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Kink [story]

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Short story things to help put a few more specifics into Zhi's backstory. I wanted to show how she got the kink in her tail, but there might be more after. There'll be a little bit of child abuse towards the end in another post or two. Fair warning.


Mam never came home alone at night. Zhi wasn’t allowed to be home at night. She’d stay out, seeing how high she could climb and what she could steal from the nocturnal residents of the city. Sometimes she’d roam in packs with the children what passed for her friends, laughing and jeering at whatever unfortunates they came across. Sometimes the older kids would filch booze, and they’d sit around in abandoned buildings and lots passing the bottles around and talk about how great they were.


Night belonged to Keepers. Zhavi understood, in an abstract sense, that she belonged to the Keeper clan. But what she knew, in a concrete sense, was that night belonged to her. Specifically. It was her freedom. It turned the city into her playground.


That night, Zhi was alone. She’d a flexible wire and a tougher one she’d nicked from a smithy. They weren’t picks. Picks were things you didn’t often get to steal, because the older thieves had ‘em and it was rough to steal from one of them. Rough as in they caught you, and they didn’t bother calling for the jacks. They’d just sheathe their knife in you and call it even. That was the hierarchy in the city. Zhi was at the bottom.


The door rattled. Zhi paused in her attempts, cursing its shit construction. It didn’t sit right on its hinges, and it was loose nohow. She listened for footsteps, heard none, and put the wires back to the lock. She couldn’t open good locks with her tools, but she could and had opened bad locks. But right now, even despite the fact that she was in the poorest residential area, this lock, in particular, was giving her a load more trouble then she’d had in a full moon. What was worse, the wire was getting all slippery in her fingers. She kept having to stick them in her mouth to wipe her hands against her pants.


She was almost there when the door jerked under her fingers. She froze, tools still inserted into the locking mechanism, as something bumped behind the door. Eyes wide, she tried to pull the wires out from the lock, but her fingers had gone all slippery again. They were jerked from her grip. The door opened. Zhi stared up, and up until her eyes crested the broad chin of a roegadyn. A roegadyn with axe in hand. He looked down. Their eyes met. For a strange, long moment Zhi felt a curious sense of detachment as she struggled to place the face; she’d seen it somewhere before. He moved, hefting the axe, and Zhi’s eyes moved to the weapon automatically, drawn to the movement. The axe was more familiar. Particularly because it was a jack weapon.


The moment ended. Zhi cursed, a stream of unintelligible words flowing from her, as she backpedaled, turning to run. His hand shot out and caught the back of her shirt. Her eyes nearly bugged out of her head as she was drawn back, and then lifted. She spun in mid air, struggling and kicking, and came face to face with the man. He was big. The axe had gone from his other hand, and he caught her flailing hands with it, stilling her struggles.


“Kid,” he growled, “think I tole ye and yer friends t’stay out o’trouble.”


Oh yeah. That jack. She did remember him. Him and his partner patrolled their part of the city, and he usually pulled night shifts. Except for tonight. Apparently. And when, exactly, had this jack come to live in this neighborhood? How had she not known about it? The questions shot around her head, all bouncy desperation. She tried to think around them, and as she opened her mouth to inhale for a retort, she caught a whiff of something.


Zhavi Gutterborn was the daughter of a whore. She knew what sex smelled like. A slow grin curved her lips, and he shook her in retaliation for her apparent irreverence. It rattled her, but she wasn’t down for long. Oh no.


“Ruttin’ on duty, mister?” She thought herself right clever for the retort, as was shown with the return of her grin.


He stared at her, eyes going all flat and hard. It was a sign of victory, she thought, and readied another salvo. Her voice was smugness personified. “Don’tcha know where th’ real whores are, mister? Lasses in this part o’ town ain’t nothin’ but. . .” She trailed off, eyes going wide again.


He’d removed the hand keeping her still. He’d picked up his axe. Its edge was pointed towards her, and she stared at it. Even in the dark of night, there was light enough to glimmer off the metal of the blade. Of the edge. It looked right sharp. Real sharp.


“D’ye know what the punishment used t’be fer ratty little thieves, lass?”


The grin vanished. “U-uhhh. . .”


“See, the way t’keep ratty little thieves from stealin’ is t’take away what they use t’steal with. Guess what that is?”


Definite bad feeling. “Umm. . .me picks?”


“Hmm.” He had a grin on his face. It was a nasty, ugly grin. “I think I might take me a hand. No one has t’know but us two, right?”


Zhi went cold. He’d do it. She knew he would. She’d seen the damage the axes of the jacks could do to a man, woman. . .child. Zhi weren’t no stranger to bloodshed. No one could be, not on the streets. Dead bodies happened, and you learned to walk around them, not look at them. Same with anything else. Shouting, screaming. . .cries for help. She was on her own.


She spat. Spitting contests was something she was good at, and her aim was true. It got into his eyes. Now, the jacks? They weren’t some bumbling idiots. He didn’t drop her. He didn’t drop his axe to start rubbing at his eyes. He didn’t jerk away. But it did distract him, and that was all the moment she needed to slip out of her shirt and hit the ground.


Zhi always wore layers. They’d never saved her from getting cut up before, but she’d remember for next time — mam screaming at her for losing a shirt aside. She looked up as the world seemed to stop, muscles tensing to run, and saw that he was already letting go of her shirt, already starting to wipe at his eyes. He was quick for a roegadyn. Naw, more’n that, he was quick for anyone. He was just too damn fast.


He bellowed.


“Shit!” Zhi ran.


In a just world, she would have outpaced him. She should have been more nimble than he was. But the world wasn’t just, and wasn’t fair — he was a guard in his prime, a jack who made his living chasing down petty criminals and meting out justice whichever way he saw fit. Suffice to say, even with axe held to the side (she hoped he tripped and rutting cut himself up on it) and more mass than any one person should even have, he kept on her tail.


She took sharp turns. He stayed on her. She jumped down onto lower streets. He crashed down behind her, unphased. She swung off bridge to bridge. He was always behind her. Gaining. It wasn’t right. It was downright unnatural — or something. She had to think fast to rid herself of him, go somewhere he wouldn’t be able to follow. Do something he wouldn’t expect.


