Chapter One - Bloody Mercy

"Bones Picked Clean"

Ancaradis, Calyari

Third Day of the Month of Fire

34th Year of the reign of Patria Theodas Logos IV

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The knife rested comfortably in the palm of my hand. It was a good piece of Trader steel, perfectly balanced. I considered throwing it. If it had Fate in the blade, it might do something impressive.

Deegan Grimes' three lackwits made a slow, predatory circle around me, snickering. Clotheslines full of linens dripped stinking indigo on our heads. A dust dervish swept up a cloud of sand. Not far away, a liarbird spit out a stream of curses. On the other side of Cutpurse Bridge, merchants were hawking their wares. Over all that noise, my heartbeat still sounded like a drum in my ears.

I had to stop tussling with young thugs. Old and broken as I was, pretty soon I'd be getting my ass beat by them.

I'd named the leader of the three Rich Boy, and I was keeping my eyes on him. He about eighteen, quick, and sneaky. His boots said he came from money, but all the coin in the world wouldn't fix his nose. Rich Boy was a good fighter, and he'd already cut me once. Blood trickled from the wound, but it was only a scratch. I ignored it. Back in my army days, I'd traded blows with people who actually intended to kill me.

Rich Boy squinted at the sun flashing off my Trader knife and swept in with a surprisingly sloppy, overextended strike. I caught the top of his hand and pressed down between the bone and the gristle, bully-walking him into the wall. I slammed his back against the bricks and drove my knee into his gut. He puked and dropped his weapon, slurring some word I'd never heard before.

"Just off the boat from the Satrapies, eh?" I observed. "Nobody tell you to stay out of Bones Picked Clean?"

"Deegan..." The boy choked.

"Ooh, Deegan?" I kicked his knife into a pile of garbage. "You think I'm afraid of Deegan Grimes?"

A couple of my boys were close enough to hear that. They cackled like hyenas.

"Grimes can suck an egg!" Lorne said.

"Ol' Leechface don't scare us!" Tig shouted. "I'd piss on his dead mother!"

"That's enough, Tig," I turned, just for a second.

It was a mistake to get distracted. Soon as my eyes were off him, the dumbest of the boys decided to take a swing at me again. He was easy pickings, and obviously didn't have the sense to stay down. I stepped past his fist. Although I could've stabbed him, I put him on the ground instead. He dropped like he didn't have a bone in his body. No surprise there. I've always favored my left.

Surprisingly, he was still conscious. The boy didn't move, but stared up at me, and I decided to make my feelings on him being in my District real clear.

"You oughta know, you three are only here because Deegan Grimes is too much of a coward to cross Cutpurse Bridge himself," I said, crushing his hand with the heel of my boot. He shrieked and clawed at my ankle. "Now if you wanna keep your guts in your belly, you stay out of Bones Picked Clean! You got that?"

Something moved behind me, and I realized too late it was Rich Boy. I hadn't hurt him as bad as I'd thought, and he was coming to his friend's defense. I turned just in time for his fist to collide with my jaw. There are some bad things about being tall, and having a short man give you an uppercut is one of them. The whole world went fuzzy, but I managed not to get sucked down into the dark. When I staggered, Rich Boy jumped on my back like a monkey and started trying to choke the air out of me.

"Mercy!" Lorne shouted. It probably looked like I was in trouble.

"Stay put," I ordered, trying to get words out and breathe at the same time. "I got em'!"

I seized Rich Boy's belt and threw him over my shoulder like a sack of rice. Hucking rice sacks onto barges is the only legitimate work I've ever done, so it's fair to say I've got a certain skill for it. Without thinking, I put my blade between his ribs. Rich Boy gasped. The blood that suddenly appeared on his lips told me I'd stabbed his lung. I hadn't meant to finish him off, but the poor idiot should've stopped when he was beat.

See... there's a reason folks call me Bloody Mercy.

As I stood up, I winced at a sharp pinch in my side and rubbed my jaw. I could feel the force of the punches I'd taken in my back teeth. The last of Deegan's thugs saw the other two bleeding on the ground and decided he'd better run.

