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by Spuddy
Rated: 13+ · Chapter · Fantasy · #2216847
In a city tensely awaiting the The God’s arrival, Keene meets a displaced stranger.
Chapter 1
The Night Before

“Evenin’, Corpse. Cuttin’ it close, eh? Thought we was gonna have the pleasure of comin’ out to find you.”
         Halting at the entrance to The Pit, Keene grinned like a tiger with a cornered rabbit as the watch erupted from the gatehouse. He was a bit later than usual, very close to curfew, but he would have been disappointed if they’d have let him through unchallenged.
         “Spread ‘em.” Pik stepped forward, smiling – it was always him, he seemed to like the job – as Keene stretched his arms and legs and submitted to the routine pat-down.
         Wanting to feel less like the rabbit, he’d started baiting the watch within months of his arrival in Blessing. At eleven, he’d been a scrawny stable boy, out of his depth in a city which had begrudged him one meal a day from the Libber’s soup kitchen on the docks. They’d laughed fit to piss themselves but ten years on they didn’t find him so funny. Over six feet tall and wide through the shoulders despite the pauper’s diet, he worked as Lord Smythe’s personal driver, in charge of a team of matched greys that could outrun The Zenith’s desert stallions. Until last summer, they had still mocked him occasionally but then the commander had watched him face down Billy the Knife while the Bones Brothers laughed. Since then, he had been met by a committee every evening. He would never admit it but the fact that they hadn’t ignored him tonight made the risk of the world ending tomorrow seem a little less urgent.
         “Nothin’, sir.” Pik was both thorough and disappointed. “Ghost’s clean.”
Keene was always clean going through the gate. There were other, safer smuggling routes and this deep into winter there was nothing to bring anyway. Pushing away the thought that, once again, his family wouldn’t eat tonight he strode across the line that separated the worlds of the living and the dead.
Turning back, he had the satisfaction of seeing four men waiting for him to misstep, hands on the pommels of their swords, eyes trained on his boots. He laughed.
         “Aw. You look bored. Not much happening here, eh? I don’t suppose anyone’s bothered to tell you but the Meme are keeping The God’s Law open all night for all those new folks too stupid to stick to the rules. And Lord Caplin landed. They say he marched half a boatload of Armpit hostages up through the Wynds in chains to make the point that a workers’ union won’t be tolerated here. I bet the dockers were spitting fishbones.” There weren’t many people on either side that stopped to talk to the watch. Genuine interest crossed the commander’s face. “It’s a good job you morons were here to do the ghost-watching. The army needed all the proper soldiers for the real work.”
         They snarled. He jammed his toes against the slightly raised edge of the line. Having returned to The Pit he couldn’t officially leave again until dawn. If the tip of his boot touched the lurid scarlet mortar they could justifiably slit his throat. Ghosts weren’t welcome in the living world after dark.
         “Gonna trip one of these days, dead man.” Harrish Pik hawked a gob of phlegm, landing it squarely on Keene’s right foot. Pik was profoundly ordinary except that his temper was as quick as Keene’s own. “And you see how good my aim is. You’re just a walking blood stain, waiting to spill.”
          “You won’t end a man by spitting at him, Pik.” Keene’s smile bared his teeth. “I’ve watched you fight, remember? You’d have starved without your ma to cut your meat up for you and there’s not many of you boys who can do much better. When he gets here, the devil will take Blessing easier than he took Mahyen.”
         The squad stopped laughing and tightened their fingers on their sword hilts. Pik withdrew his blade from the scabbard but Keene wasn’t bothered. Inevitably, the watch leader wrapped an arm about the throat of his youngest recruit and dragged him backwards.
         “Careful, numbnuts. Corpse is playing with you, nearly won that round. We won’t let you back if you cross that line without a blessing. Nothin’ he can say is worth your soul. And you -“ the commander jerked his head at Keene “- dead man. You gotta step back over soon enough. The Zenith wants a show tomorrow. That blinkin’ procession’s gonna take hours to get round these streets and Lord Smythe will have at least a minute or two to spare me. I don’t mind bettin’ we’ll have some blood out of you then.”
