The fire crawling through Lir’s veins had started hours ago and was only getting worse. In spite of the cool air piped throughout the ship, sweat itched along his brow and he barely resisted the urge to tap his feet as he joined the long line of Bullets heading into the galley. He’d never needed Silt this badly before. He’d never felt this insistent surging of his blood or this erratic knocking of his heart. But he’d missed his last two doses and the lag was beginning to take its toll. Lir ground his teeth at the sudden lightness in his head and turned to survey the Bullets lining up behind him until his eyes found the one he searched for: Tassos. The boy was barely a turn older than Lir, but his body told another story. He was broad where Lir was narrow, his muscles stacked like bricks where Lir’s were lean. Like Lir, he was pale as salt but for his dark eyes and twisted red hair, and he always seemed to be smiling at something. Right now, that something was Lir. Tassos stood with his arms crossed over his chest, his eyes loosely locked on Lir, and a disdainful curl to his lips. He was surrounded by a small swarm of sycophants, every one of them too afraid of his capricious moods to risk standing anywhere but by his side. It was Lir’s recent refusal to similarly acquiesce that had landed him in the too-bright light of Tassos’s attentions. A sharp-jawed girl named Cepheus leaned up and, with her eyes on Lir, whispered something that made Tassos laugh. Lir glowered, turning away from the sight.
Two doses. Tassos had stolen the previous two doses from Lir by getting ahead of him in line and swiping it from his tray before Lir had even managed to find a seat. It was insulting. Maddening. But the only thing worse than not having his dose of Silt would be admitting to Ballistic Ennick that he’d lost it. Twice. Asking for assistance wasn’t an option. This was a situation he’d have to deal with on his own. An unfamiliar weakness needled in his muscles and bones, and strength leached from his skin like sweat. But he would not give Tassos the pleasure of seeing him squirm.
The rivalry between them was new. Until two days ago, Tassos had never spared a second glance for him. Then Lir made the mistake of taking down Cross in hand-to-hand exercises and suddenly the once-middling Lir of sixteen turns wasn’t so unobtrusive anymore. He was the one everyone wanted at their side. And Tassos, it seemed, had decided Lir was the one to drive into the ground. Clenching his fists against a sudden tremor, Lir steadied his breathing and tried to focus on the soothing simplicity of a gun. He ran through each piece, mentally dismantling his preferred sidearm before putting it back together again. At each step, he imagined the unmistakable slide of steel against steel, the sharp click as pins snapped home, the quiet groan as springs depressed. By the time he’d completed the process, the line had coiled into the galley and the smell of fresh bread made Lir’s stomach clench with anticipation. Soon, there was a tray in his hand and his plate was filled with seed brick smothered in gravy, seaweed salad, and that delicious fresh bread.
His blood surged faster, and the fire burned in his veins as he followed the line to the end where Bullet Sanno handed out the evening ration of Silt. Sanno raised one thick eyebrow as Lir approached. It was warm in here, but not warm enough to warrant the beads of sweat sliding from Lir’s temples. “From Silt comes strength,” Lir said, and it took some effort to keep his voice steady. “The Father gives you Silt,” Sanno answered, the suspicion in his voice clear, but he handed over a single ration without question. Lir flicked his eyes quickly down the line as he turned away, spotting Tassos picking up his own tray at the end. Relief washed through Lir. The wait was nearly over. All he needed to do was stay calm, eat his meal, then take his Silt the same way every other Bullet did. After the meal.
His mistake was keeping his eyes on Tassos. He knew that as soon as his shoulder collided with something hard. His tray tipped, the contents spilling to the floor with a clatter. Lir snapped to attention, instinctively raising his fists for a fight even as Cepheus backed away with an apologetic shrug. And a barely concealed mocking half grin. “Clean it up, Bullet,” the Galley Master called, voice rising above the sounds of snickering and chatter. Cold stole over Lir as he stooped to collect his tray, plate, glass, and cutlery. There was the mess of his food at his feet and nothing else. His Silt was gone. Behind him, Tassos emerged from the line, a knowing grin on his smug face.
A small, distant part of Lir’s mind told him to ignore this. He would find another way to get Silt even if it meant another night going without. He was strong enough to survive until morning rations and he would rise before anyone else, be first in line, and take his Silt before Tassos ever stepped foot in the galley. Then Tassos smiled with his teeth and Lir’s mind went very, very still. Lir crossed the room in two swift strides, swinging his tray like a sword. Hot blood sprayed across one side of Lir’s face as the tray gouged a thick trail through Tassos’s cheek. Before Tassos could retaliate, Lir brought his fist down like a hammer, punishing the same mangled cheek with a second strike. Tassos stumbled, then recoiled, readying for the next attack, but before either of them could move again, a triple horn beat punctuated the air. The galley fell silent but for the rhythmic ticking of the old stove. In spite of the call to report topside, no one moved to respond.
