Child of the Night Guild Excerpts
We’ve been at this for hours! When will he let us rest? Mind numb from hunger and fatigue, Viola placed one weary foot in front of the other. Blood dripped from cuts in her hands, arms, and forehead.
Master Velvet refused to let up. “Your past is gone, your families forgotten. You have no names, no identities. You are nothing more than a number until it is deemed fit to give you a name.”
The children called out as one, “Yes, Master Velvet!”
“Everything you are, everything you will be, you owe to the Night Guild. We are your masters, your creators, your gods.” The tirade had repeated for endless hours, but Master Velvet never seemed to have enough.
“Yes, Master Velvet!”
Master Velvet’s voice cracked like a carter’s whip. “Disobedience will be punished harshly. Obedience will be rewarded well. Learn this and you will flourish in the Night Guild.”
Viola’s legs wobbled, her shoulders ached, and her arms shook from exertion. “Yes, Master Velvet!”
“Forget everything you know. Forget life outside this room. You eat, sleep, and shit at my command.”
“Yes, Master Velvet!” Viola’s voice cracked from thirst and fatigue. She wanted to lie down, to close her eyes, to sleep.
Master Velvet snarled in her ear. “You live and die at the pleasure of the Night Guild. You belong to the Guild mind, body, and soul. What are you?”
“We are tyros, Master Velvet.”
He crouched beside her. “And what are tyros?”
“Lower than dirt, Master Velvet!”
A satisfied smile spread across his face. “Empty your buckets and set them on the floor beside the barrels. Double speed, my drudges.”
Viola tried to move faster, but her feet refused. By the time she reached the barrel at the far end of the room, only one other child remained. The boy, barely taller than her, had yet to empty his bucket. He strained to lift his heavy load. His hands trembled uncontrollably—a permanent condition that made even eating and drinking difficult. Water splashed down his tunic, turning the dirt to mud.
Emptying her pail, Viola dropped to the sodden ground with a half-sob, half-groan of relief.
“Get up, tyros!” Master Velvet would not let them rest.
Tears of exhaustion and frustration streaming, she climbed to her feet. Though her back protested, she forced herself straight when Master Velvet approached.
Stand tall, no matter what. Mama’s words echoed in her thoughts. I’m trying, Mama, but I’m so tired!
“Chow time, my drudges. You’ll find that table over there loaded with delights to fill your little bellies. Eat. You have done well.”
Someone had piled the table high with fruits, sweetmeats, and treats. She’d been too exhausted to notice. The scent of fresh bread, cinnamon rolls, and pastries wafted toward her. Her stomach rumbled in anticipation.
Master Velvet placed a hand on her shoulder. “Not you, Seven. You were the first to fail, so an example must be made.”
“B-But…” Viola couldn’t put up more than a weak protest.
“Off with you, Seven. To your bunk and reflect on your weakness.” His dark eyes held no kindness. “Pray to the Watcher for strength to survive.”
“Y-Yes, Master Velvet.” She turned away to hide her tears.
“Perhaps you’ll try harder tomorrow, Seven.” He spoke without a trace of compassion or pity in his voice. “If you want to have any hope of survival here in the Night Guild, this will be the last time you fail.”
Hunger gnawed at Viola’s belly, but it could not outweigh the bone-deep weariness. She forced herself not to look at the other children, to block out the sounds of their eating. Feet leaden, she turned to the tunnel that led to their sleeping quarters.
Tears flowed in earnest once she reached the darkness of the passage. Sobs of anger, desperation, and frustration washed over her, shaking her body like a leaf in a whirlwind.
Slamming the door shut behind her, she threw herself onto her bunk and buried her head in the thin pillow. She didn’t care that her clothes were soaking wet or that she hadn’t had any water to drink for hours. She wouldn’t allow any of the others to see her cry.
Bright Lady, hear me and protect me in my hour of need. Her parched throat refused to form the words.
The prayer had comforted her in the past, but now it felt empty. The hunger, exhaustion, and thirst remained. Minutes ticked by in silence. Nothing happened.
