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  • Writer's pictureJoseph Mankowski

Preview: Blood in the Gray (Episode 2)

Updated: Mar 17, 2023

Below is the complete second episode of J.D. Mankowski's Kindle Vella series 'Blood in the Gray' (releasing in 2023)

 

EPISODE 2: The Message


Madame O is the sole proprietor of the Aviary, a theatrical social club tucked away on a private island just off the coast of Diamond Port. It is the only place in the world known for turning orphans into queens - more accurately one orphan into the current queen, but hopeless dreams do not follow accurate accounts. For this reason, Madame O receives frequent requests from beggars of Sandpan and Hogsport to take their children into her care, but today is the first request that comes from a dead man.

Jay Corvid, Madame O’s confidant, ushers a pair of servants away from the private docks of the Aviary's estate. They climb a series of stone slab steps towards the manor, struggling to carry the weight of a corpse wrapped in a retired sail.


The ferryman who had delivered the body minutes ago rows as quickly as one can against the morning tide. His silence has been bought with a purse full of amber pebbles.


A table in the second kitchen is cleared before the body is hoisted onto it. The door to the outside is bolted shut, and then barricaded by a wooden board. Window curtains are drawn. Candles are lit. Somewhere among the kitchen staff, a warding spell is muttered to keep away the Collector.


Jay excuses the servants immediately with a wave of his hand. There is a day’s worth of chores to be done; stages are to be reset, gardens are to be weeded and pruned, guestrooms are to be emptied, and their chambers thereafter are to be cleaned.


Birds that are out of their cages are to be returned to the private quarters of the estate and bathed. All of this is known without a verbal reminder. That, and to not speak a word about this morning’s event.


Once the staff has been excused, Jay unwraps the body to make sense of what has been delivered. The ferryman had not been able to tell him who had sent it. All the man was able or willing to say was that he’d been told explicitly to deliver the body here at dawn.


The corpse’s open wounds are filled with salt maggot larva and broken shells. Long tangles of black hair are matted down by days spent in the Gray. Jay examines clumps of blue sand and begins to guess where the body had been originally found. A set of shackles still bind the wrists and ankles.


Jay stands statue like beside the body, clasping one of the lifeless hands with a weathered grip of his own. He can’t help but stare at the empty cavities in where eyes had once been.


A grandfather clock in the hall chimes two-past-low tide. The kitchen begins to smell of brine and damp earth. A fire crackles over bright orange embers. For a moment, Jay considers making himself a cup of tea.


But then Madame O arrives. She’s dressed in a mauve silk robe. Her hair is pulled up by a black ribbon. Strands of silver that would otherwise be hidden show against the chestnut coloring she typically has done before noon. The only makeup on her is what she failed to remove herself before going to bed an hour ago.


“So, they sailed him to the Drop?” Madame O says from the entranceway. She refrains from crossing the threshold.


“It appears so,” Jay replies. Instinctively, he tries to rub the wrinkles out of his blue tunic despite knowing that the Madame doesn’t care about his appearance at this moment. He reckons she doesn’t care about anything else in the world aside from the body on display.


“They didn’t remove his chains,” she continues.


Jay steps back so that she can examine the corpse more closely. He glances towards the kettle situated above the fireplace’s mantle and makes his way towards it. Tea will keep them both calm.


Madame O touches the corpse’s face. “I can hardly recognize him,” she says more to herself than to Jay.


“He was in the Gray for over a week.”


“How many servants saw him brought in?”


“Four.”


“And who delivered the body?”


“A ferryman coming from the dyer's camp. He was paid handsomely by a stranger while on his way up through Idon’s Gate.” The few facts Jay has are the only thing he can provide. The onset of grief is something Jay cannot protect the Madame from.


“You think he’ll keep silent?” she asks, in reference to the ferryman.


Jay nods. “He believes the Collector will come for him if he breaks his promise. That, and he seemed pleased with the additional purse I gave him to ensure his continued silence.”


