Requiem for a Mouse
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Trent was about to die for an apple. He would’ve chuckled at the absurdity of it all if it didn’t hurt so much to laugh. For months he had stolen from the street vendors and never once had any bothered to give chase. Except today.
He laid his head against the dead roots of a tree. Around him was a field of cracked dirt and desert shrubs. The tree grew bent over the cliff, overlooking the dying river like it was straining for a taste of water. Trent knew the feeling all too well.
He closed his eyes. With the world blacked out, his swollen knees didn’t ache so bad. The hunger that churned his stomach into knots wasn’t so bottomless. He smiled, after all, there were worse ways to die.
The scorching heat of the sun dissipated into a gentle breeze.
It’s happening. It’s over.
“Do you live here?” It was a girl’s voice.
When Trent opened his eyes, his smile disappeared. There were no angels or golden clouds, only the same dead tree in the same barren field. But now, he was under the shade of some girl. The sun shone above her, masking her face with the exception of her red eyes.
“Yeah,” Trent replied with a raspy voice. “I live under a dead tree.” His lips held more cracks than the dirt beneath him and talking only reminded him of that.
The girl wore a bright summer dress that hung to her knees. It gleamed the same brilliant white as the angels in church windows. Though, unlike this girl, there were never splotches of dirt on the angels. The girl looked about fifteen, only two years older than himself.
“What happened?” she asked.
“I stole an apple.”
The girl shook her head. “You shouldn’t do that. Some people believe that apples are symbols of love.”
Trent’s brow shot up. “Who believes that?”
The girl grinned. “Me. Do you want to know a secret? It’s impossible to enjoy stolen apples. Even if you eat one while its ripe, it would rot inside your stomach and make you sick. If you want one, it has to be given.” She held out her hand with an apple inside, its skin the color of her eyes.
Trent’s mouth filled with saliva. His tongue snaked out along the edge of his lips and for once, it was wet. He shot the girl a wary glance.
“Go on. Half for you, half for me.”
Before she even finished the sentence, Trent ravished the apple. Every bite released a gush of juice, every swallow untied another knot in his stomach. When he was finished, there was barely a core.
“Sorry,” he muttered.
But the girl was smiling a sweet and gentle smile. “Now you owe me,” she joked, “apples are sacred things you know.”
Trent exhaled a single chuckle. “Take whatever you want. This is all I have.”
“You’re looking at my family.”
The girl’s mouth scrunched up into a small frown. She squatted to his level. Though the sun burned Trent’s eyes, he kept them wide open. The girl wore an expression he recognized, but had never seen directed at him before. Worry.
“Why are you looking at me like that?”
“I won’t let you die here.” She was serious.
“You don’t even know me.”
A smile stretched across the girl’s face. “All I know is that you owe me an apple.”
“Angels don’t exist.” The words slipped out of Trent’s mouth. When he realized what he had said, his face flushed red and he turned away from the girl.
The girl laughed a single ringing note. “So I’m an angel. How sweet of you.”
“I didn’t mean it like that.”
“Well, I’m a Mouse. So I’m the closest thing to an angel in this place.”
At mention of the word Mouse, Trent’s gaze wandered to the girl’s arms. Sure enough, ridges and fissures lined her biceps in strange shapes. Each scar was a Hawk that had cut her to the bone, the punishment for being a Mouse.
“If you’re asking me to become a Mouse, I’ll take my chances alone,” said Trent.
The girl followed his gaze to her scars. Her smile faded. “You don’t have to be a Mouse,” she muttered as she pulled down her sleeves. “But you also don’t have to be alone.”
“I don’t get you,” Trent said, “what do you get out of this?”
“I get to name you,” she responded softly.
“Are you being serious?”
“Bolt,” she answered.
“That’s not a name.”
“But it is your name.”
Trent shook his head. “No, it’s not.”
The girl looked at him like he was a child simply too young to understand. She reached into her pockets and pulled out another apple. “Half for me, half for you.”
“Even after I already owe you one?”
“I don’t even know the name of the last kid I gave an apple to. This one’s for us, Bolt.”
Bolt snorted and took the apple. “Fine, but let me tell you right now, I will never become a Mouse.”
She returned him a crooked grin. “The name’s Sasha and we’ll see about that.”
I won’t fail again.
Bolt zipped through the trash-filled alleys toward the marketplace. Every step submerged his feet into another rotten puddle, shooting sewage up his bare back. In his shorts pocket was a bag of penicillin, enough to save a life. For one family, it meant the world in its entirety, but to the Hawks, just a few dollars’ profit.
“Stop, Mouse!” A female Hawk screamed from behind him.
Bolt dug his toes into the ground and leapt into the blinding sunlight. Before his eyes could adjust, he collided head-first into someone. His teeth snapped shut against the ground and everything went black.
He awoke to the taste of dirt. It must’ve only been seconds, but seconds too long. Just standing up shot pain up his leg. If he surrendered now, nobody would blame him. But his family had all ran their routes, handing off the pills from one route to the next and finally to him. He couldn’t give up on the last leg of the drop.
“I see him!” The Hawks sprinted toward him, only a football field’s length away.
If just standing was hard, running would be impossible. Around Bolt was the standard lunchtime crowd at the marketplace. Street vendors had set up shop along the sides of the road, squishing two lanes of traffic into a single lane of space. Behind the street vendors were houses of stone, brick, and cement, their materials varying as much as their colors. Somewhere among the crowds and buildings was an escape route. There had to be.
The sound of splashing water resounded from the alleys. Bolt glanced back to see three teenage Hawks almost at the end of the alleyway. There was no time to think. Right now, he needed distance. His first step felt like accidentally missing a staircase. His knee crumpled and he stumbled forward, barely able to catch himself in time. With a grimace, he clutched his thigh and pulled his leg through every throbbing step.
He limped into a nearby alley and found his ticket to freedom. A broken basement window, its ledge at his feet. Shards of glass hung off it like cracked fangs. Times like this made him appreciate his small size. The window was small and his hunters had long since outgrown their childish bodies.
“Jonah, cut him off!” The female Hawk entered the alley, just a few yards away.
“Shit.” Bolt closed his eyes in a silent prayer and fell on all fours to crawl through the window. With every push forward, the glass bit deeper into him, first his arms, then his stomach.
“Oh no you don’t.” She was right on top of him.
Bolt yelled and heaved his body through the window as fingertips brushed his feet. He fell three feet onto a wooden table below. A cloud of dust bloomed up in a wild dance.
He stopped to catch his breath. Mistake. The dust in the air felt like tiny feathers tickling his lungs. He beat his chest with a fist as he coughed out all the air he had left, until all that remained were the feathers.
Air. The single thought drove him forward. He staggered across the room to the front door and pushed against it. It didn’t budge.
“I won’t let you out,” an unfamiliar voice said from the other side of the door.
Bolt’s chest felt like it was about to explode. His pupils bounced around the room looking for some way to breathe. Then he found it. A nail in the doorframe, a quarter of it already hanging out. He ran to it and pried out the rusted metal. A small stream of sunlight shone through.
He latched his mouth onto the hole, grateful even for the taste of rotting oak. With every breath, a pile of wood chips and insects lodged itself into his throat. But with them was oxygen. The weightless sensation that had flooded his head slowly passed. Left in its place was an unquenchable thirst for more air.
I need to escape.
There were only two ways to escape. One was through the broken basement window he had crawled through and the other was through the front door. Of the two, only the front door gave him at least a fighting chance. Bolt backed away from his hole to examine the door. It seemed sturdy, but spots of mold betrayed its age. Surely it wasn’t unbreakable.
He headed back to the window. Two silhouettes peered through the dust, mentioning something about burning trash. Bolt ignored them and with an excruciating leap, ran toward the door. His shoulder slammed into it, sending tremors down his spine. The wood snapped. A shallow crack snaked across the door.
With a might leap, he threw his body into the wood. The crack widened.
Bolt stood up and fell against the door. His knees had given out. He lifted his face, surprised to see his own shadow dancing on the doorframe. Behind him was a small fire and a whole basement full of dried out wood.
Tiaren had never met such a stubborn Mouse before. She paced the alleyway, rubbing the crescent birthmark under her right eye. She called it her moon.
“Nervous?” Brand asked her, his usual calm replaced by an uneasy shifting. He played with the spark wheel of his lighter.
“It’s been almost five minutes. The Mouse has to come out.”
“Nobody is dumb enough to die on a drop.”
Brand shrugged. “Mice are.”
Tiaren sighed, and for a second, she regretted playing the role of a Hawk. With perfect timing, her stomach grumbled and reminded her why she did. She stared into the smoke, only able to see a few feet beyond the haze. “If he doesn’t come out soon, we’re going in to get him.”
“Be my guest.” Brand crinkled his nose at the smell of roasting trash.
Tiaren shot him a sharp glare. “We should have at least some standards.”
Brand snorted back, “we’re Hawks.”
“Even so, I draw the line at murder.”
Brand rolled his eyes, but Tiaren knew he would listen. Years of starving together had instilled a blind trust within their group. Plus, the prospect of murder was compelling even for someone as apathetic as Brand.
