cover art by Harry Monster
Part 1: Seen and Not Heard
She knew the City like the back of her hand. It had many names, but to her it was just the City. She lived in the poor section, the “Outer Ring.” The buildings were actually newer than in the wealthier sections, yet they looked older, black and scarred and in disrepair. Their dark windows yawned like the eyes of skulls. She knew their long faces like the faces of old friends.
She sat atop one now, gazing down from the edge of the roof at the men and women walking below. She knew many of their faces too, though only a few knew her. Seldom did she walk among them, for she preferred to live above. There sat the homeless men on the street corners, begging for a pittance. There marched the pair of watchmen – just two men to cover so many streets. They would never notice her.
At length she spotted a mark: a traveling merchant, obviously new in town. From the furtive way he glanced at every alley, she doubted he would soon return once he had left the City behind. Good.
She ran to the corner of the roof, slipped over the edge, and plunged into the deep shadows of the alley below. Climbing the side of a building was as easy to her as running along the ground. She saw handholds quickly, jumped to them without fear, and she always landed on her feet. Some of her friends called her reckless… but then, she currently only had one friend.
When her soft shoes – more like foot-wrappings, really – landed on the ground, she whispered into the shadows: “Shade!”
“’m ‘ere,” a boy murmured back, emerging from a dark doorway that led nowhere.
“Double around,” the girl said, pointing. “I’ll trip the mark.”
He shrugged. “A’right.”
He disappeared. Now alone in the quiet alley, the girl began taking deep breaths, working herself up, watching her narrow view of the dimly-lit main street. There were few streetlamps in the Outer Ring, and the moon was overcast.
She heard the mark whistling. The sound of it echoed around her. It was a nervous sound. She imagined herself as an alley cat – it was a name some had called her, among many others – and pictured the mark as a dim-witted bird, strutting helplessly past her hiding spot.
She pounced. It was the simplest of attacks: she charged headlong, barreling into the merchant and knocking him to the pavement. He had been carrying a package under his arm. Now it lay in a distant corner, next to some stairs.
The merchant, after getting back to his feet, glanced back at the package, and then at the girl in front of him. She lay on the ground, nursing a thin, pale arm, trying to look hurt. The mark looked at her with pity… for a second too long. From the corner of her eye, the girl saw the boy search the man’s dropped bag, rummaging through its contents.
“Are you alright?” the mark asked, reaching down to help her. He was a slightly corpulent man, with a thick light-brown mustache and clean clothes.
She nodded at him, saying nothing, looking up with her big green eyes. Those great green eyes, staring out from the little girl’s pale face, framed by her dark cloth head-wrapping… got them every time. The man looked distraught, as if he’d stepped on a baby.
He helped her back to her feet and said, “Let me look at your arm. It’s alright; I’m a physician.”
She let him hold up her soft little arm and feel of the elbow. There was, of course, nothing wrong with it. She knew how to fall without injury. It was a lesson she had learned from falling many, many times. Every time she rose up a little in the City, she knew she would soon fall back down.
“What were you running from?” the mark asked.
She looked back at the alley, green eyes wide with fright. Then she moved her feet, nervously and clumsily, tripping over herself so that the man had to catch her. She let him support her, while she went through his pockets.
“Easy there!” the mark said, standing her upright again. “Just wait a moment, and I’ll get my bag. I can help you get back to wherever –”
The moment the mark went back and lifted up his dropped bag, he noticed the difference in weight. He quickly glanced back to the girl – but she was gone. He checked his pockets, confirming his suspicions. Then he spat out a furious curse, scooped up his bag, and ran toward the dark alley from which the girl had come.
He ran in so fast that he nearly bumped into a second child, this one a boy. He was a poor boy with messy brown hair and a scar on his lip, but not a total vagabond. His clothing marked him as part of the merchant middle class, not unlike the mark himself.
“Outta m’ way, if y’ please,” said the boy, mixing rudeness and courtesy in a way that left the merchant babbling for an appropriate response.
It took him so long to find his tongue that the boy had slid past him and nearly out into the street before the merchant called at him: “Wait! Where’s the girl?”