         Keene inclined his head, acknowledging the man’s victory with a grace he didn’t feel. Mouthing off at these useless bastards might take the sting from the overwhelming rage that carried him home at night but going too far was a mistake he’d made before and suffered for.
         The walk through town had been worse than usual. The streets were filled with people who believed they would behold The God before the same time tomorrow and who expected to be smiled upon. But he was wearing the mark. Stripped of his bloodline, without a destiny and without any chance of redemption in this lifetime, he was a disgraced soul in torment. Many had turned away, ignoring him as a bad omen, others had sneered, but none had made eye contact.
         The marks were expensive because the Meme controlled the supply. Nobody else had access to the cherry harvest from The God’s Orchard so nobody else could make Cruore dye to match the purported colour of The God’s Blood. Unable to afford the cost or the risk of being without, many ghosts submitted to the brand and wore the mark on their foreheads with a twisted sense of pride. But Keene knew he couldn’t bear another visible, permanent mark. He ripped the cross from his tunic and dropped it, grinding it under his rotting boot-heel until it disappeared into the muck.
         The watch leader laughed.
         “That was pretty dumb, corpse. You won’t get a new one of them too easy. The markwenches were sold out before lunch,” he said cheerfully. “And while we won’t stop anyone without cause - far be it from the likes of us morons to spare you the disappointment of hearing The God tellin’ you to fuck off back to where you came from – know this now. Without the mark, you ain’t goin’ nowhere. We’ll be sure to tell Lord Smythe why you ain’t there to shovel his horseshit. Be a pleasure.”
         Unable to answer, Keene knew it was time to call an end to this. But he didn't leave fast enough to miss Pik’s parting shot.
         “’Course, if you make the right offer, ole Billy might give you his.” Encouraged by his mates’ laughter, the watchman raised his voice. “That’s right, walk quicker. Give that dumb sister of yours fair warning she ought to take a bath. You know as well as we do she’s the only thing you got worth trading.”

It’s worth it, Keene reminded himself, fighting the urge to turn back and launch himself at them. For all that the blisters burned on his now damp heel, he knew it was worth it, every time. They were right about the mark though. The God alone knew where he’d get another one from.
         “God’s Stones, go careful!” The little girl whose hand he had trodden on barely moved, but the man with her cursed him in an accented tongue.
         “Sorry, friend.” Keene looked about him. Ghosts couldn’t keep horses so they didn’t need roads. Anyone new coming in only had to sit down to claim their patch of land and the day had brought in enough to fill the alley along the market wall. “There was a path here this morning. Where you from?”
         The man shrugged, rippling the bright layers of wool about his shoulders.
          “Mahyen, I’m guessing.” Keene didn’t bother to disguise his disgust. Having successfully avoided incomers over the last weeks, he’d gone and tripped over some. They could bloody well listen to what he thought. “Surprised you got through the Devil’s front. Can’t believe you bothered to try.”
         When the Meme laid the Death Curse in ‘Sholme, a man had two choices after his name and history were erased from his line: enter the nearest Pit or cross the border before sunrise the next day to avoid having his throat cut and his gore fed to the pigs. However, with nothing to the south and east but an expanse of ocean populated by pirates and sea-monsters, leaving wasn’t easy. Since the tribes occupying the hot western desert of Arakin disapproved of keeping soulless bodies animated, the only real option was trekking across the northern Void.
         Mahyen was the settlement founded by refugee ghosts on the first patch of vaguely hospitable land at the far side of the salt flats, so desolate that it had been ignored by the living for centuries. But recently a new leader had emerged, preaching a version of revolution similar to that the Zenith had beaten out of the southern Libbers over the winter. It was widely thought he’d do the same thing in Mahyen come summer.
