She would rather kill
Chapter 1, part 1
Kora hates hauling water from the South City well to her lazy sister’s apartment. Mud, a thick, pungent mixture of garbage and human excrement, sticks to her shoes and threatens to pull her down. As she squelches along, she curses the God-Firsters who burned the sorcerers ten years ago. Back then, they did something magical to the sewage. Sent it to another, emptier world.
Kora glumly watches the muddy road turn a brighter, glossier shade of vomit. The sky shifts from pale bruise to sulfurous yellow. A wide man in a suit of rusted armor patched with wadded rags rattles up beside her, breathing heavily. She is amazed he can walk at all in the heavy plate. His face is the slick, shiny crimson of the kraken addict.
“Such a heavy load for such a little thing,” he slurs. He extends his rough, gloved hand and jostles her breast. A sickening jolt of remembrance crashes through her. No, not again.
Without thinking, she retrieves her blade from her skirt pocket and stabs it into the patch of rags at his wrist. She wiggles it until something gives.
“Bitch!” he howls. “Your tits are small and sour like pimples!”
While he rubs his wound, she strides away. The yoke on her back jostles uncomfortably against her shoulders. Water buckets knock against her legs. She will be wet and bruised by the time she arrives for her shift at the palace.
For what is perhaps the thousandth time, she curses her sister Lelora, who spends her days smoking gorgon while her children grow sick and spindly. It’s honestly a miracle Lelora has a roof over her head. She and her three children, each with a different, drug-addicted father, live in the King’s tenement, a sprawling mass of rotting structures that house the useless and the poor.
The King says he’s a compassionate father to his people. And Kora knows she should be grateful. But she’s not. She despises the King. He is a tall, elegant man with a bookish way of speaking and a narrow, turned up nose. He is exquisitely sensitive to unpleasant odors. It’s only natural, she thinks, that he would move all the human filth downwind of the palace, where he can’t smell it.
Kora is so absorbed in her thoughts she almost walks by her destination.
“Hallo Aunt!” calls Hoobie, leaning out the apartment window and waving.
He is Kora’s oldest nephew. He is six years old and small for his age. Soon, she hopes, he will be big enough to fetch the water on his own. As always, he scampers down the stairs and helps Kora haul the buckets to the fifth floor. They step carefully over broken boards and exposed nails.
After the water is stowed, Kora serves Hoobie a plain breakfast of dried beans and mash. Then she checks on his sisters. Mela is a wheezy two-year-old. Lele is the baby. She scrubs the filth from their bottoms and changes their nappies. She frowns as she does it. Mela’s ribs protrude dramatically. Lele’s skin has a sickly, yellowish tinge.
Kora carries the children, light as tinder, to her sister’s room. Lelora is mostly unconscious, writhing gently under a thin sheet. A needle, a glass vial, and a tube sit on the bed stand. Kora opens her sister’s shirt and puts one babe at each breast. They suckle silently. When they are done, Kora gathers them up and settles them in cribs.
She wonders if she should slit all their throats and be done with it. Would such an act be merciful or just lazy?
As Kora heads out the door, she hears Hoobie crooning to his sisters. It’s a bit of nonsense that grew popular shortly after the Sorcery Trials.
The world will end on the first of Maybe.
With a hew and a cry and a cheer.
Magic will shine in a newborn Baby
Her mother will shed nary a tear.
Kora enters the King’s chambers despite the soft moans wafting into the hallway. Her job is to empty his waste pot every hour, so he will not be troubled by the smell. Her primary qualifications are soft footsteps and a guarded tongue. After half a decade in the job, her silence comes naturally. She is inured to royal depravity.
This morning, His Highness is entertaining a lady. They are mostly naked and doing things — squelchy things — in bed. Kora doesn’t spare them a glance. As far as the royals are concerned, she might as well be a quail or a deer. One time she surprised the King on the pot, and he did not even blink. With a tired wave of the hand, he bade her to wait while he finished his expulsions.
She moves quickly to the pot which is, like almost everything else in the room, redundantly gilded. She grips the handles and — ugh — it is heavier than usual. She carries it from the room, stepping as fast as she can. She has less than fifteen minutes to empty and clean the pot and pass it to Kemora, whose job is to return the empty pot to its place.
As Kora descends the stairs, her legs and arms begin to ache. She can feel every trip to the city well, every night spent caring for sister’s children. Her life is exhausting. Numbing. Her sorrow for her bright-eyed nephew and fading nieces barely stings. She no longer shivers at the terrors of her past. Perhaps, she thinks, it is a blessing.
When she arrives at the Disposal Room, it is empty. Nobody spends time in here if they can help it. The last stranger Kora encountered here was a footman who had just strangled and disarticulated his wife. The man was too distraught to register Kora’s presence, but the incident made her warier than ever.
Several years ago she was attacked in this place. Raped. Left spattered in ordure. The next day, she bought her blade.
Kora does not dawdle. She empties the pot down the Shit Chute. Then she uses a special mop, bucket, and chamois cloth to scour it. Plump Kemora, theatrically holding her nose, pops in through a side door. She grabs the pot from Kora’s hands and scurries away. Then Kora exits and begins climbing the stairs to the royal aerie. She has about twenty minutes before the cycle begins again.
When she sees a small landing with an unmarked door, she stops. Her shoulders sag with relief. She opens the door and steps onto a small balcony overlooking the vegetable gardens. The air is fresh. The sight of the gardeners trimming plants is soothing. It looks like calm, careful work.
With a tired sigh, Kora leaves her balcony and returns to the dark. She has many, many stairs to climb. She is about halfway to the King’s chamber when a man rockets down the stairs and crashes into her. He is a blur of fine silks, smooth furs, and dark, over-pomaded hair.
Fortunately, the tumble to the nearest landing is a short one. She extracts herself from the man and mutters a quick, obsequious apology. She turns to leave when a cold, hard hand encircles her upper arm like a vise.
“You’re not going anywhere.”
Kora stares down at the floor, harder than she’s stared at anything in her life. The man gripping her smells like a noble. The odor is sweet over rot, and it makes Kora choke. The man is merely amused.
“Am I so repellent you must gag? Truly?” he chuckles.
Kora says nothing. She knows speaking to nobles is a trap. Say the wrong thing, and they’ll kill you for sport. He tightens his grip on her arm until she yelps and mutters a quiet curse.
“That’s better,” he says, smirking. “I knew you weren’t a mute. You’re one of my father’s pot girls, yes?”
My father’s? Kora goes from scared to terrified in a flash. This man gripping her arm is a prince. The prince, really, because there is only one. He has no brothers. The King’s only other child is a daughter. The servants call her Beryl the Mad, and everyone knows she has the sorcery. Only her position as princess keeps her safe from the church.
Kora nods curtly, and the prince smiles. “Look at me.”
He crushes her arm until she raises her eyes. His face is long and almost handsome. His eyes are long-lashed, agate-colored, and close-set. His nose, a hawkish beak, shadows his moist and mobile upper lip. He has the glossy red cheeks of an addict.
“I need someplace to hide,” he says. “Someplace no one will find me. I’ve been a very naughty boy.”
Kora stares. She thinks she knows what he wants and where he wants to go. She feels like the bottom has dropped out of her world, revealing an endless abyss. She can’t go with him. She won’t. She’d rather die.
“Take me to the Disposal Room,” he murmurs. “I’m sure we’ll find some way to amuse ourselves.”
Kora hangs over the abyss. She will not let herself drop. She would rather die. With her free hand, she reaches into her pocket for her knife.
She would rather kill.