned him.

Krona watched him closely, even as she and Tray mounted the steps at the rear of the Penalty Block to take their place on one side of the raised stage. His brown hair fell ragged and dirty around his ears, over his brow. Uneven stubble covered his cheeks, and he looked at his chained feet as he shuffled forward.

A stark contrast to the tidy, confident man she’d apprehended.

The thickly planked staging area was large enough to accommodate a dozen hangings at once, but today it featured only a half a dozen wooden pedestals. A second pair of Regulators—from a first-district den—flanked the opposite end of the Penalty Block, helms on, visors down, marching together in perfectly stoic synchronicity. Once all four of them were in place, the pair nodded in tandem to Tray and Krona, and the two of them nodded back.

It was the first time Krona had felt the intimidation of the uniform staring back at her. The cherry red of their visors—which she often thought of as a warm splash of color on her own uniform—seemed cold, lifeless, and mildly gruesome. Like dried blood. The horns on their helms, which matched hers perfectly, were fit for goring. Instead of the rich, onyx-colored leather representing duty and strength, for an instant she saw it as the physical incarnation of demanding brutality.

The aura projected by the first-district pair was one of pressure. Krona was used to embodying that pressure—to personifying order and control. Putting on the helm and becoming a faceless enforcer was usually a relief. It was where she felt confident and prepared. It was the part of her life that had clear, meetable expectations. There were laws and she upheld them . . .

Until she took off the uniform in the evening and broke them just the same as these poor sods about to lose their limbs.

She suddenly couldn’t breathe in her own helmet. Her armor became absurdly claustrophobic. She wanted to tear at its seams, pull down her collar, throw off her bracers, and toss her helm into the crowd.

But she never let her posture change. Though her muscles twinged with the effort, shaking minutely, she held herself steady and projected serenity. She could not let her own inner failings become a concern to the outer world.

Still, Tray knew her well enough to realize something was wrong. “Steady?” he asked via reverb bead.

“I’m fine,” she answered flatly.

The line of prisoners arrived at the Penalty Block, and the Matron ordered them to climb the stairs. The crowd began to shift and murmur, knowing what was to come, their collective mood shifting from excited to uneasy in turns. Jamiss was the third onto the stage. There was no way for him to recognize Krona, and though it should have been a comfort, instead it sent cold guilt fluttering through her like a snow flurry.

Each prisoner was shackled to the planks behind a wooden pedestal, and one of their arms at random forcibly placed atop the plinth. A metal cuff was bolted over their forearm, to keep it pinned in place.

Krona looked away as Jemiss turned pleading eyes onto the crowd, knowing no one there could be counted on to save him.

She was the same as these people on the chopping block. She’d spit just as firmly in Knowledge’s face, seeking forbidden information. She’d done it over and over.

And she’d do it again without hesitation. This very day, even. As soon as the sun went down.

There were words for the kind of hypocrisy she was engaged in—which was not just the hypocrisy of do as I say, not as I do but the sanctimoniousness of one willing to dole out punishment to others for committing the same sins simply because she was in a place of power and they were not.

She recognized all this—rolled it over in her mind and on her tongue and let it boil in her belly until she felt sick—and yet she had no intention to make it right.

She would not call for the executioners to stay the penalty. And she would not turn herself in.

Nor would she stop.

I have my reasons, she told herself, even as she immediately scoffed and thought, They all have their reasons.

When each prisoner was locked in place, the jeers started in earnest. The crowd hurled insults at the blasphemers, and their tongues cut Krona just as sharply.

The executioner took up their axe, and the Matron from the House of Penalty began reading off the first prisoner’s crimes.

Krona tuned her out, let her hearing go fuzzy.

Only secondary to her guilt in this moment was disgust at her own self-pity. Here she was, protected by her station, nauseated at her own actions, while right beside her, half a dozen people were about to truly suffer.

And for what?

