Gray Skies, Red Wings, Blue Lips, Black Hearts

February 10, 2021

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Merc Fenn Wolfmoor is a queer non-binary writer who lives in Minnesota with two adorable cats (Tater Tot photos frequently grace all Merc’s social media). Merc is a Nebula Awards finalist, and their stories have appeared in Lightspeed, Fireside, Apex, Uncanny, Nightmare, Escape Pod, and several Year’s Best anthologies. You can find Merc on Twitter @Merc_Wolfmoor or their website mercfennwolfmoor.com. Their debut short story collection, So You Want to Be a Robot, was published by Lethe Press (2017) and they have a second short story collection forthcoming in late 2021.

Content Warning(s):
Self-harm and suicide, Violence

A girl has lost her soul down deep in the City. It wandered away while she chipped out another grave in the catacomb brickyards. She set down her pickax, wiped grit from her cheek, and noticed how empty her body was. Looked down at her wrist and found it blank. 

That’s what she tells Redcap Kestrel as she sits cross-legged on the abandoned warehouse floor, well away from the grimy windows. The girl who lost her soul doesn’t offer a name. Few people do in the City.

“You want me to find it?” Redcap Kestrel asks. She crouches at a right angle to the girl, not looking her in the face. It’s for the girl’s sake. No one likes to look at a half-alive thing for too long, lest you find yourself on the wrong side of dead.

“Yeah.” The girl swallows. “If I go back to the yards, people are likely to try and take advantage.”

Redcap Kestrel understands. The soulless are easy pickings in the City. It’s all a matter of gradient. How much are you predator and how much are you preyed upon. It varies day to day, like most things in the City.

The girl fidgets, rubbing her wrist where the sin stretches raw and glossy like a burn. She doesn’t quite turn her head; her gaze skips and skitters towards Redcap Kestrel, then away, away, away. “How much do you want?” 

Rarely has Redcap Kestrel allowed visitors, rarer still does she listen to those who need help. She ticks through the old scraps in her head, remembering how conversations like this go.

“I’ll take a promise,” Redcap Kestrel says.

The girl’s shoulders arch in defense. That’s dangerous, offering or asking. Too many ways a bargain can go wrong. Everyone knows that. 

“It’s this.” Redcap Kestrel doesn’t have much of a voice to raise. It’s all tatters and frayed strings in her throat. “When I get your soul back, promise me you’ll wear a sleeve so it doesn’t go wandering again.”

The girl blinks. A sleeve does about as much good as a wish. And it’s hardly a promise worth paying with. “That’s it?”

Redcap Kestrel shrugs. “That’s all.”

The girl hesitates, because nothing in the City is that easy. 

“See,” Redcap Kestrel says, expending more voice and breath than she’s got to spare, “you wouldn’t take help for free, and I wouldn’t give it. So that’s the promise I want.” 

“That’s really all?” the girl whispers.

Another shrug. Redcap Kestrel’s arms are taut with muscle and her shoulders are sharp like metal wings. She’s a half-alive thing, if one looks at her slantwise. She doesn’t wear the guard uniform any longer; all the leather she dons, she tanned it herself. There’s plenty of skin if you know where to look in the City.

In the silence bubbling up between her and the girl, Redcap Kestrel sees all the times gone by when she ignored the helpless, when the desperate crawled to her and she stepped on their throats. There’s a lot of regret built into a hundred years of being half-alive. She’s tired. And this is the first time anyone has been brave enough to ask her for help so directly. The girl knocked so loud on the warehouse door, it was either listen to her story or kill her so she’d quiet up. Redcap Kestrel hadn’t been curious in a long while until the girl, and she wasn’t yet hungry.

“All right.” The girl exhales and blows away the silence and the memories trapped in it. “Deal.”

Redcap Kestrel hops to her feet. “Good. Wait here.” It’s dangerous anywhere else, and she’s got nothing worth the price of stealing. Meat and breath and bone are all that’s worth anything in the City.

