Zero snuck a seed into his mouth as he stole a glance at the grown-ups at work. Their target this time had a hell of a voice. Despite the rag in his mouth, his screaming was loud enough that it probably carried down the whole block.
Bug-Eyes yanked the guy back by the hair and pulled out the rag, purring, “Feel like helping us yet?”
The guy whimpered something, dissolving into frantic screams as Bug-Eyes stuck the rag back in. Fingers poked his fingers into the guy's stomach and it made the guy shit his pants and turn his eyes up to the white.
It was a pretty cool trick. Zero wished he knew how to do that. He snuck another seed, savoring the salty nutty flavor of each and every one. He didn't know what kind they were, but nobles always had good stuff.
“Zero!” barked Scut. “You gonna keep watch or gawk?”
Zero hid the bag of seeds in his palm as he looked out of the cracked-open door.
“...What's that you've got?”
Scut, two heads taller, came up to him and pried his fingers open. He grabbed the bag and peeked inside. The smack to his head came just like he knew it would. “Stealing a bite, are we?”
“Sorry, sir,” he muttered as Scut smacked him again in the other direction for good measure.
“Do your work and you'll get your cut.”
Their target screamed, “I don't know anything! Ahhhng—”
“Send 'im Zero,” Scut said.
“Zero doesn't know what the fuck he's doing,” Fingers said.
“He's not gonna want you. Zero's got the baby face.”
The men looked at Zero. Zero scrunched his face into a scowl. He'd been running with them long enough. He was getting sick of always being the kid.
“He's not cute,” Fingers said. Fingers had nice eyes and blond hair like royalty but he was missing his nose and one ear. Fingers wasn't cute.
“He's got the baby face. He's just got to act cute.” Scut reached out and grabbed him by the hair. “Listen. You play cute and give 'im what he wants, you hear?”
“Yeah, I got it,” Zero said, staring into Scut's ugly face, “let go.”
“No, you listen. He's paying twice what we get for a hit job. You fuck this up and you're on your own. Got that?”
“I got it. I've got it. Gimme the job. I'll do it.”
Zero couldn't help a yelp of pain.
“Shh, shh,” the noble said.
Zero bit down on his own arm to keep quiet. The noble dug deep inside him, fingers keeping his hips in place. Give him what he wants. Give him every tired muscle and wind-beaten inch of skin. It's worth two hits. Fuck up and you're on your own.
“Zero, c'mere,” Fingers said.
Zero went over to where Scut had the merchant held in place. Dark-haired, middle-aged, with a tough face. He was breathing fast in fear, but he said, “Ha? What's a kid going to do to me?”
Fingers pulled open the merchant's tunic and raised his shirt with brisk efficiency. “Put your hand here. Feel that? That's muscle. Now, you wanna break through and—”
Fingers stabbed his fingers straight down into the merchant's abdomen and he gave a strangled yelp.
“At this spot. Right here. Now you try.”
“We could just cut him,” Scut interjected.
Bug-Eyes snorted. “You start cutting and you'll kill him. They paid us good not to kill him.”
Zero stabbed his fingers into the merchant's gut. The abdomen twitched with a swift breath of pain, but the merchant pridefully held his silence.
“Lower,” Fingers said. “Takes a bit to find it the first time.”
Zero jabbed him again.
And again. This time the merchant stifled a grunt of pain.
“There. Give it all you've got.”
Zero put his whole weight behind it and the merchant screamed. “Cool.” Zero grinned at Fingers and the merchant caught his breath.
“Hey, don't give him a break,” Fingers said.
Zero jabbed him again, and over his screams, wondered, “Did we ask him anything yet?”
“You're too thin,” the noble said, stroking Zero's back as he scarfed down meat and cheese with all the restraint he could manage. “It's such a shame. The way children live in this country.”
The noble grazed fingers gently down his spine.
Sometimes it was as if the noble liked having him around.
“Talk dirty to me,” the noble said.
Zero lifted his teeth from his arm and took a breath.
“Does this stimulate you? Are you stimulated right now?” the noble said.
“I'm so stimulated,” Zero managed.
He couldn't see anything out of his right eye since the fight. Bug-Eyes had grudgingly spared a bit of his brandy to clean the cut and they found a bit of cloth that was relatively clean to press against his face, but it was starting to throb with pain so intense that Zero wasn't sure he could just tough it out. He was starting to get dizzy and his body felt hot and cold all at once.
“Zero, you whining about that eye again?”
Zero faced Scut and said, “Nah. I'm ready to go.”
“If his eye's rotted anyway, someone owes me brandy,” Bug-Eyes grumbled.
Fingers took him by the chin and gently peeled the makeshift eyepatch away. He frowned and said, “It's rotting.”
“Then we'll take it out after the job. Come on, The Boss is gonna be pissed.”
They used a spoon with more of Bug-Eyes's brandy and it hurt touching his burning eye and as it went into his socket Scut held down his arms and Bug-Eyes held down his legs and everything else was pain, searing pain, horrible pain of nerves splitting and nothing being right and cold where it shouldn't be and hot searing raw sparks within his head and later when he woke up with fresh cloth on his face it still hurt so fucking bad he wished they'd just killed him.
He didn't even get to see his eye before they threw it away. He didn't ask because he wasn't going to whine.
His body was still hot and weak.
“If we make him wait any longer he's gonna go to the West Crew,” Scut said.
