From her place, seated atop the Rubbish Throne, Fatima looked over her flock of Urchins and they looked back at her with a mixture of awe and adulation. They’d stopped chanting her chosen title – Omma, Omma, Omma – and had fallen into hurried whispers and the occasional fully voiced cheer. Of the guards posted around the edges of the sub-basement, only a few had attempted to flee when Fatima took control of the other orphans. Between the guards who had shifted loyalty immediately and the larger unarmed children who were able to push their way through the crowd, the boys who’d hoped for escape were quickly subdued. Their weapons were taken from unwilling hands, their arms were pinned in unforgiving holds, and they were dragged bodily down from their positions and across the room to the same place where Fatima had stood and challenged Mamoud for the hearts of the Urchins.
The three guards who’d thrown their lot in with Mamoud, for better or worse, found themselves thrown to the ground mere inches away from their former leader’s still-twitching body. They looked down at the floor for less than second before they averted their eyes.
“Why?” Fatima asked them. At the sound of her voice, the Urchins fell silent, so that the lone word carried through the still, stagnant air. “Why would you choose him over your family?”
Hisein translated as she pointed down, at the body I couldn’t see from my position, and some of the beefier Urchins forced the three guards to stare in that direction. One of them whimpered – in fear or in pain, I wasn’t sure which – while the other two did their best to remain stoic.
Fatima didn’t speak for a long time. It might have only been thirty seconds, but in the deathly silent sub-basement, with a recently murdered child’s body cooling on the floor, it felt like hours. The time stretched on, each second passing at a painfully glacial pace. The little girl wanted an answer, and she was apparently content to wait as long as necessary for the three guards to provide her with one.
I couldn’t stand it. My skin crawled with revulsion and my stomach threatened to rebel against what I’d just seen. I wanted to vomit. I wanted to scramble up the ladder, out of the sub-basement and back to the relative safety of the bed and breakfast, where things made sense. I wanted to scream at Fatima, to demand an explanation for such an act of unnecessary brutality. Mamoud had lost control of the Urchins. The children he’d tricked or sold into service had been rescued. Had there really been a need to kill him?
“Why?” I asked myself out loud, unconsciously mirroring Fatima’s question to the guards. “Why would she do it?”
“She didn’t have a choice,” Mila answered.
I whirled on her. Horror and disgust mingled together in my gut and the resulting compound was pure, irrational anger. “Didn’t have a choice?” I repeated. “You heard her, same as I did. She chose to do that. She didn’t have to.”
Mila, of course, didn’t react to my outburst. Her expression was a little tighter than normal, however, and her words were a little sharper than they might normally have been. “What else could she have done? Let Mamoud go free after what he’d done?”
“She could have sent him away,” I said. “Or…I don’t know, exiled him or something like that, couldn’t she?”
“And risk him telling someone where the Urchins are hiding out?”
I didn’t have an immediate answer for that. The lack of a ready response only stoked my fury more.
“He’d already betrayed them once,” Mila continued, “and you think he wouldn’t have done it again out of simple spite? Grown men lash out when they’ve been humiliated, even when they know better. Mamoud was a child, Sarah. He wouldn’t have been able to help himself.”
“You’re right; he was a child! And he’s…he’s dead now! We did that! You could have stopped her and you didn’t, because…because…why didn’t you?”
“Because it would have happened eventually,” Devlin said.
I spun on him, ready and willing to unload on him for the simple crime of daring to speak, but the stricken look in his eyes brought me up short. He was staring forward, his vision locked on Fatima, the Rubbish Throne, and the three guards who were still being forced to kneel in Mamoud’s blood. Devlin’s jaw was set like a stone statue and every line of his body was straight and unyielding. I might have mistaken that posture for his colder nature reasserting itself, if not for the tears I could see in the corner of his eyes.
“She told all of the Urchins that Mamoud was the one who was selling them out,” Devlin continued, never looking away from Fatima for an instant. “Even if she’d let him go…even if he hadn’t gone straight to someone who’d pay for the privilege of flushing out all of these orphans…one of the other Urchins would have found him in the street. Without friends or money, how long do you think he would have survived in Tangiers?”
I opened my mouth to speak, realized I had nothing to offer, and snapped my jaw shut with an audible click.
“This was the only way she could consolidate her power,” Devlin said. “Now, before someone else got the idea of trying to make an end run around her at a later date. If another Urchin gets the bright idea to make a little extra by betraying the rest of the orphans, all she has to do is point what she did to the last guy.”
“She slit his throat,” I said. The bitterness in my voice surprised me. “Killed him in cold blood and took his seat before rigor mortis could even set in.”
“It was either that,” Mila said, “or let him die on the street and deal with power struggles in the future.”
“So you’re telling me she did the right thing? That this…” I gestured vaguely in Fatima’s direction. “…that this is what she should have done?”
