Smoke Gets in Your Eyes
The thing about a Lowside fire is that it smells different.
Different than any campfire you might have huddled around. Different than the occasional fires that sprang up in the more respectable parts of the capital. No, a fire in Lowside had a distinctive smell all its own.
People said it was because the buildings were older, but Alys knew better. She knew the strange undercurrent of nauseating sweetness that always carried on the wind came from the smell of burning flesh.
Because a Lowside fire always meant corpses.
She walked down the Street of Brewers, the familiar weight of Aunty on her back, the huge scythe swaying in time with her step. The smoke was thick in the air, that horrid sweetness cloying on her tongue. Her mood worsened with each ringing step of her bootheels on the cobblestones.
That bastard Keyburn.
She and Keyburn had been good for a lot of days and she enjoyed drinking at his place, the Olde Sportsman’s Hall, on the odd night, but he was drawing on a lot of credit rousting her like this. It seemed like he’d sent every urchin and beggar in Lowside looking for her.
That meant he was desperate. And she was in no mood for desperate.
Alys turned onto Little Blood. The street name seemed maddeningly appropriate as the dying flames of the burning building ahead stained the night sky a ruddy crimson. It was ugly and unpleasant. Alys couldn’t shake the feeling it was setting a deliberate tone for what was to come.
In the distance, she saw fire had spread between a number of cramped buildings. It was a lot of damage done fast. Cinderman’s fire crews must have been drunk tonight to let the blaze go like it had.
Keyburn was in front of a building. His arms were crossed over his chest, but as he saw Alys approach, they fell to his sides. The movement was slight and natural, but it immediately set her on edge. Key kept his hands free and his arms loose, like he was expecting trouble.
Or like he intended it.
Alys grimaced. Shit. She and Keyburn went back a ways. She was going to be pissed if he made her kill him tonight.
“Ta, Alys,” Keyburn said, raising his chin in greeting.
Alys ignored the pleasantry. “You been spreading my name from the Prionside Docks to the Night Circus, Key. You wanted me here, I’m here. Now, you want to tell me why?”
Alys had already noticed the two large bruisers by the entrance of the burned-out building. They made no attempt at subterfuge. In fact, they seemed to be doing their best to be noticeably menacing. It was kind of adorable, Alys thought.
Even as she dismissed their threatening posturing, her mind tried to piece together what the hell this was about. At first, she thought Keyburn might actually be stupid enough to make a play. It wasn’t like him, but everything had that sort of feel to it.
“Something here needs your attention, Alys,” Keyburn said, his voice tight.
Alys put her hands on her hips and leaned on her back leg. “Not interested,” she said. “My trade is information and secrets, Key. Fires are the Cinderman’s revenue stream. You’re better off waiting on one of his fire crews.”
“They’re already here,” he said before pointing toward the inside of the building.
“None of this looks like it’s worth any of my business. Still not interested, Key.”
“Trust me, Alys. You’re going to want to see this.”
Alys let out an exasperated sigh, but she followed him into the building.
Against the soot-stained brick wall, four bodies had been strung up by their hands, blood pooled beneath them on the wrecked floor. Someone had done them with a knife, that much was abundantly clear. Did them long and slow. With a skilled hand.
Keyburn spoke from beside her. “These men were one of the Cinderman’s fire crews.”
“So somebody didn’t want to pay up proper to put the fire out and left the Cinderman a little message.” Alys shrugged her shoulders. “Still not interested.”
There was a wracking cough behind Alys. Standing there was Magda, Keyburn’s bartender at the Sportsman’s. Her clothes were ragged and her face was stained black with soot. Her usual yellow curls were lank and filthy. She coughed again.
“Magda lived in the building over there,” Keyburn said. “When the fire sprung up, she scampered right and fast, but then she came across this little bit of theater here,” he whispered. “It’s alright, Magda. Tell her who did this. Tell her who you saw.”
One red eye stared out from the bristles of hair as Magda pointed at Alys.
“You did it. You did the cutting on all of them.” She gasped and wheezed, but managed to force the last words out before more coughing. “I saw it. It was you, Alys.”
Alys looked from Keyburn to Magda then back to Keyburn’s serious face. “Alright, Key. You got me,” she said. “Now, I’m interested.”