“We can make up for the loss tonight if Ibis and Parakeet are on the main stage.”


Jay nods for a second time as he pumps a lever to pull water from a spigot.


Madame O does not speak again until the kettle starts to cry over the fire. She carefully presses two fingers against the swollen body. The remnants of torn breeches barely keep the corpse modest.


As she presses along the right abdomen, sea water spills from a cavity made by a knife wound. “Heathens,” she snarls, knowing full well that the stabbing had been done to lure fins. “When Ragnok hears of this, there won’t be a port left standing.”


“Then we shouldn’t speak of it,” Jay says, eyeing the stab wound before serving Madame O a cup of tea.


“He’s already preparing for war, what’s one more log to the fire?”


“There’s no need to punish the Good Folk.”


“If the people you’re speaking of were the same ones I saw in Port Idon the day they paraded him through the streets, you might think of them differently,” Madame O says, coldly. Then she sips her tea and moves closer to the fire.


She sits perfectly still. Her gaze is fixed on the body. Water continues to spill slowly from the open wound, collecting on the table at first, and then trickling onto the stone floor.


“You’ll have to get rid of the servants,” she then says to Jay.


“They won’t speak about this,” he answers.


“A ferryman’s loose tongue in a tavern is easy to dismiss. Four servants of the Aviary, however… it’s too big of a risk.” She touches a pendant hanging from her neck. A blue inlaid gemstone feels warm to her touch.


“But he’s gone, Cassandra. The Bannermen paraded him through the streets to prove that they captured him. The papers declared him dead. Aviary servants and a ferryman seeing a body days later is only further proof of that.”


“Exactly,” Madame O replies. “We must maintain the delicate balance of truth and terror. Vasil Cane could set ships on fire with his gaze, fight off a dozen bannermen single-handedly. He was untouchable. He was legendary. We need the papers to declare him dead today so that the pebbledreads tomorrow can claim he’s at large once more. They won’t do that if there’s too much talk about his body washing ashore.”


Jay frowns and runs a hand over the dark skin of his shaved head. “Maybe he wanted this. It’s hard to believe the Crown’s spies caught him on their own.”


“Vasil didn’t want out. He was a king by his own making. He was leading the islands into a revolution against Idon,” Madame O replies.


“Then how and why did this happen? What purpose did his death serve? He was the heart of the Independence,” Jay motions towards the bod


Madame O sets her teacup down and stands quickly. She then reaches for a meat cleaver. “Perhaps his plans changed. Perhaps he was trying to send us a message,” she replies and walks back towards the body. With a heavy swing, she hacks away at the rib cage until she’s made a sufficient gash.


Jay watches as Madame O then shoves her whole fist and forearm into the body. He would have felt mildly disturbed by her actions had he not been preoccupied with finding a way to save the four servants from their pending deaths.


Then with a sigh of relief, Madame O removes her hand to show a small cylindrical piece of black wax which she had located somewhere near the heart. She places it on the table before wiping her hands clean. Bringing the item into the firelight, she splits the wax with a fingernail.


Coiled under the black casing is a ribbon of parchment, Thin, ruby ink scratched by a quill in narrow lines reads a message. Jay can’t see it in its entirety from where he sits, but an instant later, Madame O tears a piece off the ribbon and tosses the rest into the fire.


“Call back the servants who helped you. One will accompany me to South Windfall,” Madame O says quickly. “I’ll need a paddler made ready at once. Send a pigeon to the Cerulean Estate to inform them of my imminent arrival. Have the rest of the servants bury the body in the Wren Garden.”


“And after?” Jay asks.


“Protect the Aviary,” Madame O replies sternly. “At all costs.”


 

Thank You For Reading Episode 2:

The Message.


For more content or to be notified when 'Blood in the Gray' released on Kindle Vella, subscribe to J.D. Mankowski's Newsletter.



Cover Art By Lewis Cattouse

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