Lir and Tassos stood three feet apart, eyes locked in a new kind of rivalry. Dark red blood dripped steadily from the trench in Tassos’s cheek, staining the front of his shirt. Then Lir stepped forward and stooped low, catching up a single packet of Silt in his fingers and tucking it into his pocket. He blinked once, letting his gaze drift across the galley, then he turned his back on Tassos and aimed unhurried steps topside. Galley Master Harrow was reporting to Ballistic Ennick when Lir arrived on deck. The two men, both still in the full and bristling power of their youth, were cast in the orange glow of deck lights, the night sky flat black behind them. As Bullets filled the main deck in neat rows, those who hadn’t been in the galley shot nervous glances toward the Ballistic. Those who had been watched Lir with a confident kind of curiosity. Whatever was about to happen, it wouldn’t be happening to them. Lir planted his feet wide and waited.
“Bullet Lir.” Ballistic Ennick’s voice was flat. “Step forward.” Lir had always viewed the man as a superior, someone so much closer to Aric’s right hand than he’d ever be, but something had changed in the galley. Lir had changed, and in a strange moment of clarity, he saw Ennick for what he was: a Ballistic too afraid of his own power to ever really own it. “You attacked a fellow Bullet in the galley,” Ballistic Ennick said. “Do you deny the charge?” Tassos stood in the corner of Lir’s vision. The blood on his cheek flared bright red in the deck lights, a single flame licking up his skin. With dark satisfaction, Lir realized that flame would bloom into an orange scar as it healed. He barely kept a smile from his lips as he answered, “I embrace the charge, sir.
” A quiet disturbance breezed through the rest of the clip. His peers surely thought he’d lost his sail. Maybe he had. He’d never felt so certain, so defiant. Even the Ballistic seemed taken aback. He hesitated before speaking again. “You will soon embrace more than that.” Ballistic Ennick moved down the line of Bullets. “There is no greater display of weakness than turning on your brothers and sisters, no greater shame than striking your own. And we do not bring shame to the Father.
What do we bring him?” “Glory or death!” the clip shouted in one voice. “Bullet Lir, have you brought glory to the Father today?” Lir swallowed a hard lump in his throat. “No.” “Would you bring him your death instead?” Lir’s conviction wavered under a knife of fear. They would not kill him for such a small infraction, but they would make him suffer for forgiveness. So that everyone knew exactly how little power he held. He had to make that power grow, or death would be his only option. Lir raised his chin. “I would not.” “We must have one or the other.
” Ballistic Ennick paused theatrically and raised a hand to the moonless sky. “But now is the time of the Nascent Moon. A time for new beginnings. Would you have a new beginning, Bullet Lir?” “I would.” He could taste the sour shape of those words. “Then you will be cleansed by the sway of the pendulum.” Lir ground his teeth at the thought of being strung up by his ankles and dangled over the deck like a damn fish. It was a slow, painful way to die, but if he survived the night, he would be redeemed in the eyes of his Ballistic and his clip. “Prepare the pendulum! He hangs at midnight!” Ballistic Ennick called. The order dismissed the clip and to Lir he said, “With me.
” Ennick turned on his heel and led Lir to the aft deck. The ship was anchored just west of one of the two largest islands of the Bone Mouth. “Go ashore,” Ennick said, thrusting a canvas sack into Lir’s bloodied hands. “We could use the fruit and you could use a minute to clear your salt-crusted head.” Below them, a small shore runner waited on the water. For a fleeting moment, Lir considered jumping ship and taking his chances away from the bountiful hands of the Father. Surely, Ballistic Ennick had to know he would be tempted. “What makes you so sure I’ll come back?” he asked. “You’re not the running type.” One side of Ennick’s mouth twitched in something more grim than a smile.
“But don’t come back without something good.” Anger bloomed in the back of Lir’s throat. He was being manipulated, toyed with, and they both knew he had no choice but to obey. Planting one foot on the rail, he climbed down to the small boat below. He revved the engine and sped toward the pale strip of beach all while a furious storm blew through his mind. They didn’t need the food. That had been a lie. This errand was just a prelude to his punishment, forcing him to choose to return for it. It was a brutal kind of arrogance, so assured, so damned binding. Well, maybe Lir would surprise them all.
Maybe he would walk to the end of this island and swim to the next, strike out on his own. What did he have to lose? His life? That was the only thing he possessed in the world and he would lose it eventually. At least if he left now, it would be on his own terms. He dragged the boat ashore and impatiently scrubbed the blood from his hands in the shallows. He shouldn’t have let his anger get the better of him. Self-control, strength, and discretion were how he’d made his way, and how he’d planned to survive. But he’d let Tassos get under his skin, let his desire to hurt him outweigh all his careful calculations. Lir wiped his palms down the front of his shirt, suddenly uncomfortable with how easily he’d been enticed to act recklessly. There was no undoing it, and no denying that from this moment on, he’d be a target. With a growl of frustration, Lir sprinted down the beach.
