chapter two: theo
description ↦ Kylan can't wait to see Theo.
notes ↦ link to the book
Kylan Ironheart was a savage boy. And that was saying something in a society built of and for savages.
The Ironhearts were an influential house, the family that controlled the sourcing and manipulation of iron from the Western Mountains. Their ancestors were among the first people to venture into the caved darkness of those earthly giants to find its malleable treasure within, building mines to procure that treasure that were still used to this day. The Ironhearts controlled everything about its functional existence; their company paid the miners that mined it, governed the mountain towns that housed those workers, funded the wagon caravans that carried down crate after crate down the slopes, trained the metalsmiths in twisting it into shapes that harmed, protected, and served, and then marketed their product like they were just mere feeble merchants, and not everything else that was far beyond the caliber of merchantry.
It also went without saying that the Ironhearts were incredibly wealthy, absolutely filthy from rolling in it, and so it was no trouble at all for them to have even Kylan, their third-born, brought to Dailana’s Summit to have all six of his Fates read. And Kylan was no ordinary boy; he was born for something great, fate literally dictated it so.
Kylan had a Mark for his Love Fate, a splotchy shape placed just below his hips but right above his groin. That earned him several dark whispers from the more prudish elders in the house who gossiped the placement of Kylan’s Mark into every which way of vulgarity.
That’s where his love will first touch him? There? Are you certain…
Better keep him away from the whorehouses, best it be one of them…
By Kaislan’s grace, what kind of boy will he become that that is where his Mark is…
Kylan didn’t mind these whispers so much. Besides the glimpse that his parents and several choice aunts and uncles had gotten from when he was a baby, his Mark was hidden away under layers of clothing most of the time, which was a relief since it was very darkly colored. The darker the color, the higher the pressure or force of the touch will be. Undoubtedly, he told himself with wry certainty, it was gonna be a kick to his groin whose aim will have gone amiss. But he kept that thought to himself and guarded his lower half closely.
His other Fates were more of an issue.
His Life Fates were cloudy. Kylan was assured that the demonblood who had read his Fates was the most experienced seer in the whole temple, hair speckled with white and skin wrinkled with age. But he had concluded that Kylan’s Kiln event was indeterminable, and that his Arrow was concise but vague: this boy will achieve his life’s greatest victory only to reap the worst rewards. When his mother had pressed for more — some Kilns and Arrows went on for entire pages — the demonblood had simply shrugged and repeated the same sentence. This boy will achieve his life’s greatest victory only to reap the worst rewards. According to the linguistic judgement taught to him by his language teachers, ‘worst rewards’ sounded like an oxymoron. But only a moron would deliberate on a puzzle that couldn’t be solved with present resources, so Kylan chose to ignore his Life Fates as well.
His Low Fates were slightly more specific, but all the more confusing. His Weakness was anginophobia, a fear of angina, or choking. Like all Weaknesses, he couldn’t really explain why he was so averse to the idea, but the mere imagination of someone or something constricting his airflow was enough to send him into a mild panic. He experienced it for the first time when he was six years old, falling off the manor tree swing at the highest point of its arc and getting the wind knocked out of him. The lack of breath wasn’t as bad as the heart-pounding fear that gripped him when he realized his one guarantee in life, breath, was cruelly being withheld.
He had tactfully avoided the tree swing ever since. And people touching his neck. He found out that that freaked him out too at a nanny-assisted bath later that day. But, thankfully, his Weakness was mild and it rarely interfered with his day-to-day activities.
His Breaker was even more confusing than his Arrow: he will realize that what he wants most is beyond all of his capabilities. Again, when pressed for more, the demonblood simply repeated himself. He will realize that what he wants most is beyond all of his capabilities. Sometimes, Arrows and Breakers were intertwined as it made sense that the event that charts the course of your life can often be the result of its worst moment, but no matter how much Kylan mashed the two together in his head, it made no sense. What could he possibly want more than ‘his life’s greatest victory’? What’s the point of the ‘greatest’ thrown in there, then? What does ‘worst rewards’ have anything to do with ‘what he wants most’?
