Updated: Feb 19, 2021
It had already been a long, exhausting day when the girl’s body washed up on the bank of the Brightwash.
Tashué Blackwood trudged up the street, feeling the weariness in every part of his body. His station house had always been short-handed, but since one of their Regulation Officers died, everyone was working to the very limit of their strength. Some days he scarcely knew what time it was, what month it was, hours and weeks blending together into a trek through the city, knocking on doors, asking questions, filing endless stacks of paperwork at the station house.
Pint Under the Rail was a natural rest stop for him and the other Regulation Officers of Station House 15. As he headed toward the rickety little pub, tucked up against the elevated tram line that shuffled workers around the city, he heard the angry squeal of an infant.
He walked faster.
One of the Regulation Officers he worked with—the newest of them, Beckett Collstone—was in front of the Pint Under already, standing beside his wife. They had a pram between them, and his wife rocked it, trying to calm the angry little hurricane inside, but the babe wailed louder.
“Collstone, you finally brought your baby,” Tashué said, stopping in front of the pram. “She doesn’t look too pleased.”
“No, sir, I guess not. Minna wanted to meet me for breakfast this morning, since I’ve been so busy, but little miss seems unimpressed with us for bringing her out in the cold.”
“I don’t want to be a bother, Beckett,” Minna said. Her cheeks were flushed, but her eyes were distant and tired. Tashué knew that look, that new-parent panic. “If she’s only going to scream, I don’t want to disturb everyone.”
“Nonsense, Miss Collstone,” Tashué said. “Sometimes they just get overly tired and can’t settle. Can I try?”
“Oh, please, Mr. Blackwood.”
Tashué swept the baby up in his arms. She fit so nicely against his shoulder, even though her whole body was rigid with fury. “There now, sweet girl. Let’s go warm up inside, see if that improves your mood.”
He headed up the stairs with the infant at his shoulder, patting her back. Sweet North Star, how long had it been since his son was this small? He missed the simplicity of it sometimes. Some people hated the sound of a baby crying, especially when they had strong lungs and all the rage of Beckett’s girl, but there was something easy about it. Babies cried, and you did your best to comfort them. Eventually, you found the thing that helped them, and they stopped. Sure, you were so tired that you couldn’t think and you began to wonder if you would ever sleep again. But Tashué had learnt in the cavalry how to sleep standing up or sitting in the saddle, just for a moment. Just long enough that he wouldn’t keel over from the exhaustion. And when they were babies, you didn’t have to worry about the decisions they made. All you had to do was feed them and cuddle them and wait for their fury to exhaust itself.
“Beckett, you brought the baby!”
Tashué looked down the bar, where Kazrani leaned over her breakfast. She slid off her stool to meet Tashué, reaching up and sliding a tender hand across the back of the baby’s head.
“Heavens, she’s got a set of lungs, hey? What are you so mad about, missus?” The baby knotted a little fist in one of Kazrani’s black braids, catching one of the silk ribbons. She grimaced as she teased the baby’s hand open. “Did you finally settle on a name for her?”
“We named her Lenora, after Beckett’s mother,” Minna said.
“I told her she didn’t have to,” Beckett said, shaking his head. “My mother always had a temper. Now the baby’s taken after the name, I think.”
“Let me try, sometimes they just need a bounce,” Kazrani said, reaching.
Tashué batted her hands away. “Back off, Lieutenant. I haven’t held a baby in ages.”
“Whose fault is that, then?” Kazrani muttered, but she retreated to her stool. “You’re perfectly capable of making a few, if you would settle on a woman to make them with.”
“Ha. I’ve done enough damage to the world with my offspring, thank you. The world doesn’t need any more Blackwoods.”
“There’s only the two of you,” Kazrani scoffed.
Tashué shrugged. “That’s plenty and you know it.”
“Another whisky morning, is it, Mr. Blackwood?” Pallwyth, the bartender, asked.
“Yes please, Mr. Pallwyth. Angry babies aside, it’s been a long morning.”
