Dancing with Shadows — Chapter 1



First chapter of Dancing with Shadows (Skyler Chronicles #1)

            Chin jutted out defiantly, Skyler stood with her grubby hands fisted at her sides, as if she wasn't a skinny eleven year old kid with bare feet and tattered clothes. There was still blood crusted beneath her fingernails, and her left eye was blackened, but she refused to be afraid. She'd done what she had to, and come whatever she wouldn't have gone back and changed it. The man had been hurting Rosie and Skyler couldn't let him do that. Rosie took care of Skyler even when she got in trouble for it, making sure that she always had at least something to eat. Whoever Skyler's mother might be, she wished it was Rosie – it obviously couldn't be her though, because Rosie was only nineteen. She was more like a big sister than anything else. Right now though, there was nothing Rosie could do to help. Madame Josephine had forbidden her to even come downstairs to watch as everything in Skyler's world was dashed apart. She hoped it would be for the better.

            The man who stood over Skyler had close-cropped dark hair, with even darker eyes set into a narrow face. She had seen him before, many times. He frequented the brothel, although he was more frequently there for the monthly payment he exacted from Madame Josephine in exchange for keeping other brothels from operating in this part of Strand. Right now he was circling Skyler as if she was livestock instead of a human being. Even the whores weren't looked at like she was being examined at the moment. She glared at him with angry gray eyes, hard as steel, and he raised an eyebrow at the audacity she had to look him in the eye.

            “I see what you mean about brazen,” the man laughed harshly, turning to Madame Josephine with an amused grin. “Little brat's not afraid of anything is she?”

            “No,” Skyler muttered, “I'm not.”

            “Good,” he replied, turning back to look at her. “I'm sure that will come in handy. I'll give you a week without paying any fees. Fair?”

            “As if you'd let me argue the price?” Madame snorted. “That's fine, Deacon, just get the ungrateful little wretch off my hands and out of my hair. She's more trouble than she's worth. Killing a client like that, well I should have just slit her throat like she did his.”

            “I'm glad you reconsidered, Jo,” he smiled, running a hand over Skyler's tangled hair. “I wonder what's hiding under all that dirt. Youngest murderer I might have ever met.”

            “He had it coming,” she shrugged.

            “I'm sure he did,” Deacon agreed. “Come on then, little mouse, let's get home.”

            He shoved Skyler in front of him, propelling her out the door into the snow, ignoring her bare feet as they walked through the slushy runoff in the street. She clenched her teeth together to keep them from chattering and swore to herself, as she had many times before, that she absolutely would not cry, no matter what.

            “Where's home?” she finally asked, hoping that talking would keep her mind off of how cold she was. Her feet had stopped hurting from the cold at least a block ago, now numb and heavy instead. Deacon's grip on her shoulder grew painfully tight for a moment before relaxing and turning her to face him. She looked up at him, wishing she could cut his throat too and run for it. But the Madame had taken her knife and locked her in a closet until Deacon had shown up and Skyler didn't have a single possession outside of the clothes she wore. She'd have to do her best to act like she didn't hate him. As yet she didn't have any reason to, outside of him buying her like she was a sheep.

            “I suppose I could say you'll see when you get there, but there's no particular reason to be clandestine about it,” he answered after a bit, kneeling down in the street before her. A man driving a wagon full of kegs of ale shouted at them to move, but Deacon shot a warning glare up at him and the man quickly shut up and maneuvered his wagon around them without another word. Deacon must be pretty powerful, Skyler thought, if people changed their minds just because he looked at them like that. He didn't seem very scary to her. But then, she hadn't been scared in a long time. “The catacombs. Beneath the city.”

            “Sounds disgusting,” Skyler frowned, looking down at her feet as if she could see through the street and into the caverns beneath them. “And dark.”

            “Are you afraid of the dark, little mouse?”

            “I ain't afraid of anything,” she declared. “Least of all the dark. Ain't nothing in the dark ain't there in the light. And at least in the dark nobody can see you.”

            “Right you are,” Deacon smiled and stood up. “Right you are. Come along now. We're nearly there.”

            Skyler eyed him with suspicion for a few moments, and then curled her nose when he reached his hand out to take hers. Instead, she rolled her eyes and put her hands behind her back until he started walking. She had to take three steps to every one he took, but she kept up without complaint.