He ran as hard as his legs could manage, pushing past the burn in his thighs and calves until everything was numb. He didn’t want to go back. The pendulum was a cruel punishment. Lir had seen it enacted twice in his sixteen turns and in both cases the offender hadn’t made it to sunrise. Lir’s death would be a win for that dead round, Tassos. His brother. But the word had never felt so hollow as it did now. Tassos was not his brother. He was his opponent. Disdain and rage wrapped long fingers around Lir’s throat and started to squeeze.
Nothing belonged to him. He had no power. And what little he’d managed to scrape together had been sacrificed on the altar of bloodying Tassos’s smug face. And this report would go straight to Aric Athair himself. The thought sent Lir crashing to his knees, his body suddenly filled only with dread and weakness, his blood itching hotly beneath his skin. He could leave right now, avoid all of that, but without Silt to strengthen his blood, abandoning his Bullet life might be simply choosing a slower death than the pendulum. And if he survived it, he stood to gain so much more. Gritting his teeth, he tugged his stolen ration of Silt from the zippered pocket on his thigh and ripped open the small packet. He dumped the contents into his mouth, letting the earthy sweet flavor coat his tongue. A moment later he felt that familiar wave of peace wash over him.
His heart still raced, but now his mind felt cool and distant. He could think instead of react, be strategic instead of impulsive. Tassos would recover. But he would never forget. No Bullet who’d witnessed that moment of violence would forget. Lir just had to figure out how to make the memory work in his favor. Tugging at his canvas sack, Lir turned his attention to the dark beach where the trees shed coconuts and jackfruit. Stooping to snatch up a coconut, he caught the barest hint of motion. Behind him the leaves whispered long and low. Just beneath it, the sound of a foot pressing into sand.
Lir dropped the fruit he held and raised his hands to his head, a splinter of fear sliding toward his heart. Had he underestimated Ennick’s desire to be rid of him? “Whoever you are, you have me,” he said. No response came. Ahead, the ocean was dark and deadly. The Nascent Moon offered no light as black waves sliced toward him, darkening the shore like blood. Instinct told him there was a finger on a trigger just behind him. A decision being made. “Would it make a difference if I asked you not to shoot?” Lir asked, curious more than hopeful. “If I begged for mercy?” “Killing you would be a mercy.” That voice.
It was like the first burst of dawnlight against the horizon. Warm and bright and commanding. Not a Bullet. A girl. She was young, he knew that without looking. And if there was a young girl here on this island with him, then there was a ship nearby. Not just any ship, a rogue ship filled with people who had betrayed the Father simply by refusing to serve him. Ballistic Ennick’s words snapped through his mind: “Don’t come back without something good.” He didn’t want to return with something good. He wanted to return with something unparalleled.
Something Tassos could never deny. Something that would bring the Father perfect glory: a ship full of traitors. “Maybe so.” Lir let his voice bend low. Let it become a soft net awaiting its prey. “At least, if you’re going to kill me, let me see your face?” When she hesitated again, Lir took the opening. He spun on his knees, careful to keep his hands up. Nonthreatening. Compliant. “Move again and I’ll shoot!” The girl raised her aim from his chest to his head, but Lir wasn’t looking at the gun.
He was looking at her. Vibrant red curls tumbled around her face like falling petals. Their color rejected the darkness around them as if they burned with their own secret fire. Her eyes were dark, perhaps brown or green, and so deeply rooted he thought he could follow them to the center of the earth. Her skin was unevenly tanned, light beige along the top of her nose, fading to the palest sand in the slope of her cheeks. “At least if I’m to die, it’ll be at the hands of someone lovely.” The words were out of his mouth before he’d considered them. Impulse instead of strategy, but he marked how her cheeks flushed and her lips fumbled to form her next question. The more she spoke, the less he feared her. She demanded information about his clip, but her finger hesitated on the trigger.
She was the perfect blend of cautious and sympathetic, of fear and hope. “What’s your name?” she asked, and that was the moment Lir knew he had her. “What does it matter if you’re going to kill me?” “It doesn’t,” she responded quickly. Her finger curled around the trigger, but she did not shoot. Lir offered a resigned smile. “Lir. I’m called Lir. And I expect you’ll be the last to know it.” “I’m . I’m sorry,” she said, again clearly trying to convince herself to shoot.
“Please.” The spike of panic in Lir’s voice was real even if the words were not. “Please, show me the mercy the Father never does. Take me with you. Whatever life you have, it’s got to be better than the one he forces on us. Please, help me.” There it was. The pained tightening of her eyes, the tragic dip of her shoulders. She was how he would restore his status. She was how he would vault out of the lowly ranks of Aric’s Bullets to something with real power.
And when she ordered him to his feet, removed all of his weapons but two, and still did not kill him, he knew his plea for mercy had taken root. “What’s your name?” he asked. The frown that bent her lips brought a smile to his. There was something magnetic about this girl. Something so vibrant he didn’t want to look away. The dark night was powerless against the constant burning of that hair, and he thought touching it must feel like caressing the sun. “How about I call you Bale Blossom, then? Seems fitting.” “Call me whatever you like,” the girl answered, unable to muzzle the spark of a smile. “I still won’t give you my name.”