All of the Penalties, save this one, could be seen as attempts to balance the societal scale. For disobeying the gods, they owed their fellow peoples a debt.

Nature demanded one toil for others. The deadening of emotion did not mean those emotions went to waste but that they were added to the state’s stockpile, which was purchased by Emotioteurs and circulated in their enchanted stones. And Time’s penalty—an early death—was exacted in a number of ways. The most societally beneficial was applied to tax dodgers. Extra time was pulled from them, which directly boosted the economy, putting more time vials on the streets to balance out the number drained by old aristocrats cashing out.

But Knowledge’s penalty . . .

Krona flinched as the executioner’s axe fell the first time, and it did not escape Tray’s notice.

. . . Those severed hands would become pig feed, nothing more.

The first prisoner wailed relentlessly as a set of healers pulled her free of her restraints and dragged her off the Penalty Block. Out of sight from the crowd, they’d do what they could to stop the bleeding and bandage what remained of her wrist.

Stepping over the fresh streaks of blood, the Matron—a younger woman than her station evoked, with deep black hair and an equally black dress—read out the second prisoner’s crimes.

Krona’s eyes caught on the blood, the way it painted the wood and shone in the late-morning sunlight. She’d served as witness to plenty of Penalties in the past three years. She’d seen people hanged—their necks snapped, their eyes unseeing and their bodies limp. She’d seen them robbed not just of limbs but of life. And yet that one hand on the chopping block, the fresh blood flowing freely, pumped by a healthy heart, felt different in ways she could not fully order in her mind.

She was no stranger to blood. But the last time she’d seen it with that par- ticular shimmer, it had stained grass instead of planks. And it had been flowing not from a wrist but from a neck.

Her sister’s neck.

Unconsciously, she slapped a palm against the jaguar mask clinging to her belt, letting its presence steady her.

What I do is not blasphemy, she insisted to no one but her inner demons. I have to right this wrong. Knowledge knows what I search for is just.

The axe fell again.

Thwack.

This time, it wasn’t just the owner of the dismembered limb that cried out, but Monsieur Jemiss next to him as well. Tears began to fall down his cheeks in earnest as the bleeding man was dragged away and the Matron began to list Jemiss’s misdeeds.

You could stop this, a part of Krona insisted. He wanted to look at the stars. He wanted to better see the world as it really is. Does he really deserve to lose his hand? Even if she stopped the axe from falling today, it would fall tomorrow instead. She didn’t have the power of pardon. She was a cog in the justice system’s machine. Its gears turned round and round and round, and she turned round

with it.

To stop the Penalty today wouldn’t save Jemiss’s hand. It would only pull Krona into an unnecessary spotlight.

The Matron finished her reading and stepped aside. The executioner approached.

Jemiss squirmed and begged, leaning as far away from the oncoming axe as his restraints would allow. “No, please. No—no, please!”

He clenched and unclenched his doomed fist, and Krona watched his face contort through every possible expression of panic and fear.

He did this to himself. His own actions condemned him, not you. I should be right there with him, right there beside him.

Her station let her get away with the very thing she condemned others for. The executioner lifted their heavy blade.

Jemiss’s pleas increased.

It was over in the blink of an eye. The heavy thump of the blade passing through bone and flesh to catch on the block of wood beneath provided the bass to Jemiss’s treble of a scream.

The witnessing left Krona shaken but undeterred.

As the crowd dispersed and the amputees were cared for, Krona, Tray, and the other pair of Regulators left the scene to return to their respective duties. She had a difficult time mounting Allium, so wobbly were her legs. So numb were her hands.

Tray didn’t hide his concern. “Krona, are you feeling all right? Are you sick?” “Just fatigued,” she dismissed. “Fitful sleep these last few nights.”

He didn’t press her, but the answer clearly wasn’t satisfactory.

Lost in thought as they rode toward their next destination, an asylum, Krona gazed out toward the Valley rim, wondering what the gods truly thought of her.

Copyright © 2022 from Marina Lostetter

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