         “Not all of us agree with him. You must know how easy it is to be bitter about dying, how difficult it is to own to yourself that you committed a blood sin. We’ve all gone through it and most of us become resigned, you know?” The man laid a palm across his heart and tapped the back of it with the frostbitten fingers of his other hand.
         Despite himself, Keene nodded. Constantly bitter, he was still waiting for the resignation.
         “But Dev just can’t accept it and he’s talked a lot of other raw souls into his service. Now he’s openly questioning the Meme’s interpretation of The God’s Word, talking about Death being man’s invention, the Zenith will take us all to task for one man’s heresy. You can’t blame me for accepting the Lord Meme’s generous invitation to attend the sacrifice, not when my children still have the chance to redeem their line. Not when The God might be present amongst us by tomorrow.” The incomer raised his gaze to the darkening winter sky and tapped his chest reverently.
         Keene looked at the little girl, nestled amongst three more just like her.          “And if The God refuses The Zenith’s offer? Or if the Lady Serise can’t contain Him and explodes across the Memehold like her great-grandfather did?”
         The man’s face twisted malevolently. “Who are you to question me, dead man, when your faith is so obviously lacking? While He certainly might leave you to rot in this hole, The God will take me back, you’ll see.”
         “And if He doesn’t the Meme will certainly find a place for the lot of you in their cotton mills.“
         “’When all else is lost, keep your faith and your children will profit from it.’ I pity you, ghost, but I think your death must have been well deserved.”
         Recognising the quote as one of The Meme’s favourites, Keene didn’t bother to explain his own theory on the Lord Meme’s out-of-character spiritual generosity. Even if The God did chose to accept The Zenith’s daughter as a vessel to allow Him to be truly present in the world, nothing in the Pit was likely to change. The amnesty on returning Mahyen ghosts was just a ruse to entice them from the Devil’s army into unpaid labour. The variety of manufactories springing up alongside The Meme’s new water wheel in Cherrybrock would be too expensive to run without them. He nodded at the children. “How are you planning to feed them?”
         The man tapped his chest again and wrapped a protective arm about his girls. “The God will provide, my doubtful friend, The God will provide.”
         No, He won’t, Keene thought, although he knew that somebody else would normally have done so had the path not been blocked. The women who ran The Pit never forgot that that dead bodies didn’t crave the food needed to keep them working the way live ones did. If these children were still lying here, The Mothers didn’t know about them.
         One of the little girls mewled like a starving cat.
         “God’s Clots,” he swore. All he wanted was to collapse at his own hearth and sleep til moonset, ready to rise and fix Garvin Smythe’s coach and horses for the parade tomorrow but unless he did something she’d likely be gone by morning. Cursing The God and the devil both he dodged down another track, heading for the cook-fire.

“Well.” Ma Vittles dragged the ladle out of the stew-pot and waved it at him. “Not often we see you here, heh? And Nin hasn’t been down since the year turned.”
         Keene shrugged, knowing better than to make excuses for his sister here. “There are incomers squatting by the south wall. Maybe thirty, maybe more.”
         Tutting, the skinny cook tipped a pile of potato peel into her cast-iron kettle to add volume to the broth, her stick-like arms straining with the effort it took to stir. Plump Ma Washer huffed as she hurried over to ruffle the damp sacking that she was smoking dry on lines behind the fire to offer as blankets. Jangling the key chain on her belt, sturdy Ma Builder headed for the outhouse where she hoarded any scraps that might make a shelter, her severe face creased in concern that there was so little left. By the time he thought to look for her, graceful Ma Posset had already slipped from the square to rouse her welcoming committee.
         Relieved to have passed his responsibility to people far more capable of dealing with it, Keene made to leave.