None of it made a fleck of sense to Kylan.
This morning had been more bothersome than usual. Chastity, the irony of the name astounded Kylan on a daily basis, had found his side route to the manor’s dining hall, the side route he had charted precisely to avoid her. Chastity’s Love Fate was a faint Mark on the fingers of her right hand, a fact that she liked to whisper to him while giggling and looking at him through her eyelashes. He was no stranger to all the jokes and snide remarks about his Mark, hell— he was the creator and champion of most of them, but something about Chastity making them with her pointed, suggestive stares at his groin made him feel acutely ill.
Chastity was the third daughter of the second family of the Wrayler House, the house specializing in fruit production. But third daughter could be a little bit of a stretch as that family tree was decidedly messy, a family in which next-of-kin meant nothing in the face of who-is-next-to-me-that-I-can-bed. Chastity was the product of two cousins whose four parents were siblings, but the fathers were resultant of grandparent-aunt (Kylan wasn’t exactly sure) relations, one mother was the product of stepsibling incest, and the last parent was produced by a clandestine affair between mother and nephew-in-law. The Wraylers were perhaps the messiest example, but their type of family tree was not altogether uncommon in a world defined by fixed points in life determined by Fates. And when the world is ruled by things so predetermined, balance practically mandates for the messiness of others that weren’t so resolutely set into place.
Morning. Bothersome. Yes.
Kylan had gone to his morning meal later than usual as he had been up late the night before. There was a problem at the mines, some regional workers union stirring up trouble, so the last shipment of iron ore had been less than desirable. Normally, Kylan would have just waited until the next shipment to aggregate the supply, but the Iron Bellies had a meeting with the Deadened the next day, the subject being the annual renewal of the trade contract between the two crews: ruddle for iron. These street contracts were concrete and resolute, serving as the baseline for trade, leverage, and negotiations for other things within the fragile financial peace of Kaistven. And so for a crew to not renew their annual contract was risky, dangerous, and downright stupid—it meant the termination of amicable relations between crews, a cut off of the supply of an essential product, and the complication of other relations against the crew boss who would do such a risky, dangerous, and stupid thing.
Kylan’s supply for the meeting today was concerningly low, he was five bonedaggers and three tableware sets short on the goodwill exchange. This was very, very bad; depending on the crew, it could be an issue that would potentially put the contract into question. Kylan had pushed the house metalsmiths, questioned the house traders, and had gone as low as flirting with Madam Tradrie to try and squeeze out any form of loose iron in the manor. But he had no such luck. And after hours of pulling his hair out trying to think of a solution, he had simply given up, blown out his candle, and gone to bed. That was tomorrow Kylan’s problem.
But now tomorrow Kylan was today Kylan, and that Kylan was screwed.
Lightly throwing his fork onto the tray he had hurriedly carried up to his room after his run-in with Chastity, Kylan pushed the remainder of the ham porridge and egg scramble away. He may have to resort to bringing Theta and Fracht to the meeting, but that would also be less than desirable given accepted street rules and the lack of leverage he had from his pressing need of ruddle. Kylan rose from the table and began to pace about the expanse of his parlor room. He could say that it wasn’t his fault, which it technically wasn’t given that it was a sourcing issue, but the Ironhearts controlled everything from the sourcing to the trading, and so it was a flimsy excuse at best and an acknowledgement of his lowly position in his family’s company at worst. Kylan stopped to pinch his nose and stretch out his neck, rotating his head in wide circles. He simply had no other choice. He may very well have to work with flimsy.
Kylan grinned as he replayed the sentence back in his mind. It made him think of Theo.
The leader of the Deadened was named the Owl, her second the Raven. While other crews favored titles like ‘Bomber’ or ‘Sharp Claws’, the Owl’s crew seemed to prefer simple names derived from simple animals. It almost made them more intimidating; most people would rather recount how they were defeated by ‘Bomber’ rather than some common bird, the peculiarity of their names contributing in part to the Deadened’s explosive rise. The Deadened were a deadly crew, the one that was able to defeat all the other competing ruddle crews in the city to monopolize the trade, and the nature of their product meant that they dealt anywhere from the filthy rich who needed ruddle for their family’s Fates reading, to the common man who was addicted to smoking the leaves. And so the Owl was said to be quite the fancy talker, and a deadly bladesman to boot.