“Mouse, give me your hand and I’ll pull you up,” Tiaren yelled into the smoke. She pressed against the window with her arm stretched inside, bobbing above the heat of the flames. “C’mon Mouse!” All she could do was pray that the Mouse had the good sense to grab her hand.
At the touch of timid fingers, she seized his wrist and pulled. Despite her care to avoid the glass, it still dug shallow cuts across her arm. With a final grunt, Tiaren flew backwards. She landed in the dirt, her ponytail spread across the floor. “Holy hell,” she muttered between gasping breaths.
The Mouse hung limply out the window. Soot covered his face like makeup. Except for the lines of red that ran down his arms and stomach, his skin was the color of dirt.
“Jonah, we got him!” Brand screamed through the window. “Let go of the door and meet us in the alley.” He dragged the Mouse into the alleyway.
With a heaving cough, the Mouse came to life. His raspy breaths resembled the dying gasps of an old man. Yet, he was just a child.
Brand searched through the Mouse’s pockets. It didn’t take long for him to find a crumple bag of pills. When he did, he threw it to Tiaren.
Tiaren had to strain her ears to hear the Mouse.
“Sorry, Mouse.” She had meant to sound cold, but was surprised by the tenderness in her voice. She couldn’t help it. The Mouse was just a kid, no older than her when she was abandoned.
“Tiaren, we still have to…” Brand’s voice dropped.
“I know.” Tiaren frowned, her fingers already returning to her moon.
Stories of cruelty were the only way to dissuade other Hawks from their hunting grounds. The most common story came in the form of scarring.
“Lighter,” Tiaren said.
“Give me the lighter.” Her voice was the crack of a whip.
Brand raised a single eyebrow and tossed her his lighter. When she began running her blade over the flame, his lips pressed together into a thin smile. He looked at Tiaren like she was something to be protected. Tiaren felt the urge to spit.
“You’re much to soft.” His look said.
But disease was common in the slums and infections fatal. Brand would’ve teased her regardless. Might as well save a life.
Brand grabbed the Mouse by his arms and held him down. It was as if touching the Mouse awakened him. The Mouse thrashed and kicked under Brand’s grip, but no matter how hard he fought, the difference in their strengths was obvious.
“Do you want me to do it?” Brand asked.
Yes. It took Tiaren a second to realize Brand was teasing her again.
“Shut up.” She refused to be babied further. Still, as she approached the Mouse, she wished someone else would bear this burden.
“No, please don’t,” the Mouse begged.
Sorry, sorry, sorry…
Tiaren climbed on top of the Mouse’s right arm. Strange etchings littered his bicep. She brought her blade down until it sizzled and filled the air with an acrid odor. When she finished, it felt like her stomach had bottomed out. Even Brand looked away, his teeth clenched together.
The Mouse grabbed his arm and rolled into a fetal position. Tears streamed down his eyes.
Tiaren and Brand backed away.
“No,” the Mouse grunted through heaving breaths. “A young mother, if she doesn’t get those pills, she’ll die.”
“I’m selling these pills for food.” Tiaren’s words had lost their edge.
“But she’ll die!”
“And if we don’t eat, so will we.” Without another word, she turned and left. From the corner of her eye, she spotted Jonah, joining them only after their terrible act.
Tiaren walked ahead while Brand waited on Jonah. She pulled a yellow gelatin pill out from the plastic bag. Looking through the pills was like seeing a new world. Straight lines curved and blues turned to green. And slowly, her sullen mood lifted.
She turned and giggled at the sight of Brand and Jonah. Jonah looked even rounder and Brand’s lanky arms stretched even further. She wondered how her own golden eyes would look through this lens.
“You okay?” Brand called out.
“Yeah!” Tiaren waved the pills in the air. “I hope you guys are hungry.”
“When aren’t we?” Brand said chuckling.
As usual, Jonah lumbered silently behind him. Tiaren ran her hand through her ponytail. Her hair unfolded down her back. It felt like freedom. She placed the pill back in front of her eyes and looked up at the golden clouds.
She once thought she had a family. Then, her parents had left her in the marketplace with promises of coming back. Back then, she had waited until even the sun had abandoned her. In order to survive, she had become a Hawk. She hated what she did, but loved the people she did it with. Maybe, that was what family meant.
“Tiaren!” Brand screamed.
She saw a flash of mangled hair before being thrown against the wall. The sour smell of alcohol and piss smothered her nose. A sharp pain stabbed her abdomen. She looked down, surprised to see the worn leather handle of a knife sticking out of her stomach.
Her body slumped to the ground. Even as the knife was yanked from her body, she felt numb. For a split second, she looked into a pair of icy golden eyes. In a flash, the image vanished as her attacker sprinted down the alley with her pills.
Like a faraway echo, she could hear Jonah screaming. It sounded muffled and even though she wanted to respond, she was too tired. Just keeping her eyes open was hard enough.
That’s strange, Jonah screaming? He barely talks.
Tiaren laughed breathlessly. She wasn’t sure if her lips even moved. With great effort, she turned her head to see her family. Though it was silly, seeing them so worried made her happy.
She tried giggling, if only to let them know she was alright, but she couldn’t muster any sound. Instead, an odd calming sensation overcame her. She let a final breathless laugh.
Behind her, the fire had become an inferno. A black pillar of smoke rose to the heavens.
The slums looked like someone had tried jamming as many houses as they could into one place. Every street and alley were surrounded by rows of houses. It was ironic because most the houses lay empty as nobody could afford one. The difference between streets and alleys was which side of a house surrounded them. Streets led to the fronts of houses while alleys the backs. Due to poor planning, many alleys were simply dead ends, giving the slums the feel of a labyrinth.
Bolt clutched the alley wall as he inched his way along. Without the wall, he wouldn’t be able to stand. But the end of the alley was fast approaching.
“C’mon.” Bolt muttered as he stepped out of the alleyway shadows into the moonlight.
With no wall left to hold, his knee caved and he fell to his stomach. Tiaren’s knife prodded him through his pocket. He snatched it out, afraid it would cut him. He almost wished that it had, he deserved as much.
The moonlight glinted off the blade in a dazzling flash. Its tip had burned black. He cursed Tiaren for having shown him mercy when he had been so merciless to her. From the moment he had stolen her knife, her empty gaze had followed him.
Her body was still warm.
“She’s a Hawk. We’re enemies,” Bolt reminded himself.
The dull aching of his arm sent a throb of agreement. He placed the knife back into his pocket, careful to position the tip away from himself. He pushed himself up, but his leg buckled beneath him again. No matter how he commanded it, it refused to obey.
I deserve this. The thought wasn’t unexpected, but it startled him all the same.
With a groan, Bolt clawed himself deeper into the street.
I wonder if her friends would even notice.
By the time he had mustered the courage to take the knife, the other Hawks had gone in pursuit of the killer. He had never seen anyone in such maddened states before. They sprinted faster than he had ever seen them run, even the fat one kept pace.
The sound of trickling water brought him back to reality. The night was nearly over. The thought of sleep invigorated his lopsided crawl. Pretty soon, he had reached the edge of the street, the divide between civilization’s dirt roads and nature’s wild grass. He had never been more eager to sink his knees into mud. To his left, the moon reflected off the black ripples of the river.
He approached a mass of tents scattered throughout the riverbank. Each tent seemed to be alive. They gently flapped in the wind, supplemented by the rhythmic snoring of their inhabitants. It didn’t take long to find an empty tent. With a tired exhale, he crawled onto the stained sheets inside and fell asleep.
Bolt still hadn’t come back. Sasha had looked through all of Bolt’s favorite places: the church, the market, and now, the riverbanks near the tree they first met at. She walked through scattered tents, biting whatever nail was left to bite in her thumb. Each tent she peered into gave the same reaction. Men and women alike threw dirty blankets over their head to ignore the sun already high in the sky.
At this rate, I’ll never find—
Sasha turned to see Bolt waving in the distance. A smile stretched across her face. She let out the breath she didn’t even know she was holding and headed toward him.
“You never came back last—” Her smile disappeared when she saw the dried blood caked onto Bolt’s arm— “Holy shit, Bolt.”
“It looks worse than it is.” Bolt gave her a strained smile.
Sasha lifted up his sleeve to find a triangular scab etched into his arm. He now had almost as many scars as she did. “Alright?” she strained to keep her voice down.
Her mouth twisted into a snarl, but upon seeing Bolt’s pale face, her lips parted into a weary smile. She exhaled and pulled Bolt into a tight embrace, resting her cheek on top of his prickly hair. Though he would hate her for thinking it, he felt frail.
Bolt hugged her back. “I didn’t finish the drop. Sorry.”
“It’s alright, Bolt. It happens.” It felt like he would crumble in her embrace. “Let’s get you home,” she said as she released him.
They walked in silence. Sasha snuck occasional glances, but he never looked back. She kept this up until they cleared the mass of tents and neared the city. When she couldn’t take the silence anymore, she halted.
“Bolt, what happened?” she asked, careful to keep her voice soft.
“I just dropped the ball again. Another well-deserved scar,” Bolt said as if he was telling the punchline to some sadistic joke.