Pallwyth poured a generous measure of the cheapest whisky he had as Tashué rubbed Lenora’s back, adopting the bounce and sway that always calmed Jason. Little by little, he could feel her start to relax. The warmth of his body and the heat in the room worked its magic, and she slumped against him. She was still crying, but it was half-hearted and unconvincing. It was the first time in so long that he’d been able to solve such a simple problem.
He shifted little Lenora’s weight so that she sat in the crook of his arm. Her face was still red from all the yelling, but her features settled into something peaceful as she sank down into sleep. Her hat, displaced by the way he shifted her, revealed her wispy dark hair, which was starting to develop little curls. Minna stepped closer, untying the baby’s hat with swift fingers and taking it off.
“You’re a miracle worker,” she breathed.
Tashué settled on his stool, scooping up the whisky. “You just have to be more stubborn than they are. Outlast them.” He threw it back in one swallow. The copper whisky was the very worst money could buy—blended whisky made from the rejected batches from various distilleries in the city. It probably wouldn’t kill you, but it burned like acid all the way down. “I’ll hold her a while, if the two of you would like to eat with your hands free.”
“Thank you, sir,” Beckett said, settling beside Tashué. “Are your services available at night, too, or do we have to bring her down to the pub every time?”
Tashué sighed. “Would that I had time to come cuddle your baby for you at night. I still haven’t assessed all of the cases I got from Maccus.”
“You should eat something too, Mr. More Stubborn Than Babies,” Kazrani said. She had already finished her bowl of the stew Pallwyth made—usually plenty of onions and potatoes and whatever scraps of meat were available—and took a bite out of a thick slab of dark bread. “You can’t survive on whisky, coffee, and sweets alone.”
Tashué shrugged, but only gently, nestling baby Lenora tighter to his body. “My hands are busy.”
“Give him a mug of it, Mr. Pallwyth. That way he can pretend it’s whisky and knock it back.”
Pallwyth grinned. “Good idea, Lieutenant.” He stepped to the wood stove he kept behind the bar with him. Now that the oppressive heat of the summer faded into autumn, Pallwyth stoked the fire in the stove to keep the dining room warm, and the kettle of stew took up residence on top of it. Pallwyth ladled a measure of stew into a tin mug and delivered it to Tashué.
The door swung open, letting in the noise of the street. It seemed louder than usual, more urgent. Another of their Officers, Duskan Hillbraun, stepped in, his eyes sweeping the inside of the pub. He scowled at Tashué.
“Who gave the ass a baby?”
Minna bristled, but Beckett lay a hand on her back as he leaned around her to look at Duskan. “You’re especially sour this morning. I take it things didn’t go well with the Derccian woman from the songhouse?”
“I didn’t like her that much anyway,” Duskan muttered, settling on the other side of Kazrani and nodding at Pallwyth. “Is that your baby, Collstone?”
“Lenora,” Beckett said. “Cute, isn’t she? Looks just like her mother.”
Duskan grunted. “If you say so.”
“Don’t mind him, Miss Collstone,” Kazrani said, leaning around Tashué to look down the bar at Minna. “He’s sour with everyone.”
The sounds of the commotion outside permeated through the closed door. It sent a wave of agitation through Tashué, making him want to stand, but the weight of baby Lenora kept him in his seat. “What’s going on outside?”
“Outside?” Duskan asked. “Fuck, what would I care? Something down by the riverbank.”
How could the man wear the tin badge of the National Tainted Registration Authority and not be drawn to the chaos? How could he not want to help?
Tashué bit back a curse, drinking the cup of stew as quickly as he could. It was hot and salty, almost washing away the burn of whisky still on his tongue. He stood carefully, passing Lenora off to her mother. He needed to know.
