Diamond City – Francesca Flores

“Do you want to know the secret to survival?” Aina’s eyes snapped up from the sticky wooden table and widened at the man who sat across from her. The bar’s dim light glinted off his smile. Fast-playing flutes, rowdy drunks, and dancers stomping their feet across the floor nearly drowned out his next words. “You count and you look,” he whispered. “You count everything and you look at everyone. Are you paying attention, street child?” Her frown deepened. Every underage person in this bar was a street child, but she still disliked being called one. It marked her as dirty, poor, without a future. She was dirty and poor, but the idea of a future hadn’t faded from her mind yet. A high collar framed the man’s pale face as he took her in. Perhaps he was going to offer her a job. Something about him smelled rich, maybe the scent of cologne. He was probably one of the industrialists made wealthy by steam and steel. “Thirty-six people were in this bar when you entered, making you the thirty-seventh.” He leaned closer, his gaze fixing on her as adamantly as a noose around the neck.

“The door opened once inward, and twice outward, because the wind pushed your hair around your cheeks the first time, but not the next two.” She blew a strand of wet hair out of her eyes and tried not to shiver, but she was soaked from getting pushed into the Minos River by some boys who’d robbed her. She wanted warm clothes and a bed to sleep on. She didn’t want to play this man’s game. Crossing her arms, she turned away to ignore him, but he continued speaking. “That means there should be thirty-six people in this room, but did you count? There are thirtyfive. Where is the missing link?” He barely paused for a breath. “You don’t know. He’s planting a bomb in the rafters. Don’t look up; you’ve only got twenty seconds.

I have a job you might be good at. If you come work with me, everyone here will die, but we’ll survive. If you don’t, you’ll die without ever knowing what you could become. Do you want your life to end at twelve years, Aina Solís?” “How do you know my name?” Her fists clenched, a chill crept down her spine. Plenty of bombs went off in Kosín, but what if this were just a lie to get her to follow him? “Twelve seconds left.” “The Diamond Guards—” “The Diamond Guards won’t risk their lives to save a street child. Eight seconds left.” Her mouth snapped shut. The options were few, but she was cold and hungry, and this man had a job for her. She stood on shaking legs and walked out, the man’s presence behind her like a reaper waiting for its reward.

In the last three seconds, they ran. The chill night wind bit her skin through her wet clothes. Her sprints elongated, and her lungs seared. An explosion shattered the night. Aina fell into a pile of snow in a shadowed alley. Bits of wood from the building landed next to her, making her flinch and bite her tongue as her ears began to ring. Screams and the distinctive crackle of flames sounded behind her. The man helped her up. She took a step back, crossed her arms, and narrowed her eyes at him. He was younger than she’d first thought, hardly eighteen or nineteen.

Something about him was familiar, but she couldn’t figure out what. If he meant to hurt her now, she could try to run, or fight back like she’d had to do so many times on Kosín’s streets. “Why did you help me?” she asked, trying to keep her voice from shaking. “I wasn’t the only kid in there.” His smile faded slightly. “Because good things don’t usually happen to girls who come from nothing.” Aina cast her eyes downward. She was already well aware of that. He withdrew a dagger from a sheath inside his jacket. It was the sleekest blade she’d ever seen, with an onyx-black handle.

A sharp breath stole through her at the sight. He waited patiently, holding it like a gift as she reached out to touch the handle with the tips of her fingers. “Learn how to use this knife, and I’ll make you into something.” SIX YEARS LATER 1 The baker’s final words were smothered by a whimper. “You know how they say you should watch out for the quiet ones?” Aina’s breath fogged the blade of the dagger she held. “They were right.” She took her time with the blade, heedless of his screams. Screams went ignored in Kosín’s slums. A gun would have been faster, but she preferred knives. In the hands of a trained killer, knives left less room for mistakes.

By the light of a single flickering candle, she’d waited in silence for the baker to return from the casino where he’d spent all his earnings. He’d entered and stumbled drunkenly toward his bed, where she’d pinned him. The house smelled like salt and dough, and now blood. The coppery scent no longer bothered her like it had when she first became an assassin. The baker’s screams died, leaving the house ghostly quiet as he dropped to the bed with his throat slit like a red smile. Silver moonlight reflected on his blank, glass-like stare. There was no pulse at his wrist, no breath from his lips. Another death at her hands like all the others, and while she’d grown to feel nothing after a kill, this one was different. She’d known this man. When she was younger and begging on the streets, she’d sat in silence outside his bakery, hoping that someone would drop a piece of bread into her hands.

