by Kate Connors
Bound by oath, Atticus Yearwood is forced to fight for the bloodthirsty king.
The rat king’s teeth are crooked. Not like the paintings. Liar. I’m on my knees in front of a liar and a killer and I’m the one who has to watch my step.
“Major Yearwood.” King Gideon’s ears flatten against his head and he looks down at me over his sloped nose. “Your service in the royal army has been exemplary.” Too exemplary for the cabinet’s taste, which is why I’m here. Never exemplary in the service of mice or their cohorts. “And for your service you are honored to bear the rank bhatan, sentinel of the king.”
Bhatan is not a rank. Bhatan is a curse. I can’t stop the feathers on my chest from ruffling, but lucky for me they’re concealed under two layers of armor. The rat king takes a sword from his droglon, a man whose purpose escapes me. In the Breaks we have nothing like his station. He is head of the king’s knights and his authority is absolute, untouchable even by the queen, but she’s never done more than sit at the rat king’s side and watch him make war on his neighbors. “Do you, Atticus Yearwood of the Northern Breaks, pledge to serve the king with your life, until the end of your life and in the life after, with unadulterated loyalty?”
I don’t answer. I can’t. But the rat king’s eyes are impatient. After some time I spit out, “With unadulterated loyalty.” Unadulterated loyalty or the city of my blood. It was never a choice.
Gideon touches the sword to each of my shoulders. I shut my eyes. Things are about to go to Hell. “With this opportunity must come sacrifice, insurance that your loyalty is unbroken. Do you understand the terms?”
My eyes open. “I understand the terms.” He doesn’t ask whether I agree to the terms—he asks whether I understand them. My wings unfold for the last time and I try to commit the feeling of air against their feathers to memory. Droglon Lennox moves behind me and yanks my right wing backward by the tip, forcing my attention to the stained glass above the monarchs’ thrones. Jericho losing his wings after the War. Fitting. I know little about mouse culture. Only enough to know a face like mine is always the villain in their stories.
“Would you like to be warned?” Lennox asks. My silence invites more roughness and I savor the pain like salt. I’m still whole. “Yes or no, owl.”
“No.” The wing twitches against his grip, pleading. “Surprise me.”
Lennox doesn’t wait, but the sabre doesn’t make a clean break. Air spills from my lungs. My knees buckle. One of my arms catches me against the marble floor of the throne room. Marble is easy to clean. Lucky for someone so sloppy. Something tears when the droglon’s hand closes around what’s left of the wing, his fist against my shoulder. Blackness threatens to swallow me. “You’re strong,” Lennox says. Metal scrapes free of its sheath. “Harder to cut strong wings.”
“I’m no stronger than the last bhatan,” I pant. “You don’t know what you’re doing,”
“Well.” The droglon pushes my forehead into the white stone. “I don’t get much practice. Bhatans rarely break their oaths.”
“I hope you’re not suggesting I’ll be different.” Blade against bone. I can hear its teeth cut into me, slip through marrow in the middle. Lennox pulls and pulls and pulls until something cracks free and viscous warmth flows between my shoulders onto the floor.
One left. May as well be forty. The rat king and his lackeys might win today.
Hand still against my skull, Lennox speaks. I can’t understand him. He is less indulgent tearing bone from bone on the other side and in moments I am in pieces. My chest heaves against stone. I cling to blurry daylight. They wait for me to move.
“Do you need help getting up, Bhatan?”
Help. From them. I’ll lie here until the godcreature returns before I willingly let a mouse touch me again. “With all due respect, Droglon, you’ve done enough.”
“Your body is broken but your ego must not be. What I know of your kind rings true today.” Lennox sheaths his sword. Kneels at my head. Runs his thumb over my ear tuft. “But you’re the first bhatan initiate not to give in.”
“I’ve always had a high pain tolerance.” I catch his wrist and push it away with what strength I have. “Which should say something about your touch.”
Scoffing, Lennox stands. “You were a good choice.”
“Unadulterated loyalty.” I push myself off the cold stone and sit up. My ears ring and the tuft Lennox touched won’t stop twitching. “No better than the others.”
“Better than the last.” The white mouse watches me stand, one hand on the sabre at his hip. I wonder if it’s clean. His nose twitches once and he looks over my shoulder at the rat king. “Will there be anything else, your grace?”
Gideon waves him off with two fingers. “Make Bhatan Yearwood comfortable, if you please.”
