A few months ago, Winslow Houndstooth put together the damnedest crew of outlaws, assassins, cons, and saboteurs on either side of the Harriet for a history-changing caper. Together they conspired to blow the dam that choked the Mississippi and funnel the hordes of feral hippos contained within downriver, to finally give America back its greatest waterway.
Songs are sung of their exploits, many with a haunting refrain: "And not a soul escaped alive."
In the aftermath of the Harriet catastrophe, that crew has scattered to the winds. Some hunt the missing lovers they refuse to believe have died. Others band together to protect a precious infant and a peaceful future. All of them struggle with who they've become after a long life of theft, murder, deception, and general disinterest in the strictures of the law.
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YSABEL WOULD NOT STOP CRYING. She spasmed with grating, earsplitting screams every few seconds. Her face, knotted and purple, jerked every time Adelia tried to maneuver her nipple toward the baby's mouth.
"Maybe she doesn't like you," Hero said mildly.
"Babies don't have opinions," Adelia replied through gritted teeth.
"Nobody told her that," Hero muttered. They turned their attention back to the kneeling saddle on the ground in front of them, and continued working grease into the leather of the pommel.
"Ysa," Adelia murmured in a pained singsong. "Ysa, mija, please just — there." She winced, triumphant, as the screaming stopped and the baby latched at last. "You see? All she needed was — ah!" She cried out in pain as the baby startled at nothing in particular and pulled away from her breast without letting go of the nipple. Her cry made Ysabel startle again, and the baby's face began to scrunch in preparation for another piercing wail.
"Good luck with that," Hero said. They eased themself upright, grimacing, and braced their hands on their lower back for a cautious stretch. They walked into the trees, away from Adelia and the screaming baby, without waiting to hear a response.
Hero knew that they'd need to start a fire soon, before dusk turned to dark. They'd wait until Ysabel had stopped eating — the sound of wood splintering was sure to startle the baby again. In the meantime, they made their way through the scrubby, moss-hung trees to the murky little pocket of the Catahoula where Adelia's hippos, Zahra and Stasia, were dozing. Hero squatted to wash their grease-smeared hands in the warm water, watching the surface of the pond for ripples more out of habit than worry. They watched the scum that floated away from their skin in the water and an idea drifted through their mind: a system to send rafts of nitroglycerin floating to waterlocked targets — but how to prevent a trailing wick from getting waterlogged? A remote detonator, or a system of watertight tubes that could protect a lit fuse, or perhaps a flaming dart shot across water, or perhaps ...
They let their hands trail in the water for a while as they mentally troubleshot the concept. Hero couldn't remember the last time they'd allowed their attention to wander so close to the water's edge. But this was a safe place for them to let the ideas blossom. It was a pleasant, secluded little spot off the banks of the lake that Hero and Adelia had chosen to set up camp, well away from the Mississippi and the marshes and far from the reach of the ferals in the Gulf. Hero missed their Abigail — they'd been borrowing Stasia, and it just wasn't the same. But otherwise, it was a fine camp. They were surrounded by scrubby brush and gangly trees; it was out-of-the-way enough that no one was drawn to them by the sound of the baby crying. Hero wondered how far Ysabel's wails carried, and they allowed themself a moment of satisfaction at Adelia's struggle. Serves her right, they thought, ripping up a fistful of marsh grass to scrub their palms. Still, they couldn't help wishing that the baby was a little less of a squaller.
But not for Adelia's sake. It was just because Hero had to be stuck in the company of the little creature all day and all night, and their sanity was suffering from the constant barrage of noise.
Hero started to stand, but a flash of pain above their navel knocked them back and they sat hard. They yanked the hem of their shirt up and pressed a wet hand to the fat rope of scar tissue there, feeling for the unbroken skin. There — there was the scar, and they looked down at their hand and confirmed that no blood filled the creases in their palm. "It's okay," they whispered to themself. "It's okay. It's just a phantom pain. You're fine."
They sat there on the pebbly sand with their palm braced against their belly. They were fine. But the "fine" was so new — this was the first day that Hero could truly say they felt healed, and even that was tentative, raw. The wound was relatively fresh, in more ways than one. It was the wound that Adelia had given to Hero just a few weeks before Ysabel's birth.
Hero took a slow, deep breath and took their hand away from their stomach, letting their hem fall back into place. In the distance, the baby had stopped screaming. A clutch of ducks drifted silently by on the water — a welcome signal that the ferals, who would have eaten anything that moved too slowly back on the Harriet, hadn't made it to the Catahoula yet. The night was almost peaceful now. Hero closed their eyes and tried to remember their last time they'd felt almost-peaceful — the day that a handsome man rode up to their door astride a pitch-black hippo and asked if they'd like to join him for one last job.
They'd said yes at the time. They would have said yes again in a heartbeat.
But Hero hadn't seen Winslow Houndstooth since the night before Adelia's knife had made that scar on their belly. Since her knife had nearly killed them.
