On a sweltering winter morning, at the edge of town where the wailing desert clawed at her shanty door, the Patron held court. The preacher’s son knelt before her, trembling with fury and fear. His gaze lingered on the tuxedoed bodyguard fingering her wheel-lock pistol, the guitarist plucking at dissonant chords. His breath hitched at the sight of the daemons, that amorphous mass of shadow that writhed in the shanty’s darkest corner. Sweat roamed his cheeks. His eyes said: see what I have endured. I have nothing left to lose.

The Patron’s lip curled. Visitors always brought such thoughts.

They were always wrong.

The preacher’s son lifted his gaze with surprising confidence. “Good afternoon—”

“This relationship is purely transactional.” The Patron waved an impatient hand. “State your terms.”

But as the hiss of blood locusts rose beyond the shanty walls, she hesitated. Beneath this man’s conviction, rarer urges haunted his eyes. Tolerance. Virtue.

Could this be the one? The month was drawing short. Time was running out.

“My name is—”

“I know who you are.” The Patron maintained the illusion of disinterest, left leg flung over the arm of her rust-and-rivet throne. “Your terms.”

The young man’s fingers twitched toward a picket-line of knives at his belt. His gaze flicked to the bodyguard’s gun, massive in her bony hands. He did not breathe for a solid minute.

Then, visibly, his mind was made.

“I need you to kill my father.”

Another father. How banal.

“It must be painful.” The grout-lines of his face deepened. “He must know it was me.”

The Patron ran her tongue across her cracked lips. Perhaps this was the one, after all.

Her pulse quickened. The cold metal around her right ankle felt suddenly present. Heavy, with the weight of seven wretched years. This commission, this prison, this curse.

Perhaps the preacher’s son would buy her freedom.

But old habits drew her tongue. “So kill him yourself. You have my blessing.”

His teeth flashed, bestial in the candlelight. “The Cult protects him.” A hint of derangement in his words. “His cult.”

The Patron understood. To every church in town, every other was a cult. But the intonation—the uttered capital C—could only mean one.

“The Goodlads. Hammered a red cross to my lover’s—” He hesitated, then, “My doctor’s door in the Night Quarter. Same kind they post at the casinos, the saloons, the brothels. As if the poor man were on the Skin Inc payroll. They didn’t leave enough of him left to bury.”

The guitarist picked a bluesy riff. Trails of incense stuttered.

The Goodlads condemned homosexuality, wore their bigotry like a badge. For the son of their own preacher, they would not make exception. They would make example. Inside their painted crosses: black powder and nails. The red was contagious.

But this young man’s woes neither started nor ended with the Goodlads, the Patron knew. She’d already noticed the bitter stench on his sweat. Shift; by its pungency, an addict’s dose. Only one shift supplier had survived last year’s drug wars. Elixir Co’s secretive honcho governed the Night Quarter, with its tarps strung across every street to stifle the burn of the noonday sun. By proximity, this man’s lover—his doctor, his dealer—no doubt had worked for Elixir. Elixir’s pushers would strangle infants for the promise of an enduring client. Feigning love was but a trifle.

It wasn’t the Patron’s duty to assign nor assuage guilt. Still, she felt compelled to offer him one last chance.

“Get out.” She ignored the anxious swell of the daemons. “Find another township to haunt with your petty problems.”

The preacher’s son hesitated. She seized the shred of hope.

“You don’t qualify. Leave, before I bury you.”

For a moment he seemed ready to comply. Then, slowly, his brow furrowed into an angry knot. “I demand an accord.”

The Patron sighed. Not once had a visitor heeded her advice. They were always too invested.

She knew how they felt.

“You know the terms,” she said.

Like clockwork, the bodyguard twitched at the Patron’s side. Thirsty for action, some might have thought.

The Patron shot her a warning glance.

“I’m no longer afraid.” The preacher’s son lowered his gaze. “I’ve already lost everything.”

A twang from the guitarist, as if to say: I wouldn’t be so sure.

The Patron stifled her frustration. “Very well.”

