TWENTY-SEVEN YEARS AGO
My name is Maria Pittaluga, daughter of Natale Pittaluga and Lelia Idoni. Both of my parents died ten years back, when I was starting middle school. I hadn’t been too keen on the idea of school in the first place, and even less on a foster home, so I left. Through a series of hilarious misadventures which were not my fault, I ended up helping to build Domina City.
That was three years ago, and I hadn’t found reason to leave the island since. Victor—the cause of many of the aforementioned hilarious misadventure—and I had gotten a nice apartment in a skyscraper we had helped build, and things seemed to be going pretty well. Technically our terms had expired six months ago, but it was easier like this. We weren’t rich or anything, sure, but we were surviving, and the city was getting better by the day.
“I swear, the city is getting worse by the day,” Gloria Nervi muttered from her seat on the ground next to me.
I had met Gloria on my third day in the city, when one of the guards tried to get me to translate for her. It turned out she wasn’t speaking Italian because she couldn’t speak English, but just because she thought the guard was a dick and didn’t want to deal with him. She still hadn’t told me what her original crime was, but it couldn’t be too bad. None of the prisoners had sentences worse than ten years.
I patted the girl on the head affectionately. “C’mon Glory, it isn’t that bad. At least the guards aren’t screaming at us as much any more, right?”
“Yeah, because they’re dead or in hiding,” she snapped back with a scowl. “Christ, much as I hate those assholes, they’re all that’s keeping the city in one piece. You should be more worried.”
“Agh, you’re hopeless. It’s too nice a day to argue with you.”
I’d give her that, at least. It was September 8th, in the depths of a good autumn. The air was refreshingly cool, and filled with the smell of fall. Foot traffic was a little slow because it was a Sunday, which made our jobs that much easier.
“I guess you’re right,” I admitted, leaning back on my hands to look up in the sky.
The slender little girl just rolled her eyes and pulled some kind of sandwich out of her lunch pail.
I whistled. “That smells good. What kind of meat is it?”
She looked away, as though embarrassed. “It’s…dog. One of the feral ones attacked me, and I fought back.”
Seriously, this city was even turning her into a killer? “Silver moon and golden sun, Glory…”
She glared at me. “Oh, screw you. I did what I had to. At least I’m not eating goddamn people.” She shook her head and changed the subject. “And what is with that weird curse…thing? What does it mean?”
I shrugged. “It means that the moon is silver and the sun is gold. Does it have to have anything deeper than that?”
She shook her head again. “Freak.”
“Don’t be cruel, Nervi,” old miss Ljunborg admonished gently from behind us. I turned to see her leaning against the door of the apartment complex we were sitting in front of. “I think their little quirk makes them cute.”
“I didn’t know you lived here,” I greeted her happily. The old Swede had been sentenced over a few minor embezzlement charges, but everyone knew she had entire mountains of money her government hadn’t been able to find. In Domina, she helped train people to handle finance—people including me.
Of course, I had a tendency to fall asleep during her classes, but I still liked her as a person. It wasn’t her fault her teachings clashed so much with my skillset.
She smiled. “Just moved in a few days ago. Got transferred a little closer to the center of the city, so I realized I needed an apartment to match. What are you two doing?”
“Lunch right now,” Gloria said around a mouthful of sandwich. “Obviously. But we’re also helping to build that big storehouse over there.” She pointed at the skeleton of a building, rising on the other side of the intersection. “Mostly just organization and stuff while the boys move heavy things.”
“Just organization and stuff?” Ljunborg said with a laugh. “That’s management, dears. Most girls would kill for a job like that.”
I shrugged. “It’s small stuff. Directing traffic, double-checking to make sure we don’t have one team digging ditches and another filling holes, that kind of thing. No actual decisions.”
“Oh. Well, still. In my day, it was considered improper for women to be too close to physical labor. Count your blessings.”
Gloria snorted in derision. “They still won’t let me on guard duty.”
