The Faithless Hawk – Margaret Owen

Fie was taking too long to cut the girl’s throat. It wasn’t the act itself; in the three weeks since taking charge of her band of Crows, Fie had dealt mercy more than a handful of times. Tavin had told her last moon that killing never ought to get easier, but that it did anyway. Too many lives had ended on the edge of her steel since then to pretend that didn’t hold a speck of truth. No, the sticking point now was the sinner girl. The girl had been sitting up on her pallet when Fie walked into the quarantine hut, dark eyes imperious, mouth set in a stiff bar like the one sealing the door from the outside. Her short-sleeved linen shift was well made but plain for the Peacock governor’s only daughter, her black hair in a clean, glossy braid that hadn’t yet frayed and dulled with fever sweat. A scroll had sat half unfurled across her lap. Just enough near-noon sunlight soaked the canvas-screened windows for her to read by. Fie reckoned the Peacock girl was near her own age, somewhere closer to seventeen years than to sixteen. But delicate rings of dark-veined rash had begun blooming at her temples, slight enough to be only hours old, damning enough to say the girl had only hours left. Minutes, now that Fie had come for her. Most of the time Fie found her sinners delirious, dazed, even dead; the Sinner’s Plague never let any soul slip through its grasp, and it wrung even the simplest dignities from its victims along the way. Never before had a sinner watched Fie so, like she was a wolf strolling too near a pasture. Fie ought to have left her mask on.

Instead she took it off. She ought to have drawn the broken sword. Instead it stayed at her side. She ought to have told the Peacock girl to close her eyes. Instead, she jerked her chin at the scroll and asked, “What’re you reading?” The Peacock girl leaned back, gaze narrowing. Her lip curled. “It doesn’t matter. You can’t read anyway.” She tossed a small, clicking bag at Fie. “There.

Do it fast and clean.” The bag was full of milk teeth, and when Fie fished one out, its spark sang loud and harsh in her bones. Niemi Navali szo Sakar, it declared, daughter of— Fie yanked her hand out. The tooth had been Niem—the sinner girl’s, and it’d stay noisy until she died. Others in the bag kept quiet, but Fie picked out the song of Peacock witches among them. The governor’s dying daughter meant it as a bribe. “Not how it works,” Fie said, tying it to her belt, “but we’ll call it a tip.” “Just do what you’re here for already.” Fie shrugged, brushing her cloak aside in the same movement, and drew the swords buckled at each hip. One was from Tavin, the Hawk boy she’d left behind: a beautiful short sword wrought of finest steel, gleaming demurely in the diluted sunlight.

The other sword could barely be called such: an old, battered blade, broken half through, its end no more than uneven jags. A Crow chief’s sword, good for mercy alone. That sword had come from Pa, who she soon would have to leave behind as well. Fie didn’t care to dwell on that. Instead she held out both blades and asked, “Which do you want?” As the Peacock girl’s face turned gray, Fie shuffled closer to give her a better view … and to give herself one as well. The letters on the scroll ordered themselves into words for her, faster now thanks to regular reading practice. “Oh. The Thousand Conquests. That’s a load of trash.” The Peacock girl snapped the scroll up, scowling.

“Of course you’d think that. I don’t expect a Crow to have taste.” “I’m around conquest … two hundred?” Fie drawled. “Out of a thousand? So far the only Crows have been dirty, thieving half-wits. Or monsters. Scholar Sharivi seems to think the Peacocks piss ambrosia, though, so I see the appeal for you.” “It’s the truth,” the sinner girl hissed. “Peacocks are born to rule. The Covenant made you as a punishment.” Fie had heard it before; she supposed that to most of Sabor, it seemed clear-cut.

Every other caste was born with a Birthright, an innate gift passed down from the dead gods, like a Crane’s way of spotting lies or a Sparrow’s way of slipping from unwanted attention. Some were even believed to be dead gods reborn into the castes they’d founded, like the Crane witches, who could pull the truth out of a liar, or a Sparrow witch, who could utterly vanish from sight. The dead gods, though, had denied the Crows a Birthright of their own. Their witches could only steal the Birthrights from bones of the other castes, and only as long as a lingering trace of its former life lasted in that bone. And as the only caste immune to the Sinner’s Plague, their trade was cutting throats and collecting bodies. With all that, Fie didn’t doubt the life of a Crow sounded like a punishment to a highborn Peacock. Most of Sabor believed dead sinners were reborn into the Crow caste so as to atone for whatever crimes had brought the plague down on them to begin with. And yet … She crouched on the dirt floor, setting her swords between her and the Peacock. “Funny thing is, were I to think on which of us two the Covenant favors right now—” Fie tapped her cheek. “Reckon that’s where the scholar Sharivi and I would disagree.

