It had gone full dark by the time Ellison‚ carrying an overlarge burlap bag liberated from the Rand stables—entered the boathouse, where, until about three hours past, his hive used to reside.
The decrepit building was black as pitch, but for the wavering circle of light provided by the lantern Ellison had lit upon entering.
Since the lamp’s crystal was old, the illumination it provided was uncertain, shrinking or expanding at random, so Ellison’s view of the boathouse varied by the moment.
Not that it mattered, as Ellison, carrying both lantern and bag to the center of the room, knew every centimeter of the place by heart.
The bag had ceased bucking some time back, probably to avoid the pounding and slapping which was Ellison’s response.
Once he dropped it onto the warped boards, however, it immediately commenced wriggling again, so he gave the sack a touch of the boot.
He was gratified to see the little shape curl up on itself with a soft whimper.
“There’ll be more o’ that and you don’t mind yerself,” he told it. “You savvy?”
The top of the bag gave a subdued nod.
Satisfied, he set the handheld lamp on a crate that, like the rest of the boathouse, had seen better days.
Then he opened the sack and pulled Mia out by the hair.
“You and me,” he said, kicking the sacking aside, “we’re gonna have us a little talk.”
“About what?” she asked, arms crossed in front of her, defiance trembling in every bone.
“All kinds o’ things,” he said, looming over the dodger. “Like ingratitude.“
“Sorry, didn’t I thank you for the back of your hand last night?”
For which he, of course, was forced to give her the back of his hand, again.
“Now, now,” a dry voice reproved from the darkness, “that’s no way to treat your dodgers.”
Ellison and Mia both froze.
“Who’s there?” the fagin asked, drawing a blade from his belt with one hand while the other snagged Mia by the throat.
“Let’s just say I’m a man who has had a spectacularly bad day.”
Ellison turned to the left, cursing. He’d been sure the speaker had been at his right.
Mia tried to take advantage of the distraction by slamming an elbow into Ellison’s gut, but she hadn’t enough force to penetrate the layers of clothes, fat, and muscle.
“Ease off, girl,” he snapped, knocking her up against the crate with enough force to daze.
A heartbeat later he was ducking as something screeched and dove at his head, then sped past to knock the lantern to the floor, where it gave a last, valiant sputter before fading to black.
Ellison silently cursed the moment he’d ever set eyes on that draco.
“I hear you met Elvis already,” the voice in the dark said. “Which means you should have figured out he doesn’t like people messing with kids.”
A screech from the pitch dark above confirmed this.
“I don’t like when people mess with kids, either,” Quinn’s voice (Because who else could it be?) continued.
Except now he was behind Ellison.
Ellison spun, lifting Mia up as a shield and pressing the blade against her throat. “Back off, Quinn, if you don’t wanna see how much blood’s inside this little girl.”
“What did I just say about messing with kids?” Quinn asked.
“Not just a kid,” Ellison said. “A dodger. My dodger.”
“Not anymore,” Quinn told him. “Tell you what, you put her down right now, and I’ll let you walk out that door.”
“Or,” Ellison said, “you walk out that door right now, or I give the poppet a Midasian necktie.”
There was a pause, just long enough to be gratifying to the fagin.
“Huh,” the voice said at last, “it seems you have me at a disadvantage.”
“Damn right, I do. So unless you want to see this bit o’ gutter filth bleedin’ out onna floor, you’ll be handing over that draco of yours, and backing outta here.”
“And then you’ll let Mia go?”
“Mia, is it?” Ellison’s grin slid into a leer. “Looks like I was right about her bein’ ripe enough for the night trade.”
His dark words (and darker thoughts) were cut off as a flash of light, just a brief prick of brightness in the black, seared his eyeballs.
The sudden, unexpected glare froze him, and left him momentarily blind (or, more blind, being besieged by little white dots, rather than big black shadows), so he never saw the blade that flew from the darkness beyond all those white dots.
But he felt it.
With a gurgle of pain, Ellison dropped the girl and slumped to his knees. His own small blade slid from numb fingers to clatter on the floor as his left hand rose to find the wedge of a knife buried in his shoulder.
He tried to speak as a deeper shade of dark filled the air in front of him, but could only emit a guttural denial.
This had to be the worst pain he’d ever known.
No, he realized a moment later, as a tall shadow yanked the blade out, with just enough twist to graze bone, this was the worst pain he’d ever known.
He let out a whimper, while his unseen nemesis reactivated the pocket torch he’d used to blind Ellison.
He gave Ellison a look, then handed the torch to Mia, already sitting up.
She took the light, but was staring at Quinn. “You came after me.”
“Of course I came after you. Well, technically Elvis came after you, and I followed him. You okay?” he asked.
She gave her head a testing shake. “I dunno.” She pushed herself to her feet. “Does right pissed count as okay?”
“Under the circumstances, yes.”
Ellison, through the film of pain, saw the other man’s smile, a brief flash of teeth in the torch’s light.
Then he saw Mia look down at him. “You gonna kill him, then?”
Ellison felt himself shrinking under that unforgiving regard.
“That,” Quinn said, “is up to him.”
“To him?” Mia glared up at Quinn.
“T-To me?” Ellison asked at the same time.
“It may be,” Quinn said, glancing down, “that Fagin Ellison has an urge to relocate.”
“M-M-Maybe?” Ellison stuttered, grasping at any possible future that had him in it.
“Far away from Nike.”
“I hear Tendo’s nice, this time of year,” Ellison suggested.
“Farther,” Gideon prompted.
“I’ve—always wanted to see Stoli in winter?”
“In which case,” Gideon said with a nod of approval, “I don’t see the need for another death today.”
“Another?” Ellison’s brain appeared to sputter over the thought of any deaths that day. “No. No need. None at all,” he agreed.
For her part, Mia looked as if she had another view, but then the draco swooped down from the rafters, buzzing the cringing Ellison, before coming to land on her shoulder.
Mia looked at the draco, who seemed to meet her gaze.
To the fagin’s desperate relief, the cold fury in her eyes seemed to abate under the draco’s calm regard.
“I suppose not,” she said, finally deigning to spare a glance for her newly former fagin.
“So it’s all settled,” Ellison said. “Soon as I liberate my hive from them keepers.”
“Your hive is forfeit,” Gideon said shortly, pressing on the blade just enough to bite at the tender flesh of Ellison’s neck. “Not a one of those kids is going with you. Consider it an early retirement,” he suggested with a lightness that belied the weight of the knife in his hand.
“But I’ll have nothing!”
“You’ll have a pulse,” Gideon reminded him.
Which, as far as arguments went, Ellison had to admit was a good one.