Mads Wilder lives on bribes. So when the knife-shaped girl slipped her hand in his pocket at the end of his last shift for the night, he took her home.
It could have been her second or fourth or fifteenth time. Mads doesn’t recognize her, but Mads doesn’t recognize anyone. Mads doesn’t do faces. It’s hard to see how he was hired onto the Watch at all. But if you were hired onto the Watch, you’d learn that it was never about watching anyone. It’s about making people feel watched. And Mads may not do faces, but he is exceptionally gifted at having a face that looks watchful. Deep-set eyes the same lampyellow as the cats that also patrol the streets. A nose like a ship’s rudder, tacking towards trouble. Forehead dashed with heavy lines from a life of making only this one face. Cheeks like slabs of slate. A chin that could split wood.
A face like that can make a man rich in this underground city. A face like that makes Underhell’s upstanding citizens feel safe. A face like that makes Underhell’s hooligans and scofflaws dig in their pockets for bribes or look for a place to hide.
Mads thought he must have taken her back before because she seemed to know the way. She was taking him home. It was strangely comforting, like being a boy again. He found himself trusting her, not because she had given him much reason to, but because he wanted to. He’d made a career out of mistrusting everyone and he was tired of it. Here was a girl who knew the way home and wasn’t afraid to hold his scarred hand. Trust was a luxury and tonight he wanted to indulge. Get drunk on trust. Go on a trust-binge. Trust so much the room would spin.
With brittle little fingers, she squeezed his hand, leading him through the passages and pocketcaves that threaded Underhell’s loftier neighborhoods and into the low-lying suburbs. As the stalagmite skyscrapers and basalt towers receded to the size of baby teeth behind them, Mads looked back, just once. This was how he liked the city. Small enough to spit on.
He was tired of his city, tired of his shifts, tired of all the brandy he had to drink just to float himself through another day, tired of the monotony. He had thought crime, like art, would draw the imaginative, the slant-minded, the brilliant, the brave. He had thought he would be spending his shifts drinking backalley brew with threat-poets, murder-artists, and bank-robbing virtuosos. They would become closer than brothers, and then he would betray them, bundling them off to the prison-mines where they would continue to write him exquisite letters, unable to hate their beguiling brother-in-the-law. Instead, the Watch was just a lot of grubby money passing from the hands of shame-faced men who looked so sad and shabby Mads didn’t have the heart to send them to the mines. Crime was punishing enough.
But there were the evening-girls. It would be hard to give them up. Sex was a legal trade in Underhell, a city founded by unwed mothers, wisewomen, and runaways. Of course, few patrons came to the evening-girls just for sex. They came for sweet dreams, sold in little green glass bottles and silver-plated matchboxes. And bottled dreams were very illegal. So evening-girls bribed Mads Wilder with their legal and equally irresistible wares, and he saved for an early retirement. He wanted to buy a little one-cabin boat on the subterranean sea and spend the rest of his life fishing for trash. Find some peace inside on the blue-black silence of the deeps. Wrench his catch from the water in a shower of silver sealight. Sell rusty cans and empty jam jars to the urchins who leapt from ship to ship in the tightly packed marina, bundles of sparkling trash strapped to their backs.
Soon. He saved the bribe-money in a toy ship, where the coins clinked comfortably against ceramic walls. It was company he hadn’t yet figured out how to save. His shifts were dull but at least there was street-chatter to give them color, and a new body to keep his bed warm every night. Picturing himself alone on the subterranean sea with nothing but brandy and the sound of sloshing waves to fill all the cold space inside him–he shivered.
“Mads?” said the girl. She was looking into him, not at him, as if she knew exactly what he was thinking as he stared back at the city, at the bay lacing its northwestern rim like a satin ribbon. “You don’t like it here, do you?” Her voice was low, cool as granite, making “here” heavy as all the rock in Underhell.
He nodded vaguely, still lost on the sifting waves.
“Neither do I,” she said. “Let’s go home.” And in her low voice, “home” sounded deep as the midnight sea.
As she pulled him deeper into the suburban caverns, where the homes were low and carved into the porous stone, he studied her to take his mind off the city. Built like a jackknife, steely, sharp, compact–like she could snap shut in an instant, like she was used to folding herself up, fitting into small spaces. Her hair was dark and fell down her back, sleek and straight as water. She stopped to greet every cat. They lined the path like boulders, sprawling under the sky-shafts that still dripped secondhand light from the world above. The cats had all rolled onto their backs, bellies in the air, collecting the last rays of sun in their thick fur. The girl greeted each one by name. “Hello, Mogget.” “Petro.” “Pardon.” “Londro.” “Flag.” “Thistle.” “Alright, Marlinspike?” “Magwitch.” “Griffin.” “Gherkin.” “My lovely little Foxglove.”
