A Chronicle of Ashes - Whedon's Row: Chapter II

'A Chronicle of Ashes' is a series of short stories exploring the extended Foxhole universe. These are unrelenting tales of human struggle in the face of apathy and violence, borne by a world in a constant state of war. Content Warning: A Chronicle of Ashes depicts scenes of violence and war.

Whedon's Row

Chapter II

The Rat

Most folk hate sewers, but not Alba. Sure, it smelled terrible, was filled with vermin and piss—seventeen times she'd stumbled upon a corpse, which was more of a blessing, really. She could always count on at least a few chips worth of junk in their pockets—but because of that, no one would dare wander the sewers. Hopefully, Captain You-Remind-Me-Of-Me wouldn't play the exception.

She was roughly fifteen minutes from Prey's workshop and at least thirty seconds--give or take five to ten seconds--for each corner ahead of the captain. With any luck, she was already in the clear. Alba had learned one important rule since Prey had brought her to the city: never count on luck. And she didn't need to because every crevice of the underground was her world. Every rathole, every twist and turn, every sluice and lock, and the tunnels that led out to the various districts. It helped that she had acclimated to the low light quite fast. Few would have the opportunity to sneak up on her.

Prey's place wasn't far now, only three turns on the way to the catacombs. Fourteen minutes, and she hadn't noticed any sign of the old captain. Bless an ignorant mark. She muttered a quick prayer, then began thinking of how Prey would reward her for such a clean-cut job. She needed new shoes—It was getting tiresome, always patching the toes. She'd grown out of them a year ago, and the growth hadn't stopped. Maybe, Prey would finally bring her into the House.

Alba climbed the ladder through the hatch, locked it behind her, and flopped onto the wooden flooring. She kicked her wet shoes off then hugged the package. You're going to make it, she told herself, you're going to be someone important starting today. No matter what.

Padding barefoot through the cellar, she climbed the steps to the House and rapped twelve times on the door in a specific rhythm. Tappa tap, tap tap, tappa tap. There was no real purpose to the rhythm, but the timing of it filled Alba’s belly with warmth.

Rumtooth greeted her, ugly as ever. He said something and turned, but his lips barely moved, so she could never read them. The old bastard had eighteen moles on the back of his bulging neck, and she counted each of them as she tiptoed behind him.

The House was Prey's ancient, rundown three-story townhome, from where she ran her various business ventures. That's what she called them, anyway. The building dated back to before the wars, or so they say. It had good bones, was built to last. Her office was up ahead, behind a big, reinforced oak door. It smelled wonderful inside. Twenty-four hours a day, candles burned, infused with all kinds of scents. Alba wanted a room filled with candles. Normal ones would be fine.

Prey turned and signed to Alba, "This is all there was?"

"Yup," Alba said with one hand, holding the package awkwardly. She slid it onto Prey's desk. "Was there more? You only said she would have a package. Did I miss something?"

The woman lifted the package and inspected it. The burns on her face and arms appeared to swim in the candlelight. Maybe that was why she surrounded herself in candles, why she never wore sleeves. At times Prey was like one of the creatures in stories that her father told to Alba and her brothers.

"What's in it?" Alba didn't really care, but she leaned in to feign interest.

"I… was not paid enough to know."

"Wait. We did all that work and preparation, and—"

"And neither were you." Prey tossed Alba a small burlap sack filled with copper chips. "I can't have you here while I make the transfer. It would be… indelicate to be seen with a rat. Run along."

That's it? No thank you, no "Oh, Alba, you're the best thief I have, please, come stay in the House." Not even a bloody silver chip? Sure, she owned the sewers, but sleeping on the cold, wet stones was an entirely different prospect, even if it was safer than the streets.

Alba paced while Prey stared in awe of the girl's audacity to ignore a command. Alba was fired up and counted her steps from side to side. One, two, three, four, turn, one, two, three. She always stopped on threes to the right because it would irritate Prey even more.

The pacing was a misdirection for, after a single l