The candles flickered out; darkness saturated the shanty. As if already realizing his mistake, the preacher’s son gasped.

Only through experience did the Patron know what happened next, in the dark.

The daemons divided, encircled, embraced. First he would feel euphoria, then agony—as if brought to sexual climax, only to find he’d been dismembered. But this wasn’t the pain the accord promised.

This was only the discovery.

The Patron awaited the results with closed eyes. A familiar nausea gripped her as the daemons’ tendrils invaded her nostrils, her ear canals, the pores in her eyelids. Thoughts gestated, hatched, festered in her consciousness—thoughts so subtle it was near impossible to distinguish them from her own. Only the bruising left by the daemons’ psychic bridge served as proof of their molestation.

Until now.

This time, as the daemons severed the link—a half-second slower than usual—she noticed something different. Something tantalizing.

An opening.

The inkling of a plan wormed into the Patron’s brain. If she couldn’t buy her freedom, perhaps she could steal it.

She shelved the thought, opened her eyes to an uncomfortable brightness. Sweat slicked the young man’s unshaven face. In his eyes: relief. It was over.

If he only knew.

The Patron could not hide her disappointment. The discovery was complete—this was not the visitor she’d been waiting for. Hope was dwindling.

A clutch of daemonic tentacles—separated from the whole during the discovery— slithered through the threadbare curtains, back from their malefaction. None would’ve seen them leave but for she who never blinks. As the daemons reclaimed them, the Patron spoke to the preacher’s son for the last time.

“It is done. Now go.”

The preacher’s son balked. “Already? Impossible.”

The guitarist produced an off-tune twang, her feet propped against the kitchen door.

The preacher’s son stood. “What about my payment?”

The Patron slouched, too tired for words. At such times, she couldn’t help but dwell on the life she once knew. The brother she’d lost to this chair. This transaction.

She nodded, as if to say: that, too, is done.

After an awkward silence, the preacher’s son departed.

As the curse dictated, a single daemon strand shadowed him. This was how the Patron knew what came to pass. This was how she felt every fiber of his pain, as if it were her own. How he traveled first to the town crier, then—upon confirming his father’s death—to the saloon, where he drank to justice, and to vengeance, and woke with the cold sweats of shift withdrawal. How he clawed his way to the Night Quarter for a fix, only to learn that Elixir—blaming him for the death of his own lover, their pusher—had no further interest in accommodating his needs.

The days grated on, too bright, too hot, and the preacher’s son withered to bone and burns. The mites burrowed into his ears, and the sweat bled from his body. All the while, his loathing for the Patron mounted. She’d tricked him, connived with Elixir, cursed him to this living hell to bolster her reputation. When his joints swelled and his gums bled, it was only his hatred that kept him alive.

And so, when the man with the soft smile arrived in the alley with a double dose of Shift, the preacher’s son could not possibly have declined. Besides, this stranger—he seemed like such a good man.

Such a Goodlad.

And so, like his father before him, he fell hard and swift into a role most unsuited to his temperament. He donned heavy robes. He hammered crimson crosses. He preached whatever the Cult would have him preach. And he proved the Patron right.

There’s always something more to lose.

The shred of his former self that remained, so gnarled and deranged as it was, dwelled on the Patron and felt only spite. On his third day as preacher, he proved as much by doing something none had ever risked.

He put a bounty on the Patron’s head.

The chain that bound the Patron’s ankle to her chair weighed heavy the morning of the apothecary’s visit. Although the chain was largely symbolic—the daemons served as her true shackles—its heft and its chill proved an effective reminder of the lengthening days. The waning month. The dwindling chances.

“Eat.” The bodyguard only spoke when no visitors were present. A ridiculous superstition, the Patron thought; consequence of her own unseen chains. “You aren’t well.”

The Patron grimaced. As if a plate of millet would heal these wounds any more than a pint of water would slake the desert’s thirst.

The bodyguard knelt, massaged the Patron’s ankle. Her height was so unnatural that even on her knees, her gaze came level with the seated Patron. Candlelight smothered the bodyguard’s bald head in crimson. She wore a trim black tuxedo and bowtie, same as every day before.