            In her eleven years, the girl had only left the brothel a handful of times, and never for long. Strand was a large city, although not nearly as bustling and well-to-do as the capitol. Still, it sprawled out along the coast, hugging the rocky shore of Stormdowne Bay, supporting fishermen and merchant alike. Skyler hadn't been far from the whorehouse, but far enough to see the myriad stalls where fishwives and cloth merchants and fortune tellers begged attention. She'd stolen figs and bawbles and scraps of bright cloth so smooth it felt as if it was made of water.

            When Deacon stopped in front of a glass seller's stall a stone's throw from the docks, and slipped behind it into an alley, Skyler heaved a sigh of relief. If one looked inland from here, the city could be seen to rise up as if from the sea itself, the houses clinging to the steep streets like mussels to the cliffs. The further one traveled from the shore the cleaner and brighter the city grew, as if the air scrubbed it free of the algae and dirt of the lower class huddled by the docks.

            Halfway down the alley was a door recessed into the brick wall of the building it was in, a sign hanging over the door. Deacon ducked inside without waiting for Skyler. After staring at the jumbled markings on the sign for a while she gave up and followed him. At first she couldn't find him in the dim, mostly empty pub, only a young man with blonde hair and high sharp cheekbones sitting behind a bar looking bored but ignoring her completely. She frowned and looked around, finally noticing a staircase leading downward. With a glance at the barkeep to see if she'd get in trouble, Skyler headed down the steps as fast as she could. She didn't trust the man she'd been sold to, but if there was a chance of being fed an actual meal she was willing to set aside her distrust for the moment.

            “Come on now,” Deacon said impatiently as she reached the bottom of the stairs. Strand's catacombs were nothing like she had imagined. Wide eyed she looked around her, the dark depths of the underworld lit by oil lamps. The walls weren't damp and covered with moss, there were no skeletons hiding in the shadows to leap out and grab her. Instead intricate murals had been painted over plaster, and only Deacon waited for her to follow him.

            “These don't look like catacombs,” Skyler said, as he held open a door for her.

            “Oh, have you seen many catacombs?”

            “Well, no,” she replied with a sheepish shrug. “But I mean, it's underground and it's where dead bodies are put and I don't see any dead bodies or worms or anything like that. Not even any bats.”

            “You were hoping for bats?” Deacon laughed a little, pointing to a chair sitting in front of a large oak desk.

            “Maybe,” Skyler admitted, not taking a seat.

            “Sorry, I try to keep those out of here when I can,” he said, coming over and pushing her into the chair. “No rats either. Let's have a chat.”

            Though she couldn't have said why, the hairs on the back of Skyler's neck were raised, and every nerve in her body shouted warning. But things here seemed calm, safe, and there was nothing about Deacon that she should fear. Yet. Like a terrified animal, Skyler did what she knew best, she held as perfectly still as she could, as if she could disappear into the chair and be forgotten.

            “We are strangers now, but you will get to know me well, and I expect to know you too,” Deacon explained. “You are an unwanted child, a piece of trash that was stuck to the bottom of a shoe. As far as anyone is concerned you are only in the way. In light of those things, you should always keep in mind that I have saved your life. You should have been killed but instead I purchased you, as if you have value and worth. Always keep that in mind. That being said, you are to be at my beck and call. You will be my messenger, my eyes and ears when need be, and anything else I ask of you. Are we clear?”

            “I ain't gonna be your slave,” Skyler protested, her nose curling at the idea of being this man's errand girl. What exactly was 'anything else'? He had acted so kind until now, but something had changed. Instead, he was now more like a snake, watching, waiting for her to move so he could strike. When he circled her chair, a hand tugging at a mat in her brown hair, then a thumb running hard over a smudge on her cheek, her eyes grew wide and she held her breath.

            “You'll need a bath,” he said, ignoring her protestation. “And clothing. I won't have my … girl looking like something that crawled from the gutters. Also, you will be silent unless asked to speak. You are expected to be obedient and well-mannered. Are we clear?”

            “And if I ain't?”

            Suddenly, Deacon's hand was on her throat, squeezing so she couldn't breathe, fingers digging into either side of her trachea. His face was close to hers, the breath hot on her face. She absolutely refused to cry out. I've been through worse than this, she reminded herself, holding his angry gaze. His pupils had dilated until the brown of his eyes was nearly swallowed up with black.

            “Then your punishment will be thorough and quick,” he spoke, voice so low that it was nearly a whisper. She'd have preferred yelling, screaming, anything but this. “You will do what you are told.”

