Chapter 1: A Little Night Music
Having a song in your heart was considerably less cheerful-sounding when rats and fire were involved.
Jess smiled a little to herself at the thought, making a mental note to try and use it in conversation later. She couldn’t say anything at the moment, her breath occupied by the music controlling the rats, but it was good to make note of these things. Especially when it was a decent distraction from her hundredth time through the current song she was playing, a children’s song so simple she could probably play it in her sleep.
To the small, furry listeners behind her, it didn’t matter what song she played. The sound of them was quieter out here, the dirt doing more to muffle their tiny claws than the brick-paved streets back in town, but she had no doubt they were all still following her. The magic inside her surged up through the song, reaching for the rats as sharply and clearly as if she had her own hands stretched out. Her power couldn’t call anything bigger than a small cat – most pipers couldn’t even call something that big – but rats and anything smaller were powerless against it.
(While that sounded great as part of the sales pitch, the swarms of bugs who came along with the rats her first few times on the job had been less than thrilling. She’d eventually learned to concentrate and call only what she wanted, but it had taken some practice.)
To most people, what she could do was a mystery. Pipers never talked about what using their power felt like, because whenever they did someone inevitably pointed out how much piper magic sounded like siren magic. Sirens, who even witches and sorcerers had been so scared of that they’d been hunted to extinction. There were rumors that some had silenced their songs, marrying humans instead of draining their energy, but those weren’t the kind of connections pipers wanted anyone to make.
There’s nothing to be afraid of, little nightingale. It’s a gift, the same way your music is.
An old familiar grief clenched her chest at the memory of her foster mother’s voice. Marie had believed that with her whole heart, but now that she was gone there were very few people Jess could trust to feel the same way. Silence was easier all around.
When she finally arrived at the fire-filled trench on the opposite side of the field, Jess shook herself out of her thoughts and got back to work. She took her first step onto the wooden bridge stretched across it, looking for the small, embedded charm that meant it had been enchanted against fire. The rats pushed against her legs, trying to get closer, while a few got excited enough to stumble into the fire on their own.
“Lady?” The man at the end of the trench asked, coming closer. “Is something wrong? Why aren’t you moving?”
Because the last time I didn’t check for the charm, the bridge collapsed under me and I nearly died. But she couldn’t actually say that, with the pipe in her mouth and the rats ready to escape the second she stopped playing. So she simply kept looking until she found the charm, glinting in the firelight, and she stepped fully onto the bridge and kept walking. She turned around while she was halfway across, sweeping the rats that had made it onto the bridge off the sides and into the fire. They died silently, thankfully, but sometimes she closed her eyes so she wouldn’t have to look at what was happening. It had taken her months to master the rhythm, picking up the basics through careful questions to the older pipers on the circuit, but now that she’d been doing it for a few years she didn’t have to think about it.
When the last rat had finally tumbled over the edge of the bridge, Jess stopped playing. “That should do it,” she told the man, stepping off the bridge completely and flashing her best salesman’s smile. “I’ll stay long enough to make sure the fire goes out completely, so as soon as I get the rest of my payment you can go home and get to bed.”
He hesitated, looking back out into the darkness. He was pale enough to have a desk job someplace, hair thinning and coat far too heavy for the relatively mild weather. “You sure that’s all of them?”
Temper rose up, prompted by pride, but she throttled it back. Keeping her salesman’s smile fixed firmly in place, she held out her hand. “If there’s a rat left in the entire town, I can promise you they’re completely deaf.” Then he shot her a skeptical look, and temper slipped past good sense to get a jab in. “Though if we don’t get this settled soon, I’m sure I can find more somewhere and bring them in.”
He narrowed his eyes at her briefly, and she braced herself for things to blow up into an actual fight. Her golden brown skin was usually close enough to a farmer’s tan for people not to question it, but her black hair was just a little too dark and too straight to completely pass as a local in the more rural parts of the kingdom. Unfortunately, that was also where work was best for people who killed rats for a living, so she’d learned to adapt. She kept her hair short, told people she was a solid three or four years older than her actual 18 summers of living, and knew how to use the knife she kept in her boot.