I rolled my eyes. “That’s what happens when you threaten to shoot them if you ever get your hands on a gun.”
“Hey, I was joking! Mostly.”
“Well, you’re the one always going on about tensions between the guards and the prisoners. You shouldn’t rile them up.”
“They started it.”
Ljunborg kicked Gloria playfully in the side with a smile. “Someone always starts it. Just don’t continue it.”
“Words to live by if I ever heard them,” an unfamiliar male voice called out.
I turned to see a tall, smiling Asian man a few feet away, his black hair tied up in a topknot. He wore a loose white t-shirt, jeans cut off to act as shorts, and steel-toed boots. His entire outfit was covered in dust and patches of grime, so he looked much the same as any other unskilled laborer running around the city.
Except for the long Japanese-style sword belted to his side.
“You have a sword!” I shrieked in delight, only refraining from bounding forward with an effort of will. “Where can I get a sword?”
Gloria looked at him with narrowed eyes. “It’s supposed to be impossible for prisoners to get weapons. Who’d you kill to get that?”
The man just smiled. “No one. I brought it myself. I’m not a prisoner.”
That made me do a double take. “Wait, you mean…you moved here? Voluntarily?”
He nodded. “With my wife and daughter.”
Ljunborg shook her head. “Why in God’s name would you do that?”
“I don’t know, there wasn’t any work on the mainland, and they had positions available for pretty much anything, so…”
“That seems pretty stupid,” Gloria muttered. She had never been one for subtlety. “Your life back in Japan couldn’t have been that bad.”
“America, actually. Second-generation immigrant.” The swordsman shrugged. “And I’ll admit it wasn’t so bad, not really. But I just…” He looked behind him, at the skeletons of the new skyscrapers, stretching into the blue summer sky. “It just felt like I was needed more here.”
“Oh! I understand that!” I cried. “The same thing happened with me and Victor!”
The man cocked his head to the side. “You’re here voluntarily too?”
I couldn’t help it; I giggled. He was adorable. “No, no. It’s just that we both got this strange urge to drive a truck around.” I shrugged. “And then it turned out that it was filled with a shipment to some store, so we got sentenced to five years in prison.”
Gloria rolled her eyes and sighed. “God, you’re a freak. I don’t think that is quite what the man meant.”
The Japanese man waved his hands. “N-no! That’s the same! Uh…” He winced. “…kinda, anyway.”
“Close enough,” I chirped. “Uh, you…” I frowned. “Hm. I don’t know your name.”
He relaxed. “You’re right. Sorry, I came up to you out of the blue, I should have at least introduced myself.” He held out his hand and smiled warmly. “I am Akio.”
I took his hand; he had a firm grip. “Maria. That’s Glory—”
“—and that’s Miss Ljunborg. Glory and I are just on lunch.”
“Oh, so you have jobs already? That’s perfect! Would you mind pointing me to your boss? If he’s hiring, I mean.”
Ljunborg looked at him sideways. “You don’t have a job? Jesus, how long have you been here, a week?”
Akio chuckled. “No, over two years. It’s just…” His good humor faded. “I was working as a dock guard up north. But a few days ago, it got burned down by one of the gangs. Christ, I don’t even know which one…”
Gloria leaned back and sighed. “God damn, I know what you mean. Seems like a new one pops up every week.”
Old miss Ljunborg looked past us. “Speak of the devil…”
“…and he shall appear,” the well-dressed white man walking up said with a grin. “Though I think you might be overstating my importance in the grand scheme of things just a bit.”
The Swedish woman sighed. “What do you want, Mr. Judd? It’s Sunday. Day for rest.”
The man spread his arms mockingly, which also served to help highlight the two suited goons flanking him. I could see bulges under their shirts that were probably handguns. “Now why do you insist on speaking to me like that, Miss Ljunborg? My boys and I are working hard, even today. Is it so much to ask you show some appreciation?”