She pivoted onto yet another bridge, breath coming in great gasps and arms pumping, and made another jump. But rather than landing on the path below, as she had done the last few times, she landed on the wall. Skin tore as her fingers and toes scrabbled for purchase, and she watched as he sailed past her to land on the road below. He looked up, murder in his eyes, and he put his axe away. He set his hands to the rock. He started to climb.


It really wasn’t rutting fair. Really. Zhi cursed Nald’thal for all the weight that had gone into the roe’s side of the scales, and set herself to climbing. The pain hadn’t fully set in, burned away by her fear and exhilaration, but she could feel the start of cramping exhaustion in her fingers. She had to dust him somehow. She crested another tier, stumbled forward a few steps, and had an idea. She moved to the rough outcropping of rock behind the buildings on this newest tier and started to climb again — just as the roe crested the road. Zhi redoubled her efforts, and was a body’s length ahead of him when he set his hands to the wall.


When it came to climbing, Zhi was good. There, she had an edge on him. She pulled away, and when she looked back down he was a far enough distance away. She looked, waiting until he had one hand up, reaching for the next handhold. He was directly below her. It was perfect. She let go of the wall, landing one foot on his head, the other slipping off his shoulder and skidding down his front. She wasn’t a heavy kid, but she was heavy enough. She’d caught him by surprise, and he lost his grip on the wall. They fell.


Bad landings happened from time to time, even for her. But hers wasn’t near as bad as his. He landed flat on his back, and she half on and half off of him, rolling away with the force of it. They hadn’t been all that high up, but it was enough to knock every last breath of air from his lungs. There was a whistling, wheezing sound as he instinctively tried to refill them. The sound of it made her smile, even as she tried to shake the dizziness caused by her own rough landing. But him? He wouldn’t be able to follow for a little while. Long enough.


Zhi went to him, patting him down. She found gil, and took a handful. Might as well, right? She’d have to avoid his part of town for awhile, anyways, because the next time he saw her? He was very probably gonna kill her. So she took what she could and trotted away to waste more time until dawn. Until she could go home.




Mam always woke up in the morning alone. Alone except for Zhi. When Zhi came home, she’d always walk to the one bed in their little room, to the shoddy table where money was always left. Zhi would count that money. Counting, the one thing her mam had taught her, because that was Zhi’s job: to keep track of how much money they had. Counting, her mam had told her many times, was useful. You could get through just about anything so long as you knew how to keep numbers in your head. Zhi would take the money, count it, and then go to the small stash they kept under the floorboards.


Zhi was lucky. Her mam hadn’t given herself over to drugs, over to addictions. She was smart enough to hoard what little money they had, and when she was in a good mood she’d pull Zhi onto her lap and poke through the gil together, whispering stories of places they would go when she’d earned enough.


But she was never in a good mood for very long.


Mam never quite earned enough.


Zhi never understood why money would disappear, why it had to go towards something she didn’t understand, to a man she’d never met. Her mam was smart, but when it really counted, she wasn’t smart enough.


Zhi jingled her own earned coin in her hand as she crept inside, locking the door behind and setting the wedge; that door’s lock was the first she’d ever practiced on, and she knew just how easy to pick it was. The wedge helped.


It was a short trip to the table. Their little room was small, as were most like them who made a living on the edge of poverty, flirting with being out on the streets. But Zhi didn’t need more than a room. She had her, and her mom, and they kept each other warm. They had food. It was enough.


Zhi was breathing in the smells of her mam’s night out as she took the seven steps from door to table (it took her mam four; five when she was tired). It was a game to figure out how many men had been in the room during the night. It was as automatic to her as counting the money, counting steps, counting anything was.


She froze with her hand outstretched towards the table, turning to look towards the bed. She smelled a man. A familiar man, one she’d smelled on her mam before. One that, she knew instinctively, hit her mam. One who her mam would visit in the daytime. One that never gave her mam any money, but took it — there was always less in their stash when mam went out to visit him.


Mam wasn’t sleeping alone.


The room was suddenly too small, too precious. Zhi’d never seen this man before, the one who took their money. Though, truth, she rarely saw any of the men her mam dallied with. Rage rose up in her. This wasn’t his place. He didn’t belong there. None of them belonged there in the day, in her spot next to her mam. She left the gil on the table, and turned towards the bed. He was too big. There wasn’t room on it for her. He was in her spot, and that filled her with a wrath so deep and so vicious that she didn’t know what to do with it. So she just stared, gulping shallow breaths, hands fisted. She wasn’t going to leave. She wasn’t going to let him take her place. She ripped one of their ratty blankets away, intent on setting herself a vigil against the wall.


The man turned. His eyes flickered open. Zhi froze. He was a hyur, tall, muscles wiry on the arm flopped above his head. She opened her mouth to tell him to leave, that he wasn’t allowed to stay, when he chuckled. It was a deep sound, masculine. It didn’t belong in the room. Her eyes flickered away, towards her mam. She didn’t stir. Her ears were soft in sleep, eyes closed, breathing steady. There was a dark spot on her upper cheekbone, one that hadn’t been there when Zhi’d left earlier.


Her courage broke. She took a step back, hands fisting into the bottom of her shirt — still clutching the blanket. The man was staring at her, sleepy: there was a slow, relaxed smile on his face as he took the sight of her in. She stared at him, eyes moving from his hand to her mam’s face. She turned to look at the door, her shirt twisting in her grip. Heat prickled behind her eyes as she looked back at him. He looked from her to the corner behind her, furthest from the bed. She took another step back, shoulders hunching up and her breath coming faster.


Nald’thal had taken everything from her side of the scales. She was craven. He smiled at her as she took the eight steps to the corner. “Good lass,” he murmured. She heard the rustling sound of him turning over as she pulled the blanket around her and sat with her back in the corner. It wasn’t fair. That was her spot. Her throat was closing up. He shouldn’t be there. Why was he there? Had her mam told him he could stay? Why hadn’t she told Zhi? Her breath hitched. She pressed her lips together, trying to swallow, trying to stay silent. She curled double, face to knees.


Just for today, she told herself. Mam will explain it when she wakes up. He’ll be gone. He won’t come back. Just for today. She hated him. She hated him worse than when her mam hit her in the mouth for backtalking. Worse than when her mam told her no, told her to shut up, told her to get out. She hated him worse than the jacks, worse than rival kids who threw rocks at her. Worse than the old nag in the market who always caught her up by the ear when she tried to run past, and twisted it until Zhi was sure it was gonna come off. She hated him more than anyone she’d ever hated before. She was sure that she would hate him forever, that he would always be the person she hated most in the world.