She balled her fists and swallowed the ache in her belly. Down here, she was all alone. The Bright Lady can’t hear me.
Why would she? The goddess of healing hadn’t heard when she’d prayed for Mama and baby Rose. The gods were far away, if they cared at all. Mama was gone and Papa had left her here. In this place, she was the only one she could count on. She had to be strong, just as she had been after Mama died.
I will get through another day. Just one more.
“Are you sure you’re doing it right, Seven?”
Seven scrunched her face, concentrating hard. “I’m doing it just like he showed us, Three. See?” She attempted to snatch the purse.
Three patted the oversized waistcoat Master Velvet had given him.
“I could still feel it. So you’re doing something wrong.”
Frustration mounting, Seven tried again, doing exactly as Master Velvet had taught them. Walk toward the mark. Bump into him. Dip two fingers into his pocket to hook the purse. Apologize to the mark and touch him with my free hand. Hide the purse in my palm and hurry away.
He shook his head. “That time, too. I can feel you pulling the purse out when you move away. Maybe you need to do it faster.”
“I can’t do it faster, Three. Not yet, at least.” Seven clenched her fists in frustration.
He held up a hand. “It’s okay, Seven. Give it time. You’ll get it.”
“Here.” She threw him the bulging, cloth-stuffed purse. “Let me try again.” Even as she tugged the purse free, the look on Three’s face told her she’d failed.
Her friend shrugged. “Still felt it.”
Seven ground her teeth. Master Velvet said this is supposed to be easy. So why can’t I get it right?
Three tugged the vest over his head. “Let’s give the bump a break for a moment.” He pulled a dun-colored cloak around his shoulders. “What say we give the snatch a try?”
Seven nodded. The snatch required timing and dexterity, but she’d grown adept at it. She walked toward Three, brushed against his cloak, and lifted the purse from the hidden pocket, all without breaking stride.
Three’s eyes widened. “Damn, Seven. I didn’t feel a thing!”
She beamed. “Well, at least there’s one thing I’m good at.”
Master Velvet strode up behind her and took her small, muddy hands. “You’ve got good finger-work, tyro.” He ran his calloused hands over her fingers. “They’re quick and nimble. With the right training, you could become quite the purse collector.”
“Thank you, Master Velvet.” She flushed at his praise. It was the first full compliment she’d ever heard pass his lips.
“Keep it up, Seven. Three.” With a nod, he moved to the next pair of tyros.
Three slapped her on the shoulder. “Look at that! You’re getting there.”
“Yeah. Now if only I could get the bump down properly.” She held out her arms. “Here, give me the vest and cloak. You’ve got to practice, too.”
As Three passed her the clothing, Twelve’s shout echoed through the Menagerie. “Damn it! You’re doing it wrong, you stupid sack of shite.”
Two met Twelve’s glare without a trace of fear. “How in the Keeper’s name can I be doing it wrong, Twelve?” Two was taller than Twelve, though not as broad. “I’m standing here in this vest. You’re supposed to be pulling the damned purse.”
“Well…” Twelve faltered, his face reddening. With a snarl, he threw the purse in Two’s face and stormed off.
Three snorted. “Looks like he’s not doing much better than you are, Seven.”
Seven glared at her friend. “That’s not saying much for me, you know. With those fat sausage fingers, he can barely fit his hands in the pocket.”
“There you go.” He gave her a broad grin. “You’ve got the advantage, at least over him. Just give it time and you’ll get better at it.”
She rolled her eyes. “Well, let’s see how good you are.”
“I’ll bet you a peach I can do the bump better than you.”
Twelve hurried toward the table, his face burning, a storm brewing behind his eyes. His path led him straight at Seven.
She hustled out of the bigger boy’s way. Better avoid him when he’s like this. No telling what he’ll do.
Two, however, ignored Twelve. He remained seated, content to munch at the food spread out before him.
Twelve snarled. “Move.”
A memory flitted through Seven’s head: a man sat at a table, growling at her to work. She couldn’t remember the face, but would never forget the anger.
