The Grey Edge: Chapter Five

Taylor hit the punching bag again. There was a fourth knock at his door, so he hit the punching bag again, hoping that they would take silence as the clear signal that he did not wish to be disturbed.
Ryan appeared in front of him.
‘You do realise,’ Ryan said, ‘that I only knock to be polite, I don’t actually need your permission to enter.’
‘Reynolds would have just left me alone.’
Ryan stared at him for a moment, then shoved a file in his direction. ‘I thought I’d bring this to your attention.’
He dropped the file to the ground, and began to unwrap the strips of cloth from his hands. Pieces of Magnolia’s skirt, torn from her prone form when he’d bested her in a spar were drenched in his blood – ruffles were no good at soaking up blood. He dropped the bloodied pieces of cloth onto the file, then looked up at his “commander”. ‘What’s the file?’
‘Just read it.’
‘I’ve got more important thing to do.’
‘Eight salmon have gone missing. Two halves, the rest were a quarter or less, but in a week, that’s significant.’
‘Isn’t this what your division does?’
‘Given the animosity between the salmon fiefdom and the magpies, and your vested interest in the magpies, I thought you have might have some interest in looking at it.’
‘I’ve no interest in doing your job for you.’
Ryan shrugged. ‘It’s your job now.’ Without another word, he shifted away.
He stared down at the file, sighed, crouched and brushed the strips of bloody fabric away, grabbed it with one hand, then shifted to his recruit’s room. For once, she wasn’t immediately visible, the bed was empty, and the door to her small bathroom was closed.
He crossed the small dorm room, and pushed open the door, only to have the door pushed back.
‘Sorry sir,’ Magnolia said a few seconds later, ‘automatic reaction.’ She stepped back, and let him enter the room – oddly, a robe covered her body, very uncharacteristic. ‘I was just about to shower,’ she said, ‘what can I do for you?’
He stared at her, trying to place what was wrong, then he saw it. ‘If you went to Parkers,’ he said, ‘why is there blood on your hand?’
Her breath caught – another uncharacteristic action – as she looked down at her hand. ‘I tore a few of my stitches,’ she said. ‘It’s nothing serious.’
He stared at her hand, and a theory formed. ‘Take off your robe.’
She looked down. ‘Sir, I’m naked under this.’
‘I gave you an order, Magnolia.’
She turned, and slipped the robe from her shoulders. True to her word, she was naked, but more importantly, her back was covered in feathers. Not the few that pushed through on a daily basis, not the many that pushed through her skin when she attempted a new form of magic reliant on her heritage, but a thick coating of feathers, new growth, strong growth, covering her from the base of her neck to the base of her spine.
‘What did you do?’
‘Nothing,’ she said, ‘nothing sir. I had nothing but normal growth this morning, all of these have appeared in the last hour.’
‘Has this happened before?’
‘No, sir, it hasn’t.’
He pushed on her shoulder, forcing her over the vanity, dropping the file beside her. ‘Stay still.’ He required a pair of scissors and began to snip away at the feathers. ‘Why did you attempt to hide this from me?’
‘Because it was unimportant,’ she said, bringing her arms up to steady herself. ‘I didn’t need to bother you with it.’
‘What concerns you, concerns me,’ he said, giving her a shake for emphasis. ‘Don’t do it again.’
‘Someone has to do the paperwork,’ he said, tossing the first handful of feathers into the basin.
She let him cut away the next two handfuls in silence, before speaking again. ‘I think I might have to track down my mother for questioning,’ she said. ‘With your permission, of course.’
‘She can do this to me. When I’ve been around her, I’ve felt my feet trying to turn into claws, or my face forcing itself into a beak. She does it to – ow – fuck with me, to use a phrase. To remind me of how much power she has over me.’
‘Have you done something to earn her ire?’
‘I haven’t even seen her in months, sir,’ she said, the muscles in her back twitching. ‘Though you know how she feels about her kin being recruits.’
He snipped a few more feathers away. ‘You might have to do it anyway?’
‘The file to your left,’ he said, tugging on a feather that refused to move. He pulled on it, but when she tensed in pain, he left it and went to the next one. ‘Salmon are going missing.’
‘There is a good chance she’s behind that,’ Magnolia said. ‘Unless we’ve got some reason to believe that Solstice would be going after specific targets?’
‘Ryan’s just assigned it to us, I didn’t read through the intel yet.’
She reached for it, but he grabbed her by the shoulders and straightened her. ‘No. Let me finish here.’
‘Yes sir,’ she said, going still again.
He began to work on the lower half of her back. ‘Explain this thing between your mother and the Salmon.’