“Lupe,” she said. “Please.”

The Patron winced. If not for her bodyguard, she might’ve maintained the illusion of anonymity. The absence of guilt. But despite her irritation, the Patron’s nostrils flared at the scent of clove and sweat. Her skin flushed from the pressure on her ankle. Her lips found the bodyguard’s knotted jawline.

Hesitated.

Outside, the cries of the blood locusts swelled, as they would until month’s end. These creatures writhed below ground for seven years before breaching the surface to feast on fruits and flesh alike. It was during the prior plague that she’d set foot in this shanty for the first time, foolish and desperate, in search of her own bloody accord. By the daemons’ whispers, it would be during another such plague—this one, with any luck—that she’d regain her freedom. But if the daemons lied, or if her replacement failed to arrive—

She sat up, stiffly. “I’ll have some tea.”

The bodyguard leveled a stony glare that would’ve felled nine of ten men. Then she disappeared into the kitchen.

It was just as well. The Patron had no love left to give.

The apothecary slipped through the curtains with arms folded beneath her robes and head bowed. Pious, as if visiting a local saint.

The Patron studied her grimly. This could be the one. And if not...the shadow of that other plan was sharpening in the Patron’s mind. It was a foolish plan, born of desperation.

The bodyguard, now back at the Patron’s side, stood motionless. The tea was poorly steeped, and too hot—the Patron seared her tongue, stifled a hiss. The bodyguard, curse her spite, remained stone-faced.

“You must save my son.” The apothecary knelt—eyes jeweled, voice aquiver. “He suffers from the lung blood. He has few days left.”

The Patron studied the smoothness of the apothecary’s skin, the luster of her hair, the bulge of the cure-all beneath her collar—signs of unwanting rare to these times. The badge riveted to the woman’s robes said: Elixir Co.

“You’re the apothecary.”

The woman’s face tightened. “Desert’s got a hundred pharmacists—”

“I know your reputation.” The Patron showed a few teeth. “Your cures that are timed to last only what it takes for you to leave town.”

The apothecary spat. “Now the incurable plagues are my doing?”

Not far off, the Patron thought, so long as the apothecary wore that badge. Elixir’s faceless honcho had grown rich profiting from the aftermath of the company’s historic malpractice. This woman’s cure-all—which bolstered her own immunity to her clients’ ailments—was surely Elixir-made.

The apothecary collected herself. “It wasn’t always this way.”

That much was true. Now even the most well-intentioned of physicians would trade hope for hard coin. And who was the Patron to judge? What if that coin had gone to her son’s failing health? She was here, after all—she’d exhausted every other option.

Even a fraud deserved a chance.

“Go beg your employer for a cure.” The Patron waved a callous hand. “They have a presence here, I’m told.”

The apothecary’s glare hardened. “I cannot afford their asking price.”

“My price is higher.” The Patron leaned forward. “Believe me.”

The apothecary hesitated.

The bodyguard cleared her throat; this was her least favorite part, for how it agonized the Patron.

The silence hung taut. The guitarist held muting fingers over her strings. Even the hiss of the locusts quieted.

Then, slowly, the apothecary’s lips twisted into a grin. “I anticipated as much.”

Something was wrong. An itch, a worm, a doubt.

Creeping through the silence: a soft wheeze.

“I will not pay.” The apothecary watched the Patron hungrily. Looking for signs.

For symptoms.

The Patron measured her pulse. “You’ve come for the bounty.”

“As I said. I cannot afford Elixir’s asking price. Nor will I take my chances with yours.” The apothecary’s expression contorted with glee. “So I poisoned your tea.”

The bitterness of the herbs clung to the Patron’s tongue. The wheezing persisted. An unfamiliar beast stirred in her gut.

Fear.

The apothecary reveled. “Either grant my favor gratis and receive my antidote, or die and I’ll collect your bounty to pay Elixir’s bill. Either way, my son lives.”

The Patron’s heart thrashed. The daemons stirred in her periphery, but she didn’t dare break the apothecary’s gaze. All the while, the wheezing crescendoed.

