Kuro pushed open the door and slid into the small apartment. It was a crooked mess of a home: unfinished brick walls at odd angles, no windows, and creeky rafters that were more termite than wood. Kuro’s master had claimed the single bedroom, leaving Kuro to build a nest in the corner of the main room from lost socks and a discarded cloak.
The only substantial furniture in the room was a small wooden table and a large velvet armchair. The table was cluttered with a mix of the apparati needed for magical experiments, and empty liquor bottles. The chair was occupied by Kuro’s keeper and master, Phineas Hearn.
Hearn was a haggard man. His greying hair hung in greasy waves over his sunken eyes. His unkempt beard failed to hide his sagging, hollow cheeks. His clothes were frayed and hung loosely on his skeletal frame, and he stank of the stale remains of the last bottle of wine Kuro had been able to steal for him.
Hearn had once been a powerful and wealthy wizard. This fact was repeated almost nightly, in drunken tales of his lost glory. “I was a great man,” he would snarl. “A scholar, a professor, a man of the Courts. But it was stolen from me! They destroyed my work, stole my wealth and chased me from my home. Now the only one with the sense to treat me with the respect I am due is you, a pathetic, filthy failure.” Phineas would usually punctuate those last few words by throwing something at Kuro.
Kuro couldn’t recall exactly how they had come to live in Detritus Lane. It seemed that they, like so many things in the alley, blew in with the fog one night and never left. If Kuro thought very hard, he could find memories of better times, before Detritus. He had lived in a real house, once, with a yard, and a kitchen, and a room of his own. There had been a woman there, too, a tutor and nanny who told him stories and taught him letters and numbers. He could still remember her face, kind and sad, though not her name. He didn’t know that he’d ever known to call her anything but ‘Tutor.’ She was not there by choice, of course. Phineas had kidnapped her and forced her to care for Kuro. Even so, she had been kind and gentle to him.
For the first six years of his life she had been Kuro’s caretaker, and then one day she vanished. She somehow broke the hold that Phineas had on her and escaped into the woods. Kuro wasn’t given much time to mourn her absence though, for the night following her escape, the Hounds were upon them.
Hounds were members of the Royal Guard. They were powerful mages, expert hunters, and utterly merciless. They earned their nickname in part for them all having dogs for familiars, and partly for how relentlessly they would pursue their prey. It was from them that Phineas was hiding.
In a night of howls, fire, and terror, the peaceful life that Kuro had known was torn away. Kuro could only remember it in fleeting wisps and nightmares, for he had been very young. The Hounds seemed to have come from every direction at once, erupting from the shadows, hands, teeth and claws reaching out to tear him apart. He could remember the fury in his master’s curses as Phineas had drowned the house in fire and fled into the night dragging Kuro along behind him.
The memory of the attack may have been jumbled and hazy, but there was another from that time which was not.
Phineas searched out Kuro’s tutor afterwards. He believed that she had been the one to tell the Hounds of their location. She had betrayed Phineas, and Phineas was not a forgiving man.
He brought Kuro along when he went to visit a small farmhouse in the Western Wildlands where the woman was hiding. He wanted Kuro to understand what happened to those who crossed him.
Phineas was not a man to do violence, himself, if he could help it. That was for lesser men. Instead he ensorcelled his tutor, bent her mind to his will, and had her end her own life.
That night was the last time Kuro could remember Phineas laughing.
Detritus Lane might seem like an odd place to hide for a wizard on the run from the law, given its reputation. But there are more secret doors, false bottoms, illusory walls, and hidden chambers there than in the rest of the Faerie Realm combined. If one is careful, they can spend their entire life in the lane without anyone knowing they are there.
Once Phineas had found their well-hidden hovel of a home, he made it his fortress and his prison. He left only in the cover of night and only a couple of times a month. As the years passed, he left less and less often, as those he went to meet were rounded up by the Hounds. One-by-one they were either killed or captured. As his colleagues disappeared, Phineas became more and more paranoid until he never left the room at all.