Hero fidgeted with the third button down on their shirt. They wouldn't unbutton it to feel the scar there — the twin of the one on their stomach. It hasn't disappeared since the last time you looked at it, they told themself irritably. But it bothered them, and they fidgeted in earnest as they went over the questions they'd been asking every day since they'd woken up.
It didn't make any sense.
Hero liked things that made sense. They liked diagrams and switches and sensible arrangements of wires. They liked dosages and measurements and titrations. Adelia was ... a thicket. A tangle of intentions and motivations that Hero really could have done without.
But they had to figure it out. Adelia could have killed Hero so easily — but instead, her knives had struck the only places on Hero's body that could look mortal without actually killing them. Hero knew the exact amount of coral snake venom required to make a person quietly suffocate due to paralysis, and Adelia knew exactly where to aim her weapons. Both of them had too much experience to make stupid mistakes that would let a target walk away.
Hero knew that they'd been allowed to live intentionally. They just didn't know why.
Hero had woken up with no idea where they were, and there was Adelia, changing the bandage on their abdomen with steady hands and intent focus. Hero had tried to startle away from the woman who had stabbed them, but a white-hot stripe of pain had flattened them before they could move. It took them weeks to recover — weeks of Adelia's focused attention and care. Whenever Hero tried to ask why Adelia hadn't killed them, she pursed her lips and changed the subject.
And then Ysabel had come, and there hadn't been room to keep asking. And Hero had kept on healing, had kept on slowly recovering. They'd helped with the baby here and there, although they didn't know much of anything about babies and didn't care to learn. And the pain in their belly had faded.
Hero dug their hands into the coarse sand and watched the still surface of the water. The pain in their belly had faded, and Adelia had recovered from Ysabel's birth. It was time to leave. They knew it — had been thinking about it all day. They would tell Adelia that night, after the baby was asleep. It was settled. Hero would be gone by daybreak.
But where? Home? Back to their little house with its little pond, to be alone for the rest of their lives?
Because, if Hero was honest with themself, that was why they'd stayed with Adelia for so long. It was easy to focus on the wound in their belly and Ysabel's birth and the work of finding food and starting fires and staying two steps ahead of the law. It was easier for Hero to do all of that than it was for them to think about going home, sitting alone on the front porch, and looking at the empty rocking chair that Houndstooth should have been in. It was easier for Hero to do that than it was for them to wonder why it was that they'd survived the collapse of the Harriet dam, while Houndstooth —
No. No, they thought, slamming a door in their mind. Don't think about that. They turned their mind back to the problem of why Adelia hadn't killed them, and then realized how closely that question fit with the question they weren't going to think about. Something else, anything else.
They looked at the water, and gripped fistfuls of sand, and thought about how to keep a lit fuse dry. A sense of calm washed over them as they considered waxes and weights, how to keep the fuse from attracting fish, the problem of seepage, the problem of oxygen. And what if the fuse itself was on fire? Could they make it burn so hot that the water wouldn't matter?
They were drawing equations in the sand, calculating how many grams of gunpowder an inch of cotton wick could support — but then a scream cut through the muggy night air. Hero was used to screams cutting through all manner of night air at this point; sleeping a few feet away from a newborn baby will have that effect on a person. But this scream didn't sound at all like Ysabel.
It almost sounded like ... Adelia.
Hero scrambled to their feet and pelted back toward the campsite. They slipped on a patch of loose scree, their leg shooting out behind them, but they caught themself and continued without breaking stride. Another scream — this one from Ysabel — and shouts, more than one person. "Shitshitshitshitshit," Hero chanted under their breath as they ran. They held one arm in front of their face to guard their eyes from twigs; with the other hand, they reached down to unstrap their fat-bladed kukri — usually reserved for utility, but it would do the job that needed to be done, whatever that job might be.
Except that it wasn't there. They groped at their hip even as they had a vision of the knife, sheathed, on the ground next to the kneeling saddle they'd been polishing. They would have sworn, but they were already swearing. "Shitshitshit."
Hero burst into the little clearing where they'd left Adelia and Ysabel not fifteen minutes before. There was a resonant thunk next to their head — they looked, and saw the handle of a knife sticking out of a tree trunk less than a foot from their face. They pulled up short, their breath frozen in their throat.
Five men surrounded Adelia in a wide circle. Kerchiefs were tied over their faces, and their hats were pulled low, leaving only their eyes exposed. Adelia's outstretched right hand gripped the butt of Hero's kukri, and she turned in a slow circle, keeping the men at a distance and stepping around the empty sheath at her feet. In her left arm, a swaddled Ysabel whimpered steadily.
Hero's heart pounded in their chest so hard that it hurt. The odds in this situation were decidedly not in their favor. They weren't a fighter. They did poisons and explosives, the weapons of a thinking person. They had tolerable skill with a knife, theoretically, but against five people? They didn't stand a chance.