            When she nodded minutely he relaxed his hold on her throat, bringing his hand up to hold her by the jaw and turn her face this way and that, inspecting every detail. Finally he let her go, standing up abruptly and sitting in the massive chair behind the desk. She jumped, startled, when he whistled, the shrill sound echoing through the underground tunnels. A young woman, all of twenty years old, appeared in the doorway, eyes averted to the floor to wait on Deacon's command. Was this how he expected Skyler to behave? She hated to admit it, but she was terrified now, unsure of how far he would take his idea of punishment.

            “Clarissa, take the child and make her presentable,” he ordered the woman. “And feed her. She's skinny as a stray cat.”

            Clarissa nodded obediently and came over to Skyler, reaching down and taking her hand to pull her to her feet. Skyler would have resisted but at the moment anywhere seemed safer than with this man. When they were out of earshot from Deacon they paused and Clarissa knelt down in front of Skyler, offering up a reassuring smile.

            “What's your name kid?”

            “Skyler,” she replied, eying the woman. She was pretty, with large dark eyes and soft brown curls that had been cut to just below her jaw.

            “Nice to meet you, Skyler. If you just be good he won't hurt you,” Clarissa told her. “Come on, I'll get you cleaned up and find you something to eat. Just stick with me and things will be okay. I promise.”

            “Probably shouldn't make promises you can't keep,” Skyler said. She'd seen men like Deacon before, men who took pleasure in hurting people, scaring them. There was no mistaking Clarissa's fear of him, and she took that as a warning. He was dangerous and if she could steer clear she would.

            “Fair enough,” Clarissa shrugged, getting to her feet and taking Skyler's hand again, leading her down the corridor.

            The catacombs were bigger than Skyler could have imagined, the passages seeming to go on forever with more side tunnels than she could count. She felt like they had walked miles by the time Clarissa turned down one of the corridors and shortly into a small room with a fire struggling to stay alight on the hearth and a copper tub. Peeking into the tub she saw it was full of water, and jumped back when Clarissa dumped a huge pot full of steaming water into it.

            “The water isn't dirty,” Skyler said, somewhere between wonder and worry.

            “Well yeah, how are you gonna get clean if the water's dirty? You never took a bath before?”

            “I have, but always after everyone else,” Skyler replied. Clarissa shook her head disapprovingly and carefully poured something into the water that smelled of flowers and spices. She sniffed at it trying to figure out what it was.

            “It's soap, silly,” Clarissa explained. “You'll smell like lavender and rosemary instead of like a sewer.”

            “I do not smell like a sewer,” Skyler protested.

            “Just get undressed and get in the bath,” Clarissa said, rolling her eyes.

            With an exasperated huff Skyler shucked off her clothes and climbed into the tub. Clarissa promptly deposited the clothes in the fire, much to Skyler's dismay. But the water was warm and smelled heavenly and she decided that it wasn't worth arguing about. The blissful dreaminess that came over her was soon disrupted though, when Clarissa reappeared with a scrub brush and a small bucket with which she dumped water over Skyler's head. She spluttered and coughed, and when Clarissa began scrubbing at her she bellowed and hissed like an angry kitten.

            While her hair was being washed, a boy with vivid red hair and freckled cheeks came in to lay clothes on a chair near the fire, along with a towel. He glanced at her then blushed and averted his eyes and left the room. Clarissa shoved Skyler's head under the water with hardly any warning, rinsing the soap from her hair before letting her back up, gasping for air and spitting out curses.

            “You talk more like a sailor than a little girl,” Clarissa pointed out as she crossed the room and grabbed the towel, unfolding it and returning to pull Skyler from the bath and wrap her in the massive fluffy depths of the towel.

            “I'm not a little girl,” Skyler argued. “And if you ever try to wash me like that again I'm gonna kill you.”

            “I'm sure you will,” Clarissa laughed. “Now get dressed. I'll be back to get you in a minute. And don't even think of wandering off. You'll get lost and then you'll get whipped for going where you're not supposed to.”

            Skyler examined the clothes she was given to wear after Clarissa left the room. She was immensely glad to find that she wasn't expected to wear a dress like Clarissa, but instead had a pair of fitted pants and a long tunic. Both were dark charcoal gray, the pants made of wool and the tunic of heavy linen. The pants fit well, but the tunic nearly swallowed her whole, coming down almost to her knees and slipping off one shoulder. She couldn't complain though. They were clean, and warm, and they didn't have holes in them or any stains she could see.