Redcap Kestrel lopes to the biggest window, glass tarred black and cracked with many a fist, and slips out into the streets. Her boots are worn thin save for the iron heels, hard enough to bruise a god. Her steps warn away the ones that fall into the predator shade, in that gradient that defines the City.

The thing about souls is that they don’t wander off. Not unless a body is so broken-down that there are too many cracks to hold even breath inside. The girl isn’t that far gone. She’s still strong, still has grit, and still believes in a future. 

So something stole her soul. Redcap Kestrel knows where to look for the things that steal and the things that kill. She lived among them for a long stretch during her existence in the City. She’s haunted and hunted where the buildings crumble, where the damned weep, where the perpetual twilight hides worse monsters than her. It’s like going back to the nightmares grown in a home you don’t remember.

Up on the top of the horizon, the lights of the Prosperous Above shine. No one from the City is allowed past the Prosperous Gates. There are only rumors: clean water, food aplenty, fuel, medical care. It’s said that behind the Prosperous Gates, the grief-eaters can’t find you. A lot is said about the Prosperous Above.

Redcap Kestrel was Prosperous once, long ago, before she ripped the demon from her heart. She doesn’t talk about that time. Her hands ache when she looks up every once in a while, and sees the Prosperous lights mocking the deeps of the City.

The light hurts her eyes, so she’s stopped lifting her head up too far. There’s no reason to look up when you know you’ll never fly again.

§

Redcap Kestrel hasn’t been to the Brittle Warrens in a decade. She lost most of her voice and part of her throat last time. This is the mulched, bog-deep heart of the City. There are things that creep under the salted earth; there are things that crawl through the long-dried gutters; and there are things that cry out, and the things that eat the criers. 

She’s not interested in those things. She’s here to visit the most dangerous person she’s ever known: Windchime Owl, first and last of their name. 

It’s not really fear, per se. Redcap Kestrel doesn’t have much of that left. Really, she’s hard pressed to decide if she feels much at all. This job she does for the girl, this is new, so it brings a spark of anticipation. It keeps her from thinking too much for a day, and that’s a rare treat for a half-alive thing like her. 

The slums are made from dilapidated stone and crusted darkness. The living scuttle close to walls and the dead haunt the narrow streets. The in-betweens are the ones you ought to heed. Redcap Kestrel walks as she always does: head tilted down, arms loose at her sides, her boot heels clicking. She skirts scummy puddles and mite-chewed corpses, steps over potholes lined with old teeth. 

“Where you going, birdie?” calls a grief-eater from the broken curb. It’s stick-like, hungry: long bony limbs canted at uncomfortable angles, a face that’s just a wide, gaping hole rimmed in stretched flesh. 

Redcap Kestrel glances at it sidelong. She still has her red cap: her skull shaved and tattooed scarlet with the litany of her oaths to the Gray Prince. She wears a hood sometimes—not now, she lost it somewhere she doesn’t remember—but those who’ve survived long enough in the City recognize her by her gait alone.

“Going down,” Redcap Kestrel says. 

“I can ease your burdens.” The grief-eater coos, extending a hand nicked with desperation bites. “It doesn’t hurt. Let me have a taste.”

“No,” Redcap Kestrel says, because the grief-eaters always lie. She took one of them to her nest shortly after her fall. Asked it to eat away everything that hurt so she’d be numb. Grief-eaters are a misnomer. They only slake their hunger on the things you want to keep. 

She let hers suck on her body and soul for days, even knowing what it was doing, until it tried to eat the memory of her oath-siblings from the Gray Prince’s guard. Then she killed it. 

This grief-eater is too starved to be a threat. It slumps back against a charred brick wall. There’s so little in the City to feed anyone any longer. 

Redcap Kestrel walks on.

Legend says that the City was built in a crater so wide it could hold an ocean.  There are still stretches of empty rock far, far away, some wanderers claim, where the City hasn’t bled. Redcap Kestrel doesn’t believe those tales. The City is too vast. It’ll have touched those crater edges and spilled over and swallowed whatever is beyond. The Prosperous Above is like the City’s mirror, or maybe its heaven, just as vast and untouchable as the City. 

