Skin Deep

Happy Wednesday everyone 🙂

SkinDeepAs you all probably know, Stranger came out on Saturday. People seem to be snapping it up – thank you, I hope you all enjoy it!

I’ve mostly been focusing on that, so with nothing else to report, I thought I’d give you all a sneak peak of my other science fiction book (apart from The Nova Chronicles- I know! Sacrilege!)

Skin Deep is reminiscent of the Nova books, but with a bit more humour thrown in. Enjoy!

You can get Skin Deep from Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Skin-Deep-S-J-Bryant-ebook/dp/B017FPHJ56

 

Skin Deep

Ravyn glanced over both shoulders before snatching the poster and tearing it down, leaving behind two tattered corners. She shoved the ripped paper into the closest bin and whirled away.

“If someone sees you doing that you’ll get thirty lashes at least,” a man said, stepping out of the shadows. His bent nose made a nice contrast to his otherwise sharp face.

Ravyn snorted. “I don’t think anyone down here will dob on me, Gerry.”

The man chuckled and fell into step beside her. “You never know who’s watching.”

Smooth cement paved the thin road beneath their feet, boarded on either side by crooked buildings. Cracked bricks and cement reached up into the air, dotted with dark windows. Roller doors at street level lifted to reveal colourful stores.

To their left, a big man gestured to his counter where a line of skewers threaded with chunks of rat roasted over open coals, letting off a meaty aroma. Opposite him a woman with narrow eyes held up a tray of dull rings and bracelets.

A circular tattoo marked each of their left temples, branding them Undesirable.

They glanced at Ravyn’s unmarked temple and looked away, eyes locked on their feet. Even so, she could feel their attention on her, like a prickle at the back of her neck.

Gerry nodded to them and they seemed to relax at seeing his tattoo. “You should be careful coming down here, you do stand out.”

Ravyn’s jaw clenched. “Enough people know me that I’m not in any danger.”

“Maybe not, but I’m sure you make people uncomfortable.”

Ravyn hoisted her satchel-bag higher on her shoulder. “I’ve lived in the Undesirable District for as long as I can remember. It’s my home as much as theirs.”

Gerry’s gaze dropped to the road and he stayed silent for a moment. “Where are you headed today?”

Ravyn let her shoulders relax. “I’ve got to go up to the Desirable District to drop off a job. Trust me; I’m not looking forward to it.”

“I’m surprised you managed to get a job from there at all.”

Ravyn shrugged. “What can I say? I’m the best mechanic in the area and they’re willing to overlook my choice of suburb when they need something fixed.”

“Lucky you.”

“Lucky for them that I need the money.”

The narrow street led up a slight incline. In the distance, over the tops of the buildings, gleamed the sweeping towers and smooth metal of the castle. Ravyn glanced at it, sneered, and returned her eyes to the street.

Further on, the buildings became less cracked and the road widened. A painted red line cut across the street halfway up the hill, it glimmered in the sun like fresh blood.

“This is me, I don’t have my mask today,” said Gerry, stopping on the lower side of the line.

Ravyn glared down at the line before turning a softer gaze to Gerry. “I’ll see you later.”

“Stay out of trouble.” Gerry grinned and turned away, sauntering back down the street.

Ravyn sighed and kept climbing. On this side of the line people scurried between the buildings with dark face masks. Their eyes glimmered behind the plastic even as they turned away from Ravyn to stare at the road.

Those without masks, the Desirables, strode through the streets with their heads held high, ignoring the masked figures. It was as if they strolled through a garden filled with statues, rather than a busy street filled with people. The masked Undesirables scampered out of their way, darting into the shadows.

Two men wearing dark suits rounded the far corner, laughing up at the sky. The bigger man jabbed his companion in the ribs and the smaller man jumped out of the way, chuckling, before dashing in for his own attack.

A thin man in a mask pressed himself flat against the nearest building to get out of the way.

Ravyn held her breath as the Undesirable’s shirt fluttered in the breeze, almost touching the suited man. The shirt hung suspended for what felt like hours before finally fluttering down out of the way.

The Undesirable breathed a visible sigh of relief as the two men moved away, jostling each other.

The two Desirables created havoc as they sauntered down the street. Undesirables dived out of their way, ducking under tables or pressing themselves against the walls. The only people who seemed not to notice were the other Desirables, who stood smiling at the two men’s antics.

Unlike the rest, Ravyn’s face simmered with grim rage. Her blood boiled in her veins and her chest heaved with fiery hatred. She imagined what she would do with the two men if she could get her hands on them. Idiots. What were they hoping to achieve by causing mayhem in the Lower Kingdom?

She stood in the middle of the road with her feet firmly planted, shoulder-width apart. Her bag slung over her shoulder, forgotten, as rage surged through her body.