            Clarissa returned with the boy in tow. She had a pair of boots in hand, and the boy carried a tray with food and drink on it. Skyler's mouth watered as the boy sat the tray down on a small table in the corner and dragged a chair over noisily. She hurried to sit down, her stomach grumbling as she looked over the fish stew, dark bread, and spiced apple cider.

            “Shoes first,” Clarissa said, handing Skyler the boots which she rushed to put on. The fear she had felt earlier with Deacon was momentarily forgotten as she began to eat as if the food would be taken away at any second. It would all have been like a dream if there wasn't a sudden painful tugging at her hair.

            “Dammit ow!” she yelped, twisting in her chair to see who was hurting her. “Stop!”

            “Don't tell me this is the first time you've ever had your hair combed,” Clarissa said with a short laugh, turning Skyler's head back facing forward and continuing to tug at the wet locks. Skyler stuffed the last huge chunk of bread in her mouth instead of answering. It was the first time anyone had paid more than five minutes attention to her at all. Rosie had been kindest to her, but even she had never bathed or groomed the little girl, only made sure she had something to eat once in a while, and one time gave her an old shift to replace hers when it was too tattered to wear anymore.

            Food finished, Skyler emptied the mug of cider, sitting back in her chair with a sigh. Clarissa had braided her hair neatly and disappeared once more. The boy was still there, standing awkwardly in the corner, and Skyler watched him curiously.

            “What's your name, boy?” she asked.

            “Rowan,” he answered in a small voice, still staring at his feet. “Rowan Ashsson.”

            “I'm Skyler,” she offered up her own name in exchange. He dared a glance up at her so she smiled at him, getting the smallest of smiles back.

            “You got a family name?”

            “Nah,” she shook her head. “Ain't got a family. S'why I'm here. Nobody wanted me. How'd you get her if you got a family?”

            “My papa works for the syndicate,” he replied, puffing up his chest proudly.

            “What's a syndicate?” Skyler scrunched up her nose, having never heard the word before.

            “It's where we are,” Rowan shrugged. “All the bad people in town have to do what the syndicate says or my papa will hurt them. Everyone's scared of him.”

            “You scared of him?”

            “Sometimes,” he admitted. “He gets mad easy. But when he's not mad he's real nice. Brings me presents when I'm good. Someday I'm gonna do what he does.”

            “I see you made a friend, Skyler,” Clarissa said when she returned. “Tell him goodbye and I'll take you to your room.”

            “My room?” Skyler asked with wonder, following Clarissa from the room, her new friend forgotten. She'd never had a room, nor a bed, only a broom closet or the space behind a sofa nearest to the fire. Anywhere out of the way and unseen. For a long time it had been under a bed, wherever was easiest to hide, but after the first time she was caught sneaking out for food she learned how to hide better even when it was somewhere people could have seen her if they paid attention.

            “Poor kid,” Clarissa said, patting Skyler on the head. When she pushed open a door to a tiny room – barely bigger than the broom closet at the brothel – Skyler was surprised to see a cot and table inside. There was even a small wood stove heating the room. “This is yours. Keep it clean.”

            “Ain't got nothin' to make it messy with,” she replied. “It's mine? Don't gotta share it with anyone?”

            “Nope,” Clarissa confirmed. “All yours.”

            “What I gotta do for it?”

            “You'll have to ask Deacon about that,” Clarissa said, looking away, her brows coming together in a frown. “He doesn't tell me much. You not being anyone's kid, I don't know what privileges you might have, but I wouldn't push. Don't do anything he hasn't said you can do. Be obedient, quiet, and it'll be easier on you. I'll leave you here. There's some books in the drawer of the table if you want to read until someone comes to get you.”

            Skyler didn't know how to read, but she wasn't going to say so. With a grateful smile she sat down on the bed, watching as Clarissa left the room. When she was gone Skyler pulled open one of the drawers in the table, finding, as promised, a couple of books. The next drawer down had a small notebook with a stick of charcoal. She couldn't write but the charcoal gave her an idea.

            Leaving the notebook on the bed, Skyler pocketed the charcoal and stood in the doorway to her new room. For a while she simply leaned against the doorframe watching the occasional passage of people as they traveled from one end of the underground to the other. Her curiosity was making her feet itch to explore. She had no idea what a syndicate might be, but Rowan had made it sound important.