Kylan could feel wrinkles setting in between his brows with the amount of frowning he had done in the last twenty-four hours. He wouldn’t have wanted to go to a meeting with the Deadened with guns and ship ablazing, much less at this embarrassing state.
“Kylan! Are you in there? Madam Tradrie said you got your morning meal an hour ago! You realize it’s the second tenth strike, right?”
A loud knock interrupted Kylan’s thoughts. He glanced at the clock. Half past ten strikes. He had told Theo that he would meet him at the second eleventh, and given that it took almost exactly an hour to get to the Iron Bellies warehouse off the west bank of the Tangang River — Kylan was very late.
“The hour is well past evening meal, much less morning! What have you even been doing all day?” More pounding. Kylan swore under his breath. “I know you’re in there! I can hear you moving. Don’t you have a meeting with that Theo kidling soon? Why are you still here?”
Grinding his teeth, Kylan took a couple quick strides to the door. He opened it to expose the shining face of Fracht, rudy from the sun and hair tousled from the wind, pearly whites set into a wide grin on his face.
“I knew you were still in there. You’re late, you know.”
“So are you, Fracht. You were supposed to be at my door half an hour ago and yet here you are.”
“I had business to attend to.”
“Does your business start with ‘R’ and end with ‘asa’?” Kylan ushered Fracht inside and ran to his dresser to grab his black outerwear cloak. “Theta would kill you, you know. She hates missing out on these things.”
Theta and Rasa were somewhere between best friends and lovers. Theta and Fracht were somewhere in between siblings and lovers. All of it was rather unclear.
Fracht shrugged as he sat down at the table with Kylan’s unfinished meal, helping himself to the leftover porridge as he waited for Kylan to finish changing his breeches.
“Business is business. Theta could have joined if she wanted to.” Fracht waggled his eyebrows at Kylan as he spooned the last bit of porridge into his mouth. “The same goes for you, if you were curious.”
Kylan stopped tying his boots for a moment, looking up at Fracht to flash a mischievous grin. “Knock on my door next time and we’ll see what happens.”
Fracht threw back his head and laughed as Kylan crossed the room to the expansive parlor window. In a matter of seconds, he and Facht were skidding across and down the angled tiles before leaping to the next neighboring roof that topped the manor stables. Fracht was a guardsman whose scaling skills weren’t taught at the academy, and so Kylan chose to follow after letting Fracht go first, carefully climbing down the walls using the hand and foot holds he had chipped into the stone four years ago. Locating the second floor window of the office, Fracht heaved it open and slipped through, holding up the glass so that Kylan could crawl in after. They stumbled into the pretty stablehand who had been crouched behind the master desk and Kylan stopped to wink at her before Fracht had the sense to drag him down the stairs from the offices to the actual stables. Salter and Pepper, the speediest anyone-can-ride horses, were waiting for them in the back stalls, and the two tacked the mares quickly before speeding out of the stables at breakneck speed. The slopes of Ironhold were as pleasant to ride as any side of a mountain could be, and so they were soon through the base gates in no time at all.
“Come to the Twitch Clock by midnight. Bring Theta.” Kylan had already hopped off Salter and was climbing the nearest shanty hut that crowded the other side of the Ironhold gates. “And watch the horses, Fracht.”
“I’m not a stablehand, you know.” Reaching out to grasp Salter’s lead with the same hand that held Pepper’s, Fracht paused. “Where am I supposed to leave them?”
“Figure it out. You always seem to manage just fine with your own.”
