Quick or dead. This is the Eel Queen's Law, and all children who run in the streets of the city know it by heart. Or else they are dead. Mari knows the law. She will be ten soon, and she has not yet been caught. By Resplendent Orchid's standards this is an accomplishment of great moment. She has worked for thiefmasters, for tanners, for fullers and hadrosaur stables, has stolen fruit, jewelry, meat, bread, coin, even candies from the stalls of the Golden Cabal. She is small, light-fingered, an acolyte from birth of the Eel Queen and her art. Now she sits in a the crowded attic of a flophouse with a dozen other ragged children, wondering what tempted her inside to listen to the woman in yellow.
The Woman is young, ten or eleven years older than Mari at the most, and she is so pale she looks like the invalids who beg outside the temples at the center of town. Blue veins run like rivers beneath her papery skin, surround her yellow eyes like the fractured shadow of a noblewoman's mask. Her hair is long and black, pooling on the floor around her, and bells made of many metals adorn her trailing sleeves. Kneeling before the children, light from the window at her back breaking over her, she looks like a consumptive angel. She makes a slow, deliberate wai, and Mari echoes it at once. It is always best to be polite with alchemists.
Once, she has heard, a Grandmaster of the Iron Cabal turned his boy-whore into salt for spitting on his slippers.
“Welcome,” says the woman in yellow.
Mari says nothing, and neither do the other children. They all know the laws. Never speak first, never steal from a thief, never flaunt your take. The list goes on. She does not speak; she listens.
The woman in yellow laces her fingers together, the bells on her sleeves jingling. “Who knows who rules your city from the great fortress on the hill?”
“Claude de Scorier,” says some idiot, a gaunt boy with a harelip. “He lives in Resplendent Orchid with his sons.”
The woman smiles a thin, sharp smile like a knife's edge. “Correct. How would you like to own everything that Claude de Scorier owns?”
The smell of greed is sharp in the air. Mari feels it, too, the forbidden goal of wealth, real wealth and not just cold survival. She knows better than to trust it, though, and she swallows her lust. There is nothing but betrayal behind smiles, nothing but disappointment behind promises. If you wanted something, you had to take it yourself.
“He sleeps on silken sheets,” says the woman. She has her audience in the palms of her pale, slim hands. She knows it. “His galluses eat better than you ever have. How much injustice have you choked down since your births? How much more will be force-fed to you?” She reaches into her sleeve and produces a flat obsidian coin impressed with the Shogun's glowering visage. A koku. Enough money to buy food for two months. More money than any child in the room has ever held at once, and certainly more than any of them has ever earned through hard labor.
“What do you want?” says another child, a squat, flat-faced girl with shrewd eyes and scars on the backs of her hands. Mari thinks she has seen her before, out on the streets some night by the Green Kitchens or begging in the Plaza of Contempt.
“I want nothing,” says the woman in yellow, “but the Hollow God desires all, and it is Their will I serve. Tell me, will you help me kill your Daimyo?”
de Scorier has knights at his command, swaggering bullies with ko-flags displaying their made-up ancestries to the whole world. He has the city guard, rough men and women paid just little enough that they must extort and brutalize everyone beneath them. Worst of all, though, he has the Sad Men. de Scorier is not to be toyed with, especially not by half-starved children. Still, Mari is tempted. The room waits, holding its breath. Mari bites her lip. What to do, what to do.
“I will,” says the boy with the harelip. His voice is a drawn-out snivel, wet and cringing.
The others join in, each clamoring to be heard above the others, all proclaiming their skills as hardened killers. Mari watches in silent disgust. She knows the other children are lying, and even as the woman in yellow explains her brazen plan she is caught up in their twitching faces, their covetous eyes and the flush in their gaunt cheeks. Do they understand nothing? Soon they're leaving, filing out through the narrow door, coins clutched fast in their sweaty palms. Mari rises and moves to follow, eager to leave the stuffy attic and its strange inhabitant.
The woman's voice freezes Mari where she stands. “Wait, child.”
Mari looks back at the woman, still kneeling in the light that pours in through the dusty window. “Magistra?” she says, her throat suddenly dry.
“Most of them will take my coin and try to sell me to the city guard,” says the woman in yellow. She seems unconcerned. The footsteps of the other children are already retreating down the winding stair, heralded by creaks and groans. “Not you. Why?”
Mari swallows. “The guards don't listen to children.”
“Still, you might have had the coin.”
“Where would I spend it? The merchants would call me a thief.”
The woman nods. She runs a hand through her long black hair. “Yes. Many of the others will die. You knew my gift was poisoned.”
“Poisoned?” Mari trembles, thinking of how she nearly took the coin.
“Figuratively. What urchin could have a koku who had not stolen it?”
Mari says nothing. The woman's pale yellow eyes, the color of piss or cornflowers, frighten her. She wants to go, to run back to the streets and see if Ugly Ursula has work for her in the stables behind her inn, the Red Dimetrodon. Still, she does not move.
“The rest are chaff,” says the woman in yellow. “You may be worth something. Help me and I can promise an acolyte's place for you in the Iron Cabal.”
Mari's chest tightens. The Iron Cabal, those sellers of slaves and soldiers, beholden not even to the Shogun but only to the Lich King and the Dead Senate. It is said that the alchemists of the Iron Cabal give up their souls when they take up their posts, that they wield powers no other alchemist could dream of. In the woman's offer is a lifetime of, if not ease, then at least security. Privilege. Power. Mari swallows, wipes her damp palms on her trousers. “What do you want? Really?”
The woman in yellow smiles, showing her teeth this time. “Something beautiful.”