When the hunger finally made her dizzy, she tried stealing bread from a customer. The baker had beaten her with a rolling pin until she blacked out in the snow. He was better off dead, and she hoped every moderately hungry person in the vicinity would steal his bread tonight. She no longer needed it. Standing, she wiped the bloody dagger on her scarf, but there was nothing to be done about the mess on her arms and torso. She pushed open the cardboard door and stepped into the street, wearing the baker’s blood like a medal. He had sold her boss’s information to the Red Jackals gang, filling his pockets with kors for gambling, but guaranteeing his death by her blade. She didn’t know what the information was, nor why the baker had sold it to the Jackals. Her boss, the Blood King, never told her more than she needed to know in order to slit a throat, and she wasn’t stupid enough to test his patience by asking for details. Everyone in the south of Kosín—everyone but the baker, apparently—knew that crossing the Blood King was a death sentence.

The slums’ springtime scents of piss, sweat, and blood filled the early evening air. Smoke from the factories spilled down the hills into this southern part of the city known as the Stacks, home of the poor and the faithful who hid their religion and blood magic practice. Houses of mud brick, corrugated metal, and rain-beaten cardboard lined the slanting roads, pressed so close together, they were nearly stacked on top of each other. Children kicked balls across the mud with scrawny dogs barking at their heels, but they all scattered when she neared them, covered in blood. Slurred yells reached her ears as she walked the curving streets and passed groups of men huddled around fires. A small part of her was tempted to return to her old ways, to buy industrial glue from the men on these corners and inhale it until she passed out on the sidewalk. But eyes watched her from dark corners. The Jackals had been tailing her since she’d entered their territory tonight. She avoided the shadows, staying in the center of the street with her head held high to prove she was fearless even though her heart pounded in her throat. Some of the streets of the Jackals’ territory and the Blood King’s pressed against one another, leaving tensions fierce whenever someone trespassed.

The Jackals had tested her boss’s patience by paying the baker, and she was here as a reminder that messing with the Blood King was the quickest way to get your throat cut in Kosín. The only question was whether they would risk angering him further by coming after her for walking and killing on their streets—and whether they were stupid enough to try to fight her. Neutral territory was close, marked only by the dead end ahead with a narrow, weed-choked gap between two houses. If a lifetime here hadn’t taught her which streets were safe, she’d have died years ago. A little boy sat in front of one of the houses, twisting gold and silver wires into designs to be peddled for coins in the richer districts. Aina kept her eyes on the gap, counting down the seconds until she could reach it and move on to her next job. Ten steps away, a girl stepped out from behind a house with a knife in her right hand and a jackal’s blood-drenched jaw and teeth tattooed along her left forearm. “Paying us a visit?” she asked, stopping in front of Aina. Aina shrugged, keeping her features indifferent. Someone approached from behind, their footsteps quiet, but noticeable.

“Just out for a stroll,” she said with a small smile. She could take out this grunt with a knife through the ribs in seconds, but that would break the tenuous peace between the Jackals and the Blood King. They could threaten and antagonize each other, but if she actually killed one of them, all hell would break loose. No, she had to find a different route of escape. The air shifted behind her. She spun to find a gun aimed at her chest by a boy twice her size. She sidestepped him, but the girl grabbed her roughly and pushed her into the rusted wall of a house. The pair boxed her in. Aina allowed a small trace of fear to light up her eyes so they would think they had the advantage, convincing enough that even her boss would be proud. She had seen the girl around the city, and she recognized the boy; he’d been on the streets around the same years that she had been.

Once, they’d even fought over a scrap of metal to sleep under. He’d beaten her in that fight, but he wouldn’t win now. “Should I take an eye for this violation, or should we beat her and paint her blood on her boss’s door instead?” the girl asked her friend. “Which do you think would leave the brighter impression?” Before she finished speaking, Aina moved. She grabbed the boy’s wrist and slammed it into the wall. The gun fell from his grasp. He lunged for it, but she kicked him in the shins with her steel-toed boots. The girl tried to plunge her knife into Aina’s side, but Aina blocked the attack with her own blade and punched the girl in the stomach with her other hand. She fled, with their footsteps pounding behind her. She reached the gap between houses, passing the little boy, who hardly blinked at the scene in front of him, and slipped through the gap to reach a neutral street.

