I see the boy that I shot a week later.
He's standing, leaning casually against the sheer grey stone wall of a building, and he doesn't see me - or if he does, he doesn't recognise me. He's talking to someone, another man, grinning - a wicked slash of the lips with a little too much sharp teeth. Automatically, I press my body against Kran's - he glances down at me, but he doesn't seem to realise why I'm doing it. He thinks I'm just afraid of the Short-Wings; as my hand goes to find his, he puts his arm around my shoulder and, giving a short low laugh, tousles my hair a little.
"Naw, Dany, don't tell me you still 'fraid o' them? You already been through the Prelim - my li'l sister as can shoot a guy dun't need t' be 'fraid o' no Shorts."
But I don't look at him - I can't take my eyes off the face of the boy. I can't stop picturing those sharp, grinning teeth turned pink by the blood bubbling up through his lips, can't get rid of the image of his bare chest, short but stocky, pierced right over the heart by a single, ragged red hole. Can't make myself stop seeing the look - somewhere between shock, disappointment and sudden fear - as he raised his eyes to mine, and bit his tongue at me as he died. You're not supposed to see anyone after that - or at least, there's not much of a chance of it. Hundreds of people can be in a Prelim at any one time, and it's a big city - and I guess if people do pass each other, they don't really think about it, don't really recognise the person they just killed or were killed by. But I recognise him, recognise his butchered mess of dark hair and his dangerously bright eyes and his grinning teeth. His feathers, ruffled and battered and some of them broken, seem lighter in the daylight - more of the reddish bay set with dusty fawn of his child's markings than the slate grey they will be after the next moult. He shifts where he stands, reaching into his pocket to retrieve something, and his wings shift in balance, one of them stretching out; beneath them, inside the middle covert, the feathers are thick and pale - unclipped. Almost subconsciously, I feel my shoulders stirring, whole dense body tensing as if in response to seeing the unclipped Short-Wing on the other side of the street - but Kran's hand tightens a little on my shoulder when he senses the shifting under his arm, and I look down and away almost guiltily.
I don't tell him why I can't stop staring at the boy.
The Prelim doesn't matter. Nothing you do ever makes it out. Whatever happens, it isn't... It isn't real.
But as I think again of the blood bubbling up from his lips, I once again find my gaze drawn to the boy, and I can't look away except to stare at my feet and try to get rid of the image.
Ezekiel is talking, but I'm not really listening. It's automatic to nod and grunt in agreement, and when he snorts derisively I laugh, but I'm thinking about the Prelim and the thought won't go away. She couldn't have been more than maybe fifteen, and that's pushing it because she looked younger, and her arm was bare - unclipped, and unmarked. I'd guess she'd never been in a Prelim before, either - she was scared. Sure, I was trying to slash her throat open, but that's what the Prelim's for and you don't go there unless you're ready for it - but I didn't think I'd ever get beat by a girl on her first trial, and not a Long-Wing. All right, they can be fierce and they're fast, but they've no stamina and they don't think about what they do - but I guess for her that kind of worked out all right. Still, the look in her eyes when she fired that gun into my chest, I guess she won't be going back any time soon.
It's a little close to the flats here - still in the middle-ground, but I wouldn't walk here in the dark. Or I would, but I'd keep my hand on my knife the whole time. Ezek's clearly thinking the same thing; he glances over his shoulder, at the dark-skinned Long and his little sister passing on the other side of the street, and shifts uneasily on his feet. He's all right, is Ezek, as long as he's on the pouncing side - but he doesn't like to get jumped. Good job for him we're near Short-Wing territory, and there's still a few hours of daylight left.
"Up for a cast?" I grin, my smile a slash of the lips filled with too much tooth and smirk, and I light up as he deliberates - but I know what his answer will be. Like I say, Ezek's good when he's pouncing. And if you're doing the pouncing, then it's less likely that you're going to get pounced.
So he nods, and after just a few breaths I crush the light under my heel, and shrug off the wall.
We could cast off right here, but I can't be assed with the effort of a standing flurry, so with a tilt of my head down the street I set off, Ezek and I striding almost side by side - though naturally he falls slightly behind me, his shoulders hunched and eyes darkly wary. I clack my tongue with two sharp clicks, and he offers back one. As we move along the street, two Shorts with our wings just raised, mostly curled with the primaries touched by the ever so slightest wind of our passage, the few people remaining on the street fade, almost imperceptibly, away. But the end of the broad mainway is not our goal; after just a few moments, we step sideways, as one, into a shallow alleyway hidden in the dank darkness of the grey buildings. As we turn, my hands flick up and toss the hood over my head, and in a moment Ezek has done the same. Then, with dark wings and dark jackets, we are as the darkness - only visible from the slight movements occasionally perceived flickering in the depths of the shadow. As I say, we aren't far from Short-Wing turf, so it's hardly ten minutes of quick walking before we're nearer familiar ground - the steppes. My eyes, cast into shadow by the peak of my hood above my brow, look up at the myriad of buildings staggered above us. Hardly any two are the same height, and each is a slightly different shade of dusky grey or dusty charcoal or desaturated off-brown - they could be mountains if the tops weren't all flat and the sides all rigid. That's what we call them: the steppes. Or the steps, if you can't spell, but seeing as the Broad-Wings have their own steps, we try not to get them confused. We have the steppes, they have the steps - and the Long-Wings the flats. Each one suits each of us perfectly; they can have them. Our short, strong wings wouldn't be able to handle a gliding flight over those empty plains, and their long, pointy feathers would get stuck in the tightly-packed steppes - yeah, we stick where we belong. But even though we're in familiar ground now, I don't relax - not a bit. Ezek seems a little relieved just to be out of the way of the Longs, but he knows well enough that we're a hazard to each other as much as we are to them. So we carry on, strides long and intentional, eyes on the ground, faces concealed by hoods and hands in pockets. And our wings, just like everyone else's, remain just out enough to show that we're unclipped - except the people who aren't. They walk with their wings folded tight against their backs, scowling at the ground, not even bothering to try and swag until they get their coverts back.