"You want us to go after him?" Tig asked, watching the last of Deegan's thugs flee. Him and Lorne were sitting on a nearby roof, dangling their feet over the alley like little boys, but crossing their arms so they'd look tough. Lorne is sixteen, with curly hair that makes him look like a girl, and he weighs maybe a hundred pounds soaking wet. Tig is even smaller, although older and meaner than his cousin.

Using the clotheslines to make their entrance like a couple of real professionals, my boys swung down to meet me. Tig scratched his nose and spit a black glob of qaddi in the dust. I almost smacked him for picking up the nasty habit, but Lorne got him first.

"That shit rots your brains," Lorne said.

I nodded. "Makes your teeth fall out too."

Tig scowled. He didn't say anything back, but the look he gave me was easy to read. He was itching for a fight, and if I didn't give him something to do, he'd go find trouble on his own.

"What are you waiting for, an invitation? We still got one running. Kick em' off the Bridge if you catch em'!"

Tig liked that idea. Him and Lorne both saluted and took off.

I muttered some choice words under my breath. Unless Deegan started keeping a tighter rein on his boys, I'd have to pay him a visit. The bastard was on the verge of starting another war between Deathwalker Alley and Bones Picked Clean.

As I was considering what to do next, I caught sight of a familiar figure turning the corner just ahead of me. I brushed myself off and sauntered over to meet the man, keeping my bloody hands behind my back. My business partner Ferret raised an eyebrow in my direction.

"You've got blood on you, Mercy," he observed.

"Had to stab someone," I replied, keeping my voice low. I never could hide anything from Ferret, but we were being watched.

City guards in the Patria's colors of red and gold loitered on the street not far from Aerope's Apothecary. From the looks of things, it had been a bad day for them, and a bad day for Aerope too. The door to the little shop was torn off its hinges, and the air was filled with the sulfurous smell of arcane fire. Most of the tile roof was black. Shards of glass, piles of burned-up garbage, and nasty pools of caramelized potions were everywhere. Aerope was nowhere to be seen, and that made my stomach turn a loop.

I may be the meanest man in Ancaradis, but my former wife does things that make me feel real squeamish.

Of course, the guards who'd been sent to handle the situation weren't helping clean up. They were "supervising" with their spears and blocking off the street.

"Don't be dumb, Mercy," Ferret warned, reading my face. He knew I wanted to say something about the guards interfering with the daily business of honest... well, folks I liked. Just like Deegan's boys, the Patria's toadies had no business mucking around in my territory.

"Suck an egg, Ferret," I told him, though I was going to follow his advice.

Fighting with city guards in Ancaradis is always stupid thing to do. The Patria likes to keep his city heavily fortified, and for good reason. Calyari's northern neighbors, the kingdoms of Torres and Arborea, have been at war for at least a couple hundred years.

The guards gave us the stink-eye. Even if they didn't know they were staring down the de-facto rulers of Bones Picked Clean, Ferret and I painted a strange picture standing in the only sliver of shade on the street. I'm a bit over six foot tall, pale as my Arborean mother, and carrying a little extra weight around the middle. Every stitch of clothing I own is black. A bad scar from a wound that should've blinded me runs across the right side of my face. A fiend nearly tore my head off once. I like to tell that story when I'm drunk.

Ferret, my business partner, is Ksrali. How old he is, I don't know, but he's got some years on me. He doesn't have an ounce of meat anywhere on his bones, and the top of his head only reaches the middle of my chest. His skin is as dark as I've ever seen on a man, and he wears this ridiculous red and white striped kaftan that would look better on a woman. Since he likes to be prepared for anything, he carries a huge patchwork bag slung over his shoulder that's always filled with whatever he might need. Usually perched on his head is his pet liarbird, Cookie.