"Alright now, that's enough," one of the men said. "We ain't gonna hurtcha none, just —" Adelia swiped at him with Hero's kukri and he jumped back with a shout.
You don't have to fight, a small, reasonable voice whispered inside of Hero's mind. You could just walk away from this. Hero had been with Adelia for nearly two months. Adelia was more than recovered from Ysabel's birth. You don't owe her anything, the reasonable voice said. You don't have to get involved in this at all.
"I don't see why we can't hurt her a little bit," another of the men said. Blood seeped from a cut on his thigh. "Just knock her out, boss."
Hero took a slow, quiet step backward. They were good at being quiet — they could melt into the brush and no one would ever have to know that they'd been there at all.
"You knock her out, if you're so damn smart."
"Fuck that, she already cut me. You do it."
Hero took another step back. You don't owe her anything, the small voice whispered again.
"Jesus Christ, you two," a third man growled. "It's a woman and a baby." He shook his head at his colleagues, then lunged.
"No!" Hero heard the shout before they realized it was their own voice, and then they were running. They yanked the knife from the tree trunk with a back-wrenching tug, and then they were fighting.
It was exactly as awful as they'd feared. The men all looked the same, and even though Hero was certain they'd counted five before, it seemed like they were everywhere at once. Hero punched one of them in the gut, and another took his place right away. A fist connected with Hero's eye and everything went white, and then hot blood was getting into their eyes and they couldn't see anything. Hands grabbed at Hero's arms, and their pulse pounded in their ears, and they were being dragged away from Adelia. Ysabel was screaming. Adelia was cursing. Hero lashed out blindly behind themself with the knife and felt it catch on fabric and a man's voice near their ear said agh hey watch it. They lashed out again, and the knife caught on fabric again, and then they pushed.
The blade sank in with almost no resistance at all. The man who had said watch it made a sound like he was confused, or maybe startled. The grip on Hero's arms slackened, and they yanked themself free, wiping blood from their eyes with one sleeve. There was a meaty thud behind them, but they didn't stop to look, couldn't stop to look, because Adelia was shouting and the men were grabbing at Ysabel and the trees were shaking —
Wait, what? But before Hero could fully register their own confusion, the treeline exploded in a shower of leaves and loose moss, and three thousand pounds of damp, grey, furious hippopotamus thundered into the clearing. Zahra scattered the bedrolls under her close-set feet, barreling toward Adelia with all the momentum of a coal train. She knocked two of the masked men aside with a brutal shoulder check — one of them landed next to Hero with a splintering thud and didn't get up again.
Zahra's jaws gaped wide, revealing her cruelly sharp teeth, and she snapped at the remaining two men. The one farthest from the hippo turned to bolt and knocked hard into Adelia. The two of them fell in a tangle of limbs. The man's companion yanked him up by the arm and they both ran. One of the men Zahra had knocked over scrambled to his feet and followed them. Zahra started to charge after them, kicking up dry grass, but Adelia whistled sharply and the hippo trotted to a reluctant stop. She stood snorting at the place in the treeline where the men had disappeared, the vast grey expanse of her trunk heaving like a bellows.
"Adelia," Hero shouted, running to where she sat in the patchy grass of the clearing. "Adelia, are you alright? Where did he get you?" Adelia's breath was ragged, and she was clutching at the grass by her thighs with both fists. When she looked up at Hero, her face was clenched in naked agony. "Show me," Hero said, kneeling next to Adelia, not touching her but holding their hands a few inches from her shoulders as if they could shake the injury away.
But Adelia was shaking her head and tears were brimming in her eyes.
"Show me," Hero whispered. "I can help."
And then Hero realized that they could hear Zahra's huffing breaths, and they could hear the singing insects that were starting to come out as the sun went down. They could hear the groans of the man they'd stabbed. They could hear the crackle of dry grass under their own knees.
They could hear things they hadn't heard since Ysabel was born. For the first time in six weeks, it was quiet.
Hero stood up and scanned the entire clearing. "Adelia," they said, trying to keep their voice calm. "Where's Ysabel?"
Even as they said it — even before Adelia's anguished, furious scream split the night open — Hero knew the answer.
Ysabel was gone.
"NO ONE EVER SUSPECTS the fat lady, hmmm?"
Regina Archambault whipped around to see who had whispered in her ear — but no one was there.
"Archie? Wassamatt'r?" The man Archie had been talking to a moment ago swayed toward her, his bourbon breath scalding her nostrils.
"Not a thing, chérie, not a thing." Archie placed a steadying hand on his shoulder, making the movement seem like a caress. The man — forty-something, white, all his teeth but none of his hair — looked down at her hand as though he were going to lick it.
"D'y'know," he said, casting a half-squinted eye at Archie's satin-swagged bosom, "that I'm the riches' man on the Pochnaroon?"
Excerpted from "Taste of Marrow"
Copyright © 2017 Sarah Gailey.
Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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