A Thorn among Fae

Trigger warnings available here.

This is raw, unedited material. Some errors may be present. Expect minor changes upon publishing.

Table of Contents

Chapter One

“I’d bet you won’t last twelve months of being married to me before there’s something growing in your belly.”

Their neighbors at the closest table leaned ever so slightly forward, their chins tilted at a level not quite perpendicular to the tavern floor anymore.

The wife-to-be in question, a young one by the pretty luster of her fair skin and the set of her ruby mouth, hid something like a smile behind a quick hand pressed to her mouth.

Red crawled up her cheeks. The whole tavern had heard, surely. “Delen,” she shushed the dashing young man sitting beside her as she squirmed in her seat.

They were young to be married, but there was little doubt in the minds of the tavern patrons that the girl’s family had needed the bride price. There were more than a few in the city who were exchanging daughters for some extra coin after the last increase in taxes from the fae bastards across the boundary line.

The young man’s eyes, gray as a morning in winter, glinted with something shared only between them.

“You’ve barely lasted all our engagement,” he said, apparently not cowed by her attempts at shushing him, “without a little me in you.”

“Delen,” she said louder. Her hand pressed deeper against her mouth, like she could take his words back by smothering her own. A wave of brown hair pressed against her features, hiding the rest of her face from the world.

Delen’s fingers slipped between hers where she had placed her other hand in her lap. “Ana. I love you with my entire heart and soul. I love you more than my life.”

The intimacy of the moment diverted the stares that had been thrown their way. A confession of love between fiancés wasn’t nearly as interesting as the snippet that had preceded it.

The Last Chance was perhaps a bit of a melodramatic name for a tavern, but it was usually anyone’s last chance to drown themselves in fermented starch in the entire city of Irbess. Bordered as it was by the fae-controlled territories west of it, it was any Irbess dweller’s last chance at seeing a friendly face, too.

As the shadows thrown by the hearth in the center of the tavern grew longer, their eavesdroppers grew bored with their drink and how regular the conversation upwind had grown. Soon, they abandoned their mugs and the rings left on the tables by them and headed to their own rooms for finer conversation.

It was only just midnight when the tenor of the engaged couples’ conversation changed. Empty mugs sticky from dried drink sat before them on the table.

“What are you saying?” Her hand, burdened by a modest band of silver indicating their engagement, caught the light of the fireplace’s faltering glow as it flew to her throat.

“Nothing,” Delen snapped. His fingers raked the strands of his combed curls as his eyes cast anywhere but at his beloved. “Just … leave it be, Ana. You’re talking too much again.”

“But—” Ana’s face was red. “You said you don’t want to marry yet. What others were you talking about? Other girls?”

Delen stood, and his chair nearly fell from the force. “I’ve had enough of your nagging already. Tell your da it’s over.”

“But Delen—” Ana’s words ended in a cry when Delen slammed the door of the tavern behind him.

Her hair piled around her where she pressed her face against the wood of the rickety table where they’d sat together. Her shoulders quivered. She was alone with their empty cups and the plates of their picked-clean supper. When her wrist flew from her side to smudge at her wet face, she knocked one of the cups to the floor where the last of its contents dripped, soaking into the floor and joining generations of stains. She smelled of ale.

There were markedly fewer patrons of The Last Chance left to have seen the argument, but there were enough.

After a short while, the man who had been watching her from the start rose and fitted himself where Delen had sat.

By now, the hearth was nearly cooled. The barperson didn’t look up from his work where he sopped sudsy water into the floor, trying in vain to erase another day’s worth of footprints and dirt.

There was no one left to hear the stranger’s murmurings to the girl.

* * *

The girl whose alias was Ana stiffened in her seat ever so slightly when the man’s hand grazed her lap. She wasn’t nearly as drunk as she had let on, so she could very clearly feel his fumbling, yet determined, attempts to get at what was under her dress.

She would relish this next part.

Just get through it.

The man’s eyes were hard and black like beetles. His skin had a sallow cast to it, as if he were always standing underneath the last minutes of torchlight in the streets of Irbess. In this city, the grime caked onto the lanterns’ glass gave the flames an uncomfortable glow at night.