“We all have scars.”
“But none like yours,” Bolt muttered.
If Sasha hadn’t been listening so intently, she wouldn’t have caught it. The words were spoken like an accusation, clearly not words for her to hear. She fought the urge to trace the jagged white fissure that cut through her right eye. It was what had changed everything.
She pretended not to have heard Bolt. Before this scar, Bolt would’ve laughed off a failed drop. She still couldn’t grasp what the scar meant to her family and she wasn’t ready to tackle the issue. Luckily, it didn’t seem like Bolt knew she had heard him.
“It just sucks,” Bolt spat. “The world sucks.”
“How can you say that when you’ve seen so little of it?” Sasha looked up at the cloudless sky. She could only imagine how infinitely it stretched.
“I’ve seen just as much as you have.”
“They say that in space, when you look down on the Earth, our cities look like stars.”
“You don’t need to into space to see stars.” Bolt walked past her.
A small frown flashed across Sasha’s face. Bolt’s mood would not be so easy to lift, but she was never one to turn from a challenge. She skipped ahead of Bolt and stopped him in his tracks. “But imagine running through those cities. I bet it’d be like flying through space— She leaned into Bolt with the widest smile her mouth could manage— “Someday, I’ll take you to Paris and show you what the stars look like from up close. And that’s a promise.”
Bolt pursed his lips together. “If we ever get out of this place.”
“When,” Sasha corrected him.
“How can you be so sure?” Bolt returned her the hint of a smile. They both knew how she would answer.
Sasha puffed out her chest and yelled, “just who the hell do you think I am?”
Bolt burst into laughter and walked past her, his steps lighter. “Ridiculous,” he muttered. “You’re something else.”
“I’ve been told. Anyways, as soon as we get back home, you’re taking as much medicine as I can shove down your throat. Who knows what kind of filth the Hawk scratched into your arm.”
“No need. The Hawk burned her blade before scarring me.”
“What?” A loud snort escaped Sasha’s lips as she laughed. “How thoughtful!”
She looked up to see Bolt eyeing her strangely. When she realized the sound she just made. Her stomach dropped. “You’re not telling anyone about that.”
Bolt nodded at a silver pole in front of them, the sign they had returned back to civilization. “I don’t have to; it was caught on camera.”
Attached to the pole hung various cameras pointed in all directions. They were as dark as the river. Over the past few years, these camera towers had sprung up like weed. Most of the city was under its scrutinizing gaze. Sasha frowned.
“Let’s go home.” Where at least nobody is watching.
Flower awoke to the sound of her name echoing through the alleys. She rubbed her eyes as if she could rub away her fatigue. With a drawn out yawn, she crawled out of her tent into the blinding sunlight.
“Yes?” Her voice came our hoarse. She cringed at the taste of her morning breath.
“Bolt’s back!” Sasha’s voice echoed down the alleyway.
Sasha’s voice always projected so well. At times, Flower was jealous of it. Her own voice came out soft and timid, two things she never strived to be. Though if she were to ask the group what they thought of her, she would put money on soft and timid. It was because she was the smallest and the youngest, and no matter what she did, she’d always be. She stood facing the entrance to their home and waited.
Home was a circle of tents at a dead end in an alleyway made due to erroneous city planning. Mostly likely, someone built a house where they should’ve built a road and were too lazy to fix it. It was a fitting place for them to live.
“Bolt!” Flower called when he turned the corner. She ran into his open arms. “You had me so worried.” She gave him an innocent smile before swinging her fist into his shoulder.
“Ow.” Bolt recoiled away from her. “What’d I do?”
“You had me so worried!” Flower repeated, this time, as an accusation.
“Didn’t you just wake up?”
Flower brought her fists to her hips. “Only because I stayed up so late worrying about you.”
“Spare him.” Sasha giggled. “He’s already been beat up enough.”
Flower’s pout loosened into a concerned frown. “Where are you hurt?”
“Mostly my shoulder, a thirteen-year-old girl just attacked me.”
Flower ignored Sasha’s giggles. “Seriously Bolt, where?”
Bolt yelped while Flower prodded and squeezed his limbs. Admittedly, some of her techniques were made up. Whenever she could, she would read through medical books, but they were hard to understand and even harder to find.
It took her only thirty minutes to clean and bandage all his cuts. When she was done, he looked like a mummy of torn cloth. As a final touch, she gave him some antibiotics and sent him to bed.
As soon as he disappeared into his tent, Sasha and Flower broke into relieved laughter. No matter how many cuts they treated, it never got easier.
“You know I almost prayed last night.” Sasha chuckled.
“Don’t let Bolt hear you say that.” Flower grinned. “He’ll think that he’s converted you into a believer.” She purposefully omitted the fact that she had actually prayed.
“Well then, hopefully he’s not eavesdropping.”
Flower laughed at the image of Bolt with his ear pressed against his tent. “Bolt, if you can hear me, you’re an idiot.”
They both waited a second. But by the way he had stumbled into his tent, neither believed he could still be awake. He probably fell asleep as soon as his body hit the ground.
“I supposed we failed the drop then,” Flower said.
“That makes four in a row.”
“Which means we get one more before we lose three years’ worth of work.”
“You have to tell them.” Flower gave Sasha an incredulous look. “They deserve to know what’s at stake.”
Sasha took an exasperated breath. “God damn. We were so close.”
“You act like we lost. Not everyone is on a moral crusade. Some of us are happy with just a meal in our stomachs.”
“I wanted us to be more than that.”
“I know, but we would be the first Mice to ever finish the program. That’s got to count for something. If nothing else, it gets us enough money to die old.”
Sasha grinned a toothy smile. “You’re too young to talk about dying old. Flower, I’ll tell them the truth. Let’s just hope they don’t freak out.”
Flower let out a breath. She had worried that Sasha would fight her on this. If Sasha was so inclined, nobody in this world could match her stubbornness.
“Oh, by the way Flower, could you run over to our last drop and see how they’re doing? That one isn’t too far from here.”
Flower raised her eyebrows. “Why? It’s not like any of them ever care anyways.”
“Because I asked you to.” Sasha bit her lower lip and gave Flower a hurtful look.
Flower rolled her eyes. “I’m not Prince, you can’t just give me that look and have me do whatever you want.”
“I bet he’s off causing trouble again,” Flower said with a rogue-like grin.
“Before I left to find Bolt, I told Maverick to keep an eye on him.”
“Like that would stop him.” They both knew how Prince was. Flower gave Sasha an impish gaze. “Speaking of Prince, have you had any more dreams—”
“I didn’t say anything.” Flower bit her lower lip and replicated Sasha’s hurt look from earlier. “I feel like you always think I’m about to do something bad.”
Flower smiled, seeing Sasha’s ears starting to turn red. “You’re no fun.”
“Go.” Sasha pointed toward the alley exit.
“Fine, fine.” Flower left, chuckling.
“You fucking cheated!” John’s face turned purple. His voice carried through the bar.
Mismatched tables and chairs furnished this place. The only piece of furniture that wasn’t rotting or broken was the bar itself. Its polished oak contrasted sharply with the flaking wood of the other tables.
Prince wanted to explain to John how impossible it was to cheat in chess, but instead just rolled his eyes, “Next time, don’t underestimate me,” Prince said with a waning grin.
It had been a mistake to gamble with this man. John was the type of man who would rather accuse a fifteen-year-old boy of cheating than admit defeat.
But I could probably win even more money from him. Prince thrust the thought from his mind, astounded by his own greed. Even when facing such a volatile man, his money-making schemes were so attractive. Luckily, he wasn’t that much a fool.
“What did you say?” John clenched the table, sending quakes across the chessboard. His arms were pillars of flesh littered with scars. Even his face carried proof of battle. “You arrogant little shit, you’re lecturing me now?”
“If I were to lecture you, I would teach you to be a more graceful loser,” Prince said, like a fool.
Prince had always known he was reckless, but this bordered absurdity. Still, he understood why he couldn’t just walk away. He was a gambler. If the odds were enough in his favor, he would bet his life. The fact he had so many opportunities to do so was nothing short of a blessing.
John swatted the chess table across the room. Every eye in the bar turned to see John’s shadow swallow Prince.
“I’m going to give you one chance and one chance only to get down on your fucking knees and beg,” John growled.
It was near impossible, but Prince kept his grin steady. “Sorry that you lost.”
“What was that?”
The gamblers of the Riverside Tavern abandoned their games of cards and dice to watch the spectacle. They surrounded Prince and John, a ragtag circle of men dressed in clothes patched beyond recognition. Even the bartender, wearing his nice black vest, stopped washing glasses to listen in.
John brandished a switchblade from his pocket. “Don’t think just because you’re a kid, I won’t hurt you.”
“I don’t, but this bar belongs to The Dragon. That’s why you won’t hurt me.” Prince kept his voice level. “There’s a better way to decide these things.”
John followed Prince’s gaze to the chessboard he had flung across the room.
“Or do you think you’re going to lose again, John?”
“Ha.” The laugh sounded forced. John glanced at his friends behind him and then at the crowd around him. “Fine.”