‘Something you should know before I explain, sir?’
He tossed the next handful of feathers away. ‘What?’
‘Everything I know about this, I know from reading up on her, this has never been a topic of conversation between us.’
‘I guessed as much, Magnolia,’ he said, finding another feather that refused to budge.
‘Birds and fish live in different worlds, there isn’t much interaction between them, and the salmon are different from most, in that their wardens don’t choose to have congress with…bipeds, so there aren’t as many halfbreeds wandering around as, for example, with my family. Even then, a lot of the halves choose to spend most of their time in animal form, only walking around, or making outside contact when it benefits their family.’
‘There is also a monarchy system among them, if the warden is female, she is their queen, her mate the king, or the inverse. Eighty years ago, my mother captured the king and queen, fried them, and served them at a dinner party.’
‘That wasn’t specified, the leading theory was that it was retaliation for an insult. There was a war between them that lasted about seven years, but was very low-key, and didn’t garner a lot of attention from the outside. The salmon didn’t ask for help, and the magpies didn’t deserve it. After seven years, it was brought to an end, neither side the victor. The fish were tired of fighting, and it had ceased to amuse my mother.’
‘Current status?’
‘Sir, this is still living memory for a lot of the participants, there’s still a great deal of animosity, but outright conflict is mostly avoided by the parties…ignoring each other, so much as the files seem to indicate.’
He dropped the last handful of feathers into the sink, then stared at the nine feathers that were still on her back, those that were embedded much deeper than the rest.
‘Does nine mean anything to you?’ he asked, tossing the scissors onto the vanity.
She tilted her head to the side for a moment. ‘In the context of myself…I met her for the first time when I was nine.’
He wrapped a hand around the bottommost feather. ‘Then I think you can assume it was your mother.’ He pressed his other hand against the middle of her back. ‘This is going to hurt.’
She screamed, and put her fist through the bathroom mirror as he tore the feather from her back. Blood spilled from the hole – a lot more than normal, and he let the feather drop to the floor. ‘Eight more,’ he said.
‘I trained you better than this,’ he said, wrapping his fingers around the next feather.
‘Yes sir.’
He pulled it quickly, and her body shook with a repressed scream. ‘Seven more to go.’ He pulled the next one, and she punched the shattered remains of the mirror. ‘Six more.’
‘Brace yourself,’ he said, wrapping his hand around the next feather. She sucked in a deep breath, and nodded. He pulled it, and her legs gave out. She collapsed back against him, and began to slide to floor, but he grabbed her, and snaked his left arm around her middle. Lifting her with no effort, he had her standing again, though supported only by his arm.
‘Five more,’ he said, pulling the next one. She leaned on his arm more, abandoning all attempts at supporting herself, the soft flesh of her breasts pressing down on his arm.
‘Four more,’ he said as the next came away.
‘Just tell me when it’s over,’ she whispered.
He pulled the next four feathers in succession, ignoring her screams, her flailing, and her shaking. ‘Done,’ he said.
She gave a weak nod, and went limp in his grip, nearly sliding to the ground. He tightened his arm around her middle, swung his other down and grabbed her long, bare legs, lifting her and carrying her from the bathroom the few feet back to her bed.
He deposited her on the bed, staring at her pale, sweaty face for a moment – it wasn’t the good kind of sweat, one hard-earned after a spar, or a decent fight against a worthy enemy, it was just her body betraying her true strength, making her think that she was weak. He rolled her onto her stomach, her abused and bloody back bared for the world to see.
Wounds bled freely, blood pooling, then slipping around her body, down her refined her curves and onto the mattress.
‘I’ll be fine sir,’ she said, lifting her head a little, ‘I can handle it from here.’
He pushed a hand between her shoulders and pushed her back down to the bed, then bent lower. ‘Bullshit,’ he said. ‘Where’s your medkit?’
She lifted a hand, and pointed to the middle drawer of her bedside table. He yanked the drawer open, and pulled out the large, black medical bag. He sat on the bed, beside her prone form, unzipped it, and upended the contents on the bed.
Several large tubes of medicated cream fell out, as did bandages, scissors and tape. He unscrewed the cap on the closest tube, held it above her back and squeezed out the contents, the tube making a strange, flatulent noise as it ran empty, he tossed it to the floor, adjusted himself, and stared down at the pile of cream on his recruit’s bloody back. He shrugged off his bloodied jacket, needing to be free of the constraints in order to accomplish his task.
He placed his hands into the cold, white cream, and began to spread it across her back, feeling her shiver as it touched each one of her open wounds – though they wouldn’t be open for much longer, he’d seen her use it before, the Parkers had earned their keep when they’d designed it with a quick-acting coagulant, it stopped the bleeding long enough for the wounds to be dressed, and for proper treatment, if it came to that.