Jumping atop the roof before Fracht could figure out what he meant, Kylan took one look at the sky before breaking into a run. Kaistven was an incredibly crowded city, sitting at the crossroads between mountains, sea, and farmland, and so what it lacked for space was made up for with elaborate staircases, tiny doorways, and walls that leaned against its neighbors like drunk friends at the end of a very long tab at the bar. This also meant that any particularly nimble individual could traverse the city without once touching the ground, and this was the way of travel that Kylan preferred. He jumped from roof to roof with his knees loose and weight held low, crouching and straightening when necessary, following the familiar path he practically knew by heart. Take a diagonal at the red fish scales, turn right at the third identical set of grey gabled roofs in a row, make sure to touch the rusted weather cranes that topped the city temple — before long he was at the silvery warehouse overlooking the dirty river that housed the Iron Bellies.
The warehouse used to be a small hotel in a time where people had money for frivolous travel, in a time before Kaivsten sorted out its economic balance, and so all the windows were equipped with the necessary apparatuses for awnings. But as the fabric drapings have long since faded away, the Iron Bellies put durable metal boards onto all of the awning structures to be used precisely as Kylan was using them now: to get down from the roof.
“Theeeoo!” Kylan called out immediately as he walked through the front entrance. Making a large step over a pile of concrete that was suspiciously placed under a large hole in the ceiling, Kylan looked up to realize that there were a lot more of them than he was used to. The Iron Bellies had stripped the building down to its concrete bones once their headquarters had been made official, deliberately leaving whatever wreckage they created alone to serve as their claim to this land. However, that didn’t excuse the fact that there were a lot of new, bigger holes with their accompanying piles of debris littered everywhere, but the ability to view into the floor above made the central room look incredibly expansive. There were now new tables too, from the looks of it, already messy and piled high with remnants of food and past plans.
Kylan grinned as he heard the telltale clicks of guns being put back away. Any crew worth two flecks would of course be silent when arming and taking aim, but the audible giveaway when putting those guns back was much less important. Any person who attempted to walk through that door wouldn’t have even heard them on account of being very, very bloody, and very, very dead. But Kylan was different. He owned the land that that door stood on.
“I’m sowwy I’m late but I got here as fast as I possibly could!” Kylan practically skipped over to the crowd gathered by what was obviously the primary and most important table. There was a low grumble that would have to do as Kylan’s reception, and he settled at the empty part of the table that was closest to the door he had entered from. “You know, blah blah blah, traffic, weather, the ‘rents and what not!”
Giving a quick glance through to take a census of who was present, Kylan realized that though it had only been a few months, all the faces that stared back at him had gotten profoundly older, acquiring new lines and new scars. Rune, the resident knife-happy bladesman, was still as tall and as willowy as ever. He seemed to have gotten a tan over the course of a very hot and deathly humid summer, and his freckles were set dark on an olive face interrupted by dark webs of long lashes. Next to him was Wyot, the curly-headed biggest of the bunch who hadn’t much in the head but made up for in the size of his arms. Jancis, the brown-skinned girl who gave him a very displeased look down her hooked nose while absentmindedly unloading the bullets from the cylinder of her favorite revolver. No doubt she was disappointed that he wasn’t an actual intruder. There was also Duarte, Blake, Lydal, Ainslee, a couple of new underlings next to the other older underlings that Kylan had never bothered to learn the names of — but one face was noticeably not present.
“Where is Theo?”
“Shut up Kylan, you’re too loud. Always making an entrance just because you can,” said Jancis. She had finished unloading the bullets and had dropped them onto the table, picking one up to polish it with the edge of her shirt. Kylan wasn’t sure if she was doing it on purpose but she was definitely using more shirt than was necessary for a single bullet and the expanse of skin consequently showing was quite… provocative.
“While I appreciate the view, Jancis — I really, really do — I would much prefer looking at Theo’s face instead.” Ignoring Jancis’ virulent glare as she tugged her shirt back down, Kylan smiled as he craned his neck to look into the offshoot hallway placed diagonally to the left from where he was standing. “Where is he?”
