North End, Livingston
Vita’s glass had been empty for a long time, but he stared into it with a sense of drowning. Pale knuckles grew paler with pressure as he hunched over the empty pewter and listened.
“Special report!” a jaseli’s voice sang from the TV.
“Breaking news! Breaking news!” the back-up singers chorused for emphasis.
“Danika Harper here, bringing you the latest on yesterday’s prison break.”
“Langana!” an Otahyuun further down the bar exclaimed. “Pitrone, turn that up, would you?”
“Grotta warden, Andrik Tarore, has just confirmed with police that a total of twenty inmates have escaped.”
“Anon, anon.” The bartender called from the back and shuffled out to tap at the controls. The bar quieted and all eyes turned to the TV as Jali Harper continued in a newly magnified voice:
“We have now confirmed the identities of all twenty escapees.”
Vita closed his eyes, waiting.
“The most notable is the infamous Shumba Sekhmet, better known on the streets as Kalleyso.”
Murmurs broke out down the bar like a shiver down a spine. But Vita was past shivering, already frozen stiff as a corpse. Waiting. Waiting for the name that would close the lid of the coffin.
“The former Kalletere leader has not been seen since leaving the prison.”
Native Baxarians, on principle, did not show fear in public but the anxiety was palpable in their silence. Vita’s fellow adyns were not so subtle about their distress.
“Xuro!” one man swore, slamming his glass down.
“It can’t be true!” another exclaimed in barely contained terror. “Sekhmet’s escaped?”
One of the women who worked the bar had started crying.
“Other escaped criminals include Shiku Mizumaki, the jijaka chemist responsible for the 5370 outbreak of jesumaya, and Hotah and Talutah Tau, the sibling mercenaries known for the assassination of former Akangyangka leader, Tasunke Tarore.”
At the mention of the Tau siblings, a new commotion of sparks and hisses broke out among the Akangyangka. Like the other Natives, the Riders expressed their strength in silence. But the news of the Tau siblings’ escape, on top of Sekhmet’s, proved too much for one of the youngest.
“Those godless bastards are dead!” he growled, his eyes furious behind his red paint. “The War Chief will see them skinned alive.”
“Unless they kill him like they did your last fool of a leader,” slurred a Pantera who was perhaps a little too drunk for his own good.
The Akangyanga’s hand twitched upward as if to reach for a quiver that, of course, was not there. All weapons were surrendered at the door. The adyn laughed—the mirthless sound of a man trying desperately to smother his fear.
“Gods, Kallaana, I’m scared now!” he laughed. “He’s gonna shoot me fulla invisible arrows!”
“Watch your mouth, Pantera!” the Akangyangka spat as the air crackled with the heat of his anger.
“Hey!” Pitrone interjected, even as his bouncers and a few of the other patrons prepared to step in. “Remember you the words you spoke when you came through those doors?”
“Aye, aye,” the Pantera muttered while the Akangyangka gave Pitrone a sullen glare.
“Say the words.”
Grudgingly, both men mumbled, “No weapons, no fire, no fighting.”
Everyone who entered Pitrone’s pub had to give the same promise when they handed over their weapons at the door. The words were also hand-painted above the bar, but there were many in North End who couldn’t read.
“Louder,” Pitrone said sharply.
“No weapons, no fire, no fighting!”
“Good.” He said as the Akangyangka’s gang mates tugged him away. “An’ you can’t get that through your head, get you gone.”
In low tones, an older Akangyangka named Takoda apologized to Pitrone for his comrade’s behavior.
“Forgive Hanska,” he said. “He lost his father to the Tau siblings and two brothers to Kalleyso’s Deathwalkers.”
“Anyway,” one of the Ranganese piped up, “an’ these criminals really be back, we’ll not want to be at each other’s throats. We’ll have to face them together.”
“An’ Kalleyso be back, will’t matter?” an Akawe fighter asked, unable to conceal his panic.
The remark set off a new chain of argument down the bar. No one liked to recall that darkest time in North End history when there had been not seven but eight major gangs, and it had seemed for a terrifying few months that very soon, there would be only one. All the memories and surrounding arguments melted into the background as Vita stayed focused on the ongoing broadcast.