She would, she decided, forgive her mam. Once he was gone, she would tell her mam it was okay. She was grown up at nine, and she understood. Her mam would tell her that it was just this one time. There would be a reason. They would laugh and count the gil. Her mam would buy her something sweet. She would never see him again. She would tell her mam to stop going to see him, and then they would save up more gil, and they could leave their little room, the one that leaked and was cold in winter.


Everything would be okay.


Nothing was going to change.


But when she woke up, he was still there.

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Their murmurs had woken her.


“Reitz, not now,” her mam whispered.


“C’mon. . .” he said, and Zhavi’s eyelids flickered.


“Not while she’s here.”


“Just be quiet. It’ll be fine.”




Zhi uncurled from where she’d slumped to the floor, her stomach cramping in hunger. She looked up, over to the bed, and saw their shapes under their blankets. She hated them both. She wouldn’t never forgive either of them, unless. . .unless her mam got rid of him. Yes, if her mam kicked him off and shooed him to the door, then everything could . . .


Her mam was giggling.


Zhi watched, a stony witness, as feminine protests and masculine reassurances drifted over from the moving blankets. She watched until she knew her mam was not going to get rid of the man, until she knew that her mam had betrayed her, and then she rolled over so she faced the wall. She flattened her ears and put her hands to them, but nothing was going to block out the noises. There would be no going back to sleep. Instead, she contemplated ways to make her mam sorry. Running away was at the top of the list. Mam wouldn't be giggling then, not when Zhi never came home. Zhi pictured in her mind the face her mam would make when she went out looking for her, when morning came and there was no Zhavi to boss around.


Or would she be glad? With him around, would her mam have no more need for her? Would she laugh with him, and celebrate Zhi’s absence?


Zhi was still. Maybe there was still time. Maybe he had just paid really, really well, and after this they could escape. Maybe her mam just needed Zhavi to be very, very good, and if everything went well they would never have to scrounge for money again. Zhi could be quiet. Zhi could be still. Zhi could be patient.


She waited.


Eventually, the sound of their voices changed. The movement changed. Zhi loosened her fingers from over her ears, stretching them to ease the cramping. It had felt like an eternity. But now things would be better.


She waited a little longer, just to be sure, then she started moving. She propped herself up. She looked towards the center of the room, and saw him bending over their basin and yesterday’s leftover water. Water that Zhi had hauled. Protest was on the edge of her tongue as she pushed herself to her feet, but then —


“Zhio.” Her mam’s voice. Love, acceptance, happiness. A balm.


“What’s he doin’ here?” She couldn’t accept it. She was angry. Her mam had to choose, and it had to be now.


Her mam was tall for a miqo’te woman. Tall, but with the same willowy build as any other. She was well-proportioned. Beautiful. Even standing there with her nightdress all wrinkled and askew, Zhi thought her mam was the most beautiful woman in the world. Zhi didn’t much look like her. She looked like her da, her mam had said, but never anything more than that. No matter how many times Zhi had asked.


He didn’t look remotely good enough for her mam. No man did. No woman, either. All her mam needed was Zhi, and all Zhi needed was her mam.

“Zhavi.” There was reproach in Mam’s voice. “That ain’t no way t’talk. Reitz,” and why had her voice gone all mushy and soft? “Would you be willing t’fetch us a morning meal?”


“O’ course I would.” He swooped in on her mam, and kissed her.


He kissed her.


Zhi glared at him. When he noticed, he winked at her before leaving. Winked. At her. She transferred the glare to her mam. “Why ain’t ye kicked him out? He don’t belong here. He slept in me spot!”


“’Scuse me? An’ who are you t’say who do and don’t belong here, young missy? You listen here —”




Her mam’s eyes narrowed. “Don’t be a brat, missy. This is real good fer us. Now, you ain’t got no understanding of adult matters, but this is how — don’t you dare roll your eyes at me. Hey. Look at me.”


Zhi folded her arms and scowled at the floor. In three steps — heard rather than seen — her mam had crossed the room to her and had gripped her chin in an iron vice. She pulled Zhi’s face up, and crouched before her. “You look at me.”


“Ye smell nasty. Like him.”


Zhi cringed away from the slap, but she didn't lift a hand to rub at her stinging cheek. She kept her arms tightly folded, even when her mam gave her a good shake. “I’m his woman now. Out o’ all the women he could’ve picked, he picked me. This’s a real good thing. Do you understand me, missy? This is good, an’ you ain’t gonna feck it by being a snotty little brat. Understand me?”


“I don’t want him here. I don’t like him.”


“I ain’t asking you t’like him. But you will treat him with respect.”


“An’ who’s he then, t’be so special?”


“He’s me cock bawd. He has money, an’ he’s real powerful. An’ if he likes me enough, we’ll be able t’get out o’ here.”


“I don’t wanna move.”


Her mam gave her another shake. “You’ll get used t’it soon enough. Don’t be a stupid brat. I’ll give you a walloping like you ain’t never had before if you so much as make him frown, gods help me.”


Zhi’s response was as angry a glare as she could muster. “I hate ye.”


For a moment, Zhi thought her mam was about to hit her again. Her mouth had tightened, ears back and eyes narrowed: even in anger, her mam was beautiful. Zhi thought so, and the thought hurt because her mam wasn’t her own anymore. Now she belonged to someone else, and she didn’t give two shits about Zhi. Yeah, that was real clear. It made Zhi furious. The anger that had been in her last night, the stuff that she didn’t know what to do with, rose up in her stomach until it clogged her throat and made her dizzy. She wanted to scream, but all she could do was stuff her fists under her armpits and glare, her eyes too narrowed and watery to really see much. But she knew her mam was still beautiful. She still hated her. Maybe her mam had felt the same way, about her, all this time. Maybe this was just a convenient way to get rid of Zhi.