“Good.” Prince leaned back in his chair to steady his trembling leg. The floor creaked under him in complaint.
Suddenly, John stabbed his knife deep into the polished table. Prince jumped and fell backwards. He shot his legs up and caught the bottom of the table, stopping his descent. A sharp yelp escaped his lips, betraying his fear.
What Prince lost in confidence, John gained.
“I don’t care if The Dragon owns this bar. Cheat again and this knife is going straight up your ass,” John said. He plucked the knife out and placed it on the table. “Dmitri, Owen, set the chessboard back up for us.”
Dmitri and Owen separated from the crowd to do so.
“So the usual bet?” Prince’s voice came out unintentionally weak.
Both knew that Prince couldn’t afford that gamble. Prince opened his mouth to refuse but before he could, he saw John’s smile. It was the smile of man used to the world submitting to him.
“I’ll go first.”
For the first time since he had beaten John, a genuine smile spread across his mouth. Without a moment’s hesitation, he advanced the pawn in front of his queen. If he was good at anything, it was this.
If John was at all nervous, it didn’t show. He rubbed his chin with two fingers and moved his bishop across the board, jumping over his line of pawns. “Check.”
Prince half expected him to take it back with a crude joke, but nothing happened. “Are we making up our own rules now?”
“You cheated last time, so I’m cheating this time.”
“I didn’t—” Prince stopped. Reason held no power against this man.
Prince hadn’t considered the scenario that John would never admit defeat. He eyed John’s knife. Winning was probably more dangerous than losing. There was only one thing left to do. He stood and lunged forward, swinging a small fist into John’s face. The blow connected and bounced off.
John buried his fist into Prince’s stomach. Prince stumbled backwards and with a croak, purged himself of his lunch. He grabbed the table to steady himself but only ended up tipping it over as he collapsed. Everything on the table spilled to the floor. The chessboard, the chess pieces, and John’s knife.
“What did you expect would happen?” John sounded amused. “I’m bigger and stronger. No matter how many tricks you have up your sleeves, I’ll always come out on top. That’s life.”
The words were faint, even the cheering of the crowd sounded muffled. With quivering arms, Prince crawled forward until he laid on top of the knife. He met John’s eyes for a second before he lurched over to dry heave.
“Beg,” John said, crouched in front of Prince.
A quick scan around confirmed what Prince already figured. The crowd smiled eagerly. People pushed and pulled each other to get a closer view. These pathetic adults wouldn’t help him.
Prince pushed himself onto his knees. He brought his head down until it touched the vomit on the floor.
“That’s right. Do it proper now with your head to the floor,” John said.
“Fuck you,” Prince yelled, still out of breath. He never intended to beg. In this position, nobody could see him tuck the knife into his shorts.
“You have a death wish kid?”
Prince ignored him. “My turn,” he said, looking at the chess board.
John shook his head. “Fine, Owen, Dmitri, set it back up, just like how it was before.”
Even the smallest movements sent waves of nausea through Prince. He clamped a hand over his mouth and took great care not to move too fast. By the time he sat back down, the chessboard had already been set up.
“The offer still stands, beg for mercy.”
Prince had no sharp retort to give. Even if he did, saying it would cost too much energy. He moved his knight to block John’s bishop.
“These pawns remind me of you.” John jumped his rook in front of his pawns. “They were made to be stepped on. They shouldn’t get in the way of the more powerful pieces.”
“Only an idiot would underestimate a pawn,” Prince responded in barely a whisper.
Move after move, John’s advantage grew. The crowd stayed silent, watching Prince bleed pieces. At last, he was down to some pawns, his rook, and his queen. But John had not come out unscathed, he had lost most of his pawns throwing them recklessly into Prince.
“You’re too careless,” Prince said taking John’s last pawn. By now, he could talk without trouble.
“They’re only pawns.” John moved.
“Then I guess you won’t mind this.” Prince moved his queen. “Check.”
John shrugged and retreated with his king.
“Check,” Prince said moving his pawn up.
“You’re going to send your pawns after me now?” John moved his king back again. “Do you see how weak your precious pawns are? I’m right next to them and there’s nothing they can do!”
Prince moved his queen into a space protected by his pawn. “Checkmate.”
Silence. John stared at the chessboard as his face turned a deep violet. “What?” His trembling hand hovered over his rooks and bishops, but none were able to help. A line of pawns blocked their way.
“Even if you cheat, I’ll still win,” Prince said.
In a single instant, the table was gone, flung away by John’s monstrous arms. Every fiber of Prince’s body screamed to run. His legs twitched and his heart was a jackhammer, but he remained still. John clamped his hands around Prince’s neck and lifted Prince up until his feet left the ground. The crowd around them came to life, screaming and clapping.
Prince thrust the knife into John’s stomach. The blade tore through John’s skin, but stopped at his wall of muscle. With wide eyes, John dropped Prince. As soon as Prince’s feet hit the floor, he sprang up and tackled the knife. It tore through John’s body with a sickly rip. John screamed as he fell to the ground.
Prince stood over John. The words came out scratchy, but they were impossible to miss. “Don’t ever underestimate me.”
Through the roaring crowd, Prince heard a click. He looked up and stared straight into the barrel of a pistol.
It sure is noisy today.
“What’s going on?” Lao asked.
The bar fell into complete silence. The circle of people around Prince opened to allow Lao through. Even the man with a knife in his stomach stopped screaming. The metallic glint of a pistol caught Lao’s eye.
Lao ignored Prince. He stepped over the bleeding man to stand face-to-face with the gunman, moving as if he had all the time in the world.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Owen.” Owen’s gun dropped to his sides. His face drained of color.
The crowd around Owen backed away.
Lao undid the buttons of his white tuxedo. What was to come would be messy and white was the hardest color to clean. Unfortunately, his entire outfit was white, from his shoes to his dress pants to his cowboy hat.
“Do you know my policy on guns, Owen?” Lao asked.
“It won’t happen again,” Owen said, his eyes to his feet.
Lao gently slapped Owen’s cheek until he caught his eyes. “I’m sorry Owen, you’re muttering. What was that?”
“It won’t happen again Mr. Dragon.”
Lao shook his head. “No. You may call me The Dragon or even Dragon, but never Mister. Mister refers to men of more refined qualities. I’m a simple man.”
“I’m sorry Dragon.”
“So, is it that my policy on guns is unclear? I thought it was rather straight forward, but then again, we humans are rather stupid creatures.”
Owen shook his head, his lower lip quivering.
“So you’re telling me that you, having perfectly understood my rules, deliberately chose to break them.”
“No, it’s not like that.”
“So you’re saying that it’s my fault for having unclear rules.”
“Please Dragon, it was a mistake. I was only trying to protect my friend.” The gun dropped from Owen’s hand and clattered on the ground.
Owen looked toward the man bleeding on the floor. “John.”
“And what were you protecting him from?”
“Well…” Owen’s voice dropped. “The boy.”
Lao looked over to see Prince. “Are you trying to be funny?”
Lao turned toward the crowd. “Can anyone tell me what happened?”
Only Prince’s erratic coughs responded.
“Alright then.” Lao stepped up to John. He placed his shoes on top of the knife in John’s stomach, careful not to press too hard, lest he dirty his shoes with blood. “How about you tell me what happened, friend of Owen?”
John clenched his teeth together and groaned. He squeezed his eyes shut and twisted his head away from Lao. “I don’t know him,” he grunted through the pain. “I’ve never seen that man before in my life.”
Lao took his feet off the knife. He turned back to Owen who somehow looked even paler than before.
“No, Dmitri, back me up,” Owen stammered.
“I don’t know you,” someone said from the crowd.
“No. Guys, please.”
“Dragon.” A poisonous voice called out from behind Lao.
Without having to look, he knew who the voice came from. He turned toward the voice. “The last time I saw you, I nearly had you killed. Is Sasha coming here to save you again? After all, she still has one more eye to give me.”
Prince clenched his jaw shut. Once again stepping over Owen’s friend, Lao approached Prince. He was used to looking down at people, but never literally. Luckily, Prince was short, even for a boy.
The Dragon grinned. “You seem to bring trouble with you wherever you go.”
Two dark blue eyes glared back.
“Perhaps you can tell me what’s going on,” Lao said.
“This is what happens to those who think they’re untouchable.”
Lao ignored Prince’s obvious threat. If there was anything that could overpower his ego, it was his curiosity. “How did you do this?”
Prince gave no answer.
Lao frowned at the silence. When he said ‘jump’, he expected even the crippled to leave the ground. “How?”
Even Prince had sense enough to not push his luck. “We were gambling and I didn’t think he would pay me, so I stole his knife.” Prince looked down at his ripped shorts, showing Lao the hole in it. “When he attacked me, I had the knife.”
Lao nodded satisfied. “How does Sasha keep finding such interesting company?” He laughed, genuinely impressed. “Alright then, you can leave now.”
“No.” Prince nodded at John. “He still owes me money.”
Lao dug into his pocket and produced a few neatly folded twenty dollar bills. He dropped three on the ground in front of Prince.