Lennox dips his head. “Of course, your grace.” His hand finds its way to my shoulder. I don’t argue now. Sable feathers are crushed under my boots no matter where I step and my knees are one wrong move from giving out. Bloodloss is only one part of my unsteadiness. I let Lennox push me as far as the fifth pillar and then I shake him off. I want to lie down. I want his hands off me. I want to go outside without going blind.
I want to go home.
Stopping at the seventh pillar brings Lennox back to my side and my feathers all stand up at once. No concealing them now. “Don’t touch me,” I spit. He doesn’t have to listen. I can’t hurt him.
His palms open to me and he takes a step backward. “Let me help you.”
“Said the man who spent twenty minutes cutting me in thirds.”
“Dozens of others have felt the blade. It was only part of the ritual.” Liar. Mice fidget when they lie. “I meant no harm against you personally.”
“Then why did you get off?”
Lennox blinks. Swallows hard. “Why would you—I don’t enjoy the initiation, owl. I never have.” Blood still sticks to his palms, the reason for the handprints running the length of my arm. Some of my feathers are matting. “What have you heard of me?”
“Nothing. I didn’t know your name until this morning.” I pull the lighter feathers on my neck apart. “But any man who hates torture would be eager to wash blood from his hands.”
A pause. Lennox clasps his hands behind his back, hiding them. “I suppose you would know.”
“I know.” He’s a sadist. A guilty sadist—the kind made by nurture. The kind that feels. His eyes fall to the floor. “You like the taste. Don’t pretend it disgusts you.”
When I turn my back and push the heavy doors open, I feel him watching. Maybe the scars are unsightly. Maybe he wants to know more of the war on Frontier, but he can live a life knowing nothing, never seeing—people with birthrights don’t have to play the game. Leave him wondering. I’m the rat king’s slave, not his.
2. Friends in Hell
“Carefully, Bhatan.” Rabbits—one with black spots on white fur, the other pale brown and long-haired—sit me down on white bedsheets. Their hands are gentle and they speak like the river. I can’t hate them. We’re bonded by our helplessness. “Something for the pain?”
“I don’t want healing magic,” I tell them.
The rabbits exchange glances. Flatten their ears against their heads. Turn back to me. “We are forbidden to use magic, Bhatan.”
“Since the new accords were passed two moons ago.”
“Why?” I ask, feathers ruffling. They’re out of control—I must be tired. Hard to imagine why.
“I’m unsure, Bhatan,” says the brown rabbit. “King Gideon—his grace—passed the law while we slept.”
Not surprising. Easy to quell unconscious opposition. The rat king must expect something, but the rabbits know as little as I do living under his heel. I want to know more, and once I lived in a place knowing more wouldn’t crush me. Those days are over. And there’s no until. “What do you have for pain?”
“Snowroot paste, Bhatan.”
“I’ve never heard of snowroot.”
“It isn’t like the drugs from the Breaks, Bhatan, but it’s an old cure. Effective,” says the spotted rabbit. “Our abilities are limited without magic, I’m afraid.”
“Snowroot. Why not?” What do I have to lose?
They undress me to my underwear and lay me down on my stomach, a pillow tucked under my chin, my sidearm beneath it in easy reach. White paste like paint is smeared across my forehead. Muscles tense with cold and relax to numbness. They undersold their old cure. “Was that enough, Bhatan?” asks the brown rabbit when my nerves are entirely disconnected from feeling. Like the past hour never happened. I couldn’t move my wings if I still had them.
“Good godcreature, what would more do?” I answer into the pillow. They laugh, and then the room is medically cold again, except for their whispers in Old Undari. I don’t speak enough to catch the details, only that they’re afraid. Afraid of the king. Afraid for their families. Between words I hear the sounds of a needle through my skin, in and out, all the way down, until both shoulders are stitched closed. While the snowroot bleeds from my veins they dress the wounds in cotton and pull the sheets over my hips. They’re quiet now. Discouraged. “Thank you,” I tell them, and their ears prick forward.
They must not be thanked often.
“For what, Bhatan?” asks the spotted rabbit.
“For not leaving me to bleed.”
“We did only what was required of us, Bhatan.”
“Does that make you less deserving of thanks?” In their silence I point to a green canvas bag at the foot of the bed. “Take what coin I have.”
“Carefully, Bhatan,” says the brown rabbit, tugging on one of her ears. “You mustn’t give us money.”
“What am I to do with it?”