Seconds later, the footsteps faded. Running from fights might make her look weak, but starting a gang war wasn’t part of her job tonight, and she still had work to do—work that no one, especially not the Blood King, could know about. She left the Stacks, ascending the sloped hills until she reached the city’s Center. Pollution blocked out most of the stars above, but electric lights in shop windows lit the streets here. Coughing on the smoke-tinged air leaking over from the assembly plants and steel mills, Aina veered east. Men and women from the textile factories shoved past her with hands dyed purple and black, jostling against the rail workers who limped from the train station wearing dirt-covered overalls. It was a thick, sweaty mess of a crowd, but some people noticed the blood on her clothes and gave her a wide berth. Most were too exhausted and so used to Kosín’s violence that they barely glanced at her. The air grew colder as she left the crowds and entered the quieter east of the city. She passed the smudged-gray apartment buildings, their windows lit with candles instead of electricity, then checked that no one was watching as she crossed a rusted bridge spanning the Minos River.

A few miles of weed-choked train tracks and muddy fields spread toward the forest on Kosín’s outskirts. Far beyond the trees, mountains edged the horizon, blue and curving like ocean waves. She walked fast, needing to get to the mines and then back into the city before all the shops closed for the night. While the mines produced diamonds meant to be sold as jewels, plenty of the workers here were involved in the illicit trade of rough diamonds used in blood magic. Prior to the civil war fourteen years ago, many people in their country had worshiped the Mothers, two goddesses named Kalaan and Isar who had blessed the Inosen—the faithful—with the magic of blood and earth. After the war and the rise of industrialization, worship and the use of magic had been outlawed. But a few hundred Inosen were left, their faith buried in Kosín’s poorest districts. Even though they hid, Aina knew they were there. They were the ones buying her rough diamonds, after all. The sound of drills soon reached her ears.

A half mile later, she approached the fringe of the forest and took in the open pit of the Hirai Diamond Mine. With a seven-million-carat yearly production rate, it was the richest diamond mine in the world. No matter how many times she saw it, descending into the earth with different levels cut into it like tree rings, the surrounding fields crisscrossed with pale beige roads and ore-filled crates, the pit never failed to impress her. It stretched farther than she could see. Employment and production had increased dramatically ever since more rare diamonds had been discovered in it. A few supervisors nodded at her as she approached. She waved to one of them, a man whose name she’d forgotten the minute he’d told it to her. Next to him was a large crate loaded with gray, grainlike ore. “Miss Solís.” His smile was nearly toothless.

“You’re back again.” “Your goods?” He took in her bloodstained clothes with a concerned frown. “We have water if you want to wash up.” “Your goods?” With an exasperated shake of his head, the supervisor approached a toolbox at the foot of the crate. He withdrew a small scale and worked with his back to her. When he returned, Aina slipped him coins to keep quiet about their transaction, then held out a hand. A stream of rough diamonds cascaded onto her palm. She tilted her hand so moonlight shone on their varying opaque and translucent surfaces. The gems were fresh from the earth, still dull in sheen and needing cut and polish to be sold anywhere as jewelry. But they would work fine for magic.

“Not jewelry-shop quality,” the supervisor began, “but as long as they’re not entirely opaque, they’ll work for your purposes.” She glared at him. “They’re not for me.” “Then they’ll work for whoever you sell them to,” he said with a wink. Smiling, she dropped the diamonds into a hidden pocket of her jacket and walked away—tossing her bloodstained scarf over her shoulder as she did. Anyone except a certified jeweler caught with a rough diamond would be executed in the street, as was the law since the war. And if her boss ever found out about her diamond sales, he’d kill her for not giving him a cut of the earnings. He’d saved her and turned her from a helpless street kid into a feared killer, but she wanted more. This was her one way to dupe him in a city he owned through blood and bribery. He held freedom over her head.

Telling her one more kill, one more bribe, one more job, until she was free to be her own boss. “One more diamond behind your back,” she whispered, her breath turning white in front of her. When the Blood King had sent her on her first kill years ago, Aina had made a promise to herself and to all the kids without a roof who still yearned to stand on top of the world. She would be the one everyone feared, the girl who made politicians, slavers, gang bosses, and mercenaries tremble. She would be the Blood King’s equal. And one day, she would rank even higher than him.

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