            When she had lived at the brothel it had become a useful tool to be able to make herself so unremarkable that if she was quiet and concentrated hard enough she could walk right by a person and they'd never see her. It was almost always successful, as long as they didn't already know she was there. Perhaps it was magic, or perhaps she was just that unimportant, but it was something that had kept her marginally safe for the last few years. If Rosie hadn't started screaming and kept Skyler from leaving the room after she killed the man who was hurting Rosie, then Skyler could have disappeared and she never would have been sold to Deacon. Of course, then she wouldn't have warm clothes, real shoes, and a full belly. Maybe it was for the best. But for now, it was time once more to take advantage of her gift and wander through the tunnels. She'd have to memorize them if she ever wanted to run away.

            Taking slow, deep breaths and keeping her footsteps as silent as she could, she crept from her room to stand just outside the door, concentrating hard on not being noticed. Several people walked by, including Clarissa, and none of them so much as turned their head to glance at her. Good. Now it was time to explore. She pulled the charcoal stick from her pocket and made a mark beside her door before choosing a direction and taking off down the hall, leaving the occasional mark on the wall so she could find her way back. Hopefully nobody would come looking for her in her room. She wouldn't wander far this time, just in case.

            The rooms in this part of the catacombs seemed to mostly contain beds. Once upon a time they must have housed the bones of the dead. Did the dead still sleep, hidden behind the walls? Or had Deacon – or whomever preceded him – desecrated their resting places and disposed of their remains in some unmarked location? If they bought children like they were livestock and extorted brothels in exchange for protection what wouldn't they do?

            In the side tunnels, the murals gave way to blank plaster walls. Perhaps it was just the main passageways that were decorated. A pair of men, who carried themselves as if they were something important, passed by, and Skyler held her breath, pausing in her exploration to stand against the wall, motionless. Neither of them looked in her direction, and as soon as they were far enough away she turned back to follow them. They were more interesting than the endless tunnels at this point.

            Below ground it was impossible to gauge what time it might be. When Deacon had brought her into his underworld it had been just after midday. It must be near sunset now. She'd have to get back to her room in case Clarissa came looking for her to bring supper. Her curiosity burned brightly inside her though and she decided it was worth the risk to follow the men.

            After a few turns here and there, which Skyler marked carefully with her stick of charcoal, they reached their destination, a large room with a massive wood table in the middle, surrounded by a dozen chairs. The men joined a handful of others, only one of which was a woman. They milled around the table for a few minutes before taking their seats. Skyler crouched just inside the door to watch.

            Skyler expected Deacon to take the chair at the head of the table, but instead he sat in the chair just to its right. A man who was a few years older than Deacon, with a much kinder face, took the chair she had expected Deacon to take. His hair was a chestnut brown, pulled back into a low ponytail. He was tall and lean, but even just sitting down he had the grace of a wild cat; and the constrained danger of one.

            Servants began to pour into the room, carrying trays of food and drink and setting them out on the table. Was this just a simple dinner? The people seated at the table seemed so much more imposing than anyone she'd seen so far in the catacombs. Or, to be honest, anyone she'd ever seen at all. If that hadn't been so she'd probably have left without a second thought and returned to her room.

            “Are we all here?” asked the man at the head of the table, glancing around. His gaze seemed almost to stop on her, but not long enough that he seemed to actually see her. It slid over her, as if she were so unremarkable that she was just one of the shadows in the room.

            Amid nods and murmurs, what seemed to be a meeting began. Of course those gathered filled their plates and began to eat, but between bites they started to discuss the state of things in Strand. It seemed that every topic was related to the darker elements of life in Strand though. The brothels and taverns, the thieves and corrupt officials, the smugglers and every other low-life worth mentioning. These people must be the ones who kept all of the crime in check. They were the ones who ran what Rowan had called the syndicate.

            The man at the head of the table, the one who seemed to the leader, was called Hawk. He had a commanding presence, and the others deferred to him, accepting his advice and his orders as if they were law. And perhaps they were. Deacon was the only one who consistently asked questions and pushed for changes or amendments to Hawk's orders. Other than stern glances, however, Hawk never admonished Deacon for questioning him.

            The meeting went on for quite some time, and Skyler quickly grew bored. The talk usually involved discussions of money or punishment, none of which was very interesting to an eleven year old girl. Eventually she tiptoed out and found her way back to her own room, barely in time to be there before Clarissa appeared once more with food and drink. Skyler had eaten only a couple hours before, and for the first time in her life wasn't hungry at all, but years of never being sure when her next meal would come insisted that she should eat if food was offered.