She found that, equally so, the men who wanted to prey upon her were pretty and ugly. This one was not pretty.

It mattered not to her.

She allowed him to lead her upstairs, swaying on her feet when his arms weren’t all over her, which was most of the time. When they stopped before a door, he produced a key.

As soon as the lock clicked back into place, the man turned to her, his fingers groping at the ties holding together the back of her dress.

His chin pressed into her collarbone as he whispered, “You won’t remember any of this come morning, darling. Best to lie down and let me do what he won’t anymore.”

It was then that the bones in his fingers crushed like brittle, dead leaves. She knew with a hard certainty that a bone in his thumb broke as she forced it to bend at an angle that was almost hard to witness.

Almost.

As her hands were occupied behind her back, she kicked him in his manhood. Her hands were like a prison around him. The strings to her dress remained knotted together.

She never let a man touch her without touching him back just as hard.

She forced them both into his room, and he rolled like a barrel to her delight.

“You broke my hand,” he screamed. His good hand was wrapped around his injured one like that would fix it.

Oops. She was supposed to keep them from screaming when she got them inside.

She crouched above him. “You need to be quiet, or there’ll be worse than that,” she threatened.

“You—you little harlot! You did this on purpose,” he yelped much too loud.

The girl smirked. She liked that insult. It was like an old, worn coat. She could don it and cast it aside whenever she wanted.

“Clearly,” she said, her eyes already on the heavy ring hanging off one of his good fingers. “Give me that.” She nodded at it.

The emerald embedded in the metal stared back at her, glimmering in the low light of the room. How nice it would look sitting on her own finger—

Pain raced across her scalp. The foul man under her had clamped his good hand around her hair and was yanking it repeatedly to the ground.

She cursed herself. She’d been careless.

The girl ignored the pain as she slammed her foot into his throat. She should have silenced him before now. His legs thumped against the floor, and she prayed that those on the floor below thought that they were roughhousing for other reasons than to hurt each other.

When the man slumped into an uneasy unconsciousness, she emptied his pockets, saving the ring for last as she slipped it onto her own finger.

Her fingers lingered on his coat. It was sewn doubly thick compared to ones she’d seen before, lined as it was with fleece. It was perhaps the warmest coat she could remember feeling against her skin.

Winter is coming again.

The girl looked down at the fat emerald. Usually, they tried to limit the items they stole that could be traced back to them. Coins were best, but she allowed herself a piece of jewelry or other trinket every now and again. It put a bigger target on them, she knew, but it also raked in the coins.

Clothes would never fetch as much as a ring would, double lined or not.

She remembered the night before, and the chill seeping into their bones as they’d huddled together in their home.

The girl sighed and replaced the ring on the man’s finger before slipping the coat from him. At least the coins amounted to a comforting weight in her pockets.

The girl whose alias had been Ana for the night left the room and the man behind. Buried in the coat’s pockets, her fingers flipped one of the coins over and over as she thought of the meals that she and her partner would eat for the next several nights.

Chapter Two

When she’d descended the stairs to the bottom floor of The Last Chance, all its other patrons had retired to their rooms or gotten lost on Irbess’s streets by then. Their snores were nearly audible.

The fireplace was quiet, though smoldering embers glowed in the ashes. The girl’s hand went to her hip as she looked to the counter where the two of them stood.

Her partner looked up from where he’d been leaning across the counter, speaking to the barkeep. Delen. She snorted internally at the name.

His gray eyes twinkled in the low light. “Done already?”

Instead of addressing him, the girl looked to the barkeep. She knew this one, and undoubtedly, her partner did, too. He was young, though even in the dimness of the room, she could see the muscles already worked into his limbs from carrying plates, dishes, and drinks. He’d been laughing at something her partner Delen had said before she’d descended the stairs.

Her eyebrow arched as she spoke. “Do you see how lazy he is? He makes me do all the work.”

The barkeep smiled in response and looked back at her partner before answering. “I don’t know. He is cute for a lazy mooch, though.”

Her partner jerked his head to look at her. She thought she saw red crawl up the back of his neck. Good.