The two men were within two meters of her when the bigger one pushed the smaller, harder than before. The smaller man stumbled back, arms swinging, and collided with a parked hover-bike. The bike toppled, falling into the one next to it, and creating a domino effect that cascaded down the street.

Clattering and the sound of scraping metal filled the alley. The metal plates screeched against the hard cement road and left streaks of paint behind.

Ten bikes toppled before silence settled over the street, like the calm before a storm.

The man who’d fallen lay tangled amongst the first bike, arm draped over the handlebars and elbow bleeding. His face glowed red as the rest of the crowd stood frozen, watching him. Meanwhile, the bigger man stood bent in half, laughing like a madman. He pointed at the smaller man and roared louder.

The fallen man yanked his limbs free and struggled to his feet, face glowing brighter. His lips curled and he spun in a tight circle, eyes scanning the crowd. His gaze came to rest on a thin man in a black mask who withered under the gaze.

“You!” he bellowed. “You tripped me!”

The Undesirable shook his head and stepped back, his only sound a dull squeak.

“Do you have any idea who I am? You just tripped Lord Pulcher. I’ll see you hung for this.”

Lord Pulcher’s companion stopped laughing. He seemed to consider the situation and then his face turned dark and he stepped up beside Pulcher, glaring at the Undesirable.

“Name?” Lord Pulcher said.

“N-Nathaniel.”

“Well N-Nathaniel, do you know the price for an Undesirable assaulting a lord?”

Nathanial took another step back and shook his head. “I didn’t trip you—”

“Now you dare to contradict me?” Lord Pulcher stepped forward, fists clenched. “When Lord O’Neil here saw everything? I asked if you knew the price!”

Nathanial shuddered and fell to his knees. “No, my Lord, please have mercy.”

“The price is death. You’ll be strung up on the gallows as a warning to the rest of your kind.”

Ice pierced Ravyn’s heart and spread through her veins. It settled like a suit of armour over her skin and seemed to make the world slow so that she could make out every minute detail.

“Why should I have mercy when you so blatantly tried to hurt me? Not only that, but now you’ve damaged all these bikes.” Lord Pulcher whipped his hand towards the toppled line of vehicles.

The nearby Undesirables scurried away, their footsteps fading within seconds. A few stayed, but they stood hidden in doorways, out of sight of the two lords. Most of the Desirables had stopped to watch. They wore matching expressions of wry amusement, with a hint of disgust.

Ravyn wanted to punch them all, knowing that their disgust was not for Lord Pulcher’s behaviour.

Pulcher took another step towards the kneeling Nathanial so that the Undesirable had to crane his neck to look up at the other man’s face. A purple blot, a birthmark, covered most of Nathanial’s neck, stretching up and disappearing behind his mask.

“Disgusting!” A young woman behind Ravyn whispered to her companion.

Lord Pulcher sneered. “With a birthmark like that I’m surprised they let you out of the hospital alive.”

Nathanial whimpered and lowered his gaze, hiding the mark in the folds of his shirt.

“Better. But there’s still the matter of you attacking me.”

Pulcher lifted his thick leather boot and laid the solid sole on top of Nathanial’s fingers where they rested on the ground.

Nathanial’s masked face revealed nothing.

“Perhaps if you lost the use of your fingers you might think twice before attacking your betters?”

Ravyn dropped her bag and it clanked against the hard road, the sound echoing in the silence. She strode forward; coming to a stop at Nathanial’s side and glaring up at Pulcher.

“Hey my pretty, what can I do for you?” Pulcher wiggled his eyebrows and licked his lips, leaving a trail of spittle.

Ravyn folded her arms across her chest. “Leave him alone.” She bent her head towards Nathanial.

Pulcher grimaced and glanced at his companion who frowned back. “What do you mean?”

“I’m sorry, did I use too many words?” she said, leaning forward. “I said… Leave. Him. Alone.”

Colour flushed across Pulcher’s cheeks as his hand clenched into a fist. “This is none of your business. This Undesirable attacked me and it’s my right to punish him.”

“I know as well as everyone else here that he didn’t attack you. You tripped over your own giant feet.”

Pulcher glanced over his shoulder at the gathered crowd. Most of the Desirables watched with mouths hanging open while the Undesirables ducked further out of view. He bent close to Ravyn so that his sour breath brushed over her face. “Leave now and I won’t have to hurt you.”

She placed her feet wider apart and jutted her chin forward. “Leave him alone and I won’t have to hurt you.”

Pulcher froze for a bare second before lunging forward with both hands outstretched.

Ravyn’s heart clenched and she ducked under his hands, stepping around and snatching Nathanial’s shoulders. She hauled him to his feet and shoved him towards the Undesirable District. “Go!”

Behind the mask she could see the whites of Nathanial’s wide eyes before he turned and sprinted down the street. The Desirables stood to the side as he rushed past, too stunned to stop him.