On the holographic screen, the jaseliwu were discussing Shumba Sekhmet and the Tau siblings, as if they had reached the end of their list and Vita’s head lifted a fraction. Maybe that was the end. Maybe—
“The last escapee of note is not actually a theonite, but a highly dangerous sub-theonite.”
Vita tensed, and the name fell from the jaseli’s lips, closing the coffin.
The mention of Lafont sent a fresh wave of horror and unrest through the assembled gangs. The Pantera and the Akangyangka started hurling accusations at one another, but Vita barely heard them.
“All are considered extremely dangerous,” Harper was saying. “If you spot any of these criminals, do not approach them. Contact the police immediately.”
“Yeah right,” an Akawe let out a bitter laugh, “like the police are gonna risk their own against those monsters.”
“At least we have Firebird,” one of the Otahyuun said. “He put every one’a the bastards away before. He can do it again.”
Maybe they were right. Maybe Firebird would handily best his old enemies and restore order to the streets. But one man couldn’t cover a whole city at once. And by the time this mess was over, Vita was guessing it would be far too late for him. He didn’t feel sad, exactly. Just empty. He had spent so many years worrying that this moment would come—knowing somehow, that it would—that the truth of it was almost a relief.
Time seemed to disappear.
Vita was still sitting there, still as stone, when the Akawe, the Otahyuun, the seething red Akangyangka, and the last tottering Pantera had trickled out of the bar.
“Another, Doctor?” said a sympathetic voice.
Vita didn’t know when Pitrone had come to lean on the bar across from him. He was too numb to make any sound. Instead, he pushed his empty glass toward the other man in answer. It was all the movement he could manage.
“‘Tis on me,” Pitrone said with a grim smile, “‘an you’ll not go blabbin’ to me’other regulars.” The barkeep was one of the few who knew Vita’s secret.
“So?” he said when he returned with the full glass. “What now, Doctor?”
“You know I like’t not when you call me that,” Vita said.
“Have you a plan?” Pitrone asked. “Where will you go?”
“Where can I go?” The words hung heavy between the two men. It was a long moment before Vita gathered the breath to speak again. “Whate’er happens to me, I brought it on myself. I’m a fool.”
“Know you… you can ever take shelter here. That be a standin’ offer, Doctor. It matters not what happens outside those doors; this be a place of sanctuary.”
“I know,” Vita said.
But Lafont wouldn’t care about that. He wasn’t the sort of man to respect any law—be it street law, Carythian law, or the Holy Falleke’s laws of human decency. The hulking fankatigi had spent years tearing through North End with violent abandon that would have gotten any adyn or tajaka killed a hundred times over. Unfortunately, Lafont was not easy to kill. Vita himself had contemplated trying once or twice, as he worked on the man’s injuries. He had patched up all kinds of criminals over the years, but Lafont was the only one that had ever made him think, maybe a few drops of poison in his painkillers… maybe an air bubble in his tube… maybe it will work. But then, what if it doesn’t?
Vita had a family. Even after his wife died during Mizumaki’s chemical attack on Livingston’s water supply, he still had his daughter to worry about. He couldn’t afford to get on the wrong side someone as dangerous as Dilan Lafont.
And yet he had.
Despite all his better judgment, Vita had defied one of the most dangerous men in North End—and he had been stupid enough to think he might get away with it. He really was a dumb kallaana. But Pitrone, ever the patient soul, was not looking at him like the idiot he was. He looked at him with pity.
“Safe,” Vita said firmly. It was the one thought keeping him from crumbling. Acacia was safe. “She started college last week, outta state.”
“Hey, I’d no idea! Congratulations, Doctor! That be cause for celebration!”
Vita tried to smile, couldn’t quite manage it, and took a drink instead. “I woulda liked to see her graduate,” he said.
“Come, come, say not such things. Lafont was ne’er the sharpest knife i’the drawer. Mayhaps, he knows not ‘twas you set him up.”