She just scowled back. “Considering you’re the reason I left my old neighborhood, yes, it is too much. Did you assholes follow me?”
Judd covered his heart and faked staggering back. “You wound me, my dear. The boss simply decided it was a good time for the family to…” He grinned. “…expand.”
“I already gave Butler’s goons their ‘protection’ money,” the Swede spat. “I’ve nothing left.”
Artemis was running a protection racket now? Victor and I had met him and Isaac on the boat over. It really didn’t seem like something he would do…
What was I saying? A low-risk operation with a relatively high payout. That sounded exactly like Artemis.
Akio, I noted, was inching closer to Miss Ljunborg, hand on the hilt of his sword, ready to protect her if things got violent. I tugged at Gloria’s collar, pulling her out of the line of fire.
The gangster shook his head sadly. “That was a mistake, Priscilla. Necessarius is, as you noted, just a bunch of thugs. You should give your money to us. After all, you have this nice shiny new place…be a shame if something happened.”
“I already told you. I have nothing left to give. If I have to pay both of you, I don’t get to eat this month.”
“And if we let you slide on your payments, we’d have to let everyone slide. Where would we be then, huh?” Judd shook his head again. “We’re not running a charity here, you know.”
“Yes, I am well aware of that. But I still can’t—”
“Well, if you insist on being that way, my boys might feel the need to…provide an example of what could happen when you don’t pay.” The thugs started cracking their knuckled dangerously.
Akio drew his sword. Gloria glared at him and motioned for him to put it away, but it was too late. The thugs had their guns out before I could even blink.
Judd smiled broadly. “You might want to put that away, boy, before you hurt yourself.”
Silver moon and golden sun Ljunborg, why couldn’t you just pay the man? Victor and I could have always stolen back anything they took from you.
For the moment, we seemed to have a standoff. Akio still hadn’t sheathed his sword, and the goons were wary enough not to just start shooting. But that wouldn’t last long, and a swordsman wouldn’t be able to take out two armed thugs by himself.
“What is going on over here?” a voice called.
“Oh, come on,” Gloria hissed. “What now?”
Necessarius, that was what.
A single pale young man, unarmed and with the Necessarian black and red band on his arm, strode up without fear. He was a stark contrast to Judd; where the first man was dressed in a fine suit, Artemis’ man just had on jeans and a white t-shirt. “Is there a problem?”
Judd narrowed his eyes, dropping his friendly mask. “Nothing that concerns the ‘sarians. Run back to your crippled master, little dog.”
The newcomer ignored the jibe. “Funny, because it looks like you’re harassing…” He checked a small notepad. “…Priscilla Ljunborg. Our records show that she is all paid up on her protection money.”
Mr. Judd didn’t seem impressed. “So?”
The Necessarian smiled. “So that means she’s under the protection of Necessarius, Gabriel. I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”
No one spoke for a minute.
The silence stretched on for what seemed like forever.
Then Ljunborg broke it. “Huh?”
The new man’s brow crinkled into a frown. “You are Priscilla Ljundborg, are you not? From Sweden, imprisoned for embezzlement? You gave a thousand dollars last month to our collector.” He checked his pad again. “Physical description matches, as does the address and everything else. Have we made a mistake?”
The old Swede was almost at a loss for words, but that still put her ahead of the rest of us. “Uh, no, that’s right, but…”
Judd stomped forward and shoved the young man in the shoulder. “This is our territory now, kid. You should be paying us.”
The ‘sarian raised an eyebrow. “So I assume you will continue to accost Miss Ljundborg?”
“I’ll accost whoever I damn well please!”
Artemis’ man sighed. “I had hoped it wouldn’t come to this, but our protocols are quite clear on the proper response in this situation.”
Gabriel Judd’s head exploded, and the thunderclap of a gunshot echoed around the street.