” Fie expected the Peacock girl to sneer at her, to lash back. Instead, Niemi closed her eyes and raised a hand to the Sinner’s Brand rash on her face. Her voice cracked. “I … I suppose you’re right.” A tiny, cold scrap of guilt knotted in Fie’s gut. Aye, she despised this soft, clean girl, and not merely because the girl despised her. Yet only one of them would leave this room alive. Pa would tell her to stop dragging it out. Wretch would tell her not to play with her food. Instead, Fie asked, “Do you know why the Covenant picked you?” The Peacock’s lips pressed together.

Her finger shook as she pointed to the Hawk sword. “I want that one.” “Rich ones always go for the fancy sword,” Fie mused. “You didn’t answer me.” “Just get it over with,” the girl spat. Fie lifted The Thousand Conquests and began rolling it up. “Been about five years since Crows passed through the lands of Governor Sakar, aye?” The parchment let out a particularly belligerent crackle. “Heard the last band didn’t make it out of here. Most of them, anyway.” The Peacock girl said naught.

“A boy got away. Another chief found him, brought him to my pa. His name was Hangdog.” Was. Two moons since he’d tried to run from being a Crow. Two moons since he’d died on the steps of a Peacock mansion. When Fie had been old enough, Pa had told her what had happened to Hangdog’s first band. Hangdog himself had spoken of it to her only once. “He told me there was a rich girl who came to their camp. They let her look at the pyre, they let her wear a mask, they let her see the chief’s sword, because you don’t say nay to a Peacock, even a little one … and then that night, the girl led the Oleander Gentry straight to their camp.

” The Peacock girl’s hands fisted in her pristine linen shift. Another bloom of Sinner’s Brand had begun to tattoo her forearm. Most of Sabor liked to think the Covenant meant for Crows to be punished. By Fie’s ken, the Covenant had naught to do with it; they’d just appointed themselves its hangmen. Niemi Navali szo Sakar turned a furious, glittering gaze on Fie. “I’d do it again.” Fie gave her a humorless, toothy smile and tucked The Thousand Conquests into her belt. “Suppose that’s why the Covenant calls for you, then. Lie back.” The girl didn’t move.

Fie pointedly hefted the Hawk sword. “Can’t steady both you and the blade.” The Peacock girl lay back. Sweat beaded her face. “Will it hurt?” Fie had seen thousands of lives by now, ghosts darting like minnows through her head as she pulled Birthrights from their long-dry bones. She’d seen the lives of kings and outcasts, lovers and foes, conquerors and thieves. Some ended in blood, others in quiet. Some had even died at Pa’s hand, a cut throat granting them mercy from the agony of the Sinner’s Plague. She saw those lives, and those deaths, more than any other. “No,” Fie lied, and rested the blade against the sinner girl’s throat.

The clean steel shivered with every heartbeat pounding along the girl’s neck, harder with fury, faster with fear. The Peacock girl drew a shaky breath and caught Fie’s eye. “The Oleander Gentry will come for you tonight, you know.” She meant it as a promise. As a threat. As a reminder, even now, of which castes the Covenant favored. And that was where she’d fouled up. Fie bestowed her one more smile, cold and benevolent as the steel on the girl’s throat. “Let them.” The truth was, it had never gotten easier to deal mercy to sinners.

But sometimes, they made it easier. In the last three weeks, Fie had learned a handy new trick to negotiating the viatik. When Pa had been the one cutting throats, he’d done his best to at least rinse off his hands after. The blood spooked the next of kin, he’d explained, and sometimes that made them pay the Crows more to speed them along, but more often than not it just made the mourners clutch their purses tighter. Fie didn’t bother. If anything, she made a show of slowly peeling away the bloody rags knotted up to her elbow while the family’s representative presented their viatik. No one wanted to count coin into a palm still red and slick with mercy. And that was the idea. The Sakars had dispatched a Sparrow to deal with Fie, one who wore the simple fine robe of household servants, one whose red-rimmed eyes said she’d been close to the dead girl. A nursemaid, then.

