Ratatatat

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Chapter 1 : The Game

A tight-laced whale-bone corset meant that she had no choice but to sit bolt upright in the polished leather side-saddle of her fine bay mare. The beast was beautiful, glossy and lean – sleek, nimble and small – like a town horse ought to be. Her russet and brown riding attire was made of top grade damask and lace. Most likely authentic Alendrian lace at that. These elegant, slightly understated women were always dressed in the finest fabrics. She had a pile of thick mahogany hair swept high on to her head and held their by three or maybe four glittering combs. Most likely paste not diamonds, but still worth more than a sneeze to the sifters on the Black Market.

If that was her real hair colour and her actual chin then Luce would happily have eaten her hat – if she’d had a hat to eat. They’d really done their homework on this one. She was Lady Something, Duchess of Somewhere – the names were unimportant. She was recently widowed by a tragic battle and rumour had it she had once been desperate for children. Perfect. Luce doubted that she would think so well of children tomorrow.

Luce had quite literally fallen into the Guild six or seven years earlier, through an open sewer hatch in the Trade District. No one seemed bothered, so the Guild kept her. She vaguely remembered a very large family, an empty belly and a bad-tempered mother but she didn’t miss any of them at all. Lying in the shadows of the roof, she didn’t give a moment’s thought to how much she had changed in that time. She just kept her eyes on Min.

She really had to hand it to Min, the girl was a true artist. How she got her nose to run on cue like that Luce had no idea. The grubbiness was real, as was the suggestion of a bruise and the lice were an unavoidable occupational hazard. But whilst the whole package made Luce and the others look like something you would leave Town to avoid, it made Min look beyond vulnerable in an absolutely heart-breaking way. As far as Luce knew, Min was the youngest. She had been a foundling, left swaddled and squalling in a tavern in the Government District. The Quizzical Cat was well-known for having no connections at all to the Guild Below, and the Tavern Keeper a very stout, short man called Harald, was not in any way a Guild sympathiser, nor did he have a hatch in his back-room under two surprisingly light ale barrels that lead straight down into the sewers. His scrawny wife Ruby had taken one look at the child’s pointed Elven eartips and pragmatically decided that this wasn’t the miracle she had been praying for. This was someone else’s disaster and the Guild could deal with it. They had paid her to care for the child until she was old enough to care for herself and then Min had gone to live Below. Harald had named her Mini because she had been tiny even as a baby, and even though she was at least nine still looked only four or five.

Luce watched in awe for a moment as Min wondered, barefoot, out of the end of alley way straight into the path of bay mare. She heard the expected whinnying and refocused herself on the job in hand. A waxed fish-line garrotte was the most easily concealed physical weapon in the City. It was light, and small so it didn’t affect the line of your clothes, plus it could be safely swallowed if you knew how to knot it. Luce’s garotte had been adapted slightly with a strip of chamois. Whatever Luce was, she wasn’t a murderer.

She peered over the edge of the low roof, careful not to be seen. Below, she could see Angel preparing the cotton cloth with knock-out vapours.

Angel was perhaps the most tragic of the four of them. She was platinum blonde, milky pale and grey eyed. She had a face like a porcelain doll – admittedly a sour-looking one that had been sitting in a gutter for a month – but still. Unlike the others, she clearly remembered her life before the Guild. She had been snatched by slavers as a small child and sold to an odious woman she only ever referred to as Mistress, although she spat the word with such venom that it made Min shudder. She had been traded to the Guild as part of a settlement on the Mistress’ debts. Luce sometimes wondered if one of the reasons Angel seemed so bitter was that she’d been only part of the payment. She’d never dared ask.

Min’s performance was reaching a crescendo; she was whimpering and clinging to the woman’s skirt. Luce was relieved to see that the mark had dismounted from her horse – unlike the previous two who presumably didn’t have enough compassion to spoil their shoes, only to not kick out at the wailing, snotty urchin hanging on to their saddle strap. This woman was actually crouching down, one hand on Min’s shoulder when Luce and Angel made eye contact, counted to two and sprung.

