Editors Corner: Last of a Caste
Lord Clopol and his wife trotted out their child as Lucia and Chase supped with them. Lucia was surprised to see him, with the rumors of the wife's infidelities. Perhaps they were just that, rumors.
He fit in well enough in the pillared room, with its slaves and tinkling fountains. The last daylight set his skin and soft, brown curls aglow. His silken clothes matched the generous blue swags framing the expensive view over Aventine. But Lucia looked away and reached for her wine. Why spend time thinking on that which she could not have?
Chase glanced at Lucia. "Do you not like children, darling?"
"I know little of them, though this one is lovely to see," she said, forcing a smile for the mother.
"I assume you rather wouldn't," the mother said, "since you are censored. I heard all nurturing instinct is taken by the procedure." A shudder. "Rather violent, really."
Nasty bitch. Everyone knew nurture resided in the hearts of women. Lucia took a drink to buy time to think how to respond.
Chase said. "No, it's remarkable, really, what the surgeons can do. You can barely see anything's been done. Show her, Lucia."
She stilled. Blinked at him. "I-"
"Lucia." The word felt like a caress with the flat of a sharp blade.
There was no way to show it without baring most of herself. She rose off her lounge and unlaced her bodice, pulling it aside to bare one breast and the scar on her abdomen. It puckered slightly across her pale belly. Chase's hand at her back urged her forward a step. She averted her gaze from their hosts leaning in to study it. The child stared up at her, along with all the slaves. Her jaw tightened. Her fingers ached for a blade.
"Fascinating! May I?" The husband looked at Chase, who nodded, and he ran a finger down the numb censor scar. "It seems a horrible risk."
Chase relaxed back onto the cushioned bench. "A risk we must take. We can't have Lastcaste breeding more cutters, can we? They'd soon overrun us. Killing creates a voracious appetite for pleasures of the flesh."
Lucia realized the husband was asking her. "Yes, my lord." Among other things.
To her relief, the mother excused herself to take the child to bed. The baby smiled at Lucia over its mother's shoulder, in the manner of a cat who twines around the legs of someone who hasn't had meat in a long, long while. As the men proceeded to ignore her, she laced herself back up, unhurried, and sat. Her goblet was empty. She nodded to a slave, who rushed to fill it, his eyes locked on her cleavage.
"Peter did very well. He killed the leader of the insurgency," Clopol said, continuing the conversation interrupted by the arrival of the child. "He resisted taking the Lastcaste at first, but he'll make a fine cutter."
Chase stared down the hall after the mother and child and frowned. He did not answer.
Chase's kisses promised a luxurious night, but as soon as he finished, he rose from their bed and walked toward the shuttered windows. All was dark, but rumor said the Pillar of Aventine could sense mischief on his hill even through the stone walls of his villa. Lucia didn't doubt it. Everything she had learned about touching the future and obliterating the past she had learned from Chase.
"I want you to do that new cutter, Peter," he said.
Lucia pushed herself up on the bed. She'd never killed a Lastcaste. They were the Wall of Aventine, highly respected. "Has he displeased you, my lord?"
Chase turned on her. "You've never questioned my orders before."
She knew better. "I wasn't aware I did."
"It's your tone." His shrug belied his obvious annoyance. "I want his body by morning."
What had Peter done? He was the first-born of a Purecaste family, gifted to the Pillar as a living tax to protect Aventine. He was Lastcaste now, chosen for a life of killing, and superb at it, all told. So why take a promising cutter's head?
Chase obviously wouldn't explain further, if his stiff back was any indication. Lucia sighed and rose. As she laced her leathers tight to her ribs, she felt Chase draw near.
"What's wrong?" he whispered against the back of her neck. The heat from his breath crept over her skin.
"Whatever he's done...Peter is very young, you know," she said, fixing her gaze on a valuable crimson vase.
"Peter is very beautiful," Chase said. "I know you have noticed him."
Who hadn't? Peter's indulgent curls and rosy lips left him no shortage of lovers, but she was not one of them. She knew the perils of impropriety.
"The caste elder will not like it." The Lastcaste had power, even without children to inherit their positions and wealth. Spilling blood bought a great deal of clout.
"Ah, yes, you all hate losing your new toys. Bring me the body. Grieving over him will mollify your elder." Chase's words didn't carry a trace of arrogance. He could afford to be generous in many things.
The city was hot, white walls and pale stone streets radiating the heat of the previous day. Sweat slicked her skin under her leathers.
"Do you know who I am?" she asked when Peter opened the door at her knock.
"I do." Peter's robe looked hurriedly belted, one loop hanging crooked. Lucia wondered if he was alone, but he leaned an arm against the deep, arched doorway as if he had all night. Perhaps he thought he was being called in to help on a cut.
Never apologize. Never explain. "I came for you."