“You listen to me,” Mam said, and her tone had gone all soft and hard. “I don’t care what you think, and I don’t care what you feel. You’ll do as I tell you, and you’ll behave proper. This is good fer us. Look at me. I know you don’t like it. Tough shit. Life ain’t about pleasing you all the time. This is what’s best. You’ll pick a new place t’sleep — this corner, if you want — and you’ll be nice t’Reitz. You’ll keep quiet and out o’ his way. Understand me?”


Zhi mumbled something under her breath. Her mam’s eyes narrowed. “What’d you say?”


Zhi glared, and stuck out her tongue.


“What. Did. You. Say?”


“Yer a stupid whore!” Zhi broke free and ran for the door, her mam hollering after her.


She didn’t eat with them, that day. Or the next several days. She hardly came home at all, only stopping by to sleep, to see if he’d left, to occasionally swipe the food her mam left out for her. She didn’t speak to them. The few times she ran into Reitz, he’d smile at her. It seemed to Zhi that his smile was one of triumph, of cruelty, and some slick oiliness that she had no real words for. It made her cringe away from him. Even wanting to defy her mam, she didn’t speak out against him or try to annoy him. There was something in her that broke every time he stared at her, or gestured her away to the corner. It turned her craven, made her slink about like she weren’t nothing.


But her mam was true to her words. In a few weeks, they left the crummy little room they’d lived in ever since Zhi could remember. Though no one said as much, it was Reitz’s personal home that they moved into. She knew because she could smell him overlaying everything, over the smell of other men and women, sex and drugs. Even so, even despite how much she hated him, it was like a palace to her. Four rooms. One was just for eating, one was for his work, one was his room, and one was for her and her mam. Though her mam didn’t sleep with her.


Everything was screwed up. The night no longer belonged to her. Proper people, Reitz had told her the first day they stayed in his home, sleep during the night and are awake during the day. It didn’t matter how Zhi tried to tell him that the sun hurt her eyes and scalded her skin, that she was sleepy when it was daylight out, and that she was not tired at all during the night. He told her that if they were living with him, she’d have to follow the rules and keep out of his way, out of his sight. He wasn’t going to have her laying about during the day when he had business to do. Business, like he didn’t trade in whores. Whatever.


She earned bruises when she tried to defy him. Her mam always took his side. She was alone.


The old house, with its leaks and its cold, its sole room and its bugs — the hunger that sometimes clawed at her belly for days when her mam didn’t make enough — she missed it. She missed it like she hadn’t missed anything before in her life, like she was sure she would never miss again. Because at least then she’d her mam. At least then her mam had been hers, and in the morning she would crawl into their sleeping mats with her, and her mam would hug her and stroke her hair. When they woke in the afternoon her mam would brush it, and tell Zhi dirty stories about the men and women she met plying her trade. Maybe they were hungry, maybe Zhi had to haul water every day, and maybe their baths were always cold, but . . . he hadn’t been around. They hadn’t needed anyone but each other.


Zhi didn’t count gil any more. She never saw any, not unless she stole it.


Defeat settled in on her.


A moon had passed the day she came back to the place she lived and smelled alcohol. That wasn’t so new, because Reitz liked to drink, same as most folk what lived in lowtown. What was new was the smell of blood.


For a moment, Zhi stood in the doorway, one hand on the handle and the other on the doorframe. Her mouth was hanging open. Air was gulped in long, shrill breaths, through her nose and mouth. She was scenting. She could smell Reitz’s blood. Worse than that, she could smell —


“Mam!” All of her anger was forgotten. The door was left banging against the wall in her wake as she darted through the house, following the smell to his office. It didn’t take her long. For all it had four rooms, the house was not large. Even so, the door was shut, and locked. Zhi threw herself against it, nails scratching at the wood. She was screeching the same word over, and over, and over. Someone was snarling at her to shut up, but when she didn’t there were steps. Three steps. Then there was a noise on the other side.


The door flew open. Zhi was thrown back a few steps. She almost fell. She could see inside. Glass, blood, overturned chair, loose papers, and a table met her stare. Legs stuck out from behind the table. Still. They were very still. The feet were bare, and the toenails had been lacquered. But she couldn’t see any more, not with the legs standing in the doorway. She looked up, and up, and saw Reitz’s face, smelled him. His eyes were blank, empty. His mouth was a dark smear. Angry. He was angry. There was a bottle clutched in his hand, but the bottom was gone; it had been broken off.


Alcohol and blood.


Shrieking, she dove forward between his legs. She stepped on glass. She didn’t even feel it. She slipped on blood. She didn’t even notice. All that mattered were those two legs, the stillness, and the blood that filled up her nose and told her that her mam was hurt. She could hear him bellowing behind her, could all but feel him behind her — but she had reached the body.


The body.


She touched it. There was so much blood. She was screaming.




He had her. He had grabbed the back of her neck. Past him, past the body, past the glass and debris, there was someone in the doorway. Someone with a bandaged hand. Someone who looked like her mam.


A miqo’te woman was on the ground. She was dead. Not her mam. Not her mam.


She crashed against the wall, his hand letting her go so she bounced and fell. A new voice had joined in the screaming. The only one that mattered. It didn’t mean anything that Zhi’s vision was going blurry, that she was dazed and that her face had fallen into the glass and blood. Mam was alive. Mam was okay.


The boot that hit her in the shoulder did matter. But it mattered in a different way, a more primal way, one that got her hands under her and her legs kicking so she was propelled away from the second kick, the one that caught her in the hip and sent her sprawling again. She was looking back, watching for the next blow, and she saw her mam reaching for Reitz, saw the way her eyes had gone wide, the way her mouth stretched as she yelled, pleaded, begged. But he was drunk. Angry drunk.


A woman was dead.


When he looked at Zhi, it was like everything inside of her turned into water. She quivered under that stare. Even when he’d thrown off her mam, even when he came towards her, there was nothing in her but fear. All of her hate, all of her fury, all of her idle daydreams to hurt him the way he did her mam, the way he left bruises and harsh words behind him — it all vanished. All that was left was the cringing, craven fear that pushed her to run away from him, to keep running forever.


He was on her.


Her eyes closed.


Everything was confusion. Everything was pain. Everything was fear.


Her eyes opened.


The doorway loomed in front of her. She reached for it.


Her eyes closed.


Now her mam would see that he wasn’t any good. After this, if they survived, they would leave. Things would change. They would go back to how they used to be.