Mila shook her head. “I’m not saying that at all. But this is what she had to do, if she wanted to keep the Urchins safe.”
My eyes started to sting. I looked away from her quickly before any tears could appear. I would not cry in front of Mila. She’d just stare at me with those expressionless eyes, silently mocking for me being emotional, and I didn’t have the strength to deal with that. There were days when I could handle her stoicism with only a raised eyebrow, and we’d worked jobs where that equanimity had served us all well. This wasn’t one of those times. At that instant, all of my self-control was being used to keep from fleeing the scene and, even then, it was a near thing.
I took several deep breaths with my back turned to Mila. That meant I was facing Michel now. Michel, bless his heart, was openly tearing up. I knew that Devlin was forcing himself to present a firm face, and I would probably appreciate that later when my emotions weren’t torn between fury and heartbreak, but there was something reaffirming about seeing someone else openly displaying the turmoil I felt inside.
Without a word, Michel reached out his arms and pulled me into a hug. I returned every pound of pressure and, somehow, kept myself from sobbing as well.
“It is not supposed to be like this,” Michel said into the curve of my neck. “Things like this…they are not supposed to happen.”
Wordlessly, I agreed with him; out loud, I just returned the hug and stayed silent.
“It’s not over,” Mila said, still as maddeningly calm as ever.
I pulled away from the hug and forced myself to face Fatima and the Throne again. She was speaking to the guards in Arabic now and the words were too soft to make out. Whatever she was saying had an effect on one of the kneeling boys. He responded to her gentle tone, looking up at her from his knees as if pleading for forgiveness. He and Fatima exchanged a few sentences before the little girl touched his cheek with the back of one hand – the same hand that, until moments ago, had held the knife she used to kill Mamoud – and gestured for the Urchins to let him stand. The other two guards were carried away and the surging crowd of orphans blocked them from my vision before too long.
“Friends!” Fatima called out, switching back to English.
“I think that’s us,” Mila said.
Fatima climbed back atop the dais so that she was fully visible over the heads of the other children and gestured with both arms for us to approach. I was concerned about stepping on one of the orphans, but the Urchins we’d rescued from the shanty-town quickly formed up into a protective circle around us. With their help, we easily pushed through the assemblage. By unspoken consent, the four of us stopped well short of the spot where Mamoud’s body lay.
“My family would have been lost without you,” Fatima said, seating herself in the exact middle of the Rubbish Throne. “My brothers and sisters, taken away in the dead of night. I will always owe you for this.”
I exchanged a look with Devlin. He’d wiped the unshed tears from his eyes at some point. His irises were red and he was sniffling slightly, but he was at least capable of presenting a somewhat neutral expression. I was still seething internally, twisted up in knots of sadness, grief, and outrage, and I knew that my emotions must have been written all across my face. I didn’t trust myself to say anything even vaguely diplomatic or polite, so I waited for Devlin to take the lead.
Instead, he motioned for me to speak.
I stared at him for several seconds, but he didn’t change his mind. I considered turning to Mila and, in the same instant that thought occurred to me, dismissed it out of hand. Diplomacy wasn’t her strong suit.
If Devlin wanted me to take the lead, then so be it.
“I don’t know that I want this to be on my tab,” I said to Fatima. I took great care not to even look in the direction of Mamoud’s body. “We offered to help you, not to put you in a position to kill someone.”
Fatima’s expression shifted slightly. The imperious aura and the motherly compassion flickered out of existence for just an eye blink. She said something to Hisein in Arabic and he relayed orders to some of the Urchins who’d been serving as Fatima’s de facto honor guard. All of them moved away, towards Mamoud’s remains, and left my team and I alone with the new leader of the Urchins.
“You did help me,” Fatima said. She pitched her voice so that it wasn’t loud enough to carry anymore. Having seen her work on such a grand scale previously, I wasn’t sure if that was more theatre or a genuine gesture. “You know what would have happened to us if you had not been there.”
“Why’d you send Hisein away?”
Fatima looked away for an instant before answering. “Most of the others do not speak English,” she said. “Hisein learned from me. He might not understand everything that you say to me.”
“Where did you learn English?” I asked, despite myself. That was hardly the most important question that needed to be asked.
“I did not always live here,” Fatima said. “The people at Jahannam…I have known men like them before. Like them, and worse.”
I shuddered. The slavers at the shanty-town had fully intended on kidnapping a horde of innocent orphans and selling them off to God-knows-who in God-knows-what country. There were worse criminals that I knew of, but I didn’t want to think of them interacting with Fatima. She was still only a little girl. For her to have any experience with filth even lower than slave traders at such a young age was unthinkable.
A little girl, I reminded myself, who’d just murdered her rival as an act of theatre. It wouldn’t do me any good to forget exactly who I was talking to.
“Hisein speaks perfectly good English,” I said. “He’d know what I was saying about as well as you would.”
“It is not the language,” Fatima said. “It is the…tone? Is that the word?”