Nobody ever visited.
With Phineas trapped inside, he relied on his crow familiar to be his eyes and ears in the world. He would conjure it and send it out at night to listen and watch. When it returned, he would dispel it and suck its spiritual essence back into himself along with its experiences of the night.
Kuro was tasked with sustaining them. He had to learn to scavenge, then to beg, then to steal on his own. The process had not been easy. Phineas would send his crow to watch Kuro, and thus Phineas knew of any missteps Kuro made.
Phineas had never been a kind man, but his losses had made him cruel. If Kuro ever returned with too little to eat, he would go without food while Phineas dined. If he stole too much, if he was caught stealing, spoke to anyone, was seen by the wrong sorts of people, or offended or disrespected his master in any way, Kuro would be punished.
Kuro never made the same mistake twice.
Kuro tried his very best to satisfy his master, though it was all but impossible. He was a loyal servant, but he knew that he had been created by Phineas for another purpose. Kuro had never been informed what that purpose was, only that he was continually failing in every regard to serve it. In the early years, Kuro had been tested regularly for signs of him being whatever it was he was supposed to be. By the time they had moved to Detritus, Phineas had already given up on Kuro.
The recent revelation that Kuro was actually magical brought on a new battery of tests. Phineas drew blood, cast spells, and inflicted physical trials of all sorts on Kuro, probing the secrets of his magical nature. It was painful and taxing, but it did draw out his abilities. Little-by-little, Kuro began to be able to call upon his limited power when he needed it. This made his master happy, or as happy as a man like that could be, and made Kuro a much better thief.
That improved skill was a curse, in a way, to Kuro. They had subsisted for some time on beggar’s wages and stolen sandwiches. However, experiments required supplies that were expensive, doubly so since they needed to be purchased from sources that would not be monitored by the Royal Guard. Had Kuro not been so good at stealing, the experiments would likely not have been able to continue.
The coins Kuro had lifted in the market that night would pay for new potion ingredients, or specialty wands, or enchanted tools that would let Phineas discern the inner workings of his servant.
Kuro approached his master and handed over the coins without a word. Phineas counted the money twice before saying “adequate.” While the sneer in his voice implied otherwise, that was the best response Kuro could hope for. Too much or too little would have earned his master’s wrath.
“I don’t know why I still bother,” Phineas mumbled into his bottle as he drained the last few drops. “You’re old enough that any positive results should be clear by now. I’m just wasting my time on you.”
Kuro did not know his age. His birthday had never been clear, nor did he have a calendar to keep track of days. But he knew his numbers and he was pretty certain that he was more than ten and not yet a teenager. Phineas’ comment sparked a foolish moment of curiosity in Kuro. “How old am I?” he asked.
“Why do you want to know that?” Phineas responded. “Would it help you fix my dinner, brew my potions, collect money, or protect us from Hounds?”
“No sir.” It had been a foolish question and he should have known better.
“Very good,” said Phineas. “Remember well, you only continue to live by my good will. Your only purpose in your pathetic life is to serve me. Any thought of yourself is a thought wasted. Understand?”
“Yes sir.” Kuro replied.
“Good. Now prove your worth and find me something more to drink.”
More liquor was Phineas’ most common demand. Years ago, he had enjoyed the bottled sensations that were brewed in Detritus, like bliss, or contentment, or calm. When those became too expensive a habit, he taught Kuro to brew them. When the ingredients proved hard to come by, Phineas turned to more mundane spirits to fill the void.
His frequent drunkenness was a mixed blessing for Kuro. It made him less predictable, but it also afforded Kuro more freedom. Phineas could not muster the focus and precision needed to summon his familiar when drunk, so Kuro was more and more often allowed to leave without a chaperone. Not that it mattered, terribly; Kuro did what he was told. He always had. He always would. He couldn’t do otherwise. Just the thought of failure siezed him with paralyzing terror. A willing act of disobedience, he thought, might stop his heart.