In one hand sat a fat bag of naka for viatik; the other hand skimmed the clinking coins, bitterly weighing out a meager few. The thing about viatik, Fie had learned over years and years of experience, was that someone was always trying to short them. Sometimes it was because they thought the Crows couldn’t count and wouldn’t know they’d been cheated. Sometimes it was because they wanted the Crows to know they’d been cheated, to remind them they still couldn’t demand fair pay without pushing their luck. This Sparrow woman, Fie reckoned, had the same instructions as too many servants she’d dealt with. Each and every time, they were handed a fat purse, but told to give the Crows as little as possible. So in the last few weeks, Fie had learned not to let them. The Sparrow nursemaid flinched back at the gore on Fie’s arms, eyes brimming with tears. Fie shook her head, flicking sweat from her hair. They’d kept to the north for most of Crow Moon, but midsummer humidity had invaded even this territory.

“Naught to fear. You can hand the viatik to my lad Khoda.” Fie could see the sums scratching through the nursemaid’s skull; by the time she’d tallied up that Khoda wasn’t a Crow name, it was too late. A rangy, iron-faced Hawk lad stood before her, hand outstretched, a spear leaning rakishly against his shoulder. The trick, Fie had learned, was to make them hand the viatik to someone they couldn’t risk cheating. A flutter of silk on the nearby veranda caught Fie’s eye. Two Peacocks stood there, still in their sleeping robes and clinging to each other, faces hard. The Sparrow servant looked up to the governor and her husband, questioning, as the quarantine hut’s door creaked behind Fie. Last night they’d had a daughter. Now, Madcap and Wretch were loading aught that was left of her into the Crow’s wagon, bundled in bloody linen.

Governor Sakar gave a stiff jerk of her chin, then buried her face in her trailing silk sleeves. The nursemaid swallowed. Her bag of naka jingled like a bell as it landed, whole and hearty, in Khoda’s hand. Fie caught a muffled snort from Madcap, one that turned into a cough. Not three moons ago, such a bounty would have been unthinkable, even a burden—just one more thing the Oleander Gentry would hunt them for. But now … Khoda was one of five Hawks who had volunteered to escort Fie’s band as they answered plague beacons. And since acquiring their escort, a peculiar miracle had occurred. Not only did people start paying them fair viatik, but for the first time, they’d been able to keep it. No Oleanders had raided their camps; no Hawk posts had shaken them down for bribes. Fie’s band had left generous donations in every haven shrine they’d visited, and still they had more than enough to last until the next viatik.

And now they had a bag of coin near the size of Fie’s head. She hadn’t even needed to call a Money Dance. “That’ll do,” Fie said, and wet her lips to whistle the marching order. “Wait!” The Sparrow pointed to the scroll cinched in Fie’s belt. “That’s … that was her favorite.” The Thousand Conquests. Where the Splendid Castes were beautiful and wise, the Hunting Castes were brave and true, and the Phoenixes were near good as gods. Where Crows were thieves and fools and monsters and naught more. “It’ll burn with her,” Fie said. The nursemaid’s shoulders slumped in relief.

Fie added under her breath, “We all win.” The Sparrow woman blinked at that. “Wh—” Fie whistled the marching order and strode down the road before the woman could sum up aught else. A familiar jingle said Corporal Lakima had fallen into her self-appointed place a step behind Fie, each thud of the Hawk’s boots measured as if rationed out to the greedy road. At first Fie had found it eerie, the creak of leather, the shadow doubling hers. She’d found it near as unsettling when Corporal Lakima asked her for orders. By now, Fie supposed she was used to both. They made for an odd funeral procession rattling down the dusty gravel: a wiry twist of a girl chief in her beaked mask, a shadow of a Hawk looming at her back, nine more Crows towing their dead sinner in the cart, three Hawks bringing up the rear. They’d left Pa and the remaining two Hawks with their other cart, back at the flatway. Even a second cart seemed an unfathomable luxury.

They’d never before had enough to merit a second cart, never enough hands or beasts to pull one. But with Hawks to feed and plentiful viatik, things were a-shift. Now they towed one cart for their supplies and one just for sinners. “Was there a problem with the girl?” Corporal Lakima’s voice ground near as low as the gravel. Fie shook her head. “Only her mouth. That won’t trouble anyone again.” She picked at the sweaty straps on her mask, more jitters than aught else. They’d keep the masks on until the Peacock manor fell out of sight. “She said the Oleanders will come tonight.

” Corporal Lakima was perhaps the stoniest Hawk Fie had yet met; at a decade older and a head and a half taller than Fie, she did not so much stand on decorum as plant both feet into it and wordlessly dare anyone to push her off. She was not prone to a mummer’s theatrics. And so when Fie caught an exasperated wheeze before the corporal answered, “Understood, chief,” Fie thought at first it had come from the cart. She’d expect a dead Peacock to grumble sooner than Corporal Lakima. “Did you just sigh?” Fie asked, incredulous. Lakima coughed. “Did she say when they’ll arrive?” “Just tonight. Suppose I ought to have asked for specifics before I cut her throat. You sighed.” “These lowlanders seem to have a surplus of time on their hands.