         “That’s all you came for?” Ma Vittles called after him. She nodded at the queue of people looping the fire as they waited for entrance to the battered hut that served as their Hold. Someone was trading rotgut and most were merry as sailors. Ma Teller was obviously far too busy to bother with new settlers. “Nearly everyone in the place is here for a reading.”
         Keene had never understood the appeal of the blood rituals to people already dead, but his attention was caught by the smell of hot food. His stomach churned, surprising him. Ma Vittles hooked a crisp pastry fold from the brick oven, filled it with a dollop of stew and held it out. He didn’t ask after the ingredients, let alone where she’d gotten it – he would bet that Garvin Smythe wouldn’t have fed it to his hounds - and conjured the face of the girl he’d stamped on to force his fingers back into his shirtsleeves. It didn’t matter that he hadn’t had meat for a week or more. His hunger would pass once he walked away.
         “There’ll be something at home.”
         Ma Vittles said nothing and didn’t move.
         “Whatever your daft sister thinks, there’s no point making things more difficult than they are already. Starving yourself won’t bring back your soul, but it will end your body. Remember, when food is offered you eat.” Ma Builder kept this settlement standing through sheer force of will and had no qualms about speaking her mind.
         Keene put his hand in his pocket to reassure himself that the worn out horseshoe was still there. Otherwise, Pik had been right that he nothing to trade. The Mothers might be less bloodthirsty than the Bones Brothers but they were no easier to bargain with. He’d taken the iron in the hopes of trading it for wood though, not food. The stars were chips of ice in the sky and, even after all this time, his dead bones ached for the warmth of the desert sun. He would eat and taste nothing, but the heat of a fire at close range still offered an echo of life. He had chosen hunger over cold many times before.
         Watching, the builder nodded at the cook sawing at a crust with a blunt knife to salvage some of the unburned bits to thicken gravy. “We’ll find you something to do in return, don’t worry.”
         Garvin’s Smythe’s legendary attention to detail stopped at his horses. All Keene had had for lunch was one of their apples. If I eat here, he reasoned, there’ll be more for the others at home. He fished the pastry from the edge of the fire where it had been put to keep warm. “I’ll bring my whetstone along tomorrow.”
         “For Nin.” Ma Vittles handed him another of the same size and then a smaller portion, wrapping both in one of the cleanish rags at her belt. “And Nate.”
         “Thank you.” Without hesitating further, Keene tucked the little package into the pocket at his breast, the warmth of it finally banishing the ghostly weight of the discarded cross. He devoured his own pastry in three bites.
         “He ran through here with his crowd of hooligans earlier.” Ma Washer said, folding sacks. “Ma Teacher couldn’t catch him. She told us to tell you she wants to talk with you, should we see you. Have we seen you?”
         “Um …” If Ma Teacher was prepared to try to reach Nate he should surely go to school, but Keene wasn’t convinced that the effort it took on his part was worth the likely gain. The little woman might not have had much success in scaring the boy but she still terrified him. “Maybe you’ll see me in the morning and you can tell me then.”
         “Best go in that case,” Ma Vittles said, glancing at the sky. “The old bag will be here any moment. There’s no way she’d be anywhere else tonight.”
         “Thank you.” He said again. “Thank you.”
         From the noise, Ma Posset and her crowd of do-gooders were blocking the quick route home so, with another sigh, he turned for the longer alley and crashed hard into Billy The Knife. While every one else starved the man had put on bulk since the summer, like a hibernating bear.
         “Keene by name and too damn keen by nature, eh” the gangster growled. “Saw you baitin’ them useless bastards at the gate. Should take some care, boy, ‘fore something happens you can’t talk your way out of.”
         Keene shrugged, dipping his head at an angle that might be mistaken for apology if he was lucky.
         Billy grunted, too pre-occupied for random violence. “Them newbies will need marking, Ma. Better stick this in to warm.” He held out the brand and waited. “Up to you, o’course, but there’s no crosses left to buy. If The Meme catch ‘em without the mark, they won’t be givin’ out grog before they fix the problem.”