He pushed the door open, and the sound amplified in front of him. It hit him like a wall of anxiety, rippling up from the crowd at the end of the street, where the cobbles gave way to the bank of the Brightwash. The street used to lead to a bridge that spanned the water, but it had been abandoned when sturdier bridges were built for the tram. The support pilings were still driven into the rocky bank, but the rest of the bridge was gone, materials salvaged for other things. The crowd pressed in close to the pilings, jostling against each other, collecting like a blood clot in an open wound. Their chattering filled his ears like the rattling of the tram, loud and trying to drown out coherent thought, but he kept walking, drawn to chaos as if he was bound to it with a rope. He was only distantly aware of Kazrani following him. She always followed him, no matter what. Beckett had followed her, and Duskan was dragged along in their wake by some fear of being left behind.
A woman lay stretched out on the ground, her own smaller crowd gathered around her. People fanned her face and called to her, trying to rouse her. Tashué made his way down the sloping streets. The cobbles ended a few yards from the water’s edge, giving way to shale that crunched and shifted beneath his boots. He pushed his way into the crowd, until the mass of jostling bodies ended abruptly.
The girl had washed up on the bank among the detritus and trash that was carried through the city. Tiny and grey-fleshed, her body was made smaller and more heart-wrenching by her terrible mutilations. Her arms and legs had been cut away at shoulder and hip. Most of the wounds had healed, long keloid scars left in place where the flesh had been stitched back together, but one of the arm wounds was gaping and vile. Infection had eaten away at skin and tissue, so deep and raw that Tashué saw bone. Death and the river had cleansed her body of the usual redness and swelling and pus that came from such a terrible infection, but flies buzzed around the dead meat and the smell of rot wafted on the breeze. Her hair had been cut close to the scalp, leaving only black fuzz as it tried to grow back.
Her face punched Tashué the hardest, despite all the gruesomeness of the state of her. There was a familiarity to her features—the black hair, brown eyes warm despite their blank emptiness. Was it his imagination, that made him see his own son? Or was it the Rift, just upriver, looming over his shoulder like the whole edifice was watching him? The Residential Institute for Feral Tainted and Non-Compliants. Could the girl be from that place? It seemed a foolish thought—she was too young to have quickened yet. Without a woken Talent, there was no need for her to register, thus no reason for her to be processed to the Rift. Tashué’s son was in there, locked away for refusing to register. But Jason wasn’t a child anymore, and this girl would never grow up.
“Get people back.” The words came almost unbidden from Tashué’s chest, but uttering them dragged him back to himself and out of the trance that the little dead girl had laid on him. “Get all these people back. And send for the Patrollers.”
Kazrani nodded and turned on her heel, Beckett following her example. Duskan stood firmly in place, staring. He hadn’t served in the military, unlike most Regulation Officers. Had he seen many dead bodies in his life? The world was a hard place, Yaelsmuir a hard city. But not everyone had death in their immediate orbit with such a simple, ugly truth. A child, no less.
His name snapped Duskan out of his stupor and his wide eyes found Tashué’s face.
“Get the people back before they touch anything.”
“Not my job, is it?” Duskan sneered, the cloak of anger falling over him. “I’m a Regulation Officer and she’s no tainted. Too young.”
Tashué shook his head. “Doesn’t matter. Someone has to take control until the Patrollers get here with a surgeon. They’ll have questions.”
“What difference does it make? Surgeon won’t help her none.”
Tashué gritted his teeth against the wave of frustration. “Surgeon’s job is to declare her dead.”
“Anyone with eyes can declare her dead!”
“Mr. Hillbraun,” Tashué snapped, “get the crowd back!”
Duskan stepped away from Tashué, turning to the crowd, but he was still frozen, staring while Kazrani and Beckett herded the people away. It seemed so quiet without the crowd pressing down on the back of Tashué’s neck, the babbling of the river almost drowning them out once they were further away.
“Make way! Make way for the Patrol!” A thin, reedy voice asked for passage through the crowd, lacking the authority to move all those bodies.
Kazrani added her voice to the din and Tashué glanced over his shoulder to see the crowd part. A boy pushed through, long and lanky and dressed in the uniform of the City Civilian Patrol, the black linen crisp and starched. Acne and facial hair vied for territory along his jaw. The boy froze at the sight of the child, going near as grey as she was. The surgeon burst through the milling bodies next, round and sweating and breathing hard.