” Fie snuck a look back. Lakima kept her face blank, her eyes locked solely on the road ahead, but a divot between her brows said the corporal was vexed. Oleanders meant a late night for her and her Hawks. Three moons ago, before they’d smuggled Prince Jasimir across Sabor, Oleanders would have meant rolling gambling shells with disaster. If Pa had been promised a visit from the masked riders, he would have hurried them along through the night, not even stopping to burn the sinner until dawn peeled the cover of dark from the roads. But Fie was chief now. Fie had Hawks now. And Pa … He’d asked her to bear northwest to the Jawbone Gulf a week ago, and that was when she knew his time had come. That was a trouble Fie’s Hawks couldn’t remedy. Instead, she said to Lakima, “Maybe they’ll show up early and get it over with before dinner.

” Corporal Lakima lifted her spear in salute. It took Fie a moment to realize it wasn’t to her but to the Hawks on duty at the manor’s signal post above. Helmeted heads jerked back over the small tower’s platform when Fie turned to look their way. A thin wisp of black smoke still lingered from the plague beacon they’d lit to call Crows here. Likely the Hawk soldiers couldn’t fathom why some of their own would accompany Crows. Fie failed to stuff down a smirk at that. She’d won her Hawks fair and square from Master-General Draga, and more importantly, she’d won Hawks to guard the whole Crow caste once Prince Jasimir took the throne. Those soldiers just might be escorting their own band of Crows soon enough. Rumors had already floated past Fie, rumors of Crown Prince Jasimir, who’d survived the Sinner’s Plague like his legendary ancestor Ambra, and tales of Master-General Draga’s showy procession to return Jasimir to the capital city of Dumosa. Nobody spoke of Queen Rhusana, but Jasimir had always sworn the queen’s first move in a takeover would be to remove King Surimir from power, and so far it seemed the king breathed yet.

Considering the leader of Surimir’s armies was personally ushering the crown prince—the one Rhusana had repeatedly tried to assassinate—back to his home, Fie reckoned the queen might be keeping a low profile. “Why did you take the scroll?” Corporal Lakima asked. Fie had a score of answers to that: Because it made her feel better about cutting the throat of a girl her own age. Because that scroll told the nobility they were always good, and told Fie she would always be a monster. Because no one in the fine Peacock manor behind them knew that in Crow story and song, the monsters usually wore silk. “They would have burned it anyway,” Fie said instead. “This way I get to watch.” Lakima coughed again. “Ah. Must be The Thousand Conquests.

” Fie shed her mask once the roughway led into the trees, but she kept her eyes nailed to the road, only glancing back every so often to be sure no spiteful mourner tailed them. Five years might be enough for the woods to reclaim the campsite where Hangdog’s kin had died, but Crows were raised with an eye to spot potential sleeping grounds, and Fie didn’t feel like laying hers on that sad clearing. She didn’t feel like thinking much on Hangdog at all. Fear had spurred him to turn traitor, that she knew. Fear of what lay down his road as a Crow chief, fear that it would end as the rest of his kin’s had. She couldn’t fault him for that. But she could fault him for thinking treachery was his only way out. Fie felt the flatway before she saw it. The air savored hotter and dustier, the roughway began to even out, and full sunlight stabbed more frequently through the green canopy overhead. Finally they emerged onto the broad, smooth dirt road.

Pa and their two other Hawks were sheltering with the supply wagon on the other side of the flatway, in the shade of an ivy-choked hemlock. Fie’s heart gave a familiar sort of pang when she saw Pa, as it had done many a time since he’d asked her to lead them to the Jawbone. Then she kenned the look on his face, and that pang wormed into a deeper worry. It was a rare look. Fie remembered the last time she’d seen it, all too close, all too clear: when Pa had handed her the sword, the teeth, and the prince, and sent her and the lordlings over the bridge in Cheparok. It said something had fouled up, and in a way they might not be able to outrun now. “What is it?” Fie called, striding across the dirt road—but the moment she broke into the sun, she saw. To her left, a black string of smoke frayed the horizon, half a league away. To her right, another black thread unspooled. Beyond them, even more black trails rose until they’d striped the noon sky like teeth in a giant’s comb.

Fie had seen such a sight only twice before, but she knew square what black beacons for leagues and leagues meant. Even with Prince Jasimir’s armies nigh at her door, Rhusana had made her move. The king was dead.


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