So down she goes, deeper along broken streets, hopping from stairway to stairway as the City burrows itself forever lower, away from the Prosperous Above’s sight. That doesn’t mean it’s all dark in the Warrens: the light here is soaked with bitterness and spite, a sharp incandescence that will betray you soon as not.

Shadowy things skulk and hiss at her, but they know better than to get too close. She has to eat and she’s not particular about where her meals come from. Redcap Kestrel used to bask in the biggest light of all—a sun? a moon? hard to remember after so long—when she flew in the Prosperous Above. Darkness is easy. She knows the way into the pitted core of the Brittle Warrens; the City won’t let her forget what hurts most. 

And then, sudden like a burst eardrum, she’s in front of Windchime Owl’s palace. The gates are pieced together from bits of finery: quilt squares and finger bones, gold rings and predator teeth, glass fresco tiles and chunks of tanned hide. Basalt pillars and a center post hold up the weight, and a handful of still-living skins sway and shiver miserably, stretched wide with hooks and cord. 

The gate guard, a tremulous shadow stolen from a body once human, bristles at her approach. “Do you have an appointment?”

Redcap Kestrel lifts her chin and tilts her head so the shadow can see her scalp. It flinches away and the gates groan wide.

The maze through the Warrens is nonsensical: mirrors and salt pillars, rusted ore and carved stone, all paths twisting in, out, around. Stairways lead nowhere and pits gape in the walls. She keeps her gaze averted from the darkness, where Windchime Owl’s oldest secrets lie. She walks past a trio of lost souls, all scrabbling at a doorway upside down. Her heels click against mercury glass and she doesn’t look at the visions the mirrored floor shows. She’s not ready to go mad.

At last, at the deepest point in the Warrens, she reaches Windchime Owl.

They sit in a large nest made from fur and silk and lost ideas. They’re wide at the shoulder, head crowned with a white mane of hair, their skin bleached from decades of shriveled light. They’re every inch as terrible and beautiful as Redcap Kestrel remembers. 

Redcap Kestrel inclines her chin, taking a breath. 

“You’re unexpected,” Windchime Owl says, their hands never still as they roll marbles between their palms. “Then again, you’ve always been bold, Red’kes.”

Redcap Kestrel shrugs. “You liked that once, Win’owl.”

“So I did.”

Redcap Kestrel had a name before she joined the Gray Prince’s guard. It’s been scrubbed away: excised when she had her scalp tattooed in the red cap of her fledge. All the guard were identified only by their caps. She had a hundred Redcap sisters, and a hundred Bluecap brothers. Windchime Owl had a name, too, but they’ve never shared it. They were here when the City rose, or so the hauntlings say, and they will be here when the City rots beyond saving.

Windchime Owl seems to be in a good mood, their latest meal still twitching at their feet. “What do you want, Red’kes?”

“Your insight,” she says. “A girl lost her soul. I need to find it.”

“Why?”

Redcap Kestrel expected this. It’s no easier now than when she pondered it on her journey. Windchime Owl hates lies, even the slantwise half-truths and omissions that fuel the world. If Redcap Kestrel is anything but honest, Windchime Owl’s wrath will engulf her, and she isn’t certain she’d win a second fight. Her throat aches where Win’owl’s talons cut her clean to spine.

“I needed help long ago,” she says. ”I should’ve asked.” 

The guard died because of her; all her siblings-in-wing. She lost her pride and her purpose, and she spurned her brother who fought to pull the demon out. Bluecap Shrike defied the Gray Prince, seeing through her, seeing what she had done, and she had refused to let him save her. 

Redcap Kestrel spits the last of her words out, ashamed. “But I didn’t.”

Windchime Owl stretches, their body sinewy and fluid. Once upon an age, they were a Prince—or so the rumors say. A Violet Prince, with Greencaps and Goldcaps flying in formation at their sides. One story claims the Violet Prince forsook their duties and cast down their own legions, seeding the deeps with rage and loss. But it was so long ago, no one really remembers why. There are many stories forgotten in the City.