“Aw, hell,” the surgeon muttered, moving across the bank with faltering steps. “Hell.” He made a slow circuit around the body, oblivious to the water lapping at his shoes.
The Patroller’s attention was riveted to the child’s body. He gagged, then snapped his teeth shut and swallowed hard. Tashué looked at him, at his wide eyes and grey face. He was so terribly young.
“What’s your name, son?”
The Patroller looked at Tashué, his eyes uncomprehending at first. “What?”
“Jonhan, sir. Or, City Civilian Patroller Jonhan Kiplar, that is.”
“You need more Patrollers here, Kiplar.”
The boy nodded, his bowler sliding down over his eyes. “There’s more coming. I was the closest. But there’s more coming.”
“You should start talking to people,” Tashué said. “You need to find out what people know.”
“Yes, you’re right, sir. I know. It’s just—I’ve never handled a murder before. I wouldn’t know where to start.”
Tashué nodded toward the crowd. “Start with the man closest you, ask if he knows anything.”
“Yes, sir.” Kiplar headed back across the bank, fumbling for his pencil and pad in his breast pocket.
Turning back to the child, Tashué saw that the surgeon had finally eased himself closer. Tashué looked down at the girl’s face again, the familiarity of her making him ache. The little girl didn’t have the hair to hide her ears. Some rational part of Tashué recognized how ridiculous it was that, of all the obscenities that had befallen the girl, he was fixated on her hair.
A hand gripped Tashué by the arm, pulling at his attention so abruptly that it almost startled him. He dragged his eyes away from the girl, finding Kazrani standing beside him, looking at him intently. Had she said something?
“I said, Patrollers are here. We should leave them to it.”
Tashué almost turned to follow her. One of the Patrollers stepped back toward the cobbles, waving his arms at the crowd to shoo them off.
“Time to leave! Off to your business now, the lot of you. Off now. Time to go!”
Kiplar staggered across the open space, pad and pencil still in his hand. “Sir, this man here suggested I talk to the crowd and see if anyone knows anything, sir.”
The older Patroller turned to Tashué, giving him a hard stare. “Are you in service of the city, Mister . . .?”
“Blackwood. I’m a Regulation Officer.”
“Ah, well. Thank you, sir, for your service, but unless this child is tainted, you have no authority here.”
Kiplar shifted, looking down at his notebook. “So, we aren’t to question the crowd, sir?”
“This child washed down the river, Kipper.”
Kiplar grimaced at the nickname, but didn’t say anything.
“Doubtful any of the crowd knows anything at all,” the Patroller went on. “We shan’t be wasting our time with questions that’ve no answers. Thank you for your advice, Mr. Blackwood, but we have the girl now.”
“There’s more to know than simply who she is.” Something frantic built in Tashué’s chest, something wild and raw. It had been a long time since he’d looked down on the body of a child so horribly mutilated. Not since he was a soldier had he seen such violence perpetrated on a child and he couldn’t bring himself to walk away. Not with the knowledge that she would be discarded and forgotten, as if she were another pile of trash from the river. And with the memory of Lenora’s weight in his arms, no less. He took a slow, deep breath, fighting through the rising tide of agitation. “Did anyone touch anything when they found the body? How long ago was it found? Did anyone pass here regularly enough to be able to help identify when it might have washed up?”
Kazrani edged closer still, tugging at Tashué’s arm. “Captain, we should go. This isn’t our job.”
Tashué pulled his arm away from Kazrani’s grasp. “I’m staying.”
The Patroller glared hard at Tashué, his neck turning deep red. Before he could say anything, someone in the crowd stepped forward. A woman, a great shock of grey hair piled atop her head.
“I was here earlier, sir. It was seven, maybe eight in the morning. There was no child here then.”
Tashué met the Patroller’s stare. “There, see? There is information.” He turned to the crowd. “Who else passed this way?”