“Prince, do you know why I hate humans? Look at how fast Owen’s friends abandoned him. Is it not strange that friendship means so little when it’s supposed to mean the most? Not even animals can sell each other out so fast. There is nothing more disgusting than humans and this is the proof.”
“You’re human too.”
“A damning accusation indeed.”
Prince looked unamused.
“Relax,” Lao chuckled. “I’m only joking. However unfortunate, I cannot deny my part in this vulgar race.”
“You’re wrong about humans.”
With a single eyebrow raised, Lao nodded toward Owen. “You are currently looking at the man who was betrayed by the very friend he almost killed for. This is my proof, where is yours?”
“Two months ago. The girl who nearly blinded herself to save me.”
Lao laughed, his entire body shaking with its force. “Well said. Now leave.”
When Prince left, Lao returned his attention to Owen. “Now where were we?” He extended out his pointer finger and thumb into a makeshift gun and brought it up to Owen’s forehead. “Ah yes, pow.”
It had been a while since Maverick had last blinked. Despite the scorching sun, and the crowd of people pushing past him, he stood completely still, staring at the television as if in a trance. It depicted a foreign land with grass and paved roads. The women had flawless skin while the men wore immaculate smiles. He was sure even the weather there was perfect. The best part about the show was the music. Music like that didn’t exist anywhere else but the TV.
With his finger, he rubbed his front teeth as if he could clean the yellow stains from them. Not even his skin could compare with the heroes of the TV, least of all the arms too long for his body and ears too big for his head.
I’ll grow into my body. These words were recited at least once a week. He hated the pains he felt in his joints every morning. Flower had told him he was just going through puberty. Apparently, it was natural.
“What’s going on?” Dave asked.
Maverick had been so engrossed in the show he had forgotten Dave was here. He had even forgotten the reason he was here in the first place. A quick glance at the Riverside Tavern confirmed that Prince had not yet left. He hoped that Prince was behaving himself, but was not stupid enough to bet on it.
“It’s a romance,” Maverick said. He spoke with a light Russian accent, the only gift his parents had ever given him.
Dave rubbed his chin, moving apart thin grey bristles. “What’s their problem?”
“The man’s Jewish and the woman’s Catholic. They love each other but their families cannot accept them.”
“Bah,” Dave scoffed. “Ridiculous. What does that matter?”
“God seems to be a big deal. Everyone is trying to figure Him out.”
“If everyone’s still trying to figure Him out, why do they all come here claiming to know the one true God?”
Dave took a coin from his pocket and held it in the air. “This is the God I believe in. It keeps me fed and it keeps me warm. Until another God can do that, I’ll put my faith in this one.”
“So then why do you go to so many different churches?”
“Because missionaries always bear gifts.” Dave gave Maverick a wide smile. “I’ll believe in a million gods if each one is holding some food and wine.”
Maverick laughed. “One God is already enough. I don’t think I could handle a million.”
“Maverick, at your age, you should only be concerned with your next meal. Eating is a far greater joy than praying.”
Maverick looked at Dave’s protruding stomach. “You’ve taken your own advice.”
Dave let out a rumbling laugh. “Yes, I’ve been happy for quite a while now.” His eyes twinkled with humor. “So, why are you here, surely you’re not here just to hang out with an old man? You helping your damsel in distress?”
Maverick thought back to his damsel and laughed. “Yeah right.” Sasha could never be called a damsel in distress. Not even his vast imagination could change her firm commands into the sweet pleading he would’ve liked to hear.
From the corner of his vision, he saw Prince leaving the Riverside Tavern. Sasha was going to be livid when he told her he couldn’t stop Prince. Truth be told, he never even tried. He had been too distracted by the TV to do anything. While Prince had his gambling addiction, he had his TV one. At least his addiction could never hurt anyone.
“They say it’s going to rain soon,” Dave said.
Maverick looked up at the sky. There were only a few wisps of clouds. “Really now.”
“It’s supposed to be the storm of the century. Wind so strong it’ll blow a baby out of her mother’s arms.”
It hadn’t rained in months. Maverick saw no reason why it ever would. “As long as it rains, I’m okay with anything.”
Dave nodded, serious. “Best prepare though, this one’s going to be bad.”
“Alright.” With visible strain, he pulled his eyes away from the TV. “Duty calls.”
“I’ll see you later Maverick and remember, buy an umbrella.”
With a nod, Maverick weaved his way through the streets, sneaking up on the unsuspecting Prince.
Prince jumped. “Jesus Maverick! You scared me.”
Maverick waited for an answer.
“I was just in the Riverside Tavern to grab a drink, that’s all.”
Maverick crossed his arms, waiting for Prince to admit the truth.
Prince raised his arms as if at gunpoint. “What? Are you going to search me?”
With a small shake of his head, Maverick started walking. “Let’s go.”
“Do you follow me around everywhere I go now?” Prince asked.
“Only when Sasha tells me to.” Maverick’s response was crisp.
“Why is it that I never see you coming?”
“It’s a talent.”
“What talent? Creepiness? Probably from years of being a creep.”
“Then I guess it’s a skill.” Maverick’s eyes remained forward, like he couldn’t be bothered to even look at Prince.
“No, it’s just weird,” Prince said. “Are you ever going to stop following me around?”
“Are you ever going to stop gambling?”
“Get a life.” Prince knew that his anger was misplaced, but he didn’t care. A few minutes ago he had his windpipe crushed by a man who looked down on him for his size. Now, he was being lectured for it. Even worse, it came by Sasha’s command. “Are you going to do everything she tells you to do? What if she tells you to bark? Sasha can’t babysit us forever.”
“That’s because I’ll grow up.”
Prince’s breath caught in his throat. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Maverick turned toward Prince with an amused expression, as if pointing out a stark irony in Prince’s words.
“Wait a second, do you think you’re babysitting me right now?”
“Only because Sasha told me to.”
Prince exploded. “Sasha says sit so you sit. Sasha says fetch so you fetch. What are you, her dog?”
Maverick grinned. “If I’m the dog, then you must be the stick I fetch. Personally, I’d rather be the dog.”
“At least the stick doesn’t put himself in a collar.”
Maverick shrugged. “But eventually, we throw away the stick.” He stopped walking with a bemused smile. “And if the dog doesn’t bring it back, it’s left in the ground.”
The wider Maverick’s smile grew, the hotter Prince’s anger burned.
“And sometimes, it’s the same stick used to beat the dog, to teach it when not to bark!” Prince’s voice carried across the street earning him strange looks.
“But in this case, the dog would break the stick in two.” Maverick stepped towards Prince, looming over him. “The stick would be stupid to even go near the dog.” His mouth was curved into the same grin John had worn.
Prince looked away. He knew the exact words he could say to start a fight; they were stuck in his throat. But he had been in enough altercations with Maverick to know how the fight would turn out. Despite Maverick’s skinny build, he was strong and his fist always carried the force of his body.
“I’d rather be abandoned than neutered,” Prince said. It was a compromise, words that danced around the real issue.
With a slight nod, Maverick continued walking home with Prince behind him. “You can love a neutered dog, but you can’t love a broken stick.”
“But only a dog can lead his master to death.” Even as the words left his mouth, Prince knew he would regret them.
In a flash, Maverick was upon him, his elbow pressed against Prince’s neck. For the second time in under ten minutes, Prince choked. Maverick’s usual poise disintegrated as his dark eyes danced in fury.
“You think that was my fault?” Maverick growled. “Maybe you shouldn’t have been at Hawk’s Lair then, begging for someone to come save you.” He shoved Prince against the wall and stepped away.
“Nobody asked for your help,” Prince growled back, massaging his neck.
“I saved your life.”
“And you almost killed Sasha. It should’ve been me who paid the price, not her!”
“So then why?”
“If it was my choice, we would’ve left you there.”
“Then whose choice was it?” Prince screamed.
Silence ensued. Even the bustle of the marketplace seemed to fade. Maverick took a deep breath and unclenched his fists. “Sasha’s.”
Prince looked away. After a deep breath, he cursed. “Shit!” He turned to Maverick. “Listen, Mav. I’m sorry, alright? Things just should’ve turned out different is all.”
With a single nod, Maverick turned to walk home.
For the rest of the way, neither spoke.
Sasha sprawled across a blanket on the dirt floor. She yawned, stretching out her arms and legs. “A king is the embodiment of his ideals. His loyalty is not to his subjects, but to the reason why he took the crown.” The pages of the book sagged, displaying its age. “In this regard, those resolved to being king must also be resolved to being a slave, a servant toward his own impossible goals.”
Or her own impossible goals.
“Ugh,” she groaned. Reading a book twice was a chore, no matter how great the first read was. The only reason she was so intent on the second read was because the book had been written by none other than The Dragon himself.
She rolled over so she faced the sky. The sparse clouds proved quite calming.
Where is everyone?
But if anyone knew that answer, it was her. She watched the clouds roll away. She let the book slip from her hands and closed her eyes.
“Sasha.” Prince’s voice echoed down the alley.
Sasha didn’t bother looking, she could hear his footsteps. Although it was a little harder to pinpoint Maverick’s she knew that he was close behind. “Prince. Mav.”