Windchime Owl hops from their nest and offers a talon-tipped hand to Redcap Kestrel. “Give me a piece of your skin, and I’ll look for this lost-soul.”

“For your collection?”  

Windchime Owl sighs. “To taste. I miss your mouth.”

Redcap Kestrel let the grief-eater suck away the affection she’d once had for Windchime Owl. They’d fought—and Win’owl had ripped out her throat—not because she wanted to leave, but because she’d wanted Windchime Owl to come with her. Let’s leave the City, she said, let us go Above. We can be Prosperous again. Together we can make the climb. She was a fool. Windchime Owl kept the laws and held back the deeper things that churned under the Warrens; if they abandoned the City, it would sink forever beyond reach of the Prosperous Above. Win’owl nursed her into something less broken after she tore the demon from her heart, after she fell, and she’d repaid that poorly. 

“Well?” Windchime Owl says. 

“Agreed.” Redcap Kestrel pulls a razor from her boot. She reaches back and cuts a strip of flesh from her skull, around the curve of bone, blood trickles down her nape. The air bites at raw nerves, and it’s almost refreshing to feel again. She hands Windchime Owl her dripping skin, the piece where tattoos read: and in the sky bright-burning

Windchime Owl inhales as they take the skin, then they swallow it in a single gulp. Redcap Kestrel feels the damp warmth of their throat, the pressure of muscle constricting and pulling her flesh deeper. She shivers, and so does Windchime Owl, as they both savor that moment of devouring.

Then the stinging pain and wetness on her neck jars Redcap Kestrel and she wipes clean her razor. “Uphold your word.”

Windchime Owl’s eyes glaze over, a white film on which flickers a thousand microscopic images. They are the City’s pulse: nothing happens in these streets, in this air, in light or in shadow, that Windchime Owl doesn’t know if they choose. They curl their bare toes into the earth and tip their head back, throat an arch of pale scarring. 

“Oh,” they say after a moment, and there’s distinct … sadness, a regretful lilt in their tone. “Red’kes, you won’t like who took your girl’s soul.”

“Who?”

“Your brother.”

§

Windchime Owl tells her she can find the thief in the Lovers Quarter. Redcap Kestrel hasn’t felt shock in years. That electric moment, that impossible revelation, makes her breath catch.

And then cynicism, the fabric of reality, wraps about her once more. She has no brothers any longer. All her sibling-guards are dead.

Whoever this thief is, she will find it, kill it, and return the girl’s soul. Another day will settle into calendar dust and blur into the palette of time. Nothing changes much in the City.

Your brother.

Windchime Owl can’t lie, which is why they hate falsehood so fiercely. The words burr under Redcap Kestrel’s ear, an itch she can’t scratch. 

She races back through the Warrens, an urgency she doesn’t want to dissect burning her muscles. She must hurry. Souls don’t keep long when stolen from bodies, and she’s moved ponderously, deliberately, until now.

Running hurts and makes her think of the clouds.

She used to fly. As one of the Gray Prince’s guard, she had wings of silk and steel and shadow, etched with scarlet spellwork. The magic came from the Gray Prince’s blood: it flared brilliantly in the light, full of grandeur when she flew in formation. It skewered her enemies’ gaze in battle and her wings pierced the sky like blades. 

The Gray Prince was the first to die under her hand when the demon gnawed at her heart, and afterward, she cut off her wings and jumped into the City below. The demon kept her alive. The fall hurt.

She runs faster, now, her boots a staccato heartbeat on the streets. Her breath rattles in her throat, an enhanced pain that siphons away memories of the sky. 

The Lovers Quarter is a killing ground. 

Once, the Prosperous Above’s light reached deep enough to kindle old spheres, globes of living silk that floated pale and luminescent over the park. Like moth-lures, the spheres promised tranquility and revealed only death. The Prosperous came down on moth-dust kites tethered Above to hunt the bedazzled City denizens, a sport that soon turned rancid. The Prosperous gutted the spheres for the light they didn’t need, filled with arrogance as bright as Above.