The apothecary approached. Her sickly perfume fouled the air.

Another step, then another.

The smile bled from the apothecary’s lips. Her proximity must’ve clued her in: the wheezing did not come from the Patron’s mouth.

The bodyguard coughed. Even this much sound from her—with a visitor present—was so incongruous it tightened the Patron’s chest.

“It tasted spoiled.” The bodyguard’s words came clipped, strained. “So I brewed you a fresh pot.”

The Patron gripped the chair’s cold arm. She couldn’t bear to glance at her bodyguard, in fear of what she might see. Her bodyguard, who insisted as a matter of practice on tasting everything the Patron would consume.

The Patron seethed. A quick snatch and the bodyguard’s pistol would be in her hand. A quick squeeze and a lead bullet would be in the apothecary’s fleshy body. Fast, easy, gratifying.

Folly. The apothecary would not have brought the antidote on her person, and the Patron had no way of identifying the poison—let alone procuring a remedy on her own, chained as she was to this accursed chair.

Against every instinct, the Patron remained still.

The apothecary’s lip trembled. “Will you kill me?”

The question blindsided the Patron. Only as the silence endured—punctuated by the bodyguard’s aching rasp—did she understand. As far as this woman knew, the bodyguard was nothing but a hired gun. Expendable. As far as this woman knew, her plan had failed.

There was still hope.

The Patron narrowed her eyes. “Death is never the most painful option.”

The apothecary backpedaled.

“You’ve come for an accord.” The Patron smiled bitterly. “You’ll get one. But my fees have increased. In addition to the customary payment, you will provide my servant a cure. Agreed?”

The apothecary nodded, forcefully, as if her head hung at the end of a marionette’s string.

Darkness consumed the shanty.

The apothecary whimpered.

Desperate for distraction, the Patron squinted into the shadows where half of the daemons busily invaded the apothecary’s skull. What were they, exactly? Some antediluvian presence unearthed by humanity’s ceaseless conquests—that much she could guess. But why did they thrive on pain? And why the charade—the chain, the accord, the Patron as their figurehead? Were they serving some preordained purpose of heaven or hell, for time without end? Or had they gone rogue—obsessed with exploiting humanity’s greed, their wrath, their envy?

What was their endgame? How many more must suffer for it?

Already the other half of the daemons slunk back inside from their jaunt, rejoined the whole, and tapped into the Patron’s own psyche. Her disappointment hardly registered as she learned that the apothecary—now bathed in sweat and fear—was not the visitor she’d been awaiting. The strange fissure in the psychic bridge—this time even more evident as the tendrils slipped from the Patron’s nostrils—was tomorrow’s concern. Only one thing occupied her mind, now: the dry wheezing that permeated the shanty.

“It’s done.” The Patron’s impatience mounted. “Now, the antidote.”

The apothecary fingered her cure-all. “What have you done to me?”

“An improvement. Rather than staving off the ailments you claim to cure, now you can enjoy their full effects—and then some.” On fear of contamination, the apothecary would never swindle another patient. Elixir Co, on the other hand, would hardly forget her indenture.

The apothecary bared her teeth. “Devil! How will I—”

“Not my concern.”

The apothecary rose unsteadily. Almost as an afterthought, she said: “And my son?”

“He’ll live.” The Patron squeezed her hands into fists. “Now. The antidote.”

“You’re no patron. You’re a gangster.” Spittle erupted from her lips. “Vengeful, isolated, sadistic. You are all of humanity’s greatest faults.”

And yet, the Patron thought in passing, the visitors still came.

“I’ve fulfilled my side of this transaction.” The Patron leaned forward. “Give me the antidote.”

“There is none.” The apothecary shrugged. “I never expected you’d agree to my terms.”

Then she walked out.

The Patron could only watch. Inflicting more pain would serve no purpose.

A momentary stillness gripped the shanty, one that an outsider might have mistaken for peace.

Then the bodyguard collapsed to a knee and vomited blood.

The bodyguard’s condition worsened by dusk. By dawn’s knell she lay propped against the Patron’s leg, skin stripped of color, lips stained crimson.

