Home > Ink and Bone

Ink and Bone
Author: Rachel Caine

PROLOGUE


Six years ago

 

‘Hold still and stop fighting me,’ his father said, and slapped him hard enough to leave a mark. Jess went quiet. He hadn’t meant to fidget, but the pouch strapped to his bare chest felt hot and dangerous, like some animal that might turn on him and bite.

He looked up at his father as the man snugged the harness bindings closer. When it was suffocatingly tight, he tossed Jess a filthy old shirt.

He’d done this often enough that while it was still frightening, it was no longer strange … but there was a sense that this time the run was different. Why, Jess didn’t know, except that his father seemed more tense than usual.

So he asked, hesitantly, ‘Da … anything I should know?’

‘Doesn’t matter a damn what you know. Lose that book to the Garda and you’ll hang, if you’re lucky. If I don’t get you first. You know the route. Run it flat and fair, and you’d best damn well die before you give it to any but the one that’s paid for it.’

Callum Brightwell cast a critical eye over his son’s thin form, then yanked a vest from a chest and shoved it over Jess’s shirt. There was only one button on it. Jess fastened it. It hung two sizes loose, which was the point: better concealment for the harness.

Brightwell nodded and stepped back. He was a smallish man, runted by poor nutrition in his youth, but now he was dressed well in a bright yellow silk waistcoat and trousers of fine cotton. ‘You look the part,’ he told Jess. ‘Remember to stay with the cutters. Don’t split off on your own unless the Garda spring a trap. Even then, keep to the route.’

Jess ducked his head in acknowledgement. He knew the route. He knew all the routes, all the runs that his family held against competitors throughout the vast city of London. He’d trained since he was old enough to walk, clasping the hand of his father, and then later toddling behind his older brother Liam.

Liam was dead now. He’d been seventeen when he’d been taken in by the London Garda for running books. His family hadn’t stepped up to identify him. He’d kept the family’s code. He’d kept his silence to the end.

And as a reward for that loyalty, the City of London had tossed him in an unmarked pit, along with other unclaimed criminals. Liam had been seventeen, and Jess was now ten, and he had no idea how he was supposed to live up to that legend.

‘Da—’ He was risking another slap, or worse, but he took a deep breath and said, ‘Today’s a bad day to be running, you said that yourself. The Garda are out in force. Why can’t this wait?’

Callum Brightwell looked above his son’s head, at the sturdy wall of the warehouse. This was one of many bolt-holes he kept for rarities, and of course, the rarest treasures of all, books. Real, original books, shelves and crates full. He was a wealthy, clever man, but in that moment, with the light coming harsh on him through a high, mullioned window, he looked twice his age.

‘Just get on with it. I’ll expect you back in two hours. Don’t be late or I’ll get the cane.’ His father suddenly scowled. ‘If you see your feckless brother, tell him I’m waiting, and there’ll be hell to pay. He’s on the cutters today.’

Even though Jess and Brendan had been born as identical twins, they couldn’t have been more different inside. Jess was bold; Brendan tended to be shy. Jess was self-contained; Brendan was prone to explosions of violence.

Jess was a runner. Brendan … was a schemer.

Jess knew exactly where Brendan was; he could see him, hiding up on the thin second floor catwalk, clinging to an old ladder that ran towards the roof. Brendan had been watching, as was his habit. He liked to be up high, away from where Da could lay hands on him, and he liked to avoid risking his hide as a runner when he could.

‘If I see him, I’ll tell him,’ he said, and stared hard right at his brother. Get down here, you little shite. Brendan responded by silently swarming up the ladder into the darkness. He’d already worked out that Jess was the one running the prize today. Knowing Brendan, he’d decided that his skin was worth more than just acting as his brother’s decoy.

‘Well?’ his father said sharply. ‘What are you waiting for, a kiss from your mam? Get on with you!’

He pushed Jess towards the massive, reinforced door of the warehouse, which was opened by three silent men; Jess didn’t know them, tried not to learn their names because they died quick in that line of work. He paused and took deep, quick breaths. Getting ready. He spotted the mob of cutters ranged about in the alley and on the street beyond; kids, his age or younger, all ready to run their routes.

They were waiting only for him.

He let out a wild war cry and set off at a sprint. The other cutters took it up as a cheer, thin arms and legs pumping, darting between the startled pedestrians in their workaday clothes. Several lunged out into the street, which was a hazardous adventure; they darted between steam carriages and ignored the angry shouts of the drivers. The cutters re-formed into a mob of twelve or so kids at the next corner, and Jess stuck with them for the first part of the route. It was safer in numbers, as the streets got cleaner and the passers-by better dressed. Four long blocks of homes and businesses, then a right turn at a tavern already doing good business even so early in the morning; smooth running, until a hard-looking man darted out from a greengrocer and yanked a girl out of his crew by her long hair. She’d made herself too easy to grab; most of the girls knotted up their hair on top of their heads, or shaved it short.

Jess had to fight his urge to slow down and help her.

The girl screamed and fought, but the big man wrestled her to the kerb and backhanded her into a heap. ‘Damn cutters!’ he yelled. ‘Garda! Garda! Runners on the loose!’

That tore it. Always some busybody do-gooder trying to save the day, was what Jess’s father always said; that’s why he sent the cutters in packs, most with worthless decoy rubbish in their harnesses. The Garda rarely scored, but when they did, they paid any informants off richly who put them on the trail of the smugglers.

Citizens turned, eyes avid with the idea of free cash, and Jess tucked his chin down and ran.

The cutters wheeled and broke up and re-formed like a flock of birds. Some carried knives, and used them when grabbed; it was chancy to do that, very chancy, because if a kid was caught with a bloody knife it’d be the rope for sure, whether it was a flesh wound on the man he’d cut, or a mortal blow. The boy to Jess’s left – too big to be running, though he was probably younger than Jess’s age – veered straight into a wall of oncoming drunks. He had a knife, and slashed with it; Jess saw a bright ribbon of blood arcing in the air, and then didn’t look back.

He couldn’t. He had to concentrate on escape.

His route split at the next corner; they’d all break up now, running separately to draw the Garda’s numbers thin … or at least, that was the plan.

What happened was that when Jess reached the corner, there were Garda bunched up on his route. They spotted him and let out a fierce, angry yell.

He made an instant decision he knew his da would beat him black for making: he left the route.

He almost banged into two other cutters as he veered right; they gave him identically startled looks, and one yelled at him to get off their patch. He ignored her, and despite the ache growing in his chest, the smothering drag of the book, he put on a new burst of speed and outpaced them both.

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