“He stepped out a bit to do recon on the drop spot later tonight, he said he’d be back in an hour but that was two hours ago.” Duarte, the small nervous kidling, spoke up. Duarte was Theo’s cousin, barely more than a child who had yet to come into anything of hirs own. Kylan narrowed his eyes. He knew that none of the Iron Bellies gave hir much grief for that given that ze was Theo’s ward, but Kylan was more unforgiving than most. He had gotten into all sorts of trouble by the time he was fifteen, trouble that would not have been possible without at least some accumulation of essential life skills, like the ability to throw knives and make up a convincing story.
Duarte’s hands were trembling.
“Duarte,” Kylan singsang, walking around the table and parting the crowd where necessary to shimmy up next to the kidling. Placing a soft hand on Duarte’s face, Kylan pursed his lips and began rubbing his thumb against hirs cheek, trying not to be put-off by the immediacy by which Duarte, whether knowingly or not, leaned into his touch. Kylan frowned. These poor street rats were more prudish than Kylan’s grandmother, withholding their affections for the sake of looking tough.
“Why do I get the feeling that you’re not telling me the truth?” Kylan leaned in and whispered into Duarte’s ear, feeling the flesh under his hand beginning to burn with pleasure. Poor attention-starved street rats. “You wouldn’t lie to me, I know that baby, but I don’t think you’re telling the whole truth either.”
Duarte trembled with each word, finally breaking at the way Kylan purred the pet name. Kylan stored that information for later in some dark crevice in his mind; Duarte likes to be called ‘baby’. He didn’t know what he would possibly do with it, but he noted it nonetheless.
“Before h-he w-went ou-out, Th-Theo s-said—”
With a sudden loud boom that echoed against the concrete walls, a figure dropped down from the second floor. Everyone who was engrossed in the odd show of intimacy induced by Kylan turned towards the noise in surprise. Kylan smiled smugly, giving Duarte’s cheek one last pat before propping his elbow onto the table and his chin onto his awaiting hand.
“Apologizes, everyone. I didn’t mean to be so late, I—”
Upon laying eyes on Kylan, Theo froze, his whole body going motionless. Kylan batted his eyelashes at him, making sure to give a big overdone sigh for good measure. Theo truly was dreamy looking. With an enormous height that he claimed was from Giantsbane genetics, Theo’s upper body was swollen with muscle resultant of the years of labor he had done at the harbor he grew up on. He wore his light blonde hair down across his forehead, the edges long enough so that they just barely brushed his equally blond eyelashes, eyes a creamy brown that was the exact color of light milked coffee. His lips, the lower ever so slightly fuller than the upper with a narrow cupid’s bow, were always pursed in some hesitant fashion as he liked to slowly deliberate on his thoughts before uttering their form in words. Kylan tilted his head. Theo was just built and acted in a somewhat regal way, giving off a noble air that made him stand out in a world of lean chasers and even leaner runners. Of course, Kylan also adored the rosy color of Theo’s blush whenever Kylan would say something particularly raunchy. It really riled him up.
It was odd that at House Court, Kylan was considered quite conservative by all standards, boasting a relative lack of bodily relationships to speak of. But here, the streets of Kaistven had constructed social rules in place of a routine knowledge of one’s Fates, rules that pretty much said that one could not copulate as they choose. Kylan knew that he had all the wits and charms necessary to bring about the kind of blush he could induce from Theo, but he also knew that the flush was brought about in part due to such silly ideas that told Theo that he was less than a man for succumbing to Kylan’s wits and charm.
But that was fun in its own way as Kylan loved to play with that steadfast virtue whenever he had the chance. And Theo, knowing that, had been avoiding him.
“Theo. Nice to see you.”
The tension in the room was thicker than the flesh of a choking fat man, all of the onlookers, with the exception of Jancis who looked stupendously bored, looking nervously between Theo and Kylan. Kylan could feel it but remained unbothered, knowing that it was all one-sided on Theo’s end. He really needed to loosen up.
“Trying to avoid me at an unavoidable meeting you set?”
“N-no, I was doing recon by the drop—”
“I heard. Not from you though, where it should have come from.”
“I-I’m sorry I got sidetracked—”
“I nearly ran into the Raven who was doing his own recon and so I had to take the long way back—”
“What long way?”
“I had to cross over to the east bank and across the temple roof—”
“I came here that way. Why didn’t I see you?”