“But you know,” Vita said quietly. “A fair few people know, and Lafont be good at punchin’ his way to answers.”
“And how much of that think you he’ll get away with ere Firebird hunts him down again?”
Vita managed a weak shrug. “Revenge will be the first thing on’s mind—and Firebird has a whole city forta worry about.”
“Bemba’s Bones!” the bartender clicked his tongue. “An’ you be not the most morose kallaana I e’er seen, I’ll be hanged!” Reaching across the bar, he clasped Vita’s shoulders and squeezed. Pitrone was half adyn, but his Native half leant his grip reassuring strength. Where other tajakalu tended to give off a half-hostile crackle of heat, Pitrone was just warm. Always warm.
“Courage, Doctor! All will be well.”
“An’ you want, I’ll send Makwa forta walk you home.” Pitrone nodded toward one of his bouncers.
“Nay, thank you, Pitrone. I’m fine on my own.” It wasn’t true, but it wasn’t as if a young tajaka like Makwa—or any fighter—could protect him from Lafont. The fewer who tried, the better.
“As you will,” Pitrone said hesitantly. “Just… watch the shadows, brother.”
“This city be full of shadows,” Vita said wearily. “‘Tis impossible to keep tracka them all.”
Outside the bar, Vita pulled out his battered info-com device and drummed in the only contact code he had saved. He was almost out of battery, but he had to hear her voice.
“Papa?” she said in surprise.
Vita opened his mouth but suddenly found himself swallowing back tears. She was safe. She was out. That was all that mattered.
“Papa?” Acacia said again, concerned. “‘Tis late for you to call. Be you well?”
“Just… just wanted to check that my girl be doin’ alright. Know you, I worry, with you so far away.”
“I’m fine, Pa,” Acacia laughed, “just like the last four times you called. My tajaka roommates be weird, still; methinks they’ve not been around many an adyn.”
“But they are bein’ nice to you?” Vita asked anxiously.
“Yes, Pa, e’eryone be nice.”
“Listen, Acacia… I was thinkin’… you probably shouldn’t come home next weekend.”
“What? Wherefore?” Acacia asked. “Has’t aught to do with that prison break I saw o’the news? ‘Cause I swear, Pa, I’m fine—”
“No, no,” Vita lied, his throat tight. “I’m just fearful busy at the pharmacy and I… I know you be busy with your schoolwork. I wouldn’t have you waste money o’the magtrack fare an’ I can’t e’en spend time with you.”
“‘Tis well,” Acacia sounded sad, but Vita felt his shoulders sag in relief. “Mayhaps next month then?”
“Mayhaps next month,” Vita said.
“Definitely for Xuusejo,” Acacia said. “Anyway, I gotta get back to my dorm and study now. I got, like, four recordings to listen to ere tomorrow.”
“Of course, of course. Get you to your recordings.”
“I love you, Pa.”
“I love you—” Vita’s voice caught in his throat. “I be so prouda you, sweetheart.”
On the other end, Acacia let out that flippant laugh of hers and Vita wanted to hold onto the sound forever. “You gotta stop sayin’ that, Pa. ‘Tis embarrassing.”
It wasn’t too late for her. She would be a real doctor, who did honest, well-paid work somewhere far from the stink of North End. He didn’t care if he had to sell his apartment, his vital organs, or his soul to get her there; she was going to be something more than her father.
“Goodnight, Pa. Gods keep you.”
“Gods keep you,” Vita murmured.
High-rise apartments loomed around him like a concrete cage. But it was the darkness between them that made Vita’s skin crawl.
A streetlight flickered over a moving shadow and Vita’s heart nearly stuttered to a stop. Then a naked tail whipped around the corner, accompanied by the skitter of claws. Just a rat. Vita breathed out, but his heart didn’t stop pounding.
One of these nights, he was going to turn around to find something far worse than a rodent emerging from between those concrete walls. And he wouldn’t be able to tell it from beggar, or an animal, or a shopping bag caught on the breeze until it was too late. There were too many dark places for him to watch them all at once.
The city was full of shadows.