I screeched and jumped back, but Gloria and Priscilla held their ground, only wincing a little as they were splattered with blood and gore. The few bystanders screamed and ran in every direction, but mostly away from us.
The thugs were far better trained than I was, and whipped out their guns without a moment’s hesitation.
Another head exploded. The thug on the left collapsed to the street, next to the similarly headless corpse of his boss, while the last mook looked on in horror. It took him a minute to realize that he wasn’t dead.
“I-I’m…” he stuttered. “I-I’m…”
“A messenger,” the Necessarian explained patiently. He still didn’t have any weapons drawn, and I finally realized that he must have snipers posted somewhere or other. Artemis did like to be prepared. “Go back to your boss. Remind him who is in charge over here.”
The thug took a step back, tripping over the corpses of his friends and falling to his butt. He whimpered and scrambled to his feet, running as fast as his legs would carry him. He even dropped his gun in his mad flight.
“Well,” our rescuer said quietly, mostly to himself. “I’d say that went surprisingly well.” He turned to us and smiled. “How are you all doing?”
I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t tear my eyes off the corpses, lying like discarded dolls not five feet away. They had been people, not five minutes ago…
“We’re fine,” Miss Ljunborg said with only the slightest quaver in her voice. “And how about yourself, Mister…?”
“Sinclair,” the ‘sarian replied with a smile, holding out his hand to shake. “Sergeant Irvin Sinclair, at your service.”
I ran off to the street and puked in a gutter.
I heard Akio talking behind me. “Is she going to be okay?”
“Oh, yeah,” Gloria replied. “Maria just isn’t used to death. She’s here because she did something stupid, not something violent.”
The ‘sarian made a clicking sound of disapproval. “Be that as it may, at the rate she’s emptying her stomach, I doubt she’ll be able to stand for long. Billy!”
As I heaved up the last of my lunch—dammit, that was a good lunch—I felt a hand on my shoulder. “Are you going to be okay?”
I looked up to see a kind-eyed boy about my age smiling at me. He had the Necessarius red and black band on his arm, but he didn’t seem to have any weapons.
“Y-yeah,” I managed weakly. “I just need a minute…”
“Go home,” Gloria insisted. “You know you’ll be useless the rest of the day. I’ll tell the foreman.”
I nodded and struggled to my feet, the new ‘sarian—Billy, I assumed—helping me stumble along.
“Necessarius, right?” I heard Akio say as we shuddered past. “I’ve heard of you, and I think I’d like to hear more. Anyone I can talk to?”
“There’s my captain, back closer to base. You know, we own a few apartment buildings nearby, and new recruits get free lodging as part of the contract, if you and your sword are interested.”
“My sword. It’s called Karasu.”
“You named your sword Crow?”
“Actually, I prefer to translate it as ‘Raven,’ but I suppose ‘Crow’ is more accurate.”
Once we were out of hearing range and I felt some strength returning to my legs, I turned my attention back to Billy. “Don’t you have anything better to do?” I asked, only realizing belatedly that I sounded snarky and insulting.
But he understood, and just smiled. “No, I’m just a messenger. Thankfully, I’m not on cleanup duty for this kind of thing. My stomach is about as strong as yours.”
I coughed. “Yeah, I understand…and my place isn’t too far, anyway, so I guess I’m not taking you too far out of your way…”
“It’s fine, either way. No trouble.”
It only took ten minutes or so to reach my apartment. Victor and I had gotten lucky, getting a place so close to our jobs. As I unlocked the door, I blinked, realizing what was bothering me.
“Oh! I still haven’t introduced myself!” I held out my hand to shake. “I’m Maria Pittaluga. Nice to meet you.”
He grinned, and grasped my hand firmly. “William Huntsman. The pleasure is all mine.”
Behind the Scenes (scene 53)
Our first flashback chapter! I’m still not quite sure this is the right place for this, but I think it works. More will come later, including a scene showing exactly why many people don’t quite trust Necessarius.