The girl smirked. Usually, she had to pry him off most of the barkeeps when she did her part of their jobs. Though, she couldn’t complain too much as it helped keep some of the taverns friendly to their operations without so much as a bribe.

He said, “I think we should be getting back, don’t you think, Ana?”

The girl’s eyes went to the room around them. At such a late hour—or early hour, rather—it should remain empty until at least daybreak, but that was closer than she would have liked.

“That’s right,” she said, narrowing her eyes at him. They would speak on that on the way home. The girl addressed the barkeep. “We should go so we don’t cause more problems for you.”

* * *

The two orphans walked the streets of Irbess in the hours between late night and early morning when the fewest eyes could see them. They wore shadows like blankets and moved like ghosts.

These were the streets they had roamed like ghosts since they were small, and they knew which street corners were flooded in the light of torches like they knew each other’s face. They had been on these streets long enough to know that going unnoticed was infinitely safer and more valuable than being noticed.

When she was sure nothing more than their shadows followed their steps, the girl turned to the other orphan.

“Why did you use that name?” Her eyes narrowed on her partner. “You know better than to use an alias like that for me.”

Ana. It was just a few letters short of her full name, Anova.

As a thief, it was closer to the truth than she would have liked. She wasn’t even sure when the last time was that she had heard her own name spoken.

She and Juras were more careful than that. Even in safety, they usually only referred to each other as you. A person never knew who could be listening.

Juras’s gaze was steel for a moment. Then something changed in his expression, too quick for her to read it. His winter gray eyes moved from her face, and his dark eyebrows formed a crease as they came together.

“Do you ever get tired of aliases?” he said. “Of living them out every day?”

Anova looked hard at Juras. “You know it has to be this way.”

His eyes moved to hers again. “If we can’t be us around us, then when can we be?”

Her lips pushed together. There was much she wanted to say to that type of fanciful thinking.

Because it’s not safe.

Because we’ve learned the hard way before.

Because the constables will start to ask around for Anova and Juras.

But what came out of her mouth was none of that.

They know us.” Anova stopped in front of her closest friend—her only friend in this world—and blocked his path with her body. They stood at the crossing of Ridgewell and Mercer. Store buildings looked down on them, their broken windows like staring eyes. Empty—usually.

Her voice was faint as whispers but tight as the strings on a violin and sharp as a blade. “Our loaners. They know everything about us.”

Anova closed the distance between them as she continued speaking. “We can’t be ourselves as long as they’re after us.”

The people after them were worse than the constables. At least the constables had pledged to follow some form of justice—even if it was a justice that favored some over others.

No, their creditors would collect—one way or another. They would do so whether or not Juras and Anova had a successful month.

And their time to repay in full was almost up.

Juras’s eyes hardened, and they flew to the ground. “They don’t count.” The corner of his mouth twitched down. “Shouldn’t.”

But they had to count. They couldn’t trust other people or rely on them like they had before they’d started living like this. They didn’t have the luxury any longer.

She glared at Juras when he wasn’t looking at her. What had gotten into him?

It was then she remembered the barkeep.

It’s him, isn’t it? You want him over the life we have, she wondered.

But she didn’t say the words out loud in case they were true. She didn’t want to know if they were.

Juras had resumed walking towards their home without her, and his shadow crawled behind him on the stones despite their careful avoidance of light. Anova’s throat felt tight. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. They should have been celebrating the whole way home, drunk on success.

She was light on her feet despite the weight in her pockets. Oddly, the added heaviness of the coins and coat buoyed her.

They had done the impossible tonight, just as they had many times before. She hoped she didn’t get accustomed to the feeling.

They had coin—gold, glittering, heavy coin.

By now, they were within a few minutes of getting home. They were about to pass Irbess’s labyrinth of dockyards. She needed to act now if she wanted to avoid his sulking for the rest of the night.

“Oh, Delen,” she said, crooning like the enamored fiancé she’d pretended to be. It worked. At the tone of her voice, he looked behind him at her as she caught up.

Her eyebrow raised, and she smirked. “Don’t you want to know how good we got it tonight?”