She’d also learned never to show either hesitation or weakness, so she held the man’s gaze while he came to a decision. Then, after a few beats, he reached into his pocket and handed her an envelope full of money. “I’ll let the mayor know we got everything wrapped up,” he said, turning to leave.
Jess counted the money by the light of the fire, pleased to see it was all there just as promised. “Pleasure doing business with you!” she called out, looking up in time to see him wave a hand vaguely behind him in acknowledgment.
As he walked off into the distance she put her pipe back in its case, tucking the money safely away underneath. “You’ve got to remind me to be less snippy with the clients, T,” she told the empty air around her.
A young man appeared suddenly out of that empty space, his dark hair close-cropped and warm brown skin burnished by the firelight. The mere sight of him was enough to unknot something inside her chest, a fact that she would absolutely have to worry about the moment she let herself start thinking about it.
“Be less snippy with clients,” he said dutifully, lips quirking slightly at the familiar, shared joke. Then his expression turned serious, eyes intense even from behind his wire-rimmed glasses. “But you know you don’t always have to check for the fireproofing charm, right? I always look for it before you get here, and if it was missing I promise you there’s no way I’d let you cross that bridge.”
Jess didn’t know what left her feeling suddenly unsteady – the earnestness in his voice, or the fact that she believed him completely. Deciding that neither was a safe topic of conversation, she flashed him a grin to make sure none of it showed up on her face. “Don’t want to put your job at risk by saving my life again?”
It was how they’d met, actually. Sometimes, Jess pictured telling the story to the members of her foster mother’s performing troupe, dramatically acting it out while Thomas rolled his eyes, but then she thought about her foster mother not being there and it hurt too much.
She’d never been good at dealing with pain.
Thomas, thankfully not able to hear her thoughts, widened his smile. “I don’t know. It worked out pretty well for me last time.” He pulled out his pocket-sized magic mirror, handing it to her. “I should probably get to work, but you got a mirror message while you were on your walk. I didn’t read it, but it sounds like someone wants to hire you for a job.”
Jess winced at the reminder, taking the mirror from him as she straightened. “I swear I keep meaning to get a new mirror,” she apologized. “It’s not fair for me to keep using your work mirror for my work messages.”
Thomas shook his head. “Don’t worry about it. I like being able to help you when you need it.” The words called up another rush of warmth in Jess’s chest as he reached for the I.D. hanging around his neck, then hesitated. “You want to skip following me around tonight, so you can focus on the message?”
He always asked her that, in one form or another, even though she’d never once taken him up on the offer. “What, and miss your rundown on whatever town it’s from?” Opening the message with one hand, she laid the other hand on his shoulder. If she let go of him, she’d immediately get dumped back into the regular world and Thomas would end up invisible again. “Seriously, if you ever want to quit being a Reaper I’m sure someone would hire you as a tour guide.”
Thomas made a rueful noise. “Only someone who was really interested in hearing an itemized history of the local plant life.” Then he slapped the flat of his hand against the I.D. hanging against his chest, and both the darkness and the fire disappeared in a rush of gray. The only spots of color left in the world were her, Thomas, and the cool blue light of the rats' discarded life energy floating in small clouds within the now-gray flames. Everyone's life energy stuck around like that after they died, according to Thomas, and if everyone left it alone the energy usually disappeared after about a week. Since life energy was an easy power boost for magic users with a more flexible view of ethics, however, hardly anyone left it alone.
Which was where Reapers came in.
Thomas's hand curled like he was holding a staff, murmuring a word that Jess could never quite catch. An instant later, a glowing, translucent scythe made of energy appeared in his hand.
Jess watched him adjust his grip, remembering the explanation he'd given her once as to how the scythe had probably been made. She asked him questions about it sometimes, just to get him talking. "Didn’t you say they were considering skull masks at one point? Why didn’t they ever go through with that?”