“How many times have you read that book?” Maverick asked.
Sasha pushed herself up into a sitting position. “Almost twice.”
Maverick walked up to her and leaned against a nearby wall. “Is it another encyclopedia?” Though the tone of his voice didn’t change much, Sasha knew he was teasing her.
She grabbed the book and held it up for Maverick to see. “Nope. This is The Dragon’s thoughts on King Arthur.”
Maverick raised his eyebrows.
“I know, what a find, right?”
Prince sat beside Sasha. “Did you find Bolt?”
“Yep, he’s asleep right now.”
Both Prince and Maverick fell silent, ignoring the question they both wanted to ask.
“We failed the drop,” Sasha answered. “Bolt was scarred, but he’s okay now.”
Maverick shook his head. “Fucking hawks.”
“Fucking Hawks,” Prince agreed.
“So, what have you guys been up to?”
“Gambling,” Maverick said coolly.
Sasha’s teeth crunched together. Prince looked away from her glaring eyes.
“Maverick, give us a minute,” Sasha said.
Maverick was gone before her sentence had finished. Prince snuck nervous glances at her. “Prince, is this true?” she asked.
Prince closed his eyes and swallowed. “Yes.” He looked at his twiddling toes.
“God damn it Prince!” Sasha jumped to her feet and began a practiced scold.
Even after hearing this exact speech hundreds of times before, Prince still shuddered. He continued his drawn-out stare with his feet.
“Prince, look at me.” Sasha grabbed Prince’s arm. “Nothing good can come from gambling. Why do you even need to gamble? We make enough money to feed ourselves. Tell me what you need so badly and I’ll get it for you, but for god’s sake, stop gambling!”
Prince was a statue. His distant eyes remained frozen.
“Prince, what are you using the money for?” Sasha waited for a response. She got none. It felt like she was talking to a wall. “You don’t need to tell me everything, but please tell me the important things. What are you hiding from me?”
“I’m not hiding anything.” His sheepish response couldn’t convince a baby.
“Gambling isn’t a game, it’s dangerous! You of all people should know that.”
“I know! But –” Prince shut up.
“Honestly Prince, what will it take for you to understand?”
Prince’s eyes fell to his feet.
When no answer came, Sasha said, “Would you like me to lose my other eye for you?” As soon as the words left her mouth, she wished to take them back.
Prince gasped. He looked up with a pained expression, tracing the scar on her face. His body tensed, and his dark blue eyes became distant. No doubt, he was reliving that time at Hawk’s Lair.
Seeing Prince this way brought back her own memories of that place. Back then, she suffocated on the smell of cigarettes and liquor.
Stop. With a shake of her head, she returned to reality.
“After all, it would be ugly if I didn’t get a matching one!” Sasha forced a smile onto her face, chuckling at her own joke. Changing her tone so abruptly sounded strange.
Prince stared straight through her.
“I was joking, relax! Why do you have to take me so seriously all the time?”
Prince’s eyes grew hazier by the second. His fists clenched tighter as his arms trembled. With a quick step forward, Sasha slammed her knuckles into his arm.
“Ow!” Prince jumped backwards.
Before Prince could defend himself, Sasha clipped him once more.
Sasha ignored him and leaned into a third punch. This one hit him straight in the shoulder. It hurt her knuckles.
Prince fell backwards against the wall.
Sasha stepped toward him. Prince shut his eyes to prepare for the impending blow, but it never came. Instead, Sasha ruffled his hair.
“I’m the worrier and you’re the gambler, don’t confuse us.”
Prince cautiously opened one eye. He opened his mouth but could find no words. Sasha capitalized on his shock to change the subject. “Honestly, men are such idiots. Tell them a few nice words and they melt right in front of you.”
Prince gave her a small smile.
“Flower will be back soon, then we can talk about the drop,” she said.
The acrid charcoal smell of burnt flesh lingered in the air.
“Welcome to the Dragon’s Pit.” Lao took off his hat and placed it at the entrance. “At least that’s what my men call this place, a rather tasteless name if you ask me. I apologize for the smell, a man died here not too long ago.”
Lao looked across the room at his unfortunate guest. The man stood completely still, his feet shackled onto the floor and his hands tied behind him. Bruises in varying stages of yellow and blue covered the man’s body. His shredded shirt barely clung on.
“I only have three rules.” Lao walked up to the man, staring into his golden eyes.
Sweat dripped from the man’s hair. A single lightbulb illuminated the windowless concrete walls and blackened ceiling.
Lao didn’t mind that the man kept quiet. He wasn’t sure if the man physically could talk. It was entirely possible that his jaw had been broken or tongue cut off.
“The first rule is that I control violence. You want someone hurt? You come to me.”
He circled the man who began coughing. No doubt, breathing was hard for him, especially with the noose around his neck.
“The second rule is that I control entertainment. I am responsible for all the games that are played in this city and because of it, I take interference very seriously.”
Lao kicked the man in the back. The chains around his feet clacked but held steady. His body lunged forward until only the noose held his body up, choking the life out of him.
“The third rule is that my judgment is absolute.” Lao circled the man until he was face-to-face with him. “There will be no courts or trials, we humans do not deserve that much. You killed a Hawk. You violated my first two rules. Would you like to defend yourself?”
Lao grabbed the man by his hair and pulled him back upright, glaring into his eyes. “If you wish to defend yourself, now is the time.”
The man coughed for a while, regaining his breath. When he did, he began laughing. The laugh was deep and slow, filling the air with a depressing undertone. It persisted throughout his coughing fit.
Are you taking me seriously? Lao yanked the man’s head and threw him backwards so he was once again upright on his own.
The man swayed and eventually found his balance. “Dragon,” He said with a raspy voice. “Do you think you can hurt me?” His eyes were so bloodshot they looked red.
“I do,” Lao responded.
The man shook his head against the rope.
“Is that your defense?” Lao asked.
“I have no defense. I wish you had killed me sooner.” His voice cracked. “Maybe then, she’d still be alive.”
“So, are you ready to confess?”
“You wouldn’t understand.” The man trembled and his voice followed suit. “I loved her, she was the reason I was able to go on for as long as I did, just to see her one last time.” His body convulsed, hit by another coughing fit.
It didn’t take him long to regain his breath, and when he did, his voice wilted. “She was so beautiful, more beautiful than I could’ve ever imagined. Dragon, I didn’t know that it was her. I didn’t…” His words were replaced by his sobs. Suddenly, he shrieked and lunged toward Lao only to be stopped by the noose. “I didn’t know!” he screamed, again and again.
Lao watched from a careful distance. “I thought I recognized you.” He placed a gentle hand on the man’s cheek. His thumb caressed the crescent shaped birthmark under the man’s eye. “There’s not very many people in the world with a birthmark like yours. There was probably only two, well… now just you.”
Thick tears dropped from the man’s eyes. “I killed her. But why was she a Hawk?”
Lao grinned, the grin of a cat with his claws on the mouse’s tail. “Because of me.”
“You’ll get what you deserve, Dragon. The Lions are coming back.”
“I don’t take well to empty threats.” Lao walked behind the man and kicked him forward. He fell until the noose yanked up, choking the sobs out of his body. “Tell me, did you ever ask her name? I remember you gave her a rather strange one. Tiaren, was it?”
The man tried to push words through his collapsed throat. His mouth moved and his tongue flailed but no sound came out.
Reaching into his jacket, Lao procured a large silver flask. Tiny engravings shimmered in the light as the smell of gasoline dissipated into the air. “Did you even exchange words? You know, before you killed her.”
Lao put the flask to his lips and threw his head back. His stomach lurched forward, rejecting its revolting contents. Some of it spluttered out of his mouth but he managed to choke it down. It was unbelievably bitter and sour, tasting worse than it smelled, and it smelled like poison.
“If the Lions are truly coming back, so be it. I killed them once, I can do it again.”
Lao poured the rest over the man’s head. The man shuddered and thrashed. The iron around his limbs rang like bells as his body twisted in what looked like a ritualistic dance. Despite the man’s claim to have accepted death, he now fought harder than ever.
“Everyone ends the same.” Lao said above the terrified gurgling of the man. “In the most pathetic way possible.”
Lao retrieved a cigarette from his jacket pocket. He lit it and took a massive drag, trying to smother his taste buds in its disgusting smoke.
“Repulsive,” Lao said. “But you have your punishment and I have mine.”
He flicked the cigarette onto the man. Blue flames swallowed the man whole. Like all deaths in here, it came in near silence. The crackling of the flames, the soft clang of iron, and the man’s breathless screams.
Lao stared into the flames. “You will either burn to death or choke to death. Too bad you can’t do both.”
He spat into the fire and walked away.
Sasha had the clouds to keep her company. Maverick wasn’t one to talk much and Prince was still cooling down from her scolding. For the past few minutes, Sasha had been beating herself up over what happened. Her scar was still too touchy of a subject.
“I’m home!” Flower’s voice echoed around the corner.
Sasha nearly jumped up in relief. “How’d it go?”
“Don’t send me on some pointless errand just so you have time to read,” Flower said with a pout. She gave Prince and Maverick a nod as she entered.