But even though we can cast off easier now, we don't - not yet. Instead, the two of us keep straight on, passing under the varying depths of shadow between the buildings until we come to Flixton. Outside the door, Gad is leant back, smoking - easily casual, but with his eyes nonetheless taking careful note of everyone who passes by. When he sees us he nods and flicks the ash off the end of his light; Ezek ducks past him and into the door, but I stop, leaning opposite for a moment, sniffing and rolling one shoulder.
I don't even have to ask, but then I already knew the answer. He's on stand, so he'll stay here for the rest of the night - but he'll tell the others where we are. So, with a little click, I too duck into the dark doorway, into the warm gloom within.
Ezek's already got them riled; within the minute most of the crew have stubbed out their lights, grabbed any gear they need, and trampled toward the stairs. As one laughing, shoving rush we move up; I slip in amongst them, snapping and clicking and hollering, batting Ben on the back of the head and tripping up Micah - with a shout, he grabs at my leg as he falls, and I kick him away with a laugh, bating to keep my balance on one leg. Someone yells as they get a mouthful of feather, and a couple more of the lads have to catch themselves on the walls of the narrow staircase or bate, hard, as everyone falls and pushes and kicks around. Somehow, we make it to the stop of the stairs - and that's when it really starts.
With the time it took to get up here, the sky's already turned to a deep, boundless cobalt above us. West and north we turn, more to the centre, where it gets thick and the steppes start to turn into the CBD - still pushing and shouting and laughing, we cast off from the edge of the low building, erupting into the red and gold sky. On the edge of the horizon the sun's still glowing, just about - you can hardly see it from this angle, with all the steppes blocking out the light, but it definitely is. All those bright, glimmering rays dance and lance around and highlight rough, tousled feathers and bare shoulders and dark, glossy hair. Kicking off hard, with an eruption of beating wings we launch into the sky. This is it: a cast. That's what we prefer to call it, because this - the beginning, the cast itself - is the best bit. The eagerness; the laughing and the clapping and the clicking; the companionship and expectation and challenge. And as we go we'll toss around and kick about a bit, but as we rise into the sky and leap from building to building we'll start to go silent. Our eyes will glow in the gloom from the edge of buildings, and our rustling feathers will be heard as we pass, unbidden, overhead, and our gestures will go seen only be each other around the ranks. We will be focused - intent.
Because that's what this is: a cast. A hunt. And that's what we are: hunters. Predators.
And someone's probably going to die tonight.
I am going to kill Clay when this is over. I am going to go up to him and take hold of his throat and shake it from side to side until he is dead. No - I'm being foolish. I can't strangle him. A knife will be quicker.
"Save it for the Prelim," Pike rumbles, and with a nervous sound that isn't really a laugh I push my glasses up my nose. They slip back down almost immediately. I do not have a nose that works with my glasses.
I would save my violent feelings toward Clay for the Prelim, if a) I took part in the Prelim; b) I could actually ever beat Clay in a fair fight like the Prelim; or c) we wouldn't come out of the Prelim in exactly the same scenario as before, except that I had killed him(or, more likely, been killed). Excellent moral dilemma, the Prelim, always a popular with the school debating teams - thank goodness it's less popular around here than down in the other parts of the city. The school I went to was mostly Broad-Wings, and we all kept the same safe and promised opinion about the Prelim. Brutal. Not good. Encourages violence. But well, half of those kids went home and dreamt about their first Prelim anyway, just because... You know. Childhood hypocrisy and the innocence of the given opinion.
Very interesting moral dilemma. Excellent stance for debate on both sides. Unlike this. This is not an interesting dilemma, or indeed much of a debate. Any debate has a very strong opinion on this.
Bad. Baddy bad. Badder than a bad badman with a bad fashion-sense in Badville.
Bad. Adjective. Not good in any manner or degree; having a wicked character or moral; inadequate, incorrect or faulty. Very clear. People are very clear about bad and this is very very very bad.
"Shut up, North."
"D-didn't say a word, Pike."
"You were thinking far too much. It was annoying me."