Each cat looked up at her as she spoke, opening one lampyellow eye and lolling back to show her their bellies, all round and ripe for a good scratch. They followed her with their eyes as she strolled by.
Mads Wilder liked cats, and they certainly liked the girl. He found he liked her too. He supposed he must have, the last time, or she wouldn’t have come back for another night with him. Strange that he didn’t remember her. He tended to remember the odd ones. Her attention to the cats was proof enough of oddness. She cared. Cared too much, maybe. The city wasn’t kind to cats and people who cared too much. No wonder she looked used to snapping shut and fitting into small places. She lacked the thick skin most Underhellians were born with.
As they passed the cats, he was caught for a moment in the way the sunlight pooled in their fur, kindling every grain of dust so that the cats seemed to glow, aflame with a million grains of light. Then they turned a corner, and as they left the sky-shafts behind, night lurched up out of the shadows, strangling what was left of the day.
“Here we are.” The girl dropped his hand so she could press her palm against a panel of dolomite set in the tunnel’s granite wall. Mads never locked his door; local crime was so boring. None of the neighborhood sneakthieves were fanciful enough to imagine raiding the home of a Watchman. The panel slid back under her hand. He could see the tendons stretched under her skin like wires, as if she were a spiky manikin in a thin vellum envelope.
She took his hand again, her fingers cold from the stone. Without a word or a kiss or a brush of the lips, she dragged him into his own parlor and began peeling him down to the skin. She was methodical, meticulous, mindful of every button. Before laying his shirt to rest on the divan, she flicked the creases out with a long finger. It wasn’t like this last time, Mads was sure. He would have remembered. He was beginning to wonder whether he’d ever had her here before. But she had recognized the door.
She had him by the socks now, thin fingers slipping under the cuffs and grazing his ankle bones as if they were no more sensuous than small stones.
Once she had peeled him of his socks and had him down to skin, she stood and faced him.
“Are you sure this is what you want?” she asked, her granite voice smooth and cool. “Are you sure you want to be with me, all two of us in one skin?”
Her eyes were gray, not gray like the cave but gray like an emptiness, an omission, like something he had forgotten as a boy and had been trying to remember ever since. But Mads had never been much for faces, and her hair was falling down her back like black water and her vellum throat was pulsing with something that was not quite love, but was something he wanted very much.
“Yes,” said Mads Wilder. “Yes.”
She brought her hands down to the place below his belly button where the hair sprang up in cheerful curls. He felt her fingernail, cold and sharp and curved like a scythe. Felt it graze the skin there and then bite in. Felt her unzipping him, from navel to neck, his skin curling back. There was no pain. Instead, an almost familiar relief fell through him. Like sliding into a hot bath and feeling his worries slough off and sink, dissolving before they hit the bottom of the tub.
She unseamed him, opened him, all in one slice. He said nothing. He had no words for what she was doing to him. Very gently, she peeled his skin back to make space for her hand. She slipped a finger between his ribs, nudging the organs aside, making room. Then, in one swooping movement, like a bat furling its wings in a tight dive, she slipped off her dress and there was nothing underneath. Slowly, shyly, she stepped into the hollow she’d made in him, folding herself small, fitting herself under his heart.
“I’d very much like to share your skin,” she said, pulling the loose flap up to her chin like a blanket. She snuggled deeper into the space beneath his heart, tucking herself in. “Now we’ll never be alone.”
He didn’t try to tug her out. She was warm. She seemed to belong there. She fit just right in that old, cold space that all the brandy in the city had never been able to fill. She was peace inside his skin.
Over several strange days, the skin knit itself together again. He rubbed a balm of calendula and beeswax into the scab, sealing the seam. He moved tenderly around his bruised ribs. He sent word to the Watch that he was sick, skipped shifts until they told him he’d been replaced. No more shifts to skip. No more nights on Watch. Just Mads Wilder at home with his scar and the girl under his heart.
He found it harder to bend over with her cradled in his ribcage. In the mornings, his left arm was stiffer than his right. She got restless when he drank anything harder than cider, so he stopped drinking.
He doesn’t need drink anymore. He’s always warm inside. Full. When he’s still, he feels her heart beating beside his.
One day he took the little ceramic boat out of its alcove and smashed it with a mallet. It exploded in a starburst of silver and gold, coins rolling away into the far corners of the room. He swept them into a pile and counts up a career’s worth of bribes. It is enough.
He placed his hands beneath his heart. She snuggled closer to their warmth.
“How about we buy a boat?” he asked. And deep in his left ear he heard her voice, smooth and cool, a whisper carried over the wires of his veins: “Yes.”