So the shadow things and the hunter things and the mad things rose up and snipped the kite tethers. Without a way back, the Prosperous were trapped. The City things left Prosperous’ bones stripped and glistening in the streets until all the ground was carpeted in calcium and splinters. The things that lived in the City caged the richest and most delicate trophies in blown glass, and the bones eventually stopped wailing. 

Redcap Kestrel reaches the stones rimming the Lovers Quarter like islands from the floor of bones. She crouches, breathing ragged. The Lovers Quarter sank, like everything in the City does, until it is now a steep-walled pit with glass jars hung like lamps about the edges. She sees the thief ambling towards the lowest gouge of the quarter: the murky waters of the underground spring, thick with sulfur and despair. 

It’s human, skeletal, and wearing the scavenged blue rags of a guard uniform. A Bluecap’s threads. That dishonor of her old life sparks her rage like kindling. She lunges across the street, toward the edge. The thief spins around and stares up at her.

Redcap Kestrel stills, cold and motionless as a fresco. 

Below in the pit is the demon she ripped from her heart. It’s latched onto Bluecap Shrike, clinging to the base of his skull. 

Her oath-brother. One of the Gray Prince’s Hawks: elite, proud, fearless. All dead now. Except her. She thought she was the last, when she watched Bluecap Shrike fall, broken-winged, into the Deathshead River so long ago. 

Windchime Owl never lies.

Shrike was a Redcap, briefly, before he came out as a man. The tattoos on his scalp are more purple than blue, and it didn’t matter, for the Bluecaps welcomed him. He was Redcap Kestrel’s brother-in-arms, her closest friend, and he was her anchor when she flew too high on arrogance. He had never betrayed the Gray Prince. She hadn’t let him save her.

And now he’s here, possessed and dying, just as she once was, deep in the City.

He lifts his chin, staring up at her with glassy eyes. The demon’s tendrils wrap his throat and dig into his ears. The demon is smarter now: it took his head instead of his heart, where it’s harder to wrench loose.

Redcap Kestrel takes a breath, air hissing through her tattered throat. “We’re not finished, demon.”  

She knows this wretched thing. It is jealousy and greed and dissatisfaction. It will never be sated. She let it into her heart when she thought it would please her Gray Prince: she thought it would make her faster, stronger, more brilliant than any of the other guards, and the Gray Prince would look on her with favor. 

She knows now that they never saw her, nor any of their guard. All were peripheral to the Gray Prince’s own glory. Now she’s a half-alive thing, and still has her red cap and disappointment takes a long time to die.

The demon wrenches its teeth from Bluecap Shrike, and her oath-brother collapses. His lips are already tinged drowning-gray. She doesn’t let herself flinch. 

The demon wriggles. You came to us.

“That’s right,” Redcap Kestrel says, extending her hand and clenching her fist in challenge. “You belong to me.”

The demon flies at her, a spill of burned oil, once as addicting as poppy and as beautiful as obsidian and as tempting as forgiveness. It ripples with teeth and hook-tipped legs and it smells of decay. She dives down to meet it in mid-air. She has no wings, but she’s never forgotten how to fall in the City.

The demon’s greasy film bites down hard into her shoulder, coiling about her arm and neck. She carries it to the ground, landing hard on her back in the bones. She rolls, crunching brittle, bleached remains. The sound is like her heels: sharp and hard and echoing. The demon’s teeth nick her collarbone.

It used to suck at the inside of her neck, sensuous, the stinging pain arousing as promises of glory. She saw the Gray Prince embrace her, call her their favored, and her wings turned silver at their touch.

Redcap Kestrel lurches to her feet. She pries one-handed at the demon, her left arm numbed by its venom. The demon grinds through muscle, down into her breast, seeking the heat in her ribs. It is so much smaller than she remembers. When she first found it, when it crawled from the edge of the City into the Prosperous Above, it was mighty as a Prince itself. An eagle made of inverse light. Now it scarce stretches the length of her arms spread wide.

It wants her heart, like it did before. It wants to fill her with its twisted dreams and promises of void. It wants to devour her like it does everything else, pressing visions into her eyes so she won’t notice how weak she’s become. 