         “You don’t give it out, neither, Billy. You charge for it, same as you do for scalding children. There’ll be no mercy for anyone out tomorrow without a visible cross and anyone taking the brand tonight will have to ruin their face or face freezing to bare their arms.” Aware that a lot of people would be desperate enough to make that choice, Ma Vittles stood back. “The markwenches had half the stock they usually have on a market day, making me think someone paid them off. The only person I’d suspect of that kind of sickness is a man who likes to hear people scream.”
         Billy muttered viciously as shoved the pole deep into the heart of the fire but, like Keene, he knew that the gangs were feared while the Mothers were honoured. Enough in Ma Teller’s queue had turned to watch that Keene could walk away without compromising Ma Vittles’ safety. If he had stayed longer, he would have been forced to drink until it got too late to do anything other than submit to the brand. The thought of kneeling at Billy's feet and asking to get hurt was unbearable.
         Lengthening his stride, he glanced up. Even after ten years of death, the habit of prayer was still too ingrained to resist. His hands came together so that his fingers shaped a pyramid, pointing at the sky. This was the first sign that any child of The Silent was taught. “Please.”
         The night lit up in a flare of red and gold.
         Keene stumbled, landing on his knees. His eyes spurted with sudden tears and his heart pumped wild joy into his blood. For a single second he had no doubts. The God had listened and answered.
         “… bloody idiots.” Ma Teacher stomped past him, dark eyes focused northwest. “Zenith or not, Arvero Sanguine needs a good hiding if he thinks that building The God a signpost is going to make a difference. Look at that, such a waste of fuel and us about to be at war …”
         Her voice faded as she merged into the crowd at the fire who were laughing like loons, far more pleased with the spectacle than she. Keene clambered to his feet, furious at his own stupidity. Of course The God hadn’t answered him. The Meme had lit their beacon that was all. The flame burning from the helical spire of the Memehold would drench Blessing in unearthly glory all night. Turning his back on the beauty before him, he headed into the dark.

The Mothers’ influence waned quickly as he followed the line of the north wall. Away from the warmth and the light, the Pit was frozen, filthy and threatening.
In the city salons, where the great and the good of Blessing debated the fate of the spiritually dead over whiskey and cigars, there were two points of view. Keene would like to have believed that the liberal minority was right. Ghosts suffered because, in denying them rights to any property or payment but charity, decent society deprived them of the possibility of redemption. But this was the far end of a long winter and edging past huddles of half-starved, feral children, he had to step over their parents prone in the muck, ratted on fermented potato rot. There was little to refute the majority’s counter-claim that, bereft of dignity and conscience, ghosts were only fit for the Pit.
         Within a few yards of his own door, that point was proved again. He shooed at the boys circling the body splayed in the mud and lingered, making sure they didn’t come back. A few hours ago, it had been a man wearing his mark pinned to a gaudy cotton tunic, likely come all the way from Armpit in hope of a miracle, only to freeze. Now, it was just a dangerous inconvenience.
         He pulled his precious leather gloves from his pocket. It wouldn’t be the first time he’d tipped an empty vessel off the cliff edge to smash against the rocks below. Not bothering with a blessing rune, he grabbed the thing by its ankles and tugged it free of the frost. He stepped back a second to let the whiff of corruption disperse and then bent down. In this hell, one man’s misfortune was another man’s luck. Keene ripped tomorrow’s felt cross from the corpse’s chest.
         “What are you doing?”
         Even in the glare of the beacon, it took a moment to work out where the voice was coming from. A slight figure stood in the mouth of one of the alleys that merged at the small clearing in front of his shanty.
         Rolling the cross up within his gloves as he pulled them off, he squared his shoulders. Becoming a big man hadn’t taken any effort on his part – he had just grown - but he had put a lot of work into learning how to make the most of it.
         “What’s it to you?”