“It didn’t go well?”
“What do you think? Once again, ungrateful and rude.”
Sasha frowned, taking note. “I find it hard to believe that not a single person would take the time to thank us. You know, since we saved their lives and all that.”
“You can go yourself if you don’t believe me. I’m done checking up on these people.”
“Its fine, I believe you.”
Flower scowled. “The nerve of some of these people, it’s like they expect us to die for them. They don’t get that we could just as easily throw away the pills and still get paid enough to eat. Honestly, that’s what we should do.”
Sasha giggled. “We can’t do that.”
“I don’t see why not?” Flower did not share her amusement. She took a seat across from Sasha.
“Because we’re the proud Mice of this city. And we earn our bread!” Prince exclaimed. He shot Sasha a sideways glance.
Sasha rolled her eyes. “I don’t sound like that.” But the fact Prince had made fun of her meant he was returning to his old self.
“Close enough.” Maverick nodded in agreement.
They all laughed at Sasha’s expense. She put on a fake frown. “Laugh all you want, but I know how I sound like.”
“Just like how you know you don’t snore?” Prince laughed through his words.
The only responses she got were muffled giggles.
Before anyone else could continue their attack, Sasha stood up. “Alright guys, let’s wake Bolt up and start our meeting.”
“Fine,” Prince said.
Though Sasha frowned, she was glad. “Bolt, wake up!”
Bolt’s tent rustled. He crawled out rubbing the gunk from his eyes. “Does anyone have food?”
Sasha shook her head. “You’ll have to wait until after the meeting.”
“What time is it?”
“The sun’s going to set in like two hours.” Maverick answered. “You’ve been out for quite a while.”
“It’s been that long huh?” Bolt stumbled forward and sat down next to Maverick. “Have we had our meeting yet?”
“We’re about to,” Sasha said. “But I wanted you to be awake for this one. You have to tell us about the Lion.”
Everyone quieted. All eyes were on Bolt. Lions were adult version of Hawks. While Hawks scarred, Lions maimed. They were the most feared predator of Mice up until the day they all disappeared.
Prince was the first to break the silence. “You saw a Lion?”
“Well, I’m not sure if it was a real one. It was just an adult that stole my pills.” Bolt’s eyes dropped. “I’ve never seen one before so I wouldn’t know.”
Maverick shook his head. “If he was an adult and he was going for the pills, then we can assume he’s a Lion.”
“So Lions are finally coming back,” Prince said. “I was wondering where they disappeared to.”
“So what are we going to do?” Flower scratched her head. She wore a look of concern. The stories they left behind were horrific.
“Nothing’s changed,” Prince announced. “We’ll keep doing what we’ve always been doing, deliver the medicine to its destination.”
“Stop.” Sasha held up a hand to silence everyone else. Four pairs of worried eyes turned to her. “We don’t know anything. One adult doesn’t mean that the Lions are coming back. This could’ve been random for all we know. Hell, we don’t even know why they disappeared in the first place.”
Prince shrugged. “I say good riddance. We don’t need to know why; we should just hope that it happens again.”
“We need to see the bigger picture,” Sasha protested.
“Forget the bigger picture. We just need to worry about how we’re getting our next meal. Plus, we may only have one drop left before we never have to worry about it again. Why bother now?”
Before Sasha could respond, Maverick spoke up. “I agree with Prince.”
Flower let out an audible gasp. Not even Prince could hide his surprise.
Maverick leaned back against the wall and crossed his arms. “There’s a lot of weird stuff going on right now that we don’t get. We won’t get it by talking about it either, so let’s talk about the things we do get.”
“I never thought I would see the day…” Flower reflected everyone’s thoughts.
Bolt was the first to laugh. One by one, they all broke out into a chorus of laughter.
“Fine,” Sasha said. “Let’s talk about drops—” she took a deep breath “— but before we get into it, I have to tell you guys something. Do you remember the contract we signed when becoming Mice?”
“You mean the one we all definitely read?” Prince said with a lopsided grin.
“Well… there was something I didn’t tell you. We get fired after failing five drops in a row. Right now, we’re at four.”
Three jaws dropped. A mouse couldn’t sneak by in that silence.
Fire coursed through Prince’s chest. “You didn’t think we had a right to know?” He had trouble keeping his voice down. “Since, you know, everything we’ve ever worked toward is at stake.”
“We were doing so well it never mattered,” Sasha replied sheepishly. “Until now,” she tacked on muttering.
“So this next drop decides it all.” Even Maverick’s voice quivered. “We either end as the only Mice to complete their contract or nothing.”
Sasha nodded, more of a twitch of her head anything else.
“Why didn’t you tell us from the start?” Prince asked.
Sasha nibbled her lower lip. “I wanted us to finish drops for better reasons.”
“And that’s supposed to mean what exactly?”
“A lot of Mice slack off. Some even take the medicine and sell it to Hawks. I wanted to make sure we were doing drops for the right reasons. To save lives.”
“What are we? A fairytale band of orphaned angels? If we get fired, we don’t eat!”
For once, it was Sasha who couldn’t make eye contact.
“What are we going to do?” Bolt asked.
“We finish the drop,” Maverick answered. “No matter what.”
“And how are we supposed to do that?” Prince shouted.
Maverick gave him an empty stare.
“Knives.” A whisper, barely audible even in the silence.
It took Prince a second to realize that it had been Bolt who said it.
“If we can’t run, the only alternative is to fight,” Bolt said. With every word, his gaze dropped further to the ground. He pulled out a knife, its tip charred black, and dropped it in front of him.
“No.” Sasha’s voice was resolute. There was nothing left of the sheepish girl from just a few minutes ago. She glared at Bolt with a look they all knew too well. There was no fighting her. “Do you plan on stacking bodies until we win? I won’t let you.”
Bolt shrank away from Sasha’s stare. “But we can’t lose,” Bolt muttered.
“Killing is for Lions and Hawks. We’re Mice and Mice don’t kill.”
Bolt pressed his lips together. “Alright,” he said. “Forget I said—”
“Is dying for Mice then?” Prince asked. He thought back to his encounter with John. Without a knife, he wouldn’t have made it out alive. “We’re the only Mice I’ve ever heard of going on drops unarmed and we can’t fail the next one.”
“So you’ll just cut every Hawk that gets in your way?”
“Better than losing everything. Better than getting cut.”
Sasha crossed her arms. “I’d rather take a few scars than become killers.”
Prince stole a quick glance toward Sasha’s scar. I won’t let you. Before that scar, he may have conceded, but now, he glared at her with embers in his eyes. “And if the alternative is being killed?”
She returned his glare in kind.
“There was another murder last week,” Maverick said. The sudden change in topic surprised everyone. “Another Hawk. People are calling him The Slasher. My point is, the city’s dangerous. We need to be able to defend ourselves.”
“No. We’ve already made it this far. We can do one more.” Sasha’s voice softened as she looked at Prince. “Please.”
Flower and Bolt gasped at the word. Sasha was never one to plead, she rarely even asked. All eyes fell on Prince.
No more scars.
“Fine,” Prince lied. With one hand in his pocket, he crunched up his gambling winnings. It afforded him three good knives. “I mean, Sasha asking nicely? How can I say no?”
Sasha’s teeth crunched together. She stared daggers through him. “You’re not fooling anyone, Prince. You’re going to buy the knives anyway, aren’t you?”
“No way.” Prince gave her a blank stare.
Sasha stood and stepped toward Prince, looking down at him. “And with your gambling money?” Her question sounded like an attack.
Prince stood as well, the tip of his hair reaching her forehead. “You don’t have to worry about how I spend my money.”
Sasha stepped toward Prince, looking down at him. “Hand it over.”
None of this surprised Prince. Even when they were starving, Sasha refused to touch his money. She didn’t want to encourage his gambling. He had thought that hunger would break her, but she lasted until they got paid, three days later. He both loved and hated that part of her.
Prince looked around, unable to meet anyone’s eyes. Sasha’s word was final. After all, they owed their lives to her. In particular, Prince owed double that and a new eye. Still, repayment came in many forms, even if it meant butting heads. He bit into his knuckle as his thumb slipped the ball of money into his mouth.
“Your move, Prince.”
The dollar bills tasted salty. He could only imagine the places they had been. With pretend reluctance, he reached into his pocket and spilled his spare coins onto the ground.
Sasha stepped forward, shaking her head. “The rest of it.”
Prince didn’t say a word. Sasha knew him too well to give in to his tricks. His face crunched up with fake anger. He reached into his pocket and this time flung a twenty-dollar bill directly at Sasha’s face. She didn’t even blink.
“Prince.” Sasha drummed her fingers impatiently.
It’s no use.
“What?” Prince growled with clenched teeth.
He shot his hands into his pockets and turned them inside out. Strings of linen floated down around him. Before Sasha could continue her search, Prince turned and ran. He felt the edges of Sasha’s fingers graze him.
Leave it to Prince to make such a scene.
One look at Sasha and Maverick knew what was coming. “Okay, okay, I’m on my way.” Maverick sighed and followed after Prince. He could never understand why Sasha cared so much for Prince. All he ever did was cause her trouble.