In Anova’s palm was a coin fatter than all the others. Her thumb had rubbed into it so much that she was surprised her skin hadn’t turned gold.

It was a crown piece. And it was worth one thousand gold pieces.

Whatever look had been on Juras’s face in the shadows before slid from his features. He swallowed visibly. “You realize how much this is?”

Anova’s lips pulled into a smile. “Yes,” she breathed. She felt her smile turn devilish. There was nothing she liked better than lightening the pockets of predators, and this had been their best job yet. “We got our gold goose this time.”

Juras’s face was still tight. He hadn’t mirrored her smile. “Do you realize what we could do with this?”

Anova followed Juras’s gaze to the docks. Ships, undoubtedly full to the brim with crews and merchandise, floated nearby. This was Irbess’s only real excuse to remain under the control of humans. It was the shipping port between the rest of their kind and the fae of the forests.

If only the taxes on ship fares weren’t inflated enough so that only the wealthy could afford transport. Anova’s eyes watered thinking on it.

This had been their goal, once. Escape. Their loaners wouldn’t know where they’d gone before it was too late to track them across the sea.

Anova’s teeth grinded against each other.

If the fae king weren’t a greedy bastard, it might have happened.

As it was, they could have never hoped to secure enough money at once to fund their exodus. But the crown piece changed things.

It was half of what they needed. At least one of them would get out of this city.

Lightheadedness assaulted her. All they’d have to do was stash it away and pay their loaners a few more payments closer to what they regularly raked in from a job. There was no reason she needed to know about this.

And then, they’d be gone.

Anova didn’t understand at first what she was looking at. She should have seen stillness as she stared out at the placid sea, a low moon hanging in its reflection like a bloated fish come to the surface.

But there was movement on the docks between crates and barrels.

Anova grabbed Juras’s wrist and darted between shadows until she found a crate large enough to hide them behind. Juras knew better than to ask when she got like this. He was nearly as good as she was at sneaking. Almost.

Her muscles were taut, and her lips were thin as they pressed against each other. Anova didn’t speak, merely allowing her eyes to flick between what she’d seen and Juras’s face. He must have seen then.

These were no mere dock or ship hands.

Their velvet voices carried on the still night. They made no other sound, and she envied the silence and ease with which they moved.

Anova’s teeth bit into the edge of her tongue, and she tasted blood. She felt the familiar press of her knife’s handle against the inside of her hip where she kept it hidden. How easy it would be to slit their throats and spill the liquid across the docks. She could even kick their bodies off when she was done with them and let the sea have them.

All their robbery jobs together had served as her training for this. Her blood pumped ferociously through her veins. She could have a man on his back faster than he could try to touch her.

Though these were no mere men, she would do the same to them.

Twenty, thirty paces at most. One more crate for cover, but then, I can knock it over on the others while I start on the first ones.

She watched the moonlight graze their skin like they were made of it. The fae moved about the docks like they owned them. Through waves of hair the colors of burgundy, silver river water, and obsidian, their ears came to sharp points. Their unnatural beauty was obvious even at this distance.

Her knife’s cool handle was in her palm before she’d realized it.

Juras jerked her back to the shadows of the crate. “You aren’t doing this,” he hissed to her.

Anova yanked her arm out of his grip. Her eyes didn’t stray from the fae soldiers loading supplies from the docks to the ship. “I can. And I will.”

She would kill every last one of them for what they’d done to her. And she would laugh while she did it.

She hadn’t killed yet, but this night would see her first time.

“They weren’t the ones,” Juras whispered. “Quit this.”

“They could have been.” Her voice was hoarse with desire. “It doesn’t matter. It might as well have been all of them.”

His voice was too loud. They would hear them soon. “Anova, I’m not taking a boat out of here by myself.”

Anova’s legs had tensed to sprint the distance. Seconds passed, and slowly, she sank to the damp wood boards underneath. Her head pressed to her knees underneath her skirt.

She should’ve wanted to get out of Irbess more than she wanted to kill the devils on the other side of the crate.

But in that moment, more than she craved her freedom, she craved to make them her first kill.

Under the silver moon and dusky shadows, the orphan made a black-hearted promise in silence.

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