Following Phineas’ demand for wine, Kuro retreated from the apartment. He climbed the five remaining flights of creaking and termite-ridden stairs to the top of their four-story building. He stepped out onto the slush-covered rooftop and his feet were immediately soaked and freezing again. He hunched against the cold night air and began to run in hopes that would warm him some, or at least get him out of the cold sooner.
It was late enough that stores would be closed in the Blandlands, so he had to try his luck in Bytown. He jogged the couple of miles back to the market, then began to creep between the shadows of the darkened city. He made his way to the market square, hoping to catch someone leaving one of the several pubs with a fresh pint and a muddled mind. Instead he found the most depressing of scenes: a mother and father, dressed in bright, clean, well-tailored silks were standing with their daughter at the entrance to Wing-Tips, a fancy enchanted shoe store.
“Happy Birthday Evelyn!” the father beamed as the mother pulled her hands from in front of the young girl’s eyes. “Pick any pair you want!”
“Any of them? Any at all?” the girl cried with delight. “Oh this is perfect! Thank you!”
“They kept the store open just for us,” boasted the mother. “Take as long as you like. Mr. Schumacher will be happy to show you whatever you want.”
Kuro watched as the girl pranced around the store trailing the owner behind her and commanding him to collect various shoes for her to try on. She was young, probably no older than he was, but that is where the similarities stopped. She was tall, clean, and elegantly dressed. Her skin was perfectly clear and radiantly white. Her hair hung in flawless golden ringlets that are only obtained through hefty application of some of Glamour Cosmetics’ most expensive enchanted hair creams. She was rich, beautiful, and carefree.
Kuro hated her immediately.
The more he watched her, the more he despised her. Her radiant smile, her clean hands, her coddling parents, her perfectly good shoes that she was already wearing… everything about her reminded Kuro of exactly who and what he was: a servant, a beggar, an experiment, a failure. Despite that, he couldn’t stop watching. All he could do was stand outside, in the sinking gloom of the frozen night and soak in his despair.
He didn’t know how long he stood there. The girl, Evelyn, must have tried every shoe in the shop that fit her and a dozen others that didn’t. She tried ballet slippers that knew the steps to every dance, riding boots that never got dirty, sandals that keep feet warm even in the winter, and athletic shoes that run twice as fast as the wearer. In the end, she settled on the first pair she’d tried on: a pair of what looked like high-heeled doll shoes, mirror polished, and enchanted to make her move more gracefully. She looked sickeningly elegant in them.
Kuro was still standing outside the shop, slowly being covered in the gently falling snow, when the family finally paid the shopkeeper and left.
There, in the street, they came face to face with each other. Kuro felt more worthless than the paper bag that was wrapping the new shoes. Evelyn’s face curled in fear and disgust and she started to back away. Her father moved to put himself between Kuro and his precious daughter.
Kuro pulled out his tin cup and held it out to them, trying hard to hide his hate for the loving family. If they were going to spoil their awful daughter, they could at least spare a couple coins for him.
They did not even acknowledge him. They simply moved off, down the street, as if Kuro didn’t exist. “Can I have some ice cream?” pleaded Evelyn.
“No dear, Wartha’s is closed for the night, but we’ll be back in a couple of days and you can have a double-scoop, then.”
A white carriage pulled up next to them, drawn by a pair of sad looking unicorns. As they clambered in and allowed themselves to be chauffeured away, Kuro was at last free of the spell of heartsickness their presence had cast.
“Don’t you pay them no mind,” said a tired voice from behind him.
Kuro jumped and spun to find the kind and sympathetic face of Mr. Schumacher, the shoe seller, looking down at him, his shop now dark and closed.