Cool air billowed out, escaping its prison of thick silent walls. He gazed at her for a few breaths. His bare chest rose and fell. Rose and fell. Never fight a cutter. Her fingers tightened on the fighting blade strapped to her thigh.
His full lips parted. Girlish lips, damp. "Will you come in?"
Not in the habit of killing on doorsteps, Lucia assented by ducking beneath his arm. His chambers were beautifully spare, all clean, curving lines to match its occupant.
"I would offer you sup and a drink." He shut the door. It rode soundless on its hinges but the latch click echoed against them. "But I suppose you've little time for pleasantries."
"I won't hurt you," she said. Limiting pain was her only means to refute the Purecaste's indifference to life, and to pretend her own indifference to death.
"So I've heard," he said. "But I'm not your first victim tonight, am I? I smell sex on you."
Sweat seeping from beneath her leathers. She tipped her head.
"Care to go again?" Peter unbelted his robe, reaching out with his smile.
Brazen to cheat death with sex. He didn't take her seriously. Still, those lips! She imagined them slack on his dead, pale face, all the light gone out of him. The thought suppressed her quiver of anticipation.
"It will not change anything," she said. "The Pillar wants your head."
"He is the Pillar. He surely shall have it."
He opened his arms and she found herself there, kissing the hollow of his throat, running her fingertips over his brow and across his eyelashes. Her leathers and weapons fell away with his robe and he sank into her like a priest into prayer.
Afterward, they lay together, Lucia curled against his smooth back. She couldn't find every point of his spine like she could on Chase, but she knew well enough where to insert her dagger. For the moment, though, she held. Perhaps Peter wanted her again, as she did him. She had until sunrise to bring Chase his body.
"Don't you want to know what I've done to require your services?" he asked.
It was forbidden. "Yes."
"I impregnated two women."
"Lord Clopol's wife."
"You've seen it, have you?" But he didn't ask after it.
"And your other?"
"A Lastcaste skinner from the slaughter docks."
Two killers making a child. He had everything: skills, lovers, admiration. . . "Why would you refute Caste Law?"
"I was Purecaste, once," Peter said. "I thought I would have a wife. A family. I accept my position to a point, but the Lastcaste do not choose the restrictions under which we serve."
"Death must never mix with new life," she said, bewildered. It made sense. It had always made sense.
"Impossible to keep the two separate when they occur in the same body. Even the Pillar is born and will die."
He was right, of course, and whether he intended it as a reminder of her duty, she never knew. She thrust her thin dagger into the back of his neck, just deep enough to penetrate the spine. His only reaction was to arch his back. He froze in the position. Her favorite poison coated the blade. It killed first by paralysis.
"I'm sorry," she whispered, stroking his lips lightly as she waited one hundred heart beats.
He didn't have time to get angry. He just gazed at her until his eyes slid away into death.
After his chest fell and did not rise again, she rose to look at him. She'd been wrong. Lacking life, his face had lost all its charm. It was even worse when she cut it off.
After he resolved the funeral riot that erupted when the Lastcaste were refused even a glance of their latest dead darling, Chase punished her with blood, this time her own.
"Do you know who I am?" she asked the bloodlet.
She didn't struggle against her bindings and only stared at him.
"The Pillar will stem the flow. Later." The bloodlet's leer revealed wine-stained gums. His fingers found their way over her breasts, between her legs, before he pierced her with several thick needles designed to let blood flow at a certain rate.
She looked away in disgust. He wasn't even Aventinian; he was a foreign Bodycaste, below even Lastcaste. She was properly mortified, but Chase would come before the bloodlet drained her entirely. The Pillar knew his business well, and Lucia was good for business.
Chase sewed her wounds, carried her to his own bed, and replenished her weakened body with fine wine and spring water and semen. As usual, all was forgiven once Chase had settled the score. He kept her indoors for some weeks. A lack of killing made her grow languid. She lounged the days away, sleeping, mostly, but startling awake often.
Even awake, Lucia felt Peter's ghost fluttering his fingers lightly along her stomach, as if his child quickened in her barren cavity. He made love to her in her dreams, but she always woke with Chase by her side, and the quickening always turned to ordinary anxiety or hunger.
Peter was well and truly gone, even his name caste from memory by decree of the Pillar. He would never live on through her, and it was best that way. If she told it to herself enough times, she would believe it. She passed her life believing countless other lies. It kept her alive to kill again. But she couldn't escape the thought of life and death residing in the same body.
Chase knew something was amiss because he often watched her and distracted her with games and sex, but he did not question her. Instead, when she was sound, he gave new orders. His forgiveness was not quite complete, it seemed.
"Do Peter's skinner." His grey eyes met hers steadily. Him or me. Life or death. Her jaw clenched. No apologies. No explanations.
"Today," he added, "after you cut his babe from her womb. I want it. Alive."