            Clarissa sat on the edge of Skyler's bed and watched her eat, a small smile on her lips. For a long while she was silent, until Skyler was nearly finished eating.

            “Tell me about yourself, Skyler,” Clarissa said.

            “What about me?” Skyler asked, frowning.

            “I don't know, where you grew up maybe? Why you came to be here?”

            “Grew up in a brothel,” Skyler replied after taking a drink of cider. “My ma was a whore, don't know which one. I killed a guy so Madame Josephine wanted to get rid of me. Guess Deacon wanted a kid around, so Madame Josephine sold me to him.”

            “You killed a man?” Clarissa said, eyes widening in either disbelief or horror.

            “He had it coming,” Skyler declared, not for the first time since she'd done it. “He was hurting Rosie. I don't like people like him, and I didn't want him to do it again.”

            “Did anyone ever hurt you like that?” Clarissa asked, head tilted and brow creased with concern. Maybe it was just morbid curiosity, or maybe she really did care. Skyler couldn't tell because nobody had ever so much as asked if she had enough to eat, much less gave a damn whether she was hurt or not.

            “Don't matter,” Skyler shrugged. Of course she'd been hurt before. She wasn't wanted there, but for whatever reason they didn't throw her out into the street to starve. As long as she stayed out of the way she'd been safe, and that was all that mattered. “A kid in a brothel ain't nothing important.”

            Clarissa sat still, watching Skyler for a long while. It made the girl uncomfortable, being stared at like that, like some pitiful wounded puppy in need of being rescued. Skyler did not need to be rescued. Or pitied. She'd have gotten out of the brothel eventually, away from Madame Josephine and her ladies who disliked Skyler.

            “Well you stay out of trouble here, and maybe someday you'll be someone important,” Clarissa said finally, putting her hand on Skyler's shoulder. “In the meantime, you should at least be safe here, long as you don't get in anyone's way.”

            “Yeah well then not much has changed,” she replied. But things had changed. She was fed, and clothed, and she had a room and a bed and a stove of her own. Whatever the catch might be, it was worth ignoring for now.










            Over the next weeks Skyler's place in the Syndicate became apparent. She was Deacon's messenger, his servant, and most importantly his eyes and ears on the street. Skyler was still afraid of him, but as Clarissa had said, as long as the girl did what she was told and stayed out of the way nothing bad happened to her. The looks her master gave her were strange, often prolonged and filled with something she'd occasionally seen from certain men who frequented the brothel. As with them, she always managed to make herself scarce, finding some errand to keep her busy and away from Deacon.

            She'd continued her exploration of the catacombs, leaving herself little marks on the walls so she could always find her way. More often than not though, she would sneak into the room where those in charge of the Syndicate, The Twelve, as they were called, had important meetings and made the decisions that seemed to shape the state of things in Strand.

             There was nothing that happened in the city that wasn't somehow affected by the Syndicate. Even the city officials themselves were at least a little under the influence of the Twelve. All pickpocketing, whoring, counterfeiting, and gambling was organized and regulated by the Syndicate.  Those running Strand turned a blind eye on most everything for one price or another. Each domain was overseen by one of the Twelve.

            Dipper, a lean rat-looking man was in charge of pickpockets and robbers. A rotund old man with slicked back silver hair and a greased handlebar mustache, whose name was Screever, made sure that any counterfeiting in the city happened to his knowledge and was profitable to the Syndicate. Abilene, who had once been the most beautiful and successful whore in town, but now was old and wizened with cloudy eyes that made her nearly blind, was in charge of brothels. Bludge, who was apparently smarter than he looked, had a small army of men who doled out punishment, often including violent murders, to any who dared cross the criminal organization. Jack was young, with the refined looks and fine dress of a nobleman, and he kept the gambling rings and back room casinos in line. Ember and Ash were twins, red haired and ruddy skinned. The woman, Ember, seemed to have something to do with arson, and her twin brother knew everything there was to know about smuggling, which was possibly the most profitable of the crimes undertaken in Strand.

            As for the rest, Skyler wasn't quite sure what they did, and they rarely spoke so she didn't hear their names, or really care. The novelty of listening to what was happening in the city, and how those in her new home controlled it, never wore off. Never before had the girl considered any sort of future for herself, but now she imagined one day sitting at this table, being a part of the decisions and underhanded dealings of the Syndicate.













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