“You mean that you didn’t want him to hear how I feel about what you did.”
“Correct,” Fatima said. She had the decency to seem a bit embarrassed about that, but she kept her head high. “I am not proud of what this, but it was necessary.”
I scoffed. “Murder is never necessary.”
Mila couldn’t help but shoot me a reproachful look. I could feel her gaze on my skin.
“Self defense is one thing,” I amended. That provision didn’t cover everything Mila had done in her previous life – it probably didn’t even cover the better half – but she’d have to deal. She had her principles and I had mine. “But someone defenseless, who’d already been beaten?”
“Hisein believes in me,” Fatima said. “He believes that I do what I must to protect him and the rest of my family. He must continue to believe in me. His faith inspires the others to listen, to see what I will do for them. But he also respects you, so…”
I understood, even though I didn’t particularly want to. Politics was a game of appearances. Fatima had only just taken control of the Urchins and there’d been at least two shifts in power in the last twelve to twenty-four hours. The Urchins we’d rescued from the shanty-town had already given their absolute loyalty to Fatima for saving them, but there were likely holdouts from Mamoud’s short reign hidden amongst the main body of the warehouse Urchins. The wrong words, spoken around the wrong people, could plant the seeds for another power struggle in the future.
“You think he’d try to take your place?” I asked.
Fatima shook her head. “No. Never that. But he might say something, without meaning to.”
I digested that in silence for a few moments. If it wasn’t about protecting her newly claimed power, why had she insisted Hisein leave her side? If anything, he’d earned his place as her most stalwart supporter. The events of the night proved that a dozen times over.
“Doubt,” Mila said. “It’s not about him doubting you. You don’t want him to doubt himself.”
Fatima nodded. “You understand.”
That sentiment, coming from Mila, was a lot deeper than it appeared. She’d been an orphan too, or at least a foster child. Devlin knew more about her past than I did. What I’d gleaned, however, spoke to a rough upbringing; that upbringing, coupled with her eerie detachment from emotions, had led her to a life as a mercenary.
But that wasn’t true either. Mila hadn’t been a mercenary before; she’d been a hitwoman. Mercenary had just been a less morally repellent title for her activities.
She’d left that job behind her, but I’d never asked her why. I didn’t even think Devlin had broached the subject. It had something to do with her previous boss, Aiden. But had it been more than that? Had she started to doubt whether or not she was doing the right thing? Was there a right thing in her mind?
I’d have to dig deeper into it later, when the opportunity presented itself.
Hisein and the other boys knelt, lifted Mamoud from the floor, and carried him away. They treated the body with a surprising amount of respect, all things considered.
“Wasn’t there any other way this could have gone?” I asked Fatima.
The look she gave me in response both shockingly world-weary and childishly vulnerable, at the same time. “Was there?”
Again, I didn’t have an answer to that.
After about thirty seconds, Fatima sighed heavily. “I have never…done that before,” she said. “It is not something I want to do again.”
“If you don’t want to, then don’t.”
“I cannot control that.” She extended an arm and indicated the entire body of Urchins, still watching our conversation with rapt attention. “You said that you know someone who can help us. If this is true, then I hope I will never have to protect my family from betrayal again.”
“But if you do?”
Fatima took in a deep breath and squared her shoulders. When she met my eyes, I saw steel in the little girl’s bearing. “I will be who I have to be,” she said. “You have your family to protect; I have mine.”
It wasn’t just my family. The Community was on the verge of fatally fracturing. The Mouse was in the wind, fleeing from an enemy whose ire I’d incited. And my team…we were playing with fire, on the scale of Prometheus and the Gods. To protect them, I’d stolen, misled, conned, and broken the law on a dozen different occasions just in the past six months.
Was I really in a position to criticize how someone protected their own?
“You made a deal with Farrad,” Fatima said, visibly pulling her mask back together. As I watched, she reassembled the poise and control she’d been wearing when I’d first seen her. “If you need our help, you will have it.”
I patted at the bag slung over my shoulder. The tablet, filled with data stripped from the shanty-town, was still in position. Exhaustion threatened to drag me into unconsciousness, but I was on a time limit.
“No,” I said. “We got what we needed. We’re even.”
Fatima shook her head. “No. We will never be even. What you have done is…”
She trailed off and I couldn’t stop myself from looking at the spot where Mamoud had previously been. Some of the smaller Urchins were industriously attempting to clean the blood from the floor before it could grow cold and sticky. I could only stand a few seconds of that image before I averted my eyes.
“I don’t want to think about what I’ve done,” I said. “Right now, all I can deal with is what I have to do.”
Fatima met my eyes for an interminable second and something passed between us. It wasn’t quite an understanding, but it was something in that family.
She nodded solemnly. “Go, then, and do what you must.”
That was as good a sendoff as I was going to get. I turned on my heel and left the sub-basement, my team following in my wake.