She senses where it’s been. The demon, riding Bluecap Shrike, has preyed on the weary and made the poor hopeless. She tastes the dozen lives it has sucked dry since she drove it out. 

If you had only kept us, there would be no need for such waste, the demon hums. It is your fault we needed to feed so often. The blood is on your hands.

She gasps, sinking to one knee. Faces blur like smoke before her, screaming, wailing, pleading, dying. Ten, then twenty, then—then Bluecap Shrike, and after him, more and more and more and more, unless she accepts it back, unless she surrenders. 

Together, they will grow strong. Together, she and her demon will feed on Windchime Owl and the haunts and the girls who work the brickyards and the children in the river-reeds, and the people who beg for crumbs and the grief-eaters who crumple in alleyways: all will welcome her devouring, for there is nothing left to live for in the City. 

The girl’s soul is but a morsel in the demon’s belly; it is being digested with tantalizing slowness, and Redcap Kestrel can know that satiating fullness herself. 

Let go, you need us, you want us, you are nothing without us. Let us in, and we will let you climb from this tomb, take your place Above!

No one escapes the City.

We can, the demon says. 

“I’m too weak,” she says. She isn’t bound to absolute truth. “Share your feast … give me … strength …”

The demon undulates. It coughs up the girl’s soul and Redcap Kestrel catches it, tucks it in her palm.

Then she stops fighting. The demon squirms and digs and she grits her teeth against the pain—so sharp and fresh—as it slithers fully into her body, worming through her meat, and at last: it sinks into her heart. Not just the muscle and fat and veins, but deeper, into her innermost self. 

Its glee echoes through her like a cleaving knife, for now it can drain her like it has always wanted, revenge itself on her for disowning it. It will eat her heart and make her watch every delicious, spiteful bite—

Redcap Kestrel laughs. She throws her head back and her splintered laughter bounces from the glass orbs and the shattered bones in the Lovers’ Garden. 

Inside her, the demon screams in rage. 

Her heart is empty, already hollowed out. And now the demon is trapped, nestled in emptiness, where it will wither and starve, and she laughs, she laughs, she laughs. 

Her body remembers; her bones and her flesh and her blood all recall how they were sustained on the demon’s vast, plentiful bounty. Meat doesn’t forget in the City.

She’s hungry, and with the girl’s soul caught safely in her gloved palm, she has nothing else to eat except the squirming, wretched thing inside her heart. The demon shrieks, the demon flails, the demon is being devoured from within one spiteful, delicious bite at a time.

Redcap Kestrel’s body contorts as it remembers how to feed. She arches her back, jaw locked. Only the wound in her shoulder offers escape.

The demon, shredded into fragments of what it was, makes one last desperate escape. It is scarce the size of a singular wrist bone. It drills up through its entry passage and writhes like a maggot, one broken hook-leg caught on her collarbone. 

She grips the demon’s slippery body. Her arm is not so numbed anymore, nurtured by the demon’s sustenance. It writhes and thrashes, but she holds tight. She crushes it slow and methodical in her fist. Panicked, it squirts fresh memory at her.

Down deep in the City, a girl lost her soul. It was stolen in the night: cold hands choking her silent, greedy teeth sucking her wrist and yanking out her deepest self. She’s ashamed that she didn’t fight harder. Didn’t leave more than a scrape of nails on the thief’s arms. The girl cried. The thief was gone, leaving her gasping and hollowed out. The demon likes shame. So heavy and rancid, dripping thick into the heart, where it rots away the will to live.

Redcap Kestrel remembers shame, oh yes she does, the burning horror of her willing betrayal, the knife she slit the Gray Prince’s throat with. Remember how their eyes met hers, so full of hatred? Or the shame as she burned the rookeries and let her brothers and her sisters drift on ash. Oh, that deep and abiding shame that curdles her soul, the shame that will never let her forget what she has done—

“You’re too late for that,” Redcap Kestrel tells the demon. “I don’t need you any longer.”

It squirms, spitting again into her eye. 