         “That is a dead body. You took something from it and … “ she paused, horror crossing her face as she turned to find she was staring out to sea. “You were about to throw it off the cliff? What in The God’s Great Vein are you doing? You can’t throw a body off a cliff. That’s sacrilege.”
          “There’s no such thing as sacrilege here and nowhere else to put him but Mayor Keepstreet’s pig sty. I can't leave him in the street, so let the sharks have him.” It occurred to him that if she was another newcomer from Mahyen, she might have forgotten what the curse meant in ‘Sholme. “He’s got no right to anything, remember? As far as the Meme are concerned he’s already dead.” Her horror seemed to be giving way to confusion, making him angry. How much clearer could he be? “This is the Pit.”
         Her knees gave way like Ma Teacher’s had the day her son stopped breathing.
         Irritation forgotten, he darted forward, suddenly desperate to drag the lass away from the edge. Somehow she avoided his grip.
         She was used to panic, he realised. Her breathing slowed and deepened, her posture straightened and her hands folded themselves neatly in front of her. He watched a look of tortured patience form a mask over her shock with practiced self control.
         “There is no need for such rudeness,” she chided. “It was an honest query.”
         “It was a fool’s query, made while you were looking at me as if I were filth on your boots.”
         “According to all I’ve been taught, you are exactly that.” She lifted her skirts slightly, revealing feet clad in what looked white satin dancing slippers that were laced with ribbons about her delicate ankles.. They were, somehow, still pristine.
         “So The Meme sent you.”
         He had the impression that a quicksilver smile crossed her face, but her features remained strangely indistinct.
         “The Meme? Of course not.”
         “It wouldn’t be the first time they’ve tried to tempt a ghost.”
         “Really? They do that?” She sounded appalled. “Why?”
         “Because they can.” He shook his head. “But you don’t look like the normal bait, sweetheart.” No, draped in a black mink cloak, she looked like she was on her way to the Bloodhold to spend the evening dancing in the arms of a rich man. “So you must have paid for a blessing, then?”
         “Of course I didn’t!”
         Her outrage sounded genuine but everyone in The Pit knew how difficult it was to admit to that kind of temptation despite the blood priests’ surprising pragmatism on the matter. If a living subject had sufficient funds to pay for a night communing with the spiritually dead then their blessing was given without much argument. At confession in the morning, all she’d have to do was tell them what she’d seen, and they’d perform the hallowing without question.
Keene blinked again. Perhaps there was a hint of unease to match his own but he couldn’t he tell for sure. And, why did she seem so familiar?
         “What did you do then? Jump the market wall? Scale the cliff? Nobody gets here by accident.” And nobody leaves unnoticed, either, he thought, eyes on the corpse between them. Even dead men were fair game in this Godless dark. If one of the gangs turned up to take the corpse’s boots, he had no doubt that they’d take her too. She was the fairest game he’d ever seen, inside or outside the Pit. “Well?”
         She jerked in surprise, as if she had forgotten he was there. As the beacon flashed gold lightening across the sky, she fixed her gaze on him with the same concentration he seemed to inspire in many of the young townswomen these days. He had no idea what they found so fascinating and it was more than his tongue was worth to ask but, since there was no one here who’d threaten to take his eyes for his audacity, he took the opportunity to stare back.
         She must have a lot of hair under that cap he thought randomly, too much weight for that slender neck to bear. Her eyes were pale, perhaps gray in the daylight but silver under the moon, and he could just imagine that her hair would be the same shade, floating about her like a silken cloak …
         “Did you?”
         “What?” His turn to jump. “Do I what?”
         “I’ve heard tell that very few of you people will admit to deserving to be here, but you said nobody gets here by accident. So.” She paused, briefly wearing the bemused expression natural to Nate’s friend Grub, who was regularly overwhelmed by new concepts. “Do you belong here?”
         “I broke a vow to The God. So yes, I belong here.”