Her shoulders slump. She is less a slave than I am, but the caste does not feed or clothe people like her. Even if I had use for the money I’ll be dead before the year is over. She knows that as well as I do. “What might the king say?” she asks in a whisper.
“Why should he mind?” The rabbits are seldom thanked and never rewarded. No wonder they think the money is a trap. “Take it. You need it.”
Heated debate in Old Undari begins. I only understand the end, when they’ve come to a flat-eared, raised-hackle consensus they’ll take the money. They hold it flat in their palms, away from their bodies, like it’s deadly. Look over their shoulders. Slip it into the pockets of their dresses. “We are undeserving, Bhatan. You don’t know what this means.”
“It was nothing.” Sitting up, I’m careful not to disturb their work. My hand finds the headboard when the effort is too much. “What are your names?”
“Our names do not matter, Bhatan,” says the spotted rabbit. “Only our families use them.”
“In the Breaks we all have names.”
The brown rabbit laughs. She laughs like the river, too. “The Breaks must have many customs we do not follow.”
“I wouldn’t know. I didn’t read up.”
“That is apparent.” Her hands stifle more laughter, and then she clasps them in front of her apron, dark eyes smiling. “I am Beatrice, Bhatan. And this is my sister, June.”
“Nice to meet you, Beatrice and June.” I sit back against the headboard, shoulders not touching the wood. “Will I see you often?”
“Yes, Bhatan. Whenever you should need us. We belong to you.”
I scoff. “No, you don’t.”
“Because that isn’t how they do it in the Breaks?” June cocks her head. If I didn’t know better I’d think I’d made friends here in Hell.
“Exactly. I’ll make northerners of you two yet.”
“If only, Bhatan.” June looks over her shoulder again and picks up a package from the desk near the window, across from the bed. My window and my desk now. “Speaking of the Breaks.” She sets the package beside me, nose twitching. “This came for you two days ago.”
“You look like you know something I don’t.” It’s a white box from the government, the largest available size and heavy in my hands. Nondescript aside from the stamp, which has never known less to be more. I used to get boxes like these on my desk all the time and I usually let them pile up. Now I wish stacks of boxes blocked my view.
“No, but we’ve been itching to know what’s inside,” Beatrice says.
“Itching.” June rocks forward on her heels.
“Your jobs are a little monotonous, aren’t they?”
“Like snow on the Plains.” Beatrice watches me cut the tape and take an unevenly-cut slip of yellow paper from inside. An unofficial note from the government. I know who sent it from the handwriting. “What does it say? Who’s it from?”
“My brother.” I read it down. Again. And again.
They warned me there might be some trauma with the loss of your beautiful wings, but I’m getting by alright. To make the transition easier on myself, I’ve had your uniforms modified, specifically in the shoulder area. Go carefully, Atticus.
What an ass. I lift the first uniform shirt from the box. Touch the closed shoulder where my wings would have come through the woven fabric. Unpack the rest of the shirts to the bottom. They made me a new chestplate too. No gashes like the old one. I want to tell Carlisle they’re wasting exetium on me, but YEARWOOD engraved on the left side looks as right now as it did then.
“What does it say, Bhatan?” asks June.
Running my thumb over the letters, I hold the note out to her, but she doesn’t take it. “What’s wrong?”
“We cannot read, Bhatan.”
“You’re joking.” I fold my arms across my chest. “Really?” What goes on in N’emel?
“It is true, Bhatan. Rabbits are not taught to read.”
A quarter of N’emel’s population is illiterate. No wonder. I shake my head. Read the note aloud. Beatrice and June laugh like it’s the funniest thing they’ve ever heard, and godcreature, maybe it is.
“Carlisle is your brother?” Beatrice asks.
“Not by blood.” I set the note aside. Frontier brings people together. For better or worse.
“If not by blood, then what?”
“Spirit, I suppose,” I say, shrugging. “What makes you two so curious?”
June exchanges a glance with her sister and they both look back to me. “It’s only curiosity, Bhatan.” They’re open books and somehow unreadable. Maybe I should have studied up before I got here. She places a hand on my arm. What does her touch mean? “You should rest now, Bhatan. We’ll return in the morning.” June lets go of me and they both move to leave. Beatrice outside, she stops with one hand on the doorframe and looks at me over her shoulder. “We have faith in you, Atticus Yearwood of the Northern Breaks.”
My feathers are at it again. “Go carefully.”