The Patron stroked her bald scalp, her notched ear, her sweat-glazed jaw. She remembered.

She remembered waking one morning to find the bodyguard prying at her chain’s lock. She remembered the fierce glint in the bodyguard’s eye, months later, as she produced a rusted hacksaw. For the chain—or if that didn’t work, the ankle. She remembered the bodyguard’s silent protests when the Patron shrugged her off, time and again. She remembered thinking: I deserve this fate, and besides, the daemons would not abide my escape. She remembered saying nothing.

She remembered other moments, too—not all of them bad. Some close to good. This was the worst part of remembering.

But even now, a cocktail of remedies surged through her bodyguard’s bloodstream. Hope lingered. The Patron stared knives into the daemons. She forced her thoughts to retribution. She honed her plan.

So it was that when the next visitor stepped into the shanty on snakeskin soles, his own glut of bodyguards milling in the swelter outside, the Patron sat composed. The void at her side and the faint rasping from the kitchen did not betray her poise as she received her guest.

This one was famous. Perhaps, even, the one she sought. If her bodyguard were to die... at least unchained, she could dig the grave herself.

“Patron.”

Mr. Midas’s voice unfurled like velvet over bare skin. His suit—three-piece, bone-white—was immaculate, despite the sandstorm that had hammered the town at dawn. A greased mustache provided cover for his too-thin lips; wire-framed sunglasses concealed his eyes, which the Patron imagined were small, red, lustful.

“I assume my reputation precedes me.”

The Patron stifled a sigh. “I know your company—Spore Brothers. Their sterile seeds and their starvation tax. I also know, by your presence here, that you aren’t as powerful as some might think.”

This garnered a brooding silence.

“I respect you, Patron—” He raised a corrective finger. “I respect your pursuit.”

The Patron rapped her fingers impatiently.

“The pursuit of pain.” He spread his hands, as if welcoming her into some sinister club. “The threat of murder is always more effective than the act itself. Fear and pain are the only true motivators.”

The guitarist fingered a jarring tritone. Mr. Midas reddened at the interruption.

She plucked another chord, less pleasant still. Her unblinking eyes twinkled.

Mr. Midas glowered, as if the Patron owed him an apology for the disruption. As if she were the girl’s charge.

That one came with the place.

“State your intentions,” the Patron said with unchecked irritation.

“Elixir.” Mr. Midas’s lip twitched. “They are a scourge—the last credible threat to my empire. Yet how can I kill that which I cannot see? Their cowardly honcho remains anonymous. This is my demand: his head.”

Politics. Some things never changed.

Still, she couldn’t stave the need to try.

“Have you ventured negotiation? Armistice? A cup of tea?” The Patron winced at her own choice of words.

Mr. Midas exhaled sharply. “I want his head.”

So be it. “You understand the terms.”

At this, a wry grin. “Of course.”

Darkness, as cruel and certain as death. The daemons split, advanced—all tendril and vice. Unwelcome thoughts percolated in the Patron’s mind—he was not the one—and her attention snapped again to the kitchen. Time was running out for them both.

But the plan. Her preoccupation had cost her valuable time. She turned her thoughts inward, probed the psychic bridge—there. Not a fissure, but a valve. As thoughts filtered in, others might slip out. Damage, perhaps, could be done in both directions. Lasting damage. She prodded the valve with her psyche—

Mr. Midas chuckled.

The daemons severed the bridge. Her awareness jolted back to the shanty.

“I’ve outsmarted you, Patron.”

The Patron’s skin went cold. Another bounty hunter?

Impossible. This honcho had all the coin he could carry.

Mr. Midas’s voice snaked through the darkness. “I’ve steeled myself to all forms of pain. I’ve eliminated every compassion, every weakness. My wife and son are dead. I exiled my beloved daughter across the desert years ago, so that none should leverage her love against me. With pain as your arsenal, I am bulletproof.”

Before the Patron could respond, the lights flicked on. Behind the honcho, the daemons’ other half slipped inside from their foray. Mr. Midas held his chin high.