A flush of relief flooded through Ravyn’s stomach as Nathanial disappeared around the far corner. She let out a long sigh but choked as something snapped around her waist, crushing her.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Pulcher growled. His lips brushed her ear as he lifted her from the ground. His arms pressed against her ribs, squeezing the air out of her.

“If you attack me you’ll be charged with attacking a fellow Desirable,” she said between gasps.

“I think all of these people will agree that you started it.” His breath whispered across her cheek.

She grimaced and writhed in his arms but his grip held firm.

“She seemed to have a thing for that Undesirable,” said O’Neil.

Lord Pulcher’s grip tightened. “Maybe we should help her become more like him?”

O’Neil grinned and stepped forward. He drew back his fist and slammed it into Ravyn’s face.

Pain exploded out as her nose crunched, spraying blood across the road. Her head snapped back, skull slamming into Pulcher’s shoulder and sending a new burst of pain through her head.

Lights flashed across her vision and darkness crowded around her.  Her legs faltered. She stayed standing only thanks to Pulcher’s grip. More blood poured down her chin, dying her shirt red and filling her mouth with a coppery tang.

Pulcher chuckled. “Nice shot, my turn next.”

“Lord Pulcher, I hate to interrupt.” A tall woman in a long grey skirt stepped out of the crowd. “But the punishment for disfiguring a Desirable is quite harsh. I’d hate for you to get in trouble over this… woman.” She wore a veil that concealed some of the wrinkles of her aged face but Ravyn suspected it wouldn’t be long before the woman would be confined to her home, for fear of offending other Desirables.

“Lady Becket,” Pulcher said, his voice faltering.

“Of course, I’m all for just punishment, but I fear the repercussions if it went too far,” Lady Becket said, her eyes flicking to Ravyn and then back again.

“Very true, My Lady. This woman got under my skin is all.” His grip loosened and Ravyn slid to the ground, stumbling out of his reach as soon as her feet touched the cement.

“Understandable.” Becket inclined her head. “Perhaps you and Lord O’Neil would be more comfortable back near the castle, in a place more suited to your station?”

Pulcher brushed his shirt and took a deep breath. He glared at Ravyn once before smiling at Lady Becket and nodding. “You’re as wise as they say my lady.”

Without another word, Pulcher and O’Neil turned and sauntered back up the street, muttering in low tones.

Ravyn clutched her nose, her hand becoming slippery with blood. She stumbled back to the side of the road and slid down against the nearest wall. Tears stung the corners of her eyes. Her face and skull pounded in time with her heartbeat. She squeezed her eyes shut and took a deep breath.

Something flopped to the ground at Ravyn’s side and she opened one eye enough to see her bag.

“You should watch yourself.” Lady Becket towered over her like a monument.

Ravyn grimaced and looked away.

“I know what you were trying to do, I can even admire it, but that doesn’t change the fact it was stupid. You can’t change a system with a fist-fight in the middle of the street. Especially when you can’t even fight.”

Ravyn gritted her teeth and risked another glance up, ignoring the new burst of pain that erupted through her skull. “Unlike you, I couldn’t just stand there and let them hurt that Undesirable. Not that it’s any good trying to explain that to a Lady such as yourself.”

Lady Becket sighed and glanced around. The crowd had dissipated, leaving just a couple of people straining to get a glimpse of Ravyn’s injuries. “Ten years ago I would have laughed in your face and let those boys beat you twice as hard.”

Ravyn loosened the grip on her nose but no new blood flowed out. “And now?”

Becket’s sharp eyes gazed down at Ravyn. “Now I don’t know what to think. I’ve lived a privileged life, and now that I face the prospect of being confined… well, let’s say it’s given me a new perspective.”

Ravyn snorted and immediately regretted it as a clump of blood spattered the pavement by her leg. She pinched her nose, inwardly cursing. “Maybe we should confine Queen Alayna; then she might get some perspective.”

Becket frowned and her gaze darted around the street. “You should be careful about what you say.”

Ravyn shrugged. “It can’t get much worse. Besides, with this damned Fairest of them All contest around the corner, maybe she’ll finally get kicked out.”

Becket’s frown deepened. “I wouldn’t put all my hopes on that. Alayna is very… attached to her throne. Anyway, I should go before people start to ask questions. If I were you I’d stay away from here for a while. I’ve heard Lord Pulcher knows how to hold a grudge.”

Ravyn used the wall to get back to her feet and snatched her bag from the road. She turned back towards the Undesirable District and took a shaky step. She glanced over her shoulder at the tall woman. “Thanks, I guess.”

Becket nodded, her lips pressed into a thin line as she turned away and hurried up the street towards the castle.

 

Keep reading: http://www.amazon.com/Skin-Deep-S-J-Bryant-ebook/dp/B017FPHJ56

 

Let me know what you think (of Skin Deep, or Stranger, or anything else) in the comments below! 🙂

 

 

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