Zero dragged himself out into the streets. The noble's place was a short distance away. The whole path stayed within their territory. It was safe. Safe, considering he couldn't put up a fight in his state.
The noble's butler opened the door and looked at his eyepatch.
“Lord Kruger asked for me,” Zero said.
(The name is nestled deep in his memory despite his efforts to forget.)
“You'd best leave,” the butler said and closed the door.
Zero stood on the doorstep for a moment as his mind caught up with what had happened.
The others let him sleep off his weakness. It was cold and drafty in the hideout.
His voice hadn't even changed yet. None of them would have called him a man.
He was already filled with holes where he'd lost parts of himself that he would never get back.
While no one else was there to bear witness, Zero let himself shed a few tears. He hated his mother for giving birth to him just so he could die piece by piece.
“Scut was always a damned idiot,” Bug-Eyes grumped.
Bug-Eyes handed his bottle of whiskey to Fingers. Fingers took a drink and offered it to Zero.
Zero took a drink. He didn't know if he missed Scut.
“Let Zero take the lead. He's old enough. It's time,” said The Boss.
Zero hoisted himself up onto the wall and looked back at the gang. Fingers had vanished to keep watch down the street. Shivs was off watching the other end. Bug-Eyes looked back with his bug eyes, waiting for him to fuck up.
Zero gave him a thumbs-up and hopped over to the other side.
“He wants a hit on his rival and someone to suck his dick.”
“At the same time?” Zero quipped.
Bug-Eyes and Legs looked at him as if he didn't belong in the conversation.
“Zero, you go suck his dick,” Bug-Eyes said.
“Ah, I didn't know you were so excited to stimulate him. I'll let you have him.”
Bug-Eyes shoved him. “Go suck his dick, you slut.”
“The kid barely knows not to piss himself. Too young,” Shivs said, looking down at the new kid. He had curly Hoshidan-dark hair and blue eyes. Pretty cute.
“You're an idiot, Shivs. You want 'em young,” Bug-Eyes said, patting the kid on the head. “You teach'em what's right and they won't go lookin' anywhere else. Like Zero here.”
It was the first time Bug-Eyes paid him a compliment.
“If he turns out strange in the head like Zero, I'll leave for West,” Shivs said. “Can hardly stand one of 'em.”
“Now now, Shivs,” Zero purred, “if you do that, I'll have to deliver you to Paradise.”
“You deserve it,” Fingers deadpanned.
Arrows whistled by.
Fingers yanked him into an alcove. They pressed flush against the wall.
A short distance away, under the rain of arrows, Legs cried, “Help me. Oh—gods—please, please help me.”
He shouldn't have stepped out to help Shivs. Now the two of them would both die.
“We've lost,” Fingers muttered to him. “Just gotta wait here until The Boss surrenders.”
“You think The Boss will surrender?”
“He has to. Else I'll kill him myself. I'm not dying for some fool honor.”
Zero pressed against the wall, listening to Fingers breathe, glad they were both fucking cowards who were going to live.
“I hear Kruger's gotten tired of his last boy. We should show 'im Jet,” Bug-Eyes said.
“Jet doesn't know what the fuck he's doing,” Fingers said.
“Like anyone does at first,” Bug-Eyes said.
The three of them looked at Jet. Jet looked back with his big blue eyes and said, “I wanna do it.”
Zero showed him the way to the manor.
“Just remember one thing,” Zero said. “If he's nice to you, take it. If he gives you food, eat it. But don't think for a moment that it's anything but a game. We're the only ones in the world who give a damn about you, got it?”
He punched Jet lightly in the chest. Jet punched him back.
“Yeah,” Jet said. “I'll get it done.”
Zero didn't know why The Boss had ordered a raid on Castle Krakenstein. Fingers said something about needing to put on a show after their recent failures.
“He's gonna get us all killed,” Bug-Eyes spat as he secured the rope to the top of the outer wall.
“Shut up and stick to the plan,” Fingers said.
They'd gotten to the concubine's chamber, the one who'd just died and left behind a killing of jewelry that had yet to be cleaned up. They'd stuffed their satchels full when the guard let out a shout.
Zero was on him first, clamping his hand over his mouth and slitting his throat. The guard struggled. It was a messy kill. By the time Zero was back on his feet, the others had fled.
He tore down the halls back to where they'd left their escape route. The guards were on full alert, calling, “Thieves! Thieves!”
Somehow, he made it to the outer wall with the guard hot on his tail—just in time to see the rope disappearing up onto the top of the wall.
“Wait!” he shouted.
By the moon, he could make out Fingers's pale hair and missing nose.
Fingers took one last look at him before disappearing over the side of the wall.
Zero pressed his whole body against the smooth stone of the outer wall of Castle Krakenstein and wished he'd wake up.
Then he turned around, facing the guards that curtained him in a half-circle.
He slid down against the wall to sit on his bottom with his knees against his chest.
He was sick of the world anyway.
The guards parted to let someone through. Of all things, it was a boy still in his nightclothes.
Zero watched as he opened a tome. The air rippled with tremendous magical power. It could crush him in an instant.
“What do you have to say for yourself?” the boy said in a soft, dangerous voice.
Zero looked him in the eye, thinking that no one present in his final moments could know that he had just discovered that for all the sacrifices he had made, no one had ever cared about him at all.
“Just kill me,” Zero said.