It was almost a shame to bring him down so fast.

Almost.

The Patron picked dried blood from her fingernail. “It’s not your daughter’s love you should fear.”

A shout from outside drew Mr. Midas’s attention. He left without a word—returned moments later, a shade paler. Trembling.

Cradling a human head.

“You should’ve feared her fury.” The Patron echoed the daemons’ thoughts. “Exile doesn’t suit every young woman’s taste.”

Mr. Midas stared into his daughter’s vacant eyes. Above her brow, a gilded headband read Elixir.

It was a convenient, if grisly, package. Rarely did both sides of the transaction require but a single maneuver.

The Patron continued. “One might take offense to being treated as a pawn by her own father. One might connive a covert return, a gutsy power grab. Escalate a turf dispute into a full-scale war. Wield fear and pain as her weapons.” The Patron regarded him coolly. “You must be proud.”

Mr. Midas remained impassive. Gauging the repercussions of destroying the shanty outright, perhaps. He certainly had the capacity.

But that wasn’t this honcho’s style, and even now—his daughter’s blood still warming his hands—he retained his ideals. Pain promised, rather than delivered.

He left without a word, then promptly installed a blockade around the Patron’s shanty. A dozen armed guards would dissuade even the most desperate of visitors. His logic: the Patron drew reputation from these transactions; without them, she was nothing. Obsolete. Forgotten.

This wasn’t far from the truth. But much worse was the blockade’s timing: with just two days before month’s end, her chances of finding a replacement had already grown slim.

Now they were nonexistent.

She hadn’t always been a bodyguard. Once, her name was Ania.

A cruel desert wind had blistered the town for forty days when she first set foot in the Patron’s shanty. Two weeks escaped from Northern slavers, the necessary murders still staining her palms. Her eyes were hungry vortices—taking in everything, letting nothing out. Her clothes were tattered and too small; the inscription emblazoned on her wheel-lock pistol long since filed off. Even her name was stolen.

She came in search of protection, work. Companionship.

The Patron had none to spare. Memories of her brother were still too sharp. Would always be.

“This relationship is purely transactional.”

The tips of Ania’s lips had twitched upward. Her vortex eyes said: sure it is.

For the first time, the Patron wasn’t certain.

Then Ania had stated her terms.

The Patron balked. “You can’t—”

“I can.” Ania folded her arms across her chest, all filth and bones and beauty. “And I will.”

The Patron’s pulse stuttered. “Begone. You are unwanted here.” It had already become instinct to dissuade her visitors.

Ania didn’t blink. The vortices said: nice try.

And so Ania’s terms were met. A place by the Patron’s side, in exchange for her newfound freedom. Bound by chains less corporeal than the Patron’s, she would never leave her post. The fierce wanderer known briefly as Ania was no more. Now, there was only the bodyguard.

At the foot of her chair, the Patron hunched over the dying bodyguard. “Fool.”

Outside, the sun chewed at the scorched horizon, signaling the month’s end. The cries of the blood locusts ebbed to a dying murmur.

The bodyguard’s eyelids cracked. “Where will you go, when your replacement arrives?”

The Patron looked away to mask her discomfort. She hadn’t told the bodyguard about the blockade.

“Far from here,” she lied.

The bodyguard laughed—a wretched, rasping sound. “You still think your payment was freedom.”

“I’m chained to this chair, woman—”

“I see your eyes, when the visitors come.” She raked in a shallow breath. “Your sweating brow, your clenched fists. This is called pain.”

The Patron waved a dismissive hand. “They mean nothing to me.”

“Why, then, exhort them to leave without payment? Why show pity to even the most loathsome of bigots?”

The Patron had no answer.

“Because their pain is yours. This is your payment.” The bodyguard’s expression grew distant. “Mine was watching you suffer, my love.”

Is, the Patron almost corrected. But the word never reached her lips.

The gunshot rang out like an angry thunderclap, like a sandstorm snapping the roof off a church of beleaguered worshippers, like a heart bursting through a weary chest. The bodyguard’s hand slipped from her pistol, lifeless.