“We should be running.” Bolt jogged behind him. “We’ll lose him at this rate.”
“No we won’t. I know where he’s going.”
“The only place in this dump that sells decent knives.”
Bolt scratched his head. “But he gave all his money to Sasha.”
Maverick rolled his eyes and sighed. It wasn’t worth explaining to Bolt. Only an idiot would take Prince at face value.
By the time they arrived at the store, the sun had nearly set. There was barely enough light to see ‘Jynx’s Shop’ carved into a large clay building. Jynx’s Shop took up the space of three houses and looked like it belonged in the stone ages. Crude squares pocketed its sides as makeshift windows.
Maverick gave the door three sharp knocks, simply out of habit. The knock Mice used at the end of every drop.
“We’re closed,” a female voice shouted.
“I’m here for Prince.”
Just as Maverick was about to knock again, he heard a click. The door swung open to reveal a young woman. Maverick caught himself tracing the length of her body. She wore a sweat-stained button-up and black skirt that fell right above her knees. He forced his gaze back to her eyes. Emerald and violet twinkled inside her irises like stars. Beautiful.
“Come on in.” The woman moved out of the way to reveal a well-lit room. Strings of lightbulbs shone from the ceiling. “My name is Jynx.”
Maverick followed in after Bolt. It felt like he had hit a wall of heat. His feet burned on the floor and each stale breath urged him back outside. It was hard imagining anyone being in this house for more than a few hours, never mind living here.
Still, there were many strange artifacts around the room to distract him from the heat. Piles of books stacked in one corner, in another, were shoes of various colors. Strange tribal masks hung on the wall. Some were demonic, blood red with fangs. Others were completely blank, simply a piece of white wood with eye holes.
Towards the back of the room was a glass display of knives. Prince stood there, eyeing the knives intently.
“Now that we’re all here, let’s get some knives,” Prince said.
Bolt’s eyebrows shot up. “But Sasha—”
“Do you have the money?” Maverick crossed his arms. He could feel his sweat accumulating. But if Prince could stand the heat, he could too.
Prince nodded. “Enough for three.”
“Wait guys!” Bolt stepped between them. “Sasha said not to.”
Maverick rolled his eyes. “If you don’t want one, don’t take one.”
Bolt’s eyes dropped to his feet. He shuffled uncomfortably, biting the inside of his lips. “I don’t think we should.”
“Bolt, you need to learn to think for yourself,” Prince said. “Sasha can’t babysit us forever.”
It was strange hearing Prince use those words without spite. However sick he was of them, he couldn’t deny their truth. The era of blindly following Sasha was fast approaching its end, and these knives would finally end it.
“I am thinking for myself,” Bolt insisted. “It’s not a good idea.”
“To protect ourselves?” Prince frowned.
“Bolt, if it was between me and a fucking Hawk, you can be damn sure I’m the one getting out alive. Hawks don’t deserve any better.”
Bolt clutched his bandaged arm, unconvinced.
“Look Bolt, I’m buying three. If you want one, it’s yours, otherwise I’ll just take two.”
Bolt looked around, unsure of what to do.
Maverick felt a smile creep onto his face as well. Their final drop was next week and he would be damned if he ran it like all the others.
Jynx sat near a window with the breeze in her face. She swung her head back and swished the alcohol to the back of her throat. Before the taste hit, she swallowed. It was a good warm feeling, unlike the scorching heat of her home.
“I guess Sasha’s pups are finally leaving the litter.” Her voice softened. She glanced at Prince, still playing with his knife. “I hope they don’t think they can sleep here.”
Prince chuckled. “This place is an oven. Not even dogs would sleep here.”
He held his knife as if scared to break it. The twisting silver handle shimmered in the moonlight, highlighting the engravings carved into it.
“I’m the daughter of The Dragon, isn’t it fitting that I prefer the heat? Still better than sleeping in a tent like you.
“What’s better than sleeping under the stars?” Prince grinned.
Jynx returned his smile. “When this storm everyone is talking about hits, you’ll understand.”
“I’ve slept through storms just fine. We just set up our umbrella roof. It’s really pretty, you can see the rain through the umbrellas but because they’re all colored, it makes the rain look colored as well.
“If you say so.” Jynx threw the plastic bottle of moonshine at Prince. It was old, its plastic wrinkled beyond repair. Inside was a clear liquid thick enough to be syrup, revolting in both taste and smell. “Why didn’t you leave with your friends?”
Prince caught the bottle. It only took a small sip for his mouth to twist in disgust. “Ugh.” He complained, wiping his mouth. “I need Sasha to cool down before I go.”
“Look at you, already acting like a married couple.”
“Shut up.” Prince threw his head back, mimicking Jynx, as he drained a quarter of the plastic bottle. His mouth twisted once again, but this time, he bore through it without covering his mouth.
“What did you say your friends’ names were again?”
“The short one is Bolt and the tall one is Maverick.”
“Must Sasha give you all such strange names?”
“Did she give you yours because you’re so entitled?”
Prince gave Jynx a serious look. “It’s because I’ll one day rule this city.”
Laughter erupted from Jynx’s mouth. “Good luck, I doubt my father would let you.”
“First thing I’m going to do is knock out all those damned cameras.”
“Be my guest.” The camera towers all looked misplaced. They were worth more than most could afford. They watched the city day and night.
A calm silence fell between them. Jynx went back to gazing out the window. The moon shone as bright as the sun and every star twinkled as if winking. The sky didn’t look this beautiful in movies.
“To give him some credit, this place is much better than it used to be. And my father isn’t as harsh as he was back then,” Jynx said. Life was full of these little ironies; her father had softened up just in time for the brunt of the city’s hate.
“What?” Prince looked at Jynx like she was crazy.
“My father. There used to be guns and gangs everywhere. It was completely chaos.”
“Thank God someone came and killed them all, took all the guns, and then held us all at gunpoint. Much better,” Prince slurred.
“I never said he was perfect.”
“You should know that better than anyone.” Prince placed a single finger onto his thigh, nodding towards her.
Jynx looked down at her own thigh, the black mark of her branding more noticeable than ever. She kept her mouth shut, nothing she could say would ever stifle Prince’s hatred toward her father. “But if I had to choose between the way it was and the way it is, I’d pick the way it is.”
“The way it is, I can’t even fart without The Dragon hearing about it.”
“He doesn’t care about that, he only cares about his three rules.”
“So why are Hawks allowed to hunt us down then? Doesn’t that count as violence?”
“It’s not a perfect system and they’re just kids.”
“Tell that to Mice.” Prince rolled up the sleeve of his t-shirt to reveal pale ridges all along his arm. “Tell that to the kids they carve up.” With a grimace, he swung his head back and drank the rest of the liquor.
Prince threw aside the empty plastic bottle before continuing to talk. “Either way, as long as he has his comfy seat at the top, it doesn’t matter who’s at the bottom holding his weight up. We’re just pawns to him.”
“Yet we’re still better off with him at the top.”
“Sorry but his scraps aren’t good enough for me. Perhaps if I was a dog, I’d come when he whistles and beg when I’m hungry. But I’m human. I won’t live underneath him.”
“Humans were always meant to live underneath each other,” Jynx said. “It’s the natural order of things, that’s why history is ruled by kings.”
“Yeah? So where are those kings now?”
“We’re still ruled by kings, we just call them something different.”
“Fuck, I’m too drunk this.” Prince slapped his hands on his face and rubbed his eyes. “Jynx, if you want to be a dog, do it. But I was born human and I intend to act like it.”
Jynx rolled her eyes. “You sound like Sasha.”
“That’s because she understands what it means to be human.”
Jynx paused for a while, thinking of a response. When she opened her mouth, her words were slow, each syllable carefully enunciated. “What it means to be human is to be ruled. The king will always try to remain the king, while the ruled will always try to become the king. All men wish to rule. My father understood that.”
At least he used to.
“Fine Jynx, then here’s a promise. I’ll show you what it means to live as a human.”
“I didn’t realize I was talking to Sasha.” Jynx looked away, trying not to laugh at the drunken Prince. “Anyway, it’s getting late and I have a meeting with my father soon.”
“Alright, alright, I’ll leave.”
Jynx watched him stumble out the door. He was so young and in spite of all he had been through, still so innocent.
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A 'Mouse' is a job title for fools. Mice run medicine through the slums while being hunted for profit. No one chooses this life - except for Sasha. She leads the most successful group of Mice to ever run the slums. With only one delivery left until retirement, she vows to escape. But someone won't let her. As her hunters become more violent and her job increasingly rigged against her, it becomes apparent that there is more to this game than she ever imagined. When her search for the truth uncovers a vast conspiracy, she unintentionally antagonizes the most dangerous men in the slums. If she tries to expose them, she and her family will be killed, but if she keeps her mouth shut, no Mouse will ever escape. Watched from a thousand cameras, stalked by a euphoric killer, Sasha must choose between the safety of her family and doing what is right. And even deeper in the shadows lurks someone holding a match to the slums, waiting for a chance to bring the world to its knees.