That liarbird alone would've made him look suspicious, but Ferret's also got spooky blue witch eyes, which convince most people to give him a wide berth. The Ksrali are an uncomfortable reminder that magic still lives in the south, despite the Patria's best attempts to wipe it out. Ferret's talents once made him the most notorious thief in Ancaradis. After losing a leg in an accident, he became the city's best fence.

With a flick of the wrist, Ferret passed me a pristine white handkerchief. Some patrician lady's initials were embroidered on it. I wiped sweat from my face. Cookie warbled, and Ferret fed him a piece of jerky. His thieving fingers were so quick that it looked like he pulled both the handkerchief and the jerky out of midair.

Maybe he did. I was used to that sort of thing from him, so I just wiped my face clean.

Still distracted by Aerope's mess, the guards probably didn't realize that someone had been murdered not forty feet away from them. More likely, they didn't care. Bones Picked Clean is the most dangerous slum in Ancaradis. The crimes that occur there never make it to court. We take care of our own trouble, and the folks who are found floating belly down in the Grand Canal have usually crossed certain lines. The fact that they're sent back to the Makers is something noone mourns for long.

When there was nothing more to see, Ferret and I made our way back to the Dragon's Tail.

The Dragon's Tail is the worst public house in Bones Picked Clean, and that's saying something. The District doesn't have any businesses apart from public houses, and the occasional "don't ask, don't tell" apothecary like Aerope. The walls of the Tail are made of earth covered in whitewash, and they stink when it rains. Kegs serve as tables, old shipping crates are chairs, and a mound of musty pillows fills the corner where the qaddi chewers sleep. Watered-down beer, burnt bread, and cheap, nasty meat are the only things on the menu. Of course, the regulars don't come in because they're hungry.

See, the Dragon's Tail is where people go if they want to buy anything, sell anything, steal anything... or have someone killed.

Being good businessmen, Ferret and I try to stay out of trouble ourselves. The disreputable folks who use the Tail for their own purposes pay us for the privacy we give them and the liquor they drink while they're hanging around. Ferret also has about two dozen thieves he's trained up, and they work the streets and the market for us. We get a cut, in exchange for reselling their ill-gotten gains, giving them a place to sleep, and sometimes bailing them out of jail. My boys bust the skulls of our competition, and generally, we all make out like the bandits that we are.

When Ferret and I arrived, the common room of the Tail was as sparse as it usually was before the sun went down. One of our regulars, an old qaddi addict called "No Teeth" was absorbed in a dice game with the bartender, bouncer, and cook.

Incidentally, all that's just one man.

The Tail's only employee is a burly Northman with a name everybody chokes on, so we call him "Guts". Most of the time, he isn't working... but to be fair, I don't actually pay him. Guts a good bouncer, and a fair bartender, but if I had the money to hire someone else, I'd never let him set foot in my kitchen.

Another of our regulars, a half-Trader drunkard known as "Windrider", was passed out in the corner of the room. A pair of Trader women were sitting with her, sucking on a hookah and sharpening their long knives. The Traders gave me nasty catlike smiles as I walked past them. Their bells and bracelets made a lot of noise as they worked on their blades. Some say that the Trader's characteristic jingling is a warning, like the rattle of a venomous snake.

When I noticed that one of the Traders had silver spirals on her face, I walked past them a little quicker. Because of an ancient bargain, Traders are literally immune to the Laws of Men. Now, what Calyareans call "the Laws of Men", a foreigner would call "Fate". Like a smith works metal, Traders bend and forge probability, which is exactly as terrible as it sounds.

A Fatecrafter can do something seemingly harmless, like give a piece of bread to a rat, and through a series of coincidences they'll cause a bridge to collapse. Legally, any mess caused by a Fatecrafter falls under the jurisdiction "Acts of the Gods" along with fires, hurricanes, and floods. It's a fairly potent reminder that while most Traders look normal enough, they're not exactly human.

Traders are also, without exception, liars and thieves.