I open my mouth to try and reply, decide it isn't worth the effort, and push my glasses up again with a sigh. Pike looks up and down the darkened street, each way, then shifts a little uncomfortably, though his wings remain pressed against his sides. It's been a few months, so his coverts will be growing back soon - but it's clear to see for anyone who knows what a clipped wing looks like, and he still can't fly properly. He, I know, would also feel safer with the full function of all his capacities - but at least there's a fair few of us.
And it's not like we're really deep into Short territory or anything. Really, we're still in our land. Just a little near the border. Just really near the CBD and all the trouble and it's getting really dark really quickly and why are we still stood around here we should be going really quickly and oh God oh God oh God--
"Shut up, North."
"S-s-sorry, P-Pike, but- but-- why d-do I have to c- to carry the p-package, any- anyway?"
"Oh," he says blackly, turning to me with a heavy scowl. "Would you rather carry this?"
And he pushes the gun into my stomach, handle-first, so the barrel's in his palm. I flinch just to look at it, and with a grunt he takes it back and stocks it back in his belt. Yes, I would very much rather not be holding a gun - a very illegal, very dangerous, very shoot-y kill-y gun - however I would also rather not be holding... This. In fact, scrap that; I would rather not be here at all. I would like to be back at 31 Hazelcrest Road, finishing Edgar Allen Poe's collection, or even helping Clay to plan something else though really even that isn't looking so great right now. Although compared to here... So I would rather not be carrying the package, on the border of Short-Wing territory, waiting for someone to turn up who isn't appearing and should have done quite a while ago, on a dark and cold and moonless night in early winter. But, on the other hand, I would also not rather be holding the gun, or have my wings clipped, or be in the middle of Short-Wing territory, or, I don't know, be completing a Prelim Discipline, so really it's not looking that bad although we're all probably still going to die oh God--
Pike tenses, his shoulders tightening in the corner of my vision, and I spin the way he's looking as I cower back slightly against the wall. The others have all turned into the darkness, and several hands move surreptitiously toward their belts. For several seconds, there is silence. Then:
"Be at peace, fratres. If this is a fair deal then you have nothing to fear."
"It is a fair deal," rumbles Pike.
"Then you have nothing to fear."
Smiling, the figure steps forward and from the shadows across the street emerge six or seven dark-clad figures. They step toward our men, shoulders tense and eyes wary, but the man at the front is still smiling broadly. He shakes hands first with Bay, then Pike, who moves to meet him. Then, he nods to me. I tense, going very still except for a series of rapid hitching of breaths, and Pike gestures me forward - though Bay holds out his hand to stop me after just a few steps. Uncertain, I glance between them; Pike does not override him.
The man raises his eyebrows, and Bay nods first to me, then him. "Money for gear. Nice, equal and easy."
"But of course," smiles the stranger. He's wearing a suit, black and grey. It looks a bit out of place in the dank streets of the CBD, even in the dark. I wonder if I might see him around our territory proper. I decide I really don't want to.
He waves forward one of his men, who carries a box broad and flat but covered with the same black cloth as mine. Bay obviously trusts him because he doesn't ask for it to be opened before they're swapped, and the same for the man - or maybe they both just want to get the hell out of here. I do too. Thank heavens for trust and open honesty. The man with the box passes it to the man in the suit, who holds it out not quite enough for Bay to reach it, then drops as a black weight throws itself down upon him.
There is a single moment of shock because it's kind of like, Excuse me, but what the hell just happened? - and then the black mass rises and becomes a dark-skinned boy with shifting, unclipped dark-feathered wings, grinning and holding the knife dripping with the man in the suit's blood.
Which is when the rest of them leap down, not as silent as him because they're all laughing and whooping and jeering and shouting and clicking their tongues, and the men opposite shout out and run and our men start to yell and try to reach for their guns. A few shots echo, almost indistinguishable from the cacophony of yells and cries, and the laughs of the Short-Wings.
Short-Wings. We're Broad-Wings and our business partners are - were - Broad-Wings, so these must be Shorts. Clutching the package to my chest because that's all I can think of to do, I turn to run or help someone or just turn and look at what's going on. It's so dark and everyone is so indistinguishable from each other that all I can see is a series of writhing masses - men standing around a body kicking and jumping, someone pressing someone with a knife against the edge of a building, a gun being kicked out of its hand and across the street, blood bubbling up between Pike's teeth as his gun goes off, the shot echoing into the sky. The Short-Wing steps away from him. His chest is bare - stocky and well-built - and I can only just make out in the darkness the ink scrawled across his shoulders, arms and collar. He has taken part in many Prelims. He looks like the sort of boy who's won all of them.
He's only carrying a knife - no gun. He doesn't even pick up Pike's when his foot bumps against it. He grins at me, a cheeky, boyish slash of teeth and glittering eyes, and makes as if to turn away - as if killing me would be so easy it wouldn't even be worth the fun. But then his eyes catch sight of the package I'm still clinging onto as if it might act as a barrier and stop any attacks harming me, and suddenly his gaze is brighter and his smile is fiercer and something like a cackling laugh is bubbling up between his lips.
The blood drops away from my head and white noise explodes in my head. Oh God.