Two didn’t move. He reached for an apple, turned to face Twelve, and took a noisy bite from the fruit. He leaned back against the table, arms folded across his chest.
Twelve’s face burned and his fists clenched at his side. “Get out of my way, Two!”
“No.” Two returned the angry glare. “You’re just another one of us. You don’t give commands here.”
Twelve swung, a blow aimed at Two’s jaw. The taller boy blocked the punch and slammed the apple into Twelve’s mouth. Blood mixed with crushed apple pulp and Twelve fell back.
“Go away, Twelve.” Two crossed his arms again. “Leave us—”
With a roar, Twelve launched himself at Two’s midsection. The taller boy twisted aside, but Twelve’s heavy arms wrapped around his waist. Snarling, Twelve heaved Two from his feet and slammed him onto the table.
The impact knocked the breath from Two’s lungs and his head struck a cup. He lay there, dazed, as Twelve leapt onto the table. The big boy’s boot slammed into Two’s ribs. Seven winced at the crack.
Twelve dropped atop Two, his elbow plowing into the boy’s face. Blood spurted from Two’s nose and lip. He tried to protect his face as Twelve rained down blow after blow. The heavier boy’s face twisted into a mask of insane rage, his lips curled back, and spittle flew from his mouth.
“Enough!” Master Velvet seized Twelve by the scruff of his collar and yanked the boy off Two. He threw the heavy tyro to the floor, knelt on his chest, and slapped him hard. “I told you I would not abide any sort of fighting.”
Twelve had lost his mind. His eyes were glazed, unfocused, his face red, his fists striking at Master Velvet.
Master Velvet slapped Twelve hard again, twice, three times. The blows cracked across his cheek and rocked the big boy’s head. “Lie still, boy, or by the Watcher, I’ll beat you so bad the Long Keeper himself won’t be able to tell you from a pile of shite!”
Master Velvet’s words penetrated the boy’s anger-fueled daze. Twelve’s fists stopped pumping in the air and his arms dropped. He lay on his back, gasping for air, his teeth still bared in a snarl.
Master Velvet looked over at Two. “You’ll live?”
Two wheezed, coughed blood, and mumbled something incoherent.
“Good. Three, Four, Eleven. Get him back to his bunk. I’ll be in shortly with something for the injuries.”
The three named tyros hurried to help the taller boy and, together, they stumbled from the room.
“Now what to do with you, Twelve?” Master Velvet looked down at the boy beneath him.
He yanked Twelve to his feet and dragged him toward the weapons table.
“It seems my first lesson didn’t penetrate your thick skull. Perhaps this will help you to remember!” Seizing the cosh, he laid into the boy, striking the tyro’s arms, shoulders, chest, abdomen, legs, and head. Twelve cried out and tried to protect himself. “You’re a vicious cunt, lad, but there’s a time and place for that!”
Master Velvet slammed his fist into the boy’s gut, doubling him over. He kicked the back of Twelve’s knees. Twelve fell to the floor, weeping and curling into a ball.
He knelt beside the boy, bent low, and whispered something into his ear.
“Yes, Master Velvet,” Twelve sobbed.
“I won’t be repeating myself, tyro. Unless you want to find out what happens to those who disobey, this is the end of it.”
Master Velvet stood, and Seven averted her eyes. She pushed away her bowl of gruel; her appetite had fled.
“Look at him, tyros. Look at him well.”
Seven obeyed, her stomach in knots.
Master Velvet stabbed a warning finger at the sobbing figure huddled on the floor. “Let this be a lesson. No fighting amongst each other. If I am forced to say it again, I will not stop at just a beating. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Master Velvet!”
“Good. Now off with you.” A look in Master Velvet’s eye promised Twelve’s suffering had just begun.
Seven hurried from the Menagerie, the other tyros close on her heels. She cast a glance over her shoulder and caught a glint of steel in Master Velvet’s hand. Rushing into the room, she climbed onto her bunk and buried her head in her pillow. The thick wool failed to block out Twelve’s screams.