It only took a moment to spread a thick layer of the cream across her entire back. He grabbed the corner of her sheet, and wiped away the excess from his hands, before looking to her back again, and beginning to massage the cream into the affected areas.
From the corner of his mind, he watched himself rub her back, his hands seemingly knowing what to on instinct, without a conscious thought helping them along. He knew roughly what to do, hands pressure, pressing, not enough to bruise but not too light of a touch – moderation, it was all about moderation. What his hands had, however, was technique, ability…memory.
He fought for the scrap of memory, but nothing more came, nothing but the muscle memory to allow him do to this.
A useless ability.
He stared at his recruit, watching her relax under his movements, the tension leaving her back, the creases of pain slowly disappearing from what he could see of her face.
A…nearly useless ability.
He wiped more of the excess cream from his hands onto her sheet, and worked on the right side of her back, noticing the streaks of drying blood that had run down her side, streaks that were drying on her pale skin, that were-
She made an odd noise. It wasn’t a noise that he’d ever associated with her in pain, it was… He repeated the motion, massaging an area just below her right shoulder blade, and she made the noise again, a noise of…pleasure.
‘Sorry,’ she whispered, lifting her head a little, ‘the pain’s starting to subside, that’s all sir.’
‘Indeed,’ he said, resisting the urge to repeat the motion a third time. He looked away from her back, from the wounds and the curves of her muscles to the file. ‘Eight salmon have disappeared,’ he said. ‘Thoughts?’
‘Could you pass me the file, sir?’
‘No,’ he said, not wanting to cover the file in cream in addition to the blood that was already there, ‘just initial thoughts.’
‘We’ll have to get the techs to run whatever historical surveillance they can, see if we can get a look at whoever grabbed the persons in question, or indeed, if they were killed, then moved away. The-’ she made a similar noise, he was causing her pleasure again. ‘-situation is different if she took them all, than if one or two were taken by Solstice, or if they went missing for different reasons.’
He finished rubbing the cream in. ‘Sit up,’ he ordered. He required a towel, wiped his hands clean, then began to pick up the patches from the upended medkit. He tore the first one open, and placed it on the top wound, then quickly taped into place.
She leaned forward a little, a requirement taking her messy hair out of his way, and placing it up into a bun as she brought her legs up and around, placing them right in his field of vision, right there to- He placed the second patch on her back, taping it into position, his eyes sliding back to her legs.
He placed a hand on her leg.
Slowly, he ran his hand down the length of her long, perfect leg. It felt- He snapped his hand into a fist, and grabbed the next patch, and the tape. He patched the next wound, but after he took his hands away, she turned in place, her naked form close to his.
‘Your skin looked strange,’ he said, the lie coming easily, ‘mottled. Was checking for surface changes.’
‘Yes sir,’ she said, a strange look on her face. ‘Sir, I-’ She quickly looked away, down at the bed.
‘Speak or don’t, Magnolia,’ he said, his eyes sliding towards her legs again.
‘Sir, I-’ She rocked unsteadily for a moment, throwing out a hand to steady herself. ‘Wait,’ she said, ‘how many salmon are missing?’
She lifted her hand to his chest, and steadied herself enough to look up at him. ‘Then there’s one more victim.’
‘My mother is not one for sentimentalities, sir,’ she said, ‘but she does enjoy games. Nine. The number of feathers. They’re going to take one more victim, and she’s playing with us, giving us a chance to stop them.’
‘Clarke has the protocols for contacting all of the fiefdoms. He’ll need to be called.’
‘Sir, the bottom drawer,’ she said, withdrawing her hand from his chest. ‘The box in there, please.’
He retrieved the puzzle box, and she opened it easily. Inside were small jars and bottles, each filled with a different coloured liquid. Some were labeled, in typical, medically correct, formats, others simply had a slash of ink across a dusty surface. She selected a purple one, and shook it until it went a dark blue, then unscrewed the lid.
He grabbed her hand. ‘What’s that?’
‘It’s a stimulant,’ she said, ‘it’ll allow me to function.’
‘Side effects?’
‘Nothing serious, sir.’ He removed his hand and let her choke down the vile-smelling liquid.
She shook for a moment, then required herself into clothes, her headset appearing over her ear, then nodded to him. ‘I’ll get the techs doing surveillance,’ she said. ‘Let me know when you need me.’
He raised a hand and shifted her to the tech department, then opened a communication channel to call Clarke, the feel of her leg still burning in his mind.