It can find the others of her rookeries, the lost ‘caps scattered through the city! It can—

—die. But not with her.

She lowers it to the ground and crushes it with her heel. Grinds her boot down until there is nothing left of the demon but a smear of discontent. It squeals and the City swallows its final cry. The demon is dead. 

She allows herself one shuddering sigh and wipes her face. Her shoulder will heal. She’s not as hungry as once she was.

Redcap Kestrel sprints across the pit to where Bluecap Shrike lies prone. He’s half-alive, like she always is. His body is more bone strung together with stretched skin and fragile tendons. He’s starving and he’s alone, but he lives

Redcap Kestrel kneels. She cups the back of his skull in her free palm, supporting his neck. Blood seeps between her fingers. 

“Red’kes?”

She nods. “Hey, Bluetop.”

“You …” He coughs, a rasp-rattle of air in his lungs. “Look good.”

Redcap Kestrel can’t stop a twitch of a smile. “You don’t.”

“Harsh as always.” His eyes roll back. “Why’d you come?”

She has no satisfactory answer. If she’d known he still lived, would she have sought him out? She’s not much for what-ifs or probabilities. So long she’s endured, a half-alive thing, day to day, carried along by apathy and stupor in the City. 

“There’s a girl,” Redcap Kestrel says. “Needed someone to help her.”

Bluecap Shrike’s mouth quirks. He slides one hand atop hers behind his skull. “You would.”

“Learned it from you.” The wound across her scalp still aches, crusted in scabs. She matches him now. They used to compare scars and he won more often than she. Redcap Kestrel lifts him into her arms. “You never let go.”

His head lolls onto her shoulder. “Not ‘til you do.”

§

Redcap Kestrel carries her oath-brother through the City, untiring. She ignores the begging of grief-eaters, the threats from those who remember the Gray Prince’s guard, the offers to buy what’s left of Bluecap Shrike for soup. 

She lays him in her nest to sleep. 

“Red’kes?” 

“Here,” she says. 

She unfolds her old guard uniform from where it’s collected dust, fabric that once wrapped her in glory. It’s just a coat now. It’ll keep him warm.

§

The lost girl is still where Redcap Kestrel left her. It’s been a long time since someone genuinely surprised her.

“Didn’t know where else was safe,” the girl mumbles, hunch-shouldered and wary. Under the defensive cowl there’s something else Redcap Kestrel hasn’t seen in years: possibility.

The girl slept restlessly but safely, she says, and without dreams manifesting. This building is painted thick with Redcap Kestrel’s viscera, one brush-full at a time. She’s got her own nest and nightmares can’t intrude. If you live this long in the City, it’s because you learned how to survive. 

“Don’t lose it again,” Redcap Kestrel says, and hands the girl back her soul. 

The girl swallows it down and looks at her wrist, which glows again with the faint imprint of life. Her name’s embedded in those lines and dots. Redcap Kestrel doesn’t read it, though. If the girl wants her to know, the girl will share.

“Here,” Redcap Kestrel says, offering the scrap of her jacket hem. Too much effort to sew it back on. And then, because she’s still raw, and hasn’t let herself scar, she adds, “If you need somewhere to stay, there’s room here.” 

The girl nods. She wraps her wrist, and inhales like she hasn’t breathed in days. “Thanks.”

Redcap Kestrel shrugs, missing the weight of her wings. She limps to her nest, her heels dulled, and snuggles against her brother.

§

When Redcap Kestrel wakes again, Bluecap Shrike is drowsing by her side, and the girl hasn’t gone. She’s leaning on a shovel, her pickax slung over her shoulder. The coat hem is still bound tight about her wrist. 

“I’ll earn my keep,” she says, chin thrust out. “I like it here better than the brickyards. This place could use some renovations.”

Redcap Kestrel blinks. Bluetop will need his own nest when he’s strong enough, and after that? Perhaps she’ll try and think of a future. She could use some help, and the girl is offering. 

Hope isn’t as rare as it used to be, not even this deep in the City.

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© Merc Fenn Wolfmoor

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