Original piece by Nicki Pau Preto

This was a snippet of backstory for the character Sev, showing the moment he got caught up with the empire’s soldiers and forced to join them. It was also meant to show why he believed it was unwise to try to be a hero—only trouble came of it for everyone involved. My editor wanted his backstory to be more personal, and I think what’s in the novel now is much stronger. Still, I always loved this scene, and bits of this girl’s characterization wound up in Sparrow, who was a later addition to the story.

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It had been late one night, and Sev was drowsing fitfully in a dark alleyway in the Forgotten District, known for its overflowing orphanages and homeless children. He usually found somewhere indoors to sleep during the rainy season, but the city watch had been prowling the streets in search of animages, and all his usual haunts had turned him away.

The ground was wet beneath him, and not even the small, warm body of a stray cat could keep him from shivering. He was about to get up in search of a better bed when the slap of bare feet on cobblestones filled the narrow alley. A second later, a girl stumbled against the wall across from Sev, her hair scraggly and her feet almost black with filth. The distant clank of weapons and steady drum of booted feet rose above the soft pitter-patter of rain, and Sev understood: the girl was hiding from the empire’s soldiers.

It took her a moment to notice him, hidden in the shadows of a large drain pipe, and when she did, she didn’t start or gasp. She only shook her head and pressed a small finger to her lips. She was younger than Sev, but her face held all the gravity of a world weary elder. Her eyes were oddly pale, large and unnerving, and fixated on Sev.

He listened hard for the soldiers. Their footsteps were growing louder, like the rumble of approaching thunderclouds.
Then, the storm hit.

The soldiers found the alleyway. While Sev was behind the grimy pipe, his body in darkness, the girl crouched against the flat stone wall—utterly exposed.

Sev held his breath as several large, booted feet stepped into his field of vision. They faced the girl, blocking her from view, while Sev continued to go unnoticed.

He knew what he should do—what he had always done. He should close his eyes. He should look away.
The girl slowly turned her head up to the faceless men, her eyes hauntingly calm as they ordered her to get to her feet. Someone had ratted her out, they said. They knew what she was. A magic-user. A beast-talker.

An animage.

Before Sev even noticed that the cat had moved, it dropped from the roof above, falling onto the nearest soldier’s face with claws unsheathed. The girl bared her teeth in a feral snarl, turning to run while the soldier tried to dislodge the cat from his bloodied skin.

One of the other soldiers grabbed her around the middle. She kicked and spit and scratched, wilder than the cat, who was eventually thrown brutally against the wall, its lifeless body kicked once or twice for good measure.

Sev didn’t remember getting to his feet. He didn’t remember drawing the rusted old knife he’d stolen from a cookhouse, or the low growl that issued from his throat.

He remembered the girl’s eyes, though.

He leapt onto the back of the nearest soldier, plunging his knife into the man’s chest. The blade skittered to the side off his metal plated tunic, so Sev hacked and slashed, finding the exposed skin of the man’s neck. He dropped to the ground beneath Sev before the other soldiers even knew what had happened.

The alleyway was slick with rain and blood, and when Sev tried to run, to dodge under legs and between outstretched arms, he slipped and staggered into the nearest soldier. They caught him up around the chest, throwing him to the ground and kicking away his blade.

While Sev was defeated, the girl wouldn’t come quietly. She bit the hands that reached for her and shrieked her fury into the night. By the time her body was thrown onto the ground next to Sev, it was as lifeless as the cat’s. Her eyes were still open, pale orbs reflecting the dim light of the moon. Raindrops speckled her dirty face, and her lips were smeared with the blood of the soldiers.

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