She looked at the hard, smooth floor, swallowing down bile. That would mean blood, a great deal of it. Lucia had rarely killed with much blood. She had gotten away from the messy end of the business as quickly as possible, hiring to more staid upper castes, where killing was more a means to manipulation, and life meant little in the face of politics. Chase liked his deaths clean and simple, and clean death was what she delivered best.
"Alive," she whispered, as if confirming the orders.
It didn't fool Chase. "Peter's child will make a pretty house slave for his family."
"They will torture it, and hate it. And hate you for it."
He slapped her, making her stumble back. She tripped over a table, upended it. A vase crashed to the floor and her after it. Shards dug into her fingers and palms.
Chase came forward with a low cry and pulled her to her feet. Looked at her hands and pulled her to a bowl to clean them. One shard dug in deeper as he scrubbed her palm. She winced and dared pull away.
He raised his again and she flinched. "It's my killing hand!"
His hand wavered in the air before her face, then fell to his side. She couldn't seem to get enough air but she tried to breathe deep, soft, not pant like an animal.
"No," Chase said. "They will fear me."
He waited. When she didn't respond he lifted her chin with his fingertips. The soft, gentle promise of violence.
She blinked rapidly. "As you say, my lord."
She slipped on her leathers, found her kit, and escaped to the river docks. She hadn't asked for a description, but a pregnant skinner would be easy to find. On the way she caught sight of someone cutting through the crowd on the same path as her. His new leathers gleamed in the sunlight and people gave him wide berth. Lastcaste. She stopped in the middle of the street and looked at the young man.
He blinked back at her, not bothering to duck away, and drew a knife. The steel mirrored the sunlight. Not a scratch marred the surface. She'd wager a year's supply of wine it had never sliced flesh.
She walked closer to him.
"Do you know who I am?" he asked. The blade trembled in his hand. Slight, but she knew what to look for.
Lucia's tongue tasted papery and dry. "Put it away. I'm not going to harm you."
He obeyed. "Nor I, you. You're legendary."
"Why do you follow me?"
"I'm not following you. I'm on a job for the Pillar." His back straightened. "My first."
"Who?" she asked.
He raised his eyebrows in surprise. Cutters learned to avoid asking questions early, or they did not stay cutters for long. But he granted her a nod of respect. "A skinner who broke caste."
Her breath froze in her throat. If Chase had sent another cutter to do the skinner, he just as likely had sent someone to take care of Lucia, as well. She had been replaced. Chase did not mean for her to return this day, she was sure of it.
His knife was untarnished; his expression unblemished by death. She gambled on that youth and inexperience. "The skinners start late. You won't find them there until the sun tops the temple spire." She dropped her gaze to his hand, still fisted tightly at his side, and gave him a slight smile. "And I've always found a bit of wine steadies my hand."
He twitched a nod at her. "Thank you."
"Lastcaste must bind together, for who else do we have?" she said, forcing her smile wider. "Go on, then."
She watched him calmly until he disappeared around the corner into the throngs of early morning marketers. Then she turned and broke into a run. The stink of the harbor assaulted her: rotting fish, stale water, boaters and skinners with dead eyes. Late morning crowds parted before her, heels to the edges of docks to avoid touching her. A quick question steered her to the right hut, slabs of brackish wood more leaning together than nailed.
Peter had been about his business quickly after joining the caste. The skinner's hips spread attractively from the weight of the baby under her dirty shift. Heavy breasts rested on the mound of her belly. She bent over a crate of dead sharks, pulling their teeth with blood-stained hands and a dull blade. The sagging straw roof cut the light in the hut to varying shades of grey, but for the crimson splatters of shark blood.
"Do you know who I am?" Lucia asked.
She turned and studied Lucia. Her black Aventinian hair hung in soiled ropes. Her hands went around her belly. "You are Lucia, cutter for the Pillar."
"The Pillar sent me," Lucia said softly inside the vague privacy of another shed. Light flashed through the cracks of the weather-beaten boards as sailors walked by.
Again the protective belly-rub. "No."
"You broke caste. I cannot save you," Lucia said.
The woman began to cry. "You do not know the quickening or you could not do this."
"I do know it," Lucia said, thinking of Peter's spectral fingers.
The woman tried again. "I have days, not weeks, before my baby comes. I pray you let me live."
"If I do not kill you," Lucia said, "someone else will. I met another cutter coming for you this day. He is inexperienced and kills with a broad knife. You do not want to know such a death."
The skinner shook her head, wordless, and Lucia rushed on.
"He will kill you if I do not. But I can do one thing for you," she said. "Chase wants your baby as a slave, but I can tell him the poison acted too quickly to save it."
The skinner's eyes widened. "No. Save my baby."
Lucia shook her head, bewildered. "You would have your child a slave?"