Thomas stopped, brow furrowing as he thought. “I think there were copyright issues,” he said finally. “A scythe is a tool that anyone can use, but the lawyers decided that the skull face under the hood was pretty specific to the company’s founder.”
Jess watched him start his work, considering whether or not to prompt him for a longer explanation, carefully swinging the tip of his scythe through each one of those small clouds of blue light. They disappeared in a flash, the energy’s tie to this plane of existence sliced through – yes, Thomas had explained all of this to her, too – leaving it free to move somewhere beyond the reach of evil sorcerers. Technically, Thomas could use it to clean up any kind of energy, but his official assignment was to focus on mice and rats.
Which worked out extremely well for Jess, though she wasn’t about to tell his bosses that.
Still, she should probably focus on her job rather than his. Tearing her attention away from the reaping, she activated the mirror message from the potential client. When the smoke cleared on the pre-recorded message, the sender turned out to be an exhausted middle-aged man with the lingering trace of a farmer’s tan and an expression that suggested he worked out a lot of stress by hitting people in his imagination. “Miss Tremeau, my name is Arthur Perkins. I’m the mayor of Kensford, a bustling, prosperous town that boasts—” He stopped, closing his eyes a moment with a long-suffering look. “But you don’t care about that.”
This wasn’t the “inconvenience” face, the one that said “We tried to take care of this ourselves and are deeply resentful of the fact that it didn’t quite work.” No, Mayor Perkins’ expression shot straight to “please help,” which usually meant a ton of rats had started making a serious dent in the food stores. It meant they wouldn’t haggle much, when it came to her fee, and she could probably squeeze out a bonus or two depending on how quickly she could get the mice and rats taken care of.
“If it’s the Kensford I’m thinking of,” Thomas said absently, his attention still focused on his work. “It’s only about a day’s ride from Hammelin.”
Knowing he wouldn’t have said anything if it wasn’t important, Jess briefly stilled the mirror message and wracked her brain trying to remember why Hammelin was relevant. “Wait, is that the city you said the witches were talking about? The one where no one’s heard from any of the residents for the last few days?”
Thomas nodded. “None of the witches in the mirror chat group live near Hammelin or have family there, so no one knows exactly what’s going on. But it might be something to keep in mind.”
Jess nodded. From how Thomas always described them, the witches in the group all treated gossip like it was a professional sport. Still, gossip was usually at least 50 percent true, and any piper with a brain in their head stayed away from areas where people were messing around with more serious magic. A day’s ride might be enough breathing room from whatever was (or wasn’t) going on in Hammelin, but there was no way to be sure. “Are they still trying to get you named an honorary witch with that society they all go to?”
Thomas’s sigh was both affectionate and long-suffering as he pushed his glasses back up his nose. “Yes, and I don’t know why. I mean, I understand they’re probably trying to be nice, but literally the only magic spells I have any control over are the ones management put into my I.D. For that matter, I haven’t even figured out yet how they code the I.D.s to each individual Reaper, and I’ve been poking at it long enough that I definitely should have figured it out by now.”
Jess squeezed his shoulder. “The rest of us don’t care so much about accuracy, T. They probably just want to say thank you for having to listen to all their stories 500 times.”
Thomas shook his head, turning his attention back to the rats’ energy. “If they want to say thank you,” he muttered, “they should send me some of their reference books.”
Jess activated the mirror message again, the frozen image of Mayor Perkins springing back to life. He cleared his throat. “We’ve talked to the leaders of some of the other cities and towns who you’ve done jobs for, and they all say you’re the most thorough piper they’ve ever worked with.” She had just long enough to feel a warm glow of pride before he ruined it by continuing. “We had to research a little more thoroughly than we usually do pipers, since we heard your name in an unusual way. We put up our usual posting for a piper, and a man named Crispin St. Clair responded. His—”
She jammed a finger down to still the mirror message again, alarm shooting through her, as Thomas suddenly stopped and looked back over his shoulder. “Did he just say—”
Jess’s jaw tightened, her self-preservation instincts activating. “Unfortunately, he did.” She hesitated, thumb hovering over the trigger that would delete the message completely. If Crispin had given these people her name, it was absolutely a trap.