“That’s who I’m chasin’ after!” shouted the boy, waving his arms angrily. “She took my purse! Did you see ‘er?”
The mark’s anger rose even more, and he eyed the boy warily. “Yes. I thought she went down here…”
The boy shook his head and gave a final dismissive wave of his arms before dashing off down the pavement. The disgruntled merchant chased after him, but once he reached the street, the boy was gone. Much as the mark had expected. Taking a deep breath and letting it out in a half-sigh, half-curse, he tossed his empty bag aimlessly away and stomped down the middle of the road, hands buried deep in his bare pockets.
“That poor dumb sod,” said the boy. “Should we go find the bag?”
The girl leaned out over the rooftop, looking both ways down the street. The faces of the city buildings looked back at her, impassive. The mark had long since been swallowed by them, as he made his way along the twisting grey road to wherever he was going. Visitors to the City often left poorer than they had come, she thought, unwillingly providing for those who lived here.
“Whisper?” the boy prompted.
She looked back at him, with a thin smile beneath her great green eyes. “No, let the City have it. What was in it?”
Shade dug around through the various hiding places on his person. He was well known among the vagabonds for his well-tailored clothes, old and worn now though they were. For a few years, he had worked at a cleaner’s, where he learned how to wash and sew. But then some of the other urchin boys had teased him, saying he did a woman’s work and calling him “Needle-boy.” So a few days later he put on the best tunic, vest, and trousers he could find at the cleaner’s, grabbed an armful of any other valuables he could carry, and fled to another part of the City.
Whisper didn’t know his real name. He had asked her to call him “Shade,” probably because it sounded tough, but the name Needle-boy was not inaccurate. Using his skill at needlework, he had sewn hidden pockets into nearly every part of his outfit, allowing him to ferret away valuables so that they seemed to just disappear. He’d taught Whisper some of what he knew, but only reluctantly. He didn’t like to tell the story of how he’d done a woman’s work. Whisper never brought it up again.
Suddenly Whisper’s ears – covered though they were by the dark shawl wrapped over her head – perked up, and she looked away at the other rooftops. While most of the inner city was decorated by tall pillars and beauteous domes, the Outer Ring had many flat rooftops, almost like the tops of castles, with stairs leading up to them. But Whisper and Shade never frequented those. They were currently sitting on a low-sloping, shingled roof with no easy access.
“What is it?” Shade asked.
“Were you followed?” Whisper hissed.
His light blue eyes went wide, but he repressed his fear with anger and said, “No! Of course not! I mean, there was one guy watchin’ me from across the street, but I gave him the slip. No one ever climbs up after us.”
Whisper sank down low, watching a loose pile of wood on the neighboring roof, where she had seen something glint in the shadows. A pair of eyes, her instinct said. And she trusted her instinct.
“We need to go,” she whispered.
Shade crouched down with her, stuffing the loot back into his pockets. “Where?”
She saw a man emerge from behind the wood pile. He was clad all in dark leather, with a black hooded cloak, and mask of dark red cloth over his mouth. She spotted a dagger sheathed at his side, just before he started running toward the edge of the roof… running as if to jump across.
Whisper leapt to her feet, pulling Shade up with her.
They made the jump to the next roof easily. That was what she had trained Shade how to do. When she’d met him about a year ago, he’d only been a decent climber. Now his skills were almost a match for hers, though he never came close to her sheer effortless grace.
They sped from building to building, sliding down one roof, leaping to the next, climbing up the stonework, changing direction… and yet, every time Whisper looked back, she would catch a glimpse of the shadow that followed them. Her heart was in her throat now. Never before had she encountered such a relentless pursuer. She had crossed the night watchmen from time to time, but they gave up quickly, and never had even one of them tried to follow her up a building, much less from roof to roof.
Shade stopped, putting his hands on his knees and gasping for breath. Whisper grabbed his sleeve and tried to pull him along, but he wouldn’t budge. He looked like he might pass out. She thought about leaving him behind. It wouldn’t be the first time, and many friends had abandoned her the same way. But for some reason, she liked Shade more than those others. Something about the way he carried himself, the way he always fixed his messy hair down so it shadowed his blue eyes, but they always shone through regardless…
She stayed beside him, muttering a curse. But she did not have to regret the decision for long, and she quickly realized they never could have escaped. For in the blink of an eye, there appeared not just one hooded figure, but two. The second man rose up in front of them, vaulting onto the roof as easily as Whisper had ever done, even though he was nearly twice her height.
