Read The Burning Hand Online

Authors: Jodi Meadows

The Burning Hand

ONE

RED FLAG WAS a mess.

A literal mess. Birds pecked at oil-shimmering puddles, cupped in the broken cobblestones. In dark alleys, trash was piled halfway up the walls. Sometimes, the garbage rustled and jumped with feral cats or dogs poking through, searching for food. Smeared graffiti painted the rotting wood buildings. Only the requisite mirrors were kept somewhat clean; they covered every west-facing wall in the city, no matter the district's or neighborhood's wealth.

Or lack of, in this case.

I jumped one more roof, more confident now. I'd been practicing late into the nights, and it was paying off. At first, I'd grappled with constant soreness all down my hips and legs, but these last couple of nights I'd jumped from the Hawksbill wall to a nearby Thornton roof without almost dying.

Now, from my position on the corner of a bakery rooftop,
I watched people settle into nooks in buildings' walls, and pull their belongings into their arms as they fell asleep. They were out within seconds, but at the slightest noise, they'd jump awake and hug their bags or bundles.

Last week, when I'd first come to Red Flag with Romily, I'd asked why they didn't go home.

She'd jerked back and glared at me. “They don't
have
homes. What they're holding? That's everything they own, unless they managed to stash something in a private spot.”

Every night since we'd met—since Lord Hensley killed Professor Knight—Romily had shown me more of Thornton, then went on to Red Flag, where it was safer to move around. Well, safer from the police. They didn't like coming to the Flags any more than anyone else did, so their general patrols were cursory and posed little threat to someone sneaking on rooftops.

A figure appeared in the alley below. My heart jumped. Romily? But no, this person was larger. A confident stride. Broad shoulders. Hensley. He stopped in the middle of the street, waiting.

In the shadows, another figure shifted. I caught four more from the edges of my vision. Hensley's guards? He definitely needed them here. He was a well-dressed man in a very dangerous neighborhood. The Nightmare gang controlled these streets.

Then again, Hensley was a very dangerous man; maybe he could hold his own here.

As the homeless hiding around nooks and crates and other makeshift shelters noticed the presence of armed men, they began to sneak away, one or two at a time. A growing sense of tension filled the air until even the scavenging animals vanished.

The area grew silent, save the keen of wind around buildings. And then, even that died.

Again, I scanned the streets nearby for my young trainer. Nothing. She wasn't on the nearby rooftops, either. I double-checked the location—Silver Sky Bakery—even though Hensley's presence was proof that this was where Romily had said to meet. She hadn't been late to any of our lessons, but maybe she had a hard time getting out of her house. If anyone understood that, I did.

Still, I needed her now. Lessons weren't over, but when she'd said Hensley was meeting with the leaders of the Nightmare gang, I knew we had to be there.

“This is stupid,”
James had said before I left.
“You're putting yourself at risk.”

I'd waved away his concerns.
“Hensley killed Professor Knight to keep his secret. Knight died keeping mine. I have to see this through.”

He'd just sighed and helped me with the clothes Romily had acquired for me. I'd sent her into Thornton on a quest for a solid black uniform—nothing from the same shop. She'd come through with a surprising eye for style. The cloth and cut were things I'd have chosen for myself. The rest of the money I'd given her had stayed in her pocket to help her family. Or herself. Whatever she wanted to do with it.

She should be here now. She, as much as I, wanted Hensley stopped.

My calf muscles cramped from crouching too long. Slowly, I adjusted my position, keeping one eye on the mirror as I lay flat on the roof. I was still getting used to the idea of dodging
mirrors with every move I made, but I was improving.

Hensley and his guards hadn't moved from their positions. The only change was Hensley's posture, shifted to one hip, his arms across his chest.

“Do you think they're coming?” The guard's voice was soft. So was the
thump
his body made when it hit the ground.

Everyone looked from the dead man down the path the knife had taken. All Hensley's guards drew weapons.

Bile tickled the back of my throat. Too easily, I recalled Hensley killing Knight right before my eyes. And now another man lay dead before me, because of his association with Hensley. He had to be stopped.

“No one questions me.” A tall woman strode out from the shadows, a rust-colored tattoo marking her face. Other men and women followed, coming from side streets and nearby buildings, carrying long knives, chains, and rusted pipes. A few had shards of mirrors adhered to wooden handles.

“You made me wait.” Hensley didn't move for a weapon; he
was
a weapon. “I'm a busy man and I don't have time for games.”