This was enough to make Thomas turn around completely, though he moved carefully enough not to dislodge Jess’s hand on his shoulder. “Maybe they decided not to hire him and he was complaining about you. Even if he’s not actively trying to get you fired from jobs anymore, he still thinks it’s your fault that everyone knows what a terrible piper he is.”
“You clean up after a man one time, and he decides you’ve organized a conspiracy against him.” She felt herself leaping at the idea, and she forced herself to stop and actually weigh the possibility. “If that’s the explanation, then I have to do it. It’s rare enough for anyone in government to make the intelligent choice first that I need to encourage them.”
Thomas watched her face for a moment, then his lips quirked. “And next time you run into Crispin, you can rub it in his face?”
Jess’s couldn’t stop the smile that slipped out, even as she gave him her best innocent look. He knew her so well. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Then her expression sobered. “Hammelin’s a day’s ride away, which mean that if there is trouble we’ll at least get some warning. But it probably isn’t anything – witches and sorcerers are showy enough that there’d be reports of explosions or enormous trees, not a communication blackout.”
“And there hasn’t been reports of anything rampaging around the countryside.” Thomas looked down at the mirror. “So if Crispin didn’t mean to give them your name, we’re going to Kensford?”
Jess nodded, then restarted the message. “—reputation is such that nearby towns had already warned us against him, so we rejected his offer even though we were desperate. When we did, he began ranting about how you had somehow arranged the situation by spreading lies about him. Since putting up a general posting had proven so unsuccessful, we decided to research your name in the hopes that it would speed things.”
She stopped the message completely, valiantly resisting the urge to do an impromptu victory dance. “Just think about it this way, T,” she told Thomas. “It sounds like there’s enough rats in Kensford to make your quota for the month.”
“I always make my quota now that I follow you around.” Still, he seemed amused as he returned to the reaping. “Let me finish up here, then we can get a few hours of sleep and set out for Kensford in the morning.”
Jess grinned. “I’m sure the rats will be excited to see us.” Then, slipping the magic mirror into her pocket, she went back to watching Thomas work.
One mirror message taking the job and two days hitching rides on various wagons and carts later, they arrived in Kensford. Their first stop was a quiet stable near the edge of town where they could stash their things, and after a quick change – only an idiot traveled in their presentation outfit – they arrived at the Mayor’s Office.
Before they went inside, Thomas lightly touched her arm. “Want me to go invisible?” he asked quietly. “I know they already gave you the job, but that doesn’t mean you want me in the way when you’re dealing with clients.”
The hesitancy in his voice made her turn enough to look at him. His shoulders were hunched slightly, just like they always did whenever he apologized for explaining something too thoroughly or talking too much in general. Every time she saw it, Jess gave serious thought to tracking down the people who ran the Abernathy Home for Orphans and punching them in the face.
Instead, she grinned at him, patting his cheek. “Not a chance, my friend. Today, I’m going to show you how to make an entrance.”
She could see a flicker of surprise chase its way across his face, making her annoyed at his former guardians all over again. Then, slowly, his lips curved upward a little. “How about I just watch you make the entrance and take notes for later?”
Jess sighed dramatically, the same way she always did at this point in whatever variation of the familiar, shared joke came up. “One day I’ll teach you the joy of the spotlight, T.”
His smile widened as he came back with the same response he always did. “But that day is not today.”
They announced themselves to the woman behind the front desk, who ushered them with gratifying speed back to Mayor Perkins’ office. He wasn’t alone, as it turned out, a sour-faced man with a beautifully tailored suit and a face like a lump of wheat bread dough glowering in the corner. He started speaking the moment they were announced, cutting the woman off before she’d even reached the end of her sentence. “Not so fast, Miss Tremeau. The rest of the council chose to hire you while I was out of town on business, and though they’re all clearly prone to panic I’m not about to let myself get conned the same way they have.”