She saw the first hooded man drop down behind them, a pair of dark eyes glinting beneath his hood. He spoke with a voice like sandpaper on gravel: “Don’t try to run again.”
“Easy,” said the second man, his voice much softer. “We’re not guards; we won’t hurt you. My name’s Willem. What are yours?”
The two kids exchanged glances. Willem removed his mask and cowl, revealing his face. It was a handsome face. He had youthful features, sandy blond hair, and friendly light-brown eyes. He looked at the two of them with great wonder, as if he were truly interested to learn their names. Everything about his demeanor and voice spoke of warmth and kindness.
Whisper didn’t trust him one bit.
But Shade answered: “I’m Shade, and she’s Whisper.”
“Ah, so you’ve chosen your own names,” said Willem. “That’s good. It speaks of independence. My friend and I are all about independence. We’ve set up a home for orphans of the city, where you can have food, beds, shelter… all without any priests or soldiers watching your every move. We’ll even help train you on how to avoid them.”
Shade glanced at Whisper, who seemed afraid to speak, as she often was. He asked, “What if we say no?”
This time the dark-eyed man behind them answered: “You can’t. You can either come with us awake and blindfolded, or out cold.”
“See,” said the blond-haired man, “we want to keep this place a secret. We can’t have you telling anyone about it. But if you don’t like it, we’ll take you right back. I promise.”
“Let’s run,” Whisper whispered. “We can make it.”
“I think we should go with them,” Shade said.
With that, the girl took off. She managed to make it all the way to the edge of the roof before, in a few great strides, the dark-eyed man caught up to her, grabbing her by the legs. She fell on her face, and her shawl was shaken loose, freeing her long black ponytail… and her ears. She looked back at the two men with terror in her wide green eyes. She even saw Shade staring at her ears again, like he always did, every time. She wanted to slap him.
“A child of the Alfar,” Willem muttered. “Unexpected…”
Whisper had never heard the word “Alfar” before. “Elf” was the one most people used. She was not quite sure what it meant, except that her long, pointed ears marked her as one. When she was just a small child, the priestesses who had cared for her had always treated her kindly, even with something approaching awe. But most people from outside the Temple of Artemis had looked at her with great suspicion. She’d heard them muttering about dark magic and curses, saw them making holy signs to ward off evil, keeping their distance…
She remembered when the Temple Knights had come for her. She’d overheard the priestesses talking to them, saying they were to take her back to the elves. She still wasn’t sure why she’d fled: fear of the unknown, anger at the priestesses for throwing her out, for trying to control her life… Whatever the reason, she had covered up her ears and left through a window, never to return. The City was her home, and although life was hard sometimes, she felt free on the rooftops, looking down over the familiar streets. It was the only home she knew.
These were her last conscious thoughts before the dark-eyed man held the cloth up to her face, and her world went black.
When Whisper awoke, she wondered if she had somehow been transported to an elf kingdom, for standing above her was the first elf she had ever seen outside of her own reflection. Her features were severe yet perfect, with pale skin, high cheekbones, and brows that gracefully arched over her pale blue eyes. Her long, smooth hair was such a pale blond that it looked nearly white. She had it braided to proudly reveal her elven ears, which were shorter than Whisper’s, yet as pointed as arrowheads.
Whisper stared in amazement, but she quickly noticed the elf’s dark leather armor, similar in design to that of the two men who had attacked her and Shade on the rooftops. She also wore a long cloak of the same shade of deep red as the other men’s masks.
“She’s coming around now,” said a cold voice, and Whisper turned her head to see the dark-eyed man looking down at her with utter indifference.
“Good,” said the elf woman, her voice like silk. “Finally you bring back someone worth saving, Hanan.”
Whisper heard Willem’s voice somewhere in the room: “You think she nearly gave us the slip because she’s an elf? Her friend kept up with her, and he’s just a mortal boy.”