Her mam was pulling at him, teeth bared and voice shrill. She saw his fist. It had a ring on it, on his middle finger.




Her nose was on fire.




He had her mam by the hair.




It was the last thing she saw.


Nothing changed.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Questions were not encouraged. In the days following the bloody night, Zhavi learned that it was much better to keep her mouth shut. The most her mam would tell her was that the dead woman had been one of Reitz’s whores. What had caused the argument, and what had caused the death were met with stony silences and repetitions of the same refrain: do not make Reitz angry. Ever.


She and her mam didn’t leave. When Zhi brought it up — tried to bring it up — her mam made excuses. She never looked Zhi in the eyes when they talked about Reitz. She’d get angry, first.


Zhi learned how to be quiet. She learned how to wait, to use her senses to pinpoint where Reitz was, where her mam was, and anyone else who came to the house. She learned how to avoid all of them. She learned how to listen. How to hide. How to slip out the window when he started yelling.


How to sleep outside.


Bruises formed a collection of color on her mam. Zhi cataloged them, the ones that she could see. She guessed about the ones she couldn’t see, but she never asked about them. It was one of those things they never talked about, a thing that belonged in the giant gaping hole between them. Used to be that hole had been smaller. Used to be her mam would talk to her every afternoon when they woke up, before she had to start working and before Zhi left for the night. But now? Now they were strangers tied together by memories and the hope that something, anything might happen that would put things back to rights.


Hope and prayers took up a large chunk of her time. She wished for Llymlaen to take him to the deeps. Menphina to curse him with one of the whores’ diseases that ate up the body. Azeyma, everpresent keeper of the sun, to burn him while he did his business. She mumbled to them often: hoping, wishing, praying for one of them to do something. To save them. Zhi wanted to be saved. She wanted for someone to save her, and her mam, because she knew — she saw — what her mam was not. Even when she still hoped.


Things changed.


Things never changed.


It was always opposite what she wanted.


It was one of the hardest lessons she ever learned.






Her mam groaned in her sleep, but otherwise didn’t respond. Zhi pushed at her until she was flat on her back. “Mam.”


Nothing. Zhi made a face, poking and pushing at her. But she didn’t wake up. When she wasn’t doing something for Reitz, she was sleeping. All the time, sleeping. And whenever Zhi tried to talk to her. . .




She looked older. Lines had formed at the corners of her mouth and eyes. Her skin had become rougher. It used to be that she was so meticulous about her appearance, about grooming herself and presenting the perfect picture of femininity. People will forgive much, her mam had said, if you are clean and hold yourself properly. She never said beautiful while looking at Zhavi, though she’d used to say how pretty Zhi was when she kept her face and hands clean, when she washed her hair. Sometimes she’d even let Zhavi use some of her perfume.


Cheap stuff had replaced what Mam had once used. Back when Zhi had counted their gil, there was always some put aside for the costs of working the street. Even if she wasn’t high-class, even if she was just a lowly broad. . .sometimes you have to treat yourself. Sometimes.


There were fresh bruises showing at the edge of the old nightgown her mam wore.


It was almost dawn. Reitz wouldn’t notice if Zhi left now rather than later. He didn’t like it when she skipped the breakfast meal, but as long as she didn’t do it too regularly he didn’t get mad. Not unless he’d been drinking real heavy, and he hadn’t. Business was doing well, after all. Business on the backs of her mam and the other women he controlled.


She kissed Mam on the cheek, tugged up the blanket so the bruises weren’t visible, and gathered up the things she’d need. She’d gotten a decent pick, together with Miza, and she’d been practicing with it. Some locks were easier to open now, like the ones in a better part of town than she wasn’t used to running through. Locks that would maybe lead to something nice for her mam to use, that would make her eyes sparkle. Something that would maybe take the shadows away from under her eyes. Something that would make her happy, because Zhi couldn’t make her happy any more.


She looked back as she hid everything she’d be using, and got a stool under the window. She hopped up onto it, and pushed the shutters open. Her mam always used to say that it wasn’t healthy for her to be so fearless when it came to high places. Sure, maybe there was always scolding, but one time — before Reitz — one time she’d said that being so high must be like flying. There’d been some small awe in her voice before she’d tucked it away in order to impress upon Zhi the dangers of falling, but Zhi had remembered that, more than any of the numerous lectures she’d endured. She cherished that memory.


“I’ll be back, Mam,” she said, real quiet, before slipping outside.


The streets were welcoming in the dark. It’d been a long time since she’d gone out before the sun had the chance to rise. She’d almost forgotten what it was like to move in the night. She covered a lot of distance in the dark, re-familiarizing herself with what the city looked like in shadow. Sure, it was without the group she usually rolled with, but she was content with what she had.


Azeyma was making herself known by the time Zhi reached the part of town she needed to be in. Those houses she hadn’t spent a lot of time casing, but there were always signs in the way windows and doors were dressed, in how things were kept. All she needed was a place that looked like it’d host a classy lady. Took her longer then she’d have liked to finally stumble across a promising facade (and it was pretty, she would have stopped to admire it if she wasn’t looking to steal), but the sun-drunk ‘normal’ people were still abed. Only servants, merchants and poor people got up so early.


The lock was one of the more complex ones she’d busted, but she was raw determined to see it done. Even if it took still more time, she kept at it until it gave. She was breaking in from an alley window, so she had some space from anyone who was awake and happened to come by. This was why it paid to run in a group, why she normally went and fetched Miza — at the very least — when she had mischief in mind. Easier to keep track of who was where.


Her hands were shaking by the time she finally got the stupid thing to click, and she turned it real careful. These pukes had real glass windows. Sure, it was thick and bubbly in places, and not real easy to see through — but glass. That was probably where most of the money had gone. This wasn’t the best part of town, or even one of the more better ones; it was somewhere in the middle between poor and prosperous. The sort of place where a woman would have enough money to comfortably buy the sort of perfume Zhi and her mam had scrimped and saved to buy. The lock was good enough to stymie her, but not good enough to keep her out. The appearance of wealth probably impressed their friends or whoever they were trying to make feel inferior, but it still wasn’t proof against greed.