“Do you think I'm playing a game?” The woman's face was shrouded in darkness; only the tattoo's movement gave a hint of her expression: unamused, perhaps angry, definitely deadly.

“I think you made me wait to make me uneasy.” Hensley lifted a hand, palm up, and appeared to contemplate his fingers for a heartbeat. “But I must admit, I'm not familiar with the sensation of unease. Just the screams of those who attempt to annoy, manipulate, and betray me.”

Hatred slithered through me, causing my whole body to
shudder.

The Nightmare leader appeared unruffled. “Very well. Let's skip the rest of the threats and posturing. Tell me about your firefly.”

My heart pounded. This was what I'd come here for.

Hensley shifted and put his arms behind his back, all businessman now. The dead guard was forgotten. Unimportant now, even though Hensley's men were outnumbered three to one.

Maybe the Nightmare gang didn't know Hensley was a flasher. That the Burning Hand was literal, not just some name.

“You know that my product is the highest quality. I assist in manufacturing the firefly myself. The key is heating everything to just the right temperature. It's a delicate process, but well worth the effort.” Hensley's tone was smooth, smiling. “I believe you're associated with one of my dealers already.”

The woman bowed her head. “I'm aware of him. Mercush Ries. He started using, I believe. He seems . . . content.”

Mercush. That was Romily's brother. The reason she, too, hated Hensley more than anything.

Hensley nodded. “Always happy to hear about satisfied customers. But as you know, I was recently forced to terminate my prime distributor.”

Knight. He meant Professor Knight. I wanted to be sick.

“Mercush Ries isn't as useful as he once was,” Hensley continued. “I need an organization like yours to help me reach the people who want firefly.”

The woman's voice was smooth. “Are you sure you're ready for that? Working with the Nightmare gang is a big commitment. We don't tolerate delay and our orders are always large.”

“I am ready.”

Her weight shifted to one hip. “I have arrangements with other shine manufacturers. What else can you offer to make me consider breaking those ties?”

She was testing him. She was already interested in the firefly or she wouldn't be here. But like most people, she was greedy; she wanted more than just the firefly, and from a wealthy lord like Hensley, she had a chance of getting it.

“First,” he said, “firefly isn't shine. There's no comparing the two. Most shine is low quality and never delivers the desired effects beyond the first hit. Firefly, on the other hand, reliably produces the user's preferred sensation. As I said, quality is important to me. As the
only
manufacturer of firefly, I can personally ensure that every batch sent out is just as good as the last. There is no variation. Just a reliable product made with the utmost pride and care.”

The Nightmare leader seemed to ponder this for a moment. “That's well enough. But my current providers do sell high-quality shine, and at half your price.”

“Again, shine is no comparison to firefly.” Hensley's smile was oil-slick, and he nodded. “But I know what you want. Something no one else can offer quite like I can. Protection.”

She cocked her head, and for the first time, I had a sharp view of her face. High, wide cheekbones, long nose, narrow eyes. She was younger than I'd expected. “Protection from whom? The police won't venture here. They fear the Nightmare gang as much as anyone else.”

So much for no posturing. Even at court, it was hard to find a bigger ego.

But maybe it was well deserved. The Nightmare gang frequently eluded attempts at capture.

Lord Hensley nodded, as though he empathized with the Nightmare woman's confidence on some deep, emotional level. “I have ties with not only the police, but the Indigo Order as well. Even King Terrell himself. As long as our agreement holds, I can turn their eyes away from the Nightmare gang and Red Flag. I will give them something else to focus on and warn you of any raids or attempts on your organization.”

Several seconds ticked by. She said the Nightmare gang didn't need protection, but I knew how many resources my father put into following leads and setting up raids. Their efforts didn't always work, but it was probably annoying for the gang to stay vigilant.

“That sounds like a fair arrangement.” She smiled, shifting the tattoo on her cheek. I couldn't tell what it was from my position on the roof, but whatever it was, it seemed to have eyes.

Hensley held out a hand to shake.

“Oh no.” The woman sounded amused, but her face was hard again. The tattoo settled into something that almost looked like a cat. “I'm not touching you.”

So she did know about his magic. Interesting.

Hensley chuckled darkly, dropping his hand to his side. “You aren't the only one who refuses.”

“When will you make the first delivery? We have many potential customers waiting.”

Without hesitation, Hensley said, “At the current rate of production, I'd say a week.”

Seven days.

That was how long I had before the firefly that ruined Knight's life—and would soon kill Romily's brother—would destroy even more people in my city.

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