Transaction complete.

“Fool.” Salt stained the Patron’s lips. This was her fault. All this time, she’d hidden behind the excuse of human nature.

This world is an abyss, people get what they deserve.

It was the easiest lie to believe.

She hardly felt the tendrils slipping into her tear ducts, probing her psyche. When she did, a brutal rage hoisted her to her feet. This was her pain—they could not have it. Would not have it.

The daemons’ presence trembled within her—drunk with surplus, slowed by her glut of agony. She knew then, what they’d been doing all this time.

They were feeding.

She seized the opportunity—focused on the connection, tore through the valve and across the psychic bridge. Nausea crawled up her throat. She saw the daemons for what they were: perverse, inhuman—yet curious. They weren’t merely feeding.

They were looking for something.

The daemons must’ve grown conscious to her presence across the bridge: they repelled her with a jarring force, severed the connection. Doubtless they wouldn’t be so careless next time—but that was irrelevant. The Patron had already gleaned their fatal flaw.

They were dependent—on her. Burrowed in like so many ticks, surviving only by the pain of their host. Without her, they would perish.

The final stage of her plan grew clear.

The Patron lifted the pistol. Its grip was still warm.

In her periphery, the daemons writhed.

The Patron reclaimed her seat in the chair. She took her time reloading the gun, pressed the barrel beneath her chin.

Hesitated.

A man stood in the shadows, foot propped against the wall, knee jutting. His Highwaymen’s duster—speckled with sand and blood—grazed the bare floor. A mop of sandy hair obscured his face, save for the crooked arc of his grin.

“There, there,” said the month’s final visitor.

It would’ve betrayed the Patron’s surprise to ask how the visitor had bypassed the blockade. So she said, flatly, “Shadows are for snakes.”

The man chuckled. “Says the asp that’s spent seven years festering in darkness.”

The Patron laid the pistol on the chair’s arm to hide the tremble of her hand. Who was this man, that knew so much about her?

She swiveled the gun’s barrel to face him. “State your business or get out.”

“My business is...transactional.”

He stepped into the candlelight.

This time, the Patron could not conceal her disbelief.

The visitor cocked his head—a childish pose at odds with the grizzled scar that gouged his face, the rust-bitten spike that served as his left leg.

The Patron swallowed bile. “Brother.”

Her gaze lingered on his jacket. Same as the one she’d worn, while she enforced the Highwaymen’s grisly road tax in exchange for coin. To afford meds for her mother. Food for her kid brother. The jacket’s heft—and the cruel indenture it signified—had been the very reason for her visit to this shanty, seven years prior. She sought her boss’s head, because—brash as she was—she knew she could run the outfit better. And because many years prior, he’d taken her mother by force—not once, but twice—as if she were some cut-rate Skin Inc commodity. He was a vile man.

A vile father.

The daemons had dispatched him, though she’d never been afforded a chance at succession.

And now, seven years later, her brother had taken up the same garb—the same bloody role, answering to another ruthless honcho.

“How did you find me?”

“The bounty note contained a sketch.” His lip curled with disgust, but his eyes bore something far worse: pity. “I had to see for myself, this throne for which you renounced your family.”

“And you? What have you traded for that jacket?”

“You thought the Highwaymen would wither without a head? Foolish sister. His lieutenants knew it was you. They came looking for you.” He paused to collect himself. “Do you think they believed us, when we said we didn’t know? What do you think they did to us? To our mother?”

The Patron could not hold his gaze.

“You left me to fend for myself. I had no choice but to join the company. So don’t judge me for my garb, sister. I’ve always lived by your castoffs.”

The Patron pressed her eyes shut, long enough to acknowledge her mother’s death. “Blame me for what you will—but not the decisions you’ve made in my absence.”

His wince was slight: a ripple of scar tissue. “My decisions pale beside yours. How many have you murdered from this chair?”

But as he spoke, his voice quivered. His own decisions already hung leaden on his shoulders. He was as she had been, seven years prior. Bitter, vicious, proud.

Sympathetic.

Their pain is yours.