Theo’s face went blank, his way of controlling what would’ve been a completely dumbfounded expression. Theo was not particularly gifted in the skill sets required for deceit, which is where Kylan had come in to assist. Only, after years of witnessing Theo floundering at negotiations of varying importance with his poor lying abilities, Kylan knew exactly how to trap Theo into a corner with words and how to read him like a book made of clear pages.
“You were deliberately late.”
“N-no, of course not—”
Kylan, taking points from Jancis, made sure to maintain an absolute light, almost bored, expression. No mistake, Kylan loved to flirt with the handsome nervous blond boy, but he was the boss of the Iron Bellies first and foremost and Theo’s behavior was downright unprofessional.
“If you wanted some sort of punishment, baby boy, you could have just asked,” drawled Kylan, testing the waters to see whether the affection for pet names was genetic. Just because Theo had a lack of professionalism didn’t mean Kylan had to make up for it, and to his pleasure, Theo’s familiar rosy flush proved his test to be true. Kylan noted the information in triumph, storing it in a much more readily accessible place in a much darker section of his mind.
“Enough, Kylan. This is not the place.”
“You have no one to blame but yourself, honey kitten. I was going to get through business first before unleashing the full brunt of my demuring wiles, but you are the one who decided to be late.”
Theo’s face went positively scarlet.
“Shut it!” Throwing both palms down onto the table, Jancis’ interruption startled the room out of its rigidity. Rune took out his iron knuckles and strung his fingers through, clamping and unclamping his fist through the holes. Duarte started doing an odd thing with his face, blinking rapidly as if he had somehow forgotten to in the last few minutes. Ainslee and a few others took out their daggers and began fiddling with them on the table.
“Kylan, shut up. Theo, go get an ice pack for your face or something. We have to talk about the drop with the Deadened and your stupid talk is only making me have to look at your stupid faces longer than I ever want to.”
“Ah, Jancis. I forgot that your stupendous vocabulary is truly an unmissable part of your substantial set of skills,” said Kylan. He was seething. Jancis really had no manners, interrupting his precious time playing with Theo’s conscience. He hadn’t spent over three months thinking about Theo this, Theo that, only for an overly tough street rat to tell him when to feel. Kylan was the crew boss, he ultimately decided when business will and won’t get done.
All of the eyes around the table watched him warily to finish. And out of spite, Kylan allowed his tongue, normally so well leashed, to lash out.
“Along with, of course, your sizable set of—”
Kylan made a rude gesture with his hands at his chest.
In a flash, Jancis cocked her revolver, aiming it straight at Kylan’s head. Kylan felt his lips yank at the edges as he moved over the table just as quickly, reaching out and gripping the barrel of the gun. Jancis’ eyes went black, finger twitching at the trigger, her face like stone. Kylan held her gaze, his other arm straight to prop up his weight on a stack of papers, still wearing that cheshire smile. He could have stayed in that position for ages.
The room was once again frozen as everyone held their breath. No one dared to speak the words that were strung through the air.
It sang in Kylan’s head.
Do it. Do it, street rat.
With a loud clearing of his throat and a large, overexaggerated movement of his arm, Theo placed a hand atop the offending firearm, fingers light between the barrel and the grip.
“The drop is in…” Theo trailed off as he checked the clock behind his shoulder. “Less than twenty minutes. We have to head out, now.”
As Theo released his hold and stepped back, Jancis slowly removed her finger from the trigger guard, eyes recoloring. Kylan didn’t let go but instead gave a light downward push on the barrel as it descended, only releasing once it was clear that Jancis was going to holster it somewhere on her person and not drop it on the table within easy reach.
I win, Kylan thought.
The Iron Bellies had to hurry to collect their things before leaving the warehouse, with Kylan keeping a close watch on Theo, who seemed determined to ignore him, counting his bullets. But that didn’t stop Kylan from watching, especially as he trailed behind the stragglers in the crew as they hopped over the rooftops to head to the Twitch Clock at the central district of the city. The view from the back was fantastic.
I always win.
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