Kazrani sighed. “Tashué…”
A great barrel of a man with a scraggly black beard stepped forward. “I did, sir, ‘bout a half hour ago!”
“Take notes, Patroller Kiplar,” Tashué said. “You never know what might help.”
“That’s quite alright, Kipper, there’s no need,” the Patroller grunted. His words sounded calm, but a glance across him showed his frustration, the way he had puffed out his chest like a game cock, the way he had both his fists clenched. “Mr. Blackwood is going now and he’ll leave the investigation to the investigators.”
“But, sir, my son found the girl!” Another woman had moved forward through the crowd. “He saw the body by the bank before anyone else. I sent him on home ahead of me, but I can have him back here if you wish to speak to him.”
“That’s quite alright, ma’am, I’ve no need to make matters worse by involving other children in this ugliness. You go home to your son, now. The Patrol is here and we shall handle things.”
Anger burned in Tashué’s chest. He reached for his cigarillo case, going through the motions of lighting one to help hold back the frustration. “The Civilian Patrol has a puzzling way of investigating things if it’s their policy not to ask questions.”
“That’s quite enough Mr. Blackwood!”
Tashué swung to the woman. “Ma’am, would you escort Patroller Kiplar to your home so that he might have a word with your son?”
“Yes, of course,” the woman said. “Anything for the wee one.”
Kiplar and the woman slipped away as Bowman fumed.
“Mr. Blackwood!” the Patroller snapped.
“Yes, sir, I see your cock swinging in the breeze,” Tashué said. He clamped his cigarillo between his lips to free his hands, retrieving his charcoal pencil from another pocket. “I’m sorry for threatening your manliness and all that.” Unwinding a section of twine to reveal the end of the charcoal, he opened his penknife to sharpen the pencil to a good tip. “But the City Civilian Patrol is named not because they patrol civilians, but because they are a patrol made of civilians. Seems pedantic, I know, but it’s an important difference.” Satisfied with the tip, he folded up the penknife and replaced it in his pocket, retrieving his notepad. “Since you’re a civilian, and I am a Regulation Officer, I do technically have authority over you.”
“I’m not tainted, sir!” the Patroller snapped.
Tashué shook his head. “You aren’t listening. I never implied that. No matter the circumstances, any person serving as a Regulation Officer holds implicit jurisdiction over any civilian. Even though neither you nor the child are registered, I can help to direct your investigation. And I’m telling you, sir, that you’re to question this crowd for any information they might have so that you, sir, have a chance of discovering who mutilated and murdered a child. Am I clear, Civilian Patroller?”
The Patroller shifted his weight from one foot to the other, a bit of his bluster fading away. He seemed frozen in place, his eyes flicking around the crowd as if he were trying to decide exactly how intimidated he was.
“I said,” Tashué snapped, using his best military voice, “am I clear, Civilian Patroller?”
“Tashué.” Kazrani stood at his elbow and Tashué could feel the energy of her, a twisting, roiling knot of frustration. He couldn’t bear to look her in the eye and see that look she had when she thought he was wrong. “We should go. Leave it to the Patrollers. We’ve our own work to do, don’t we? We all have too many files to manage and we don’t have time to stand around here. It isn’t our job.”
Tashué snarled, swinging on her. “Go then, Kaz! You have better things to do, fine. Go!”
“He’s fucking losing it,” Duskan laughed.
Tashué didn’t look at Duskan because if he did, he would smash the man’s face to pieces. He kept eye contact with Kazrani instead, his anger a shield against the sadness and the disappointment in her face. “Go ahead. Leave. You have more important things to do than find out who mutilated a child and left her body in the river.”
“Don’t look at me like that, Tashué Blackwood,” Kazrani hissed, his anger only serving to wake some of hers. “I didn’t kill her.”
“Don’t you want to know who did?”
“What does it matter who did it? She won’t be any less dead if we know how she got there. You’re the one that just said you don’t have any extra time!”