Jess bristled at the word “conned” while Mayor Perkins sighed, looking like a man in urgent need of a nap. “Edward, the people are desper—”
“The people need to learn some self-sufficiency,” the man – Edward, apparently – snapped. “Now, Miss Tremeau. I know the previous cities you’ve worked with have spoken well of you, but I’m sure there are other, more experienced pipers out there who have reputations that are just as good or better. I’m sure the council will agree that we can just send you on your way while we—”
“Edward, we had more than enough votes for the decision to be—”
Clearly, Jess needed to take control of the situation, and if she could make Eddie over there regret his whole life that would be a delightful bonus. She glanced over at Thomas, wondering if he was going to try and be the voice of reason. Instead, he was busy glaring daggers at Eddie, intense enough in his dislike that he didn’t even notice Jess looking.
Well, that was a go-ahead if she’d ever seen one.
Pulling out her pipe while the mayor and Eddie were busy arguing, she hefted her power up into her throat and started into a simple children’s song. By the time she’d gotten three notes in she could hear the click of rat claws in the corridor outside, and she smirked to herself as she walked over to stand at Eddie’s side.
“I don’t know what you think you’re doing, girl, but—”
Before he could finish the thought, four rats surged into the office. Jess stepped slightly behind the council member, and though he stepped away quickly he was still between her and the rats. They went straight up his legs, prepared to go over whatever or whoever they had to in order to get to the music.
The esteemed council member’s shriek was louder than the music.
That was Jess’s cue to stop playing, which caused the now-released rats to scatter. Eddie straightened his suit, shaking with offended dignity, and Jess shot him her best salesman’s smile. “It seems like you have a rat problem, Eddie. Are you sure you really want to wait?”
He lifted his chin, turning to the mayor. “Fine. I won’t argue anymore,” he snapped, then turned and stalked out of the room as if it had offended him personally. As he left, Thomas grinned and mouthed “nice job” at her.
Jess grinned back, a warm glow in her chest as she turned to the mayor. “So, shall we?”
Things wrapped fairly quickly after that, with Mayor Perkins agreeing to a healthy fee that wasn’t quite large enough to make her conscience start providing annoying commentary. He insisted she do the walk that evening in exchange, and Jess sighed like she was making a serious concession instead of getting exactly what she wanted.
By the time the walk actually started, Jess was still riding high on that wave of confidence. A nice crowd had gathered, watching her with an eagerness that meant no one bothered giving her funny looks or questioning her credentials. She even got a round of applause as the music started, which was always good for the ego.
Her pleasure at the attention lasted about half a block, when she realized that only one or two rats had started to follow her. She’d always called more rats by this point, especially in cities with as many as Kensford seemed to have, and it wouldn’t be long before the people lining the streets starting figuring that out. She could feel the power in her throat, pushing upward through the song, but she dug deep inside her chest for more. The notes thinned out a little as she concentrated on the power, pushing it upward and out into the music with an effort that left her fumbling to get her breath back while never letting the song falter.
Only a few steps later, though, the rats started coming. A lot of rats, from the sound of it, pushing at her ankles with far more eagerness than she usually got out of the rodents she called. It made sense, really – she’d called up too much power, and the poor things had overdosed on the magic that pulled them along. She shook them off as she walked, concentrating on getting to the end.
More rats came. They were loud enough now to be heard over the music, but all that meant was that she was doing her job properly. All she had to do was hold them long enough to get to the field, then make sure they ended up in the trench. A simple job, one she’d done a thousand times before.
She kept repeating the thought as the audience thinned, eventually disappearing completely and leaving her alone with the rats along the empty streets. No witches or sorceresses jumped out at her from the shadows, and none of the rats started growling or transforming into some kind of monster. She could see the glow from the trench fire in the distance, and the rats were still moving along behind her like an obedient little army. She was fine.
Jess shook her head again, not sure why she was even thinking like this. There was clearly nothing to worry—
The thought cut off as Thomas suddenly appeared in the middle of the empty field, hurrying toward her at a dead run.