"I would have my child live!"
There was no time to think. The other cutter could arrive and realize Lucia's ruse. "I will do my best."
The woman shuddered and sank to the floor. "Can I see its face?"
"Of course," Lucia promised, kneeling next to her. "Forgive me if I do not speak. I've little time once the poison acts."
She grasped the woman's soft shoulder, rolled her over, and slipped her poisoned dagger between the vertebrae. Counting under her breath to give the poison time to numb and still her body, Lucia lay her flat and cut away the woman's shift. Her belly rose from her hips like New Aventine from the sea, white and pure, tarnished only by caste laws that decried the mixing of life and death.
Blood gushed, but the first cut was not deep enough. The blade found only the mother's flesh. Lucia took a breath and glanced at the woman. Her gaze was unsteady and weak through her tears. Her hand had fallen open, palm up.
"Take it," the woman gasped. "Take my child...from here. I beg you."
Lucia cut deeper and reached inside. Hot and smooth and wet. The tang of blood filled Lucia's lungs. She breathed deep. A small foot wriggled against her fingers and the blood scent whooshed out. There was no time. One squirm did not make a life. Lucia opened the woman to her sternum and searched out the creature curled inside its wet cave, taking care not to let it slip from her slick fingers. She cut one of her leather laces to tie off the cloudy rope that bound him to his dying mother and freed him with her knife. The baby moved but its chest did not rise and fall.
She laid him on the floor and rubbed his skin, sharp twitches of her fingers. He opened his mouth. Dragged in a breath. Spit out a squall. Just the one but he breathed.
Lucia turned him this way and that, examining his buttocks and toes, the bend of his back. With a bloody finger, she rubbed at the blackened curls plastered to his tiny head. He mewed against her palm and his fingers clutched hers. His little fleshy, full lips worked. Hungry.
She drew a shuddering breath. The child deserved his mother. He certainly did not deserve to remain a slave for what would surely be a short, miserable life.
And Chase's new cutter was coming.
"He's a boy," Lucia said, looking at the mother.
The skinner did not answer. She was dead.
She wrapped the baby in rags stained black from his mother's fishblades. It was the best she could find. He was quiet, subdued. He nuzzled at her as she cradled him, but there was nothing, of course. Her breasts were as barren as her belly.
But even censored, she now had this child. She had birthed it from death.
She put the baby away in another shed. The frightened skinners didn't dare look at her or him. Let them talk. Lucia no longer cared. Everything had changed because she had changed it. Life and death had joined in this child.
She waited for the cutter in the skinner's hunt. The body splayed across the floor, untidy compared to the neat stacks of sharks, the blade at a clean angle on the bench where the skinner had laid it.
Lucia looked for more rags, found a small one to cover the skinner's face. There was nothing to cover the ugly destruction of her body. Had Lucia more time, she could have done a neater job of it. Less blood. Straight cuts. The sprawling mess made her anxious. It wasn't her best work, this final kill. Worse, the poison soured the pure scent of fresh-spilled blood. She hadn't known it did that.
The new cutter came, slipping into the hut like a shadow, then stopping like a stone. No breath, then a low curse. She rose from a squat in the darkest corner, caught him from behind, and held her blade to his throat.
His breath whined in his throat. "It was my kill. Why did you do it?"
Her blade sliced his skin. He jerked away from the shock of pain but it wasn't deep. She needed him alive.
"Are you killing me?" His words ran together in a panic.
No explanations. No apologies. "Tell Chase the baby lives and the Lastcaste has died. Tell him I killed it."
She slammed the heel of her free palm against his temple twice, three times. He fell limp, forward. She struggled a few steps, dragging him. He crumpled with a wet sound onto her kill. He covered the mess she'd made.
Lucia had come to the docks for a killing and all knew she might take an observer just as easily. No one openly watched her as she carried her mewling bundle, searching for a boat until she found one moving a small herd of baby goats.
"To the islands," she said.
The captain averted her eyes and nodded, not daring to disagree.
Lucia spoke to the child, smiled at him. He cooed back when his belly was full. He was soft and warm and his eyes were bright, if unfocused. He slept against her shoulder, not knowing or caring if blood stained her. No blood would stain him, she thought, nor hatred or abuse or slavery. He would be safe.
Drawn by her ease with the child, a sailor got friendly on the voyage.
She asked softly, "Do you know who I am?"
After that, they hardly looked at her when she milked the goats for Peter's baby, and none spoke to her at all. They all turned their backs as she disembarked at the furthest island port, refusing to watch which way she walked. She didn't know if it would save their lives or spare them. She only cared about the one life now.
The Aventinian army combed the islands for their missing cutter, but they could not find her. Apparently, joy made a suitable disguise. Chase's soldiers walked right by the curly-haired baby and his smiling mother without a glance their way.