Tashué shook his head, biting back the angry retort. He took a pull from his cigarillo instead, turning away from Kazrani. He took a deep breath as he listened to her walk away, studying the girl instead. When he was sure he understood the shape of the girl’s face, he set the first sweeping lines to the paper with the charcoal pencil. The sketch came together quickly on his page, only a rough drawing to help him remember the details, like the round cheeks that weren’t pudgy enough for a child so young and the long lines of her neck suggesting she would be tall if she had been given the chance to grow. The heart-shaped mouth, the broad, flat nose that reminded him of Keoh.
At the sound of running footsteps, Tashué looked over his shoulder. Kiplar was returning, bless him, his overly large coat flapping around him as he ran, one hand clutching his bowler to his head. He skidded to a stop at Tashué’s side, his chest heaving.
“I spoke to the boy. He hadn’t much to say, sir.”
Tashué sighed, shaking his head at the fresh wave of frustration. “Children are notoriously hard to question. Have one of your comrades help you search the bank.”
“The bank, sir?”
“The riverbank.” Tashué nodded upriver. The thought came again, intrusive and obsessive, like ice flowing through his body. Could she be from the Rift? The rational parts of his mind told him it didn’t make sense, and yet, he couldn’t escape the fear of that place, the loathing for it.
“Yes, sir.” Kiplar hadn’t moved away, looking at Tashué with wide eyes. “It’s only that… well, sir, there is a rather lot of debris along the bank. How am I to know what pertains to the girl, sir?”
Tashué sighed, tearing his eyes from the Rift and looking down at the bank again. Kiplar was right, of course. There was so much trash, how could anyone tell what might help? “Just look to see if there are any other bodies, Kiplar. We should know what exactly we’re dealing with.”
The youth darted away, gathering one of his colleagues to ease along the bank, heading upriver. The loose stone was slippery underfoot as they neared the water’s edge and their movements were slow. They locked arms with each other, and Tashué was pleased to see them moving with their eyes fixed on the ground, the toes of their boots nudging whatever they passed before they moved on.
At the sound of cursing, Tashué turned back to the child. Bowman and the surgeon were wrestling the girl onto a stretcher that the surgeon had brought with him. Tashué saw something as they lifted her, a flash of faded black on grey and white mottled skin.
“Wait,” Tashué breathed. He stepped closer and retrieved his pad. “Hold her there.”
“What now?” the Patroller snapped. He looked precarious, leaning over the child’s body, hands tucked beneath her side as he tried to find purchase to lift her.
“There’s something there, on the back of her neck.” Tashué dropped to one knee. The rocks were damp from the river. He reached out, gently lifting the child’s shaved head. Her skin was cold, her skull heavy and limp, the stubble of her hair prickly and rough. There was a tattoo across the back of her neck, a scrawl of numbers in a combination Tashué didn’t recognize. He scribbled them down, 1693-0237-4494.
“What’s that, then?” The Patroller shifted, peering down at the tattoo. He shifted his grip to free a hand and reached out, running his thick fingers across the tattoo as if to check if it was real. “Who tattoos a child?”
“I don’t know.” Tashué flipped his notebook closed again. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Bowman cursed as the child slipped from his grasp, her body falling hard among the stones. Tashué winced, but he reminded himself that she was beyond such simple things as pain and discomfort. Bowman took a step back, plucking a kerchief from his pocket and wiping his hands. Tashué slid his hands under the child’s back, lifting her carefully. The sickly sweet rot smell of death wafted over Tashué, but such smells had long since lost their hold on him. She was terribly light even though she was all dead weight, her torso swollen with the onset of decay. He set her gently on the canvas of the stretcher, pausing to brush some dirt from her cheek.
“Where does the Patrol take bodies?”
“There’s a crematorium down in the Bay that handles cases like this,” the Patroller said, and the bluster had fallen away. Maybe a dead and mutilated child did affect him after all. “There’ll be a notice in all the papers that we’ve found a child and if no one claims her in two days, she’ll be incinerated. City doesn’t waste space in the graveyards for bodies no one claims.”