“Folks like them don’t know what it means to have it hard.” He ruffled Kuro’s filthy mop of hair. “More than one of us started our days in Detritus, though. We remember where we came from.” He looked Kuro up and down, his weary eyes settling on the boy’s feet. “Come on in for a second.” He turned back to his store and gestured for Kuro to follow with a tilt of his head.
Kuro felt that he probably shouldn’t follow. Just being seen out at night was justification enough for punishment. He wasn’t certain he could trust the man either; there wasn’t any reason for him to invite Kuro inside. However, he was freezing and the promise of the warmth was calling. So, too, was his curiosity. He had never been allowed in a proper store visited by fancy folk and royals. He’d only ever purchased things from street vendors and the transient back-alley shops in Detritus.
His feet followed Mr. Schumacher before his mind had made itself up. Inside he was welcomed by a breath of warmth and the scent of new leather. The enchanted crystals that lit the store flared back into life as they crossed the threshold and filled the store with the glow of a summer day. “Have a seat there and take off your shoes,” said the old Shopkeeper as he started inspecting some shoe boxes. He picking out a couple and brought them to Kuro along with dry, matching socks.
Kuro had never had matching shoes or socks in his life. Detritus was littered with both, but something in the nature of the magic that flowed down that street meant that there were only ever one of any pair.
Kuro watched in confusion and growing fear as Mr. Schumacher replaced his socks and laced a pair of brand new sneakers onto Kuro’s feet. “Right, then. Hop up, have a walk around. See how they feel.”
Kuro obeyed. They felt strange, almost confining. His feet didn’t slide around inside them at all and they were both the same weight. There was almost a bounce to them when he stepped and they felt like they wanted to run and jump.
The shopkeeper nodded with satisfaction. “They’re nothing fancy, but they should keep your feet dry, and grow with you for a couple years, at least.”
It dawned on Kuro that Mr. Schumacher meant for Kuro to keep the shoes. Kuro wanted to argue, to demand why, but he couldn’t talk to people. He wasn’t allowed. All he could do was shake his head violently in refusal and start taking them off.
The shopkeeper put a gentle hand on Kuro to stop him. “Don’t think on it for a moment. I’ve had some good fortune tonight and it’ll do me well to share that around. And I’ll tell you a secret,” he leaned in close. “Them folks paid twice what those shoes were worth. Have ya somewhere warm to stay tonight?” he asked, retying the shoe that Kuro had tried to remove.
“Good, now get goin’ ‘fore yer missed.” Mr. Schumacher led Kuro to the door and bowed him out like a proper customer.
Kuro wandered back to Detritus in a bit of a daze. He kept staring at the shoes as they walked him home. They felt like a birthday present, a proper gift. Not something that he’d begged for or stolen or found in the gutter, but something given freely. He felt himself smiling and there was a lightness in his chest that was pleasant, though unfamiliar. It was a little like magic, but gentler and warmer. It chased away the chill of the night and made the half-melted drifts of dirty snow seem beautiful.
When he hit Detritus, he let that feeling overtake him and he ran. His new shoes kept pace. Instead of having to drag them to keep up, it felt like they pressed him forward urging him to run faster and jump higher. The slush rolled off of them and the cold air barely touched his feet through them.
He reached his home and bounded up the thirteen flights to his master’s chamber and stopped just outside the door.
How long had he been gone? Hours? His master would be furious. He had no wine, no ale, and he was wearing a very conspicuous pair of shoes. He could feel his master’s anger already.
He braced himself for the worst and opened the door.
Silence and darkness greeted him. There was no light coming from under the door. Could he be so lucky? If Phineas was asleep then he could go out and try again: hide the shoes and find some wine.
He entered the shadowy chamber and cautiously looked around. Phineas wasn’t there. Had he gone out? He hadn’t left in weeks and he always made Kuro stay in the room when he was gone, with his crow standing watch. He never left without warning. His potions and notes were also gone, the cupboards cleared out and the bed stripped.
In the cold, late winter evening, confused and frightened, Kuro sat on the floor facing the door and waited.