Once the woman had been downed and dragged into the alley, Clara appeared from a puddle of darkness across the street. She was ostensibly the brains of the operation; meaning that she had most of the ideas, the biggest mouth and hated climbing up on to roofs. She had been orphaned sometime shortly before the summer of fire, and had been living in the Trickster Temple when it had burnt down during the invasion. She had been found by Lady Iona, Duchess of Pringle, who had forced her to wash and taken her to the Guild Below for what she styled as ‘further’ training. She liked to make sure people knew she’d had contact with Lady Iona, as she was convinced it helped her standing in the Guild Below. It didn’t.

She was in charge of gathering up their harvest greedily and shoving it into four potato sacks that she had brought for this very purpose. She had a good eye for what would sell.

“I feel almost bad,” said Min tugging the combs out of the woman’s mahogany locks, “She was actually lovely.”

“You’re not turning soft I hope?” grunted Angel who was trying to heft the woman’s skirt free without touching the body.

“I said almost,” returned Min looking a little wounded, Angel didn’t notice.

“You know what,” said Luce, cutting the lacing on the corset with a single run of her blade, “this is the best scam yet.” She watched the whale-bone and fabric relax as the tension suddenly released.

“They silk?” said Clara distractedly pointing to her stockings. Angel gingerly ran a rough finger over the sheer white fabric and nodded,

“She’s even got matching garters, with pearls on.”

Angel sounded disgusted. Of all of them, she was the only one who actually despised the rich. The other three just saw themselves as wealth farmers, harvesting the ripe pickings from whichever unwitting soul came their way next.

“Right,” said Clara, “let’s have ‘em. She’ll do in her chemise and bloomers, unless they’ze silk an’ all.”

“Nope, just cotton,” snorted Min, as she took the fine gold chain from around the slender neck, ” She can find out what it’s like to walk on this alleyway without any shoes on.” Min had been quick to shove her own feet back into the stiff boots she had proudly re-appropriated during the last plague.

“I swear,” said Luce, checking that nothing had been missed before they rolled her on to her back, “if Min ever grows breasts we’re in trouble.”

“If I ever grow breasts,” retorted Min handing three rings to Clara, who stuck them in the least wholly sack. “I’m going on the game. It can’t be much different from this.”

“Luring people into alleyways, taking their clothes off and leaving them well and truly fucked?” said Angel dryly, making them all laugh as they rolled Lady Whatknot, Duchess of Thing on to her back and watched as her sagging and suddenly unrestrained bosom wobbled to a stop. As they did the laughter subsided, all four girls thinking that perhaps that would be a better life than this, after all it didn’t involved dropping into the sewers when the streets were bloodied by invaders to cream off the shinies before the rain water made the bodies bloat and burst. It did of course have it’s other hazards, but the diseases were no worse and if you were lucky you might get to sleep in a real bed every now and then.

They didn’t hang around contemplating the pros and cons of prostitution versus street robbery for very long as they were well aware that they needed to be swift in retreat. Leaving Lady Whosit, Duchess of Whatyacall sleeping soundly on the damp alley floor they disappeared down the sewer hatch not ten feet away. Each one dropped into to the darkness with a sack slung over one shoulder and headed off without a pause. It was straight to the Black Market with this lot now. Then, when they each had their share they would peel off and spend it how they wished.

Even though this part of the sewer was firmly Guild territory, the girls didn’t take their safety for granted. Guild loyalty in a Guild with only one real rule doesn’t stretch very far – particularly not when that one rule is basically ‘don’t get caught’. (In truth it wasn’t the only ‘rule’ but it was the only one that actually mattered). Whilst some people were protected by status, like the Guild heads, some of the more prominent assassins and the likes of Lady Iona, no-one would question the disappearance of four sewer brats. It would probably be weeks before anyone noticed they’d gone and even longer before they could find anyone else who cared.

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