She put her tools away and ever so carefully pushed and pulled herself up (one nice thing about alleys in this part of town was how narrow they were, making it easier to shimmy up between them) until she crested the window sill. Her legs were cramping from having kept her wedged in place for so long, and so she rested there for a minute, looking over the room. Kid’s room. Toddler’s room. There were two of the pint-sized mites, both still sound asleep. From her own experience around whores’ get, and whores’ complaints, Zhi knew they’d be likely to wake at any moment. Most day-trippers didn’t get up so early if they didn’t have to, but the same didn’t carry for their brats.


So long as the two kept quiet for another few minutes, Zhi didn’t care. They could raise hells after she left.


The whole house smelled good. Like food, and flowers, and something else that was sweet and light. It was almost intoxicating, that smell. Just like the calmness. No one yelling, no expectation of it — though there would be that aplenty if she stuck around. Right. Perfume. She slunk through until she reached another closed door. She very carefully edged it open, expecting it to creak and coming up pleasantly surprised when it didn’t.


The two in the bed were dead asleep. She watched them as she edged into their small, cozy little room. She could smell the perfume. It wasn’t the same stuff as her mam used to buy, and it wasn’t anything Zhi would have picked had she been sent to spend money on such a frippery, but she wasn’t being picky. It was perfume. It’d do. She slunk over to the corner of the room with a little table, and a chair, and a tiny little mirror, and hit the jackpot. There was more than just perfume there. Some lipstain, and a compressed wedge of something dark that Zhi bet anything on was for lining the eyes. There was a few pots of some kind of cream (one smelled good, the other was weird), and nail lacquer.


Zhi didn’t waste time. She pulled open the bag she’d brought and started putting everything inside. Done and done. Feeling immensely pleased with herself, she crept back over to the door, pulled it back open and slid it shut behind her.


“Mama. . .”


Zhi froze.


“Mama, hadda bad dream.”


A bad dream? This kid was waking up to bitch about a bad dream? A sense of infinite superiority welled up in Zhi as she turned to look down at the toddler (okay, maybe a bit older than toddler, though if you asked her all of the runts were just about the same. Whiny, needy babies).




Something about the brat annoyed her beyond reasoning. Glaring down, she squatted and picked the runt up with a grunt, holding it away from her body as she hotfooted it back to the room she’d come in from.


Surprisingly, it started sniffling like it was gonna cry.


Then it was crying.


She almost dropped it. “Shhhhh,” she hissed, clapping a hand over its mouth. “Shhhh!”


Once inside its room, she put it down, shut the door, and dashed for the window.


Halfway through it, the brat took a deep gulp of air and screamed. It was the loudest damn thing she’d ever heard in her life, a mixed jumble of inarticulate words and howls for comfort. Fear was in the mix too, fear of the unknown or of Zhi, she couldn’t tell and she wasn’t sticking around to find out. She dropped down to the alley, skinned her arms getting out of there, and then she was running as fast as she could down the street. She hit a bridge, and started laughing, feeling freer than she’d felt in a long time.


Now, Mam would be happy.


Now, she would talk to Zhi and not look so tired.


Once Zhi was sure that she wasn’t being followed, she got her bearings and turned to start heading home. She was moving at a good clip, trotting quickly in her haste to get home. She wasn’t entirely sure that her mam would still be there, or that she’d be somewhere Zhi could show her the present. Even if she wasn’t, Zhi could wait. It was an exciting thing to have a present for her mam.


She was taking a shortcut through uptown when she decided to check in the bag to make sure everything was still sitting good; she didn’t want to be delivering broken or imperfect things to her mam, after all. Her head was down and the bag was held up, half in front of her face, when she crashed into another person. Both of them rebounded off each other, though she was the lighter of the two and fell back onto her ass, the bag jolted out of her hands. The other person took a couple steps back, bags dropping to the ground with a series of crashes.


Any other day, Zhi would have started tugging at her ears and looking piteous in the hopes of scoring some food for herself — she could smell that the scrag was carrying food fresh from Hawker’s — but this was not any other day. The sharp, acrid tang of perfume hit the air, and she made a strangled squawk of protest as she went to the bag. The perfume bottle, made of glass, had shattered. The perfume had splattered over everything else in the bag. Zhi stared in disbelief. “No way,” she said, utter dismay warring with a rising anger.


“Hey! Watch it!” The voice of the person she’d run into rose and cracked, and Zhi looked up.


Hyur. Young. Lad. Cause of all misfortune. He looked upset. Zhi didn’t care. “Watch it yerself!” She countered, voice sharp and furious.


He didn’t look impressed. “I jes bought this!” He was gesturing to his own bags on the ground.


Inadvertently, Zhi followed his arm. A pang of guilt swept through her as she saw the telltale wet of spilled something; hard to tell what it was with the perfume cutting over everything (it was strong, made her eyes water). Something of his own had broken open in at least two of the bags, and when he squatted to check for damages he pulled out a loaf of soaked bread, and a cloth bag full of something (grains of some sort, she was sure), that was also soaked. A jar of something pickled had cracked, and all the fluid from it had spilled out. The vegetables inside wouldn’t last long without the pickling liquid.


She told herself she didn’t care as she gathered up her own bag and made to move past him. He caught her by the arm, and he squeezed. Her ears went back and she turned to face him, teeth bared and eyes narrowed. “Aren’t ye gonna pay fer this?” He was asking, voice all hard.


They looked at each other. Her, with her eyes stinging from the intensity of the perfume, all watery to the point of nigh spilling over, and him, with injustice and unfairness written all over his face, along with determination to see those wrongs righted. Yet, unexpectedly and inexplicably, his expression softened as he looked at her and then down at her own bag. His nose wrinkled up. “Aren’t ye a little young fer perfume?”


She glared at him, tugged at her arm. He didn’t let go. “Me mam.” She was feeling vindictive. “She’s a doxy an’ needed it fer her job.” She wanted to see his disgust, to watch him recoil from her, to let her go and mutter insults the way a kid who could go and buy so much food surely would to find out he’d touched a whore’s get. She expected almost anything but the look of sympathy that crossed his face, the way understanding lit up his eyes. His grip loosened. It was she who leaned away from him.


“Yeah,” he said quietly, “my ma’s a doxy, too.”


She didn’t believe him, wouldn’t have wanted to believe him even if she did. He was looking at their wet bags, his own nose wrinkling as the strength of the perfume finally hit him. “My name’s Dirk. What’s yers?”