The elf woman huffed dismissively. “Yes, perhaps he’ll be the next great Hanan al-Saffah… for the pittance of decades his lifespan allows.”
Willem cleared his throat. “Not in front of the children, Seona.”
The elf scoffed and stomped away. Whisper found herself wanting desperately for the elf woman to stay, wanting to ask her about the ‘Alfar’… but when she tried to call out to her, the elf was gone before Whisper could summon her voice. The dark-eyed man, Hanan al-Saffah, left as well, through the same door. Perhaps they were going to hunt down more children.
Whisper sat up and looked around. The long room was full of beds, each bearing two sleeping figures of her own size… “children,” as Willem had called them, though in fact most were in their early to middle teens. Whisper was unsure of her own exact age. She only knew that her friends seem to grow much faster than her, leaving her behind one by one, year after year, as they moved on to what they called adulthood.
“Alright, everyone!” Willem shouted, clapping his hands and beaming his friendly smile. “It’s time to meet the Mother!”
He led them all into what Whisper assumed was the main hall of the building. It was a great, square, unadorned stone box lit by torches on the otherwise bare walls. The ceiling above was wood, supported by criss-crossing beams from which dangled a few loose ropes. Otherwise, the room was featureless. There were no windows, there were no decorations, and the only bit of furniture in the room was a cushioned chair resting atop a wooden stage. In the chair sat an old woman who could only be the Mother.
Her hair was stark white, tied into a tight bun, and though her face was wrinkled and gaunt, she sat straight as a pike shaft, clad in smooth, spotless dark red robes. A pair of black-gloved hands extended from the robes’ loose sleeves, tapping their thin fingers together under the old woman’s chin as her pale blue eyes roved the faces of the two dozen or so children. Her gaze landed on Whisper and stayed there for several seconds. Whisper returned the stare without flinching. The old woman nodded, as if in approval, and then continued her survey of the room.
A rod appeared in her hand – Whisper wasn’t sure if it was a riding crop or a sap – and she slammed it on the arm of her chair. The sound echoed through the great stone box of a room, and the crowd fell silent, staring. She motioned for them to sit, and they did. Whisper crossed her legs on the cold, slick wooden floor.
The old woman pointed to two boys, one with each hand, and said, “Take these two away. They are troublemakers, nothing more. See them back to where they came from.”
“What?!” one of the boys cried out. “We ain’t done nothin’!”
“Yes you have,” said the Mother. “You have spoken without permission. The next child to do so will also be sent away.”
“And trust me,” said Willem, who was standing behind them, his hands behind his back and a smile on his face, “you don’t want to be sent away. The fun hasn’t even started yet.”
He said this without a trace of sarcasm, as if something truly enjoyable were about to begin, yet Whisper did not like it at all. She looked around at the great blank walls. There was no telling where they were. They could be high in a castle, or deep underground…
Once Willem and another leather-clad man had seen out the two rejected boys, the Mother went on: “Listen well, all of you, for I will never repeat myself. You have been selected for very special training. We will feed you, clothe you, give you beds, and we will teach you. You will work tirelessly, day and night, learning to move unseen, unhindered, and unopposed through any obstacles. You will learn how to fight, steal, and kill. If any of you are not interested in the life I have just described, raise your hand now, and we will send you back to your former one on the streets. You will never see us again. But you must speak now, for this will be your only chance to leave of your own choice.”
Whisper looked at the wide-eyed children around her. All of them seemed fascinated. None were quick to reject the Mother’s offer. None except Whisper. She hated this place, this oppressive room, these strange people… She felt at home on the rooftops of the City, beneath the open sky. Life on the streets had been hard at first, when she was truly a child, and it was still hard sometimes, but… it was home. She felt a sort of freedom there. Not like here, boxed in by huge blank walls.
Yet she sat there, clenching and unclenching her fist, unwilling to raise her hand. Would these people really take her back? She could not trust them. Where were they really taking those who left? Also, though she hated to admit it, she wanted to see the beautiful elf woman again, to speak with her…
And so, for one reason or another, not a single hand was raised. The Mother nodded again, though it looked less like approval this time. To Whisper, it looked more like… “So be it.”