As I approached the bar, the distinctive smell of Trader's Fire caught my attention. Although they're chiefly known for fatemangling and their horses, Traders also brew the meanest hooch known to man. It will kill whatever ails you, and give you a fleeting touch of Sight. Like most people born and raised in the slums, I'd been addicted to the shit most of my life.

Guts poured me a good amount of Trader's Fire from a dark green bottle. I examined the amber-colored liquor. It smelled like honey and red pepper, and I could already tell it was going to be strong. I drank it down. The burn was perfect.

I slammed my glass on the bar. "Damn! That hits the spot! Get me another."

"They sell," Guts said, gesturing to the Traders.

"Good. Buy as much as they've got," I replied.

Guts wrinkled his nose and poured me a double. He didn't share my affection for Trader's Fire, but he was also afraid of turmeric and garlic. Sometimes it amazed me that he'd survived in Calyari for as long as he had.

I drained my second glass of Trader's Fire and was getting a fresh coal for the hookah when a girl blazed through my front door. She was wearing a bad yellow wig and dressed in a flimsy white nightgown, which made it obvious that her body was mostly bones rather than womanly curves. All the tin jewelry in the world wouldn't make her look like a foreign beauty. She was a local girl, and in my opinion, too young to be whoring. The name she went by was "Snow".

I doubted she'd ever seen snow. I had, and I didn't think it was pretty or romantic. Mostly, it was just cold.

"Mercy!" Snow shouted.

"I'm right here, girl," I said.

Snow jumped, realizing I was near enough to bite her. I knew she was afraid of me, but I didn't think much of it. Most sensible people are afraid of me.

"Some of Deegan's men have come into the Pearl, and they won't leave!" Snow clearly meant to whisper, but she spoke awfully loud regardless. "Big Alice sent me to get you."

"Again?" I groaned.

Snow nodded. Ferret rolled his eyes.

"Guts? Sword," I ordered.

Guts tossed me the sword that usually rusted on the wall above the fireplace. It was army issue, an ugly, badly-balanced piece of junk, but I'd spent more than half my life wielding it. Running around with a visible weapon in Ancardis is a good way to get arrested, unless you're a Guild mercenary or one of the Patria's men. It wasn't my habit to tempt Fate by going out with a sword on my hip, but I knew Deegan Grimes liked to play at being a patrician and was always well-armed.

Ferret's liarbird landed on my head. "Don't be dumb, Mercy," Cookie croaked. "Dumb Mercy!"

"Does that buzzard of yours ever say anything else?" I demanded, shooing him off.

Ferret only shrugged.

"Over an' over," No Teeth said. It was the first garbled thing that had come out of his mouth since I'd arrived, not that I was surprised. He was a longtime qaddi addict, and his brains rarely worked. "Got to say it over an' over."

I didn't bother to correct No Teeth, but I had a lot of experience with fiends. Liarbirds didn't need to be trained like parrots. They could talk like men if they had the mind to, and they understood everything they heard. I looked straight into the creature's beady eyes. "Dumb Mercy likes to eat turkey. And you're fat enough to pass for one, you filthy flying rat!"

The liarbird squawked defiantly and fluttered off, landing on the head of the Fatecrafter. She reached up to scratch the mangy Fiend with a little smile on her face. I didn't like that smile in the least. I wasn't exactly a god-fearing man, but having a Fatecrafter smirk at me almost sent me running for the nearest temple.

Then I remembered I had business to take care of. "All right. Let's go save Alice," I said, herding Snow out the back door of the Tail. She almost tripped over the hem of her nightgown, and I noticed that she didn't have shoes on. Obviously, she'd left the Pearl in a hurry, which meant that the situation was already bad... and probably getting worse.

The last thing I heard clearly as we headed in the direction of Cutpurse Bridge was Windrider waking up from her alcohol-induced nap. "Damnit, Guts!" She groaned.

Sure enough, when I took a good whiff, I could smell bread burning. Snow raised an eyebrow in my direction.

Even with the meanest man in Ancaradis right behind her, she looked awfully nervous.

"I tell ya, sweetheart," I sighed heavily. "Good help is hard to find."