Was he for real? He held himself with assurance. The name was not unfamiliar to her; she’d heard it in the groups she ran with, alongside other names that dealt in bigger bouts of thievery and . . . sometimes murder. But it wasn’t like there was only one Dirk in the whole city, right? It seemed a common enough name. This one wasn’t necessarily that one. “Zhavi,” she muttered in reply, lower lip jutting out. She pulled again at her arm, but he wasn’t letting go. She glared at him.


The bastard chuckled at her. What, did he think they were buddies now just because their mams were both whores? “I need t’go back an’ buy more groceries. What say I get ye more perfume t’replace what broke?”


Her glare intensified. Was he pitying her? “Get lost,” she snarled.


Something in his face went hard again. “Now jes wait a —”


She hit him with her bag. Perfume splattered on him, and he yelped as he held up his hands to ward her off. He was going to be stinking like perfume for the rest of the day, maybe for the rest of the week given how strong it smelled. Good. She hoped it didn’t wash off. But more importantly than that, he’d let go of her. She took the opportunity to run. She headed away from lowtown. She was going to bring back perfume for her mam, even if it killed her.


The sun was heading towards noon by the time she’d found another likely location. It reached its zenith by the time she’d found one where she was sure no one was home. Once again she’d gone for an alley window, scared of being seen from the front. She’d still be visible to anyone who took a good look down the alley, but she was hedging off the fact that most people would be too focused on their own chores and routines to bother looking around. That was how most people were; they lost sense of what was around them once they got real used to it. That was the only reason thieves like her could take advantage over it.


She wasn’t counting on a yellowjacket. Their patrols usually didn’t swing into the residential area She was halfway into the window when she turned to give the street beyond the alley one last quick look. What did she see? A jack. But this one? This one was off duty, emerging out of a home across the way. If anything, she was expecting some curious bystander that might have taken a chance glance and caught sight of her entirely by accident. That could be salvageable. Most people didn’t want trouble, and didn’t want to deal with it. They were as likely to look away as soon as they saw something bad happening, coming up with any number of excuses in their head as to why they shouldn’t get involved.


But not this man. She felt the blood drain from her face as his expression shifted from disgust to recognition to some unholy glee. It was the roe from before. He wasn’t in his yellow, but he was carrying his axe. He started to cross the street. Panic deadened Zhi’s limbs, and it was like she couldn’t control them like she usually did. She fell backwards, hitting her head on the wall and sprawling to the ground in an ungainly heap. It stunned her for a moment, a flash of white obscuring her vision before it came back. Black spots danced in front of her as she shook her head, automatically scrabbling to get to her feet.


“How many times now has it been?”


Gods. Gods. Azeyma, Menphina, Llymlaen — anyone!


He was nearly to the alley’s mouth, and she saw he’d taken his ax into his hands. No one even seemed to be looking, past the bulk of his body. No one even cared. All he had to do was tell them he was a jack, and —


“Think I should take both o’ your hands, y’thievin’ rat?”


He was so calm. So sure of himself. So sure of his ability to take her down and spit her like she wasn’t nothing. She almost pissed herself right then, caught it just as her muscles started to loosen in fear. There was a lump in her throat as she started to back up. He stalked her, each step placed just so. He was in control. He shouldn’t have been there. Why was he always in the better neighborhoods? What was he doing coming out of houses? He was crooked. He had to be.


And it didn’t matter squat.


Her bag was still clutched in her hands as she neared the wall the houses had been built up against or into. She didn’t even think. She threw it at him, turned, and shot up the wall. She didn’t wait to see him follow her. The bellow he let loose sounded like some demonic hunting dog that had just scented blood. This time, she didn’t look back.


Fear drove her. Getting caught out in the daylight wasn’t something that’d ever happened to Zhavi. She wasn’t used to running tricks in the daylight, wasn’t used to the bustle of the city when there were gads of people about. She moved blindly, without a plan, with him yelling behind her to move people out of his way. He wasn’t even in the blimming uniform, and people listened to him. They got out of his way. Sure, maybe it had to do with the oversized ax he was carrying, but it didn’t really matter why. She took corners at a dead run, ran into and over people she hadn’t seen in time. Her head was swimming with fear, with the certainty that she didn’t have control over this situation. Terror had taken over her. She moved through the city without a single lick of sense. Eventually she found herself in a familiar neighborhood, tears blurring her vision. Nearly breathless from her exertion, she ran as hard as she could. He was still behind her. He was still behind her.


Zhi didn’t question why things had gone so wrong, or why she suddenly found herself in front of the hated place that had become something like home. She banged on the door with both fists. It didn’t matter that Reitz was her enemy. It didn’t matter that he hit her mam. It didn’t matter that he hit her. Right then, at that moment, all she knew was that he’d kept them safe from other men who would hurt them. He could —


The door flew open. She fell into Reitz, and he took hold of her arms. She looked up at him, her face tear-streaked and filthy, and his surprise warped into anger. “What did you —”


She wormed her way out of his grip and slid behind him as the jack came to a stop in front of the door.


“Dornn,” Reitz said. He knew the roe. He was shocked. Normally, Zhi would have delighted in the way his voice rose, would have crowed to have been right that the jack was crooked.


Right then, all she could do was back up.


“Tell me that ain’t your brat,” the roe said, disgust making his voice thick. Or maybe it was exhaustion.


Reitz took one look back at her. She fled even as he stepped outside and shut the door behind him. She’d never seen that expression before.


Fifteen steps until she reached her room. Six steps to reach her mam’s side. Mam was getting ready for the night’s work, sitting in front of her tiny vanity with her junk powders and paints and perfume. “Zhio?” The surprise in her voice was softer. Welcoming. Concerned. There was love in that voice.


Zhi threw herself into her mam’s lap, sobbing for all she was worth. All she’d wanted to do was make her mam smile. She’d wanted to take away those fine wrinkles, the stress, stop the way she’d look off into the distance and not say anything. She’d wanted to make her talk again, to make things be like how they’d used to be.


“Zhio, sweetling, what’s wrong?”


Words spilled from Zhi’s lips. Disjointed, garbled, wet words that broke off and formed jumbled sentences. Her mam’s hands were touching her hair, her back, smoothing and petting. The reassurance was welcome, but it did nothing to calm the gaping pit of fear that opened up beneath her.