         “And while your continuing un- Godliness shames your ghost your candour holds the seed of redemption. For although one generation dies from a corruption of the blood, the next may be redeemed through The Word of The God. I will pray for your children.”
         That was the kind of pious claptrap that the Libbers spouted on street corners. He usually sped up as he walked past for fear of punching one of them. But it seemed his earlier agony at The God’s indifference had made him vulnerable. His eyes prickled with tears.
         “And look at your potential. Baked in the sun of Arakin if I’m not mistaken, with a face like the stone guards at God’s Shoulder. You would have been Heart’s Ward if you had lived, I’d guess, not some Bloodlord’s whipping boy.”
          “I’m not a boy,” he growled.
         “And I’m no-one’s sweetheart.” By her victorious smile, she had been waiting for that chance.
         Keene, too often demeaned by other people’s names for him, had called her that as a deliberate insult. Shame burned hot. “With him as my witness, never again, my lady.”
         They had both forgotten the dead man at their feet.
         “Not ‘my lady’ either I think, not anymore.” Kneeling, she stretched out a hand to rest it on the corpse’s wrist and recoiled at once. “He is so cold.”
         “Don’t touch him!”
         As Keene lurched forward she collapsed backwards onto her arse.
         “He’s supposed to be cold, he’s dead. And whatever killed him likely still feeds.”
         Leaning forward again, she pointed at the pox marks on the man’s face with a manicured finger, careful this time not to make contact. “You speak of the germ?”
         Keene could have bitten through his tongue. It was another idea he’d heard in the city salons, whispered by the same liberals who thought he might still be human after all. Vowing to reclaim his lost talent for silence, he shrugged off her curiosity. “Dead is dead, whatever the cause.”
         She looked at his outstretched hand with more disdain than she had spared for the unfortunate corpse and hoisted herself awkwardly to her feet. “No-one lives but The God allows it and no-one dies but The God demands it.”
         “Well, maybe The Meme aren’t The God’s only messengers. Maybe the germ climbs into a man’s ear, tells him to die and waits around to climb up the next man’s arm. Or woman.”
         “Hah!” This time, her smile was prim as she pulled down the cuffs of her plain dark dress. “You do belong here, slave. That cuts close to sacrilege for The Meme speak The Word to The World.”
         “Not here. Never here.” Keene shook his head. The muck at his feet might as well have swallowed him whole. But she, she was pure and clean, beloved by her maker, untainted. She wasn’t wearing a cross and he did not doubt that her skin was an unmarked by the brand. It would have the texture of cherry blossom. He put his hands in his pockets and tried to stop thinking. “You need to leave, my lady. Or perhaps you came for a reading? Let me take you back to the cookfire. Ma Teller will be there all night.”
         “A reading? From a Pit spawn? I think not. You need to mind your own business, dead man.”
         “It will be my business if the Pit crews turn up!” Her piety had shamed him. Her contempt burned. “I don’t think even The God is petty enough to damn me again for the sake of one felt cross but He’d surely take vengeance for the loss of your virtue on my watch.”
         There was a pause. Of a sudden, her face was a waxen mask. The dead man looked more animated.
         “The God’s plans are no concern of yours.” Her lips moved like a badly mastered puppet’s, and her voice dropped two full tones, almost as if she was being used as a mouthpiece by someone else.
         Keene blinked. With the moon now behind her, her strange eyes were still aglow in her passive face. He felt her gaze in the depths of his mind, opening the dark spaces of his soul to a scorching scrutiny, too strong to be borne - the urgent tugging at his belt broke the spell. He whirled round to find Nate staring at him, anxious.
         “It’s fine.” Keene croaked, willing his jittering nerves to settle. “We were just …”
         Nate arched his brows and nodded at the body.
         “Not him.” Keene said, too impatient to make sure the boy had understood him. He side- stepped. Introducing his nephew to the woman would give him a chance to find out her name. “This is … oh!”
         Whoever she was, she had gone.
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