Of course he’d avoided the blockade—the daemons had helped him. He was, after all, the one she’d been waiting for: brother, successor, patron.

“I’ve one last castoff to collect.” He squared his shoulders, drove home her revelation. “I’m here for your throne, Patron.”

The Patron glared at the loitering daemons. Did they know she’d turn the gun on herself? Did they know that only one person alive could’ve stayed her hand?

Of course they did. They’d probed her mind on every visit. This would be her final payment: to watch her brother assume the seat she’d so long endured. To know that for seven brutal years, he’d suffer the shared pain of every vigilante, every lover, every fraud and cripple that walked through those curtains. Even her own death wouldn’t stop it now. Her brother already stood within the daemons’ shadow. The ticks would soon crawl into their next host.

All that remained was for him to accept the terms.

Unless.

Her finger twitched near the pistol’s trigger.

The air grew tepid. Her brother’s lips parted.

The guitarist fingered a lazy riff. The daemons began to circle.

The body at the Patron’s feet felt suddenly present. The vacancy at her side occupied more space than the bodyguard ever had.

She had always been the stronger one. What would she have done?

The Patron knew at once. She would’ve done what was needed.

The Patron lifted the gun. “I’m sorry, brother.”

Words died on her brother’s lips. Sweat stood on his jaw.

The daemons hesitated.

She narrowed her eyes. “Leave.”

“I will not—”

“You don’t qualify for an accord.” She held his gaze, not daring a glance toward daemons. “You have nothing of value. No money, no power, no family. You are less than worthless.”

His skin reddened; his breath came at a labor.

She rose to her feet. “At least when I arrived, I had your mother’s life to trade.”

His jaw snapped shut. Rage simmered in his eyes.

“Now leave,” she said. “Or you’ll follow her down.”

Amidst the fury that knotted his face, a flicker of sorrow. Her gambit had worked. He clearly believed she would do it—kill her own brother to retain her seat of power. This was the worst part—a transaction in itself. Her dignity, in exchange for his life.

He left without a word.

She could only hope he’d never learn the extent of her lies. Better to spend a lifetime in this wretched role than to endure the guilt of passing it on to another. Her brother, or anyone else. Be it seven years or seven hundred, this was her burden to bear.

Liberated from her shadow at last, her brother might finally cast off his bloody garb. She knew it from his eyes on leaving: the transaction had changed him. He was better off, now.

So was she.

Her gaze darted to the daemons, then to the guitarist propped in the corner—for by then the Patron knew she was more than just a languid musician. The girl who did not blink offered the slightest of smiles as her daemon-eyes glimmered. The Patron hesitated.

What if these daemons didn’t thirst for pain after all? What if pain was just the catalyst for pity?

I see your eyes, when the visitors come.

So did the daemons. Her bodyguard had been right—they’d put her on this throne because of her pity. Plumbing her emotional reservoirs—not for sadism, but sympathy. Not for horror, but hope. Her employ was not just payment: it had purpose. Under the right conditions, humanity might emerge from the unlikeliest of places.

The preacher’s son might come to mourn his father, rise up, and destroy the Cult from within. The apothecary might recommit to her calling on account of her compromised cure-all, raise her child into an honest doctor who in turn would launch the desert’s first open clinic. The honcho might grieve his daughter so fiercely that it would drive him to self-exile, sparking an era of tentative peace.

Or, maybe not.

Perhaps it was the next visitor that would one day deliver them all from this hell.

Whatever the case, the Patron would be waiting. Amidst the reek of death, she reclaimed her seat at the throne. As the cries of the blood locusts died on the evening wind, the Patron hardly noticed the chain at her feet, severed.

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Derrick Boden's fiction has appeared in numerous venues including Escape Pod, Daily Science Fiction, and Flash Fiction Online. He is a writer, a software developer, an adventurer, and a graduate of the Clarion West class of 2019. He currently calls Boston his home, although he's lived in fourteen cities spanning four continents. He is owned by two cats and one iron-willed daughter. Find him at derrickboden.com and on Twitter as @derrickboden.

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