Someone was shouting outside. Her mam stiffened, looked towards the window, and then out towards the front door. Zhi buried her face into her mother’s lap, breathing in her smell. Somehow, she knew what was coming next. She couldn’t stop crying. Her mam’s hands stilled, and then moved slowly to Zhavi’s shoulders. Slowly, she pulled Zhi upright.


“Zhio, what’s going on?”


Zhi looked up. Her mam wasn’t looking at her, was focusing on what was happening outside. Her hands tightened. Zhi mewled in protest. Something like fear tightened her mam’s lips, made her sink into her chair. When she looked down at Zhavi, there was budding anger in her look. Zhi started to pull back. The grip on her arms had become painful.


“What did you do?”


When Zhi didn’t respond right away, Mam shook her. “What did you do?”


“I — I didn’t mean —”


The door slammed. It muffled the crack of her mam’s palm against her cheek. Strong fingers took hold of her chin, and forced her to look up. The love, the concern, had been replaced. The worry was still there, but it had twisted. “If you so much as — if you did somethin’ t’piss him off I swear I won’t lift a finger t’help you!”


Heavy footsteps approached their door. Zhi closed her eyes as her mam shook her again, her ears back and her tail pressed to her leg. She’d gone numb all over. “I’m sorry I didn’t mean to I didn’t —”


The door opened.


“Mam,” Zhi said, weak. Pleading.


Her mam stood up, nearly dumping Zhavi to the floor. “Reitz,” she said, lifting her hands in entreaty. “Honey-dove.”


Zhi was cowering into her mam, cringing. She wasn’t looking, didn’t know what was happening except for the sound of Reitz’s boots on the floor until her mam suddenly was reeling back. The sound of flesh on flesh told the only story she needed to know.


“Don’t you fecking come out of this room until I say you can.” Reitz’s voice was cold. Colder than Zhi had ever heard it.


She couldn’t move.


She saw Reitz reach down. His hands took hold of her own, and yanked her up.


“Reitz,” her mam said again, pleading in her voice.


He kicked her.


Zhi stumbled as he started to pull her out of the room, staring back at her mam’s crumpled form. It wasn’t until they reached the door that sense came back to her. She locked her legs, pulled back in his grip. “I’m sorry!” She blurted. Fresh tears stung her eyes. “I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to, I’m sorry!”

Nothing she did slowed him. Nothing stopped their march to his study, to the room that still smelled of old blood and death. She started to scream as he dragged her inside, apologies mixed with shameless begging, pleading, inarticulate promises to be the perfect child until the end of time.


The first blow knocked her silly. Her tongue got caught between her teeth, and blood flooded her mouth. The second blow took her down to her knees. The third blow caught her as she was stumbling away from him. He didn’t say a word. He didn’t say a damn thing. It terrified her, pushed her past reason. Pushed her past anything but the knowledge that she was going to die.


There wasn’t anything she could do to stop him. Gods knew she tried. He was taking his time. He was being thorough. He knew what he was doing. Every blow was calculated, done in a cold fury rather than feckless rage. That was the only way that, after minutes of his abuse, she caught sight of the penknife that had fallen to the floor from the table. He was circling her, taunting her with his silence, goading her into gibbering terror with her own anticipation of the next blow. He was cruel. She reached for the penknife, and curled back up. When he approached her, she stabbed it up and into his knee.


He moved. It stuck into his calf and stayed there, wobbling as he took a step back and cursed. She stared at it. Somehow, every iota of rebelliousness in her fled her in that single moment. She’d messed up. She shouldn’t have done that. She really, truly, should not have done that.


They both froze for a long, impossible moment.


She crawled for the door as fast as she could.


His boot came down on her tail.


Something cracked.


For a moment, she kept trying to crawl forward. The pain didn’t register as he reached down and took her by the scruff of her neck. She knew something was terribly, horribly wrong, knew that something had broken. She twisted around in his grip, staring down at his boot, at the way her tail disappeared under it. She could feel bone grinding on bone as he shifted his weight and pulled her up.


Pain hit her. It overrode all of her other bruises, over the throb that her body had become. At first, there wasn’t enough breath in the world for the agony of it. She tried to scream, managed only a dry bleating “ah! Ah!” until she managed a proper breath.


Then she screamed.


The world became pain, and screaming.


Her vision narrowed down, and she flailed without knowing what she was doing. Seconds might have passed, or minutes. She was lost to all of it, to whatever damage he might have done to her, until suddenly she was on the floor and he was bent over. Later, later she would realize that a lucky kick had hit him right between the legs. Right then, all she could manage was to cling to the floor. Inhale. Scream. Inhale. Scream. Inhale. Scream.


The door opened. It got stuck on her. She was blind to everything, deaf to everything. Someone lifted her up by her armpits, pulled her close into sweet softness.


She was moving, the pain becoming awful and familiar, and she realized her mam was dragging her out of the study, down the hall, and to the front room. “You have to go,” was being repeated, over, and over, and over.


Then, “stand up!”


She stood, staring into the doorway, legs loose and shaky. She stared at her mam. She was outside. Her mam was inside.


Somewhere, she’d stopped screaming. Her throat felt thick, and painful. “Mam?”


“Run, Zhio. Go.”




Go, now. Before he sees you. Jes — jes go.”


Zhi took a step back, staring.


“I don’t think. . .I don’t think you should come back, sweetling.”




“You’re gonna ruin everything.”


Zhi’s mouth was open, but nothing came out.




There was a bellow from inside. Zhi’s mam turned to look back inside. For a moment, Zhi could see the bruises that ran along her mam’s collarbone and disappeared inside her shirt.


Then the door shut.


She stared at it, bent over, arms wrapped around her stomach. There was a banging noise inside. She took a step back. Voices rose in heated words, and footsteps came closer to the door. Something hit one of the walls. Her mam yelled out in pain.


Zhi was so gods-damned craven. She broke. She ran, hobbling away as fast as she could muster, sucking in her sobs. She didn’t know where she was going, or when she would stop, but she knew she had to do what her mam had told her. She had to go. Things had changed, and this time she couldn’t even pretend that one day things could go back to how they used to be.


She never went back.







(the next one will be less awful, I promise.)

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