Aaron met his Death coming down King’s Street.

He didn’t know how he recognized it. It—he—looked exactly like a man, walked exactly like a man, except that every bone in Aaron’s body went cold with the knowing: this was his Death. Aaron rounded the corner from Butcher’s Row and his Death rounded the corner from Weaver’s, and they stood a block apart and face to face with not a lie to soften the space between them.

“Oh,” Aaron said, the sound leaving his mouth quite unbidden. “Oh.”

With a steadiness to his stride that surprised him, he kept walking.

They met at the block’s midpoint, in front of a smithy. Closed for the evening, now, and he’d never heard of blade nor shield helping when Death had already come. It was late: the only light was from the watchtowers on the city’s wall and the stars farther yet. The world was silent, and they were alone.

He didn’t see what was to kill him. He would have bet on the Rafferty brothers, but he’d ditched their cutthroat an hour past.

“Good evening.” He could be polite when he wanted to. Now seemed the time to put in the effort. “Is this it, then? Tonight?”


“Yes.” His Death spoke with a plainness Aaron quite appreciated. No dressing things up, no hesitation, and no pity. Just plain, simple, steady, yes.

“Is it going to hurt?” A breeze stirred his hair, raising a line of gooseflesh on the back of his neck.

His Death looked at him for a long moment. It was not the up-and-down appraisal of a stranger. The man did not pause to take in the patch on Aaron’s pants that he’d carefully sewn earlier that week, the one of cheerful blue that did a passable job of covering up a tear in the cloth. He’d stopped limping from that parting gift, not that it particularly mattered now. His Death made no comment on his lack of shoes and the dirt on his feet, nor on the comparative cleanliness of his hands and face. Aaron took care to wash every morning. It was not every good-for-nothing who did that. He was suddenly glad of the habit: he stood before his own Death and he knew himself to be presentable.

But the man was looking only at Aaron’s face, directly into his eyes. His Death had the same cool gray eyes as Aaron did. And something else in them, which Aaron knew he’d lost years ago: a certain sympathy, without apology. It was a different thing than pity. In another time and another place and in entirely different circumstances, he could have liked meeting a man with those eyes. Such men did not last long down in Twokins.

“With me,” his Death said, and turned his back.

Aaron thought of running. Who wouldn’t? But he followed, all the same. He’d never heard of someone who’d actually met their Death, but the tales he knew didn’t paint them as particularly indulgent sorts.


They went up King’s Street, the same way Aaron had been headed. They turned towards the weaver’s quarters, the same that his Death had come from.

“Sir, if I may ask a question?”

“You may.”

“Sir, if I’m not dead yet, then why am I following you? Isn’t this a bit… out of order?” His throat clamped down after the question was asked as a new thought hit him: what if he was already dead? Had his spirit been walking after his body had fallen? He glanced over his shoulder, but if he was dead on the street somewhere, it wasn’t here. He did not want to become a ghost. Ghosts were bad sorts. Worse in death than they’d been in life, and he’d been bad enough in that. He’d always hoped to have a clean death. No haunting: just gone, to wherever dead things went to be forgotten.

His Death frowned. “It is extremely out of order. There has been an accident.”

These were not the most comforting words for a young man to hear his Death speaking. Dying was one thing, and accidental death another. An accident with his death, though? That seemed uncalled for. If he was to die, he’d rather not make a mess of that, too. He’d seen enough death to know it was never pretty, but it had always at least been final. Alive then, dead now, and no particular hitches in the transition. Even with wasting deaths, deaths of illness or of hunger, there was always that moment when a door shut on things: dead. Death was a very conclusive, final arrangement, which was, in his experience, extremely hard to get wrong.


“Is it something I’ve done?” Aaron asked into the silence between them.

“Yes,” his Death said, “and no. Come.”

That failed to be reassuring. Aaron began to sense that his Death was like him, in that regard. Neither of them was good with hollow words.

They walked past the tucked-away tangle of blankets that had been his bed the past few nights. Aaron’s steps hesitated there a moment, but the white-peppered head kept moving forward, and Aaron followed it, half a block farther. Their destination was quite unmistakable.

There was a body on the floor of the alley. His alley. And it looked rather like—

“Me.” Aaron swallowed, looking to his Death for confirmation. “He looks like me.”

“That is precisely what got him killed, yes,” a new voice said. One that sent Aaron dodging back, knife slipping into his palm with practiced ease.

“Oh come now, really? Control the boy, or I’ll take him myself,” the new speaker said, with lofty exasperation.

Aaron’s Death gestured. A sort of flick of the wrist known well in the lower town. When front men were working a target, luring a little uptown bird deeper with honeyed words and a fox’s smile, that flick warded off early attempts at springing the trap. When rivals fought, it marked a match as personal, and warned that anyone interfering would be thanked with stitches. Aaron relaxed his stance. A bit.

“He’s mine,” Aaron’s Death spoke evenly, “and you will leave him to me.”

The words should not have given him confidence. They were neither inspiring, nor hopeful, nor soothing. Nevertheless, Aaron slipped his knife back under his shirt, and stepped even with his Death.

The new voice was Death as well, but not Aaron’s. The man’s own charge was at their feet, a dagger slipped into his back, cutting through things that a boy needed to live. It had the looks of a swift death. The knife had been left as a message; the only reason to leave a perfectly good blade behind. Its hilt was wrapped in red leather, wound through with a scrap of white fabric.

So it was the Rafferty brothers, then.

Aaron’s own knife had been done up in black and gold until he’d taken the scraps off and tossed them. That was a dangerous pair of colors, these days. Dangerous in the sort of way that ended with a cool edge slipped between ribs, so sharp that at first it was only hard to breathe, and it would be a gasp or two before the reason why caught up. He could picture the boy’s final moments so clearly, he may as well have lived them; so clearly, it took him a moment to realize the pain in his back was not his own. Had never been his own.

“This is me, isn’t it?” he asked the Deaths, interrupting a conversation between them that he had not been hearing. “I should have been back here already. I was supposed to die.”

If not for the cutthroat he’d spotted, another would have done him in more neatly. Probably wouldn’t be appropriate to send his thanks.

“Well,” the other boy’s Death eyed him with a certain appraising look that Aaron did not at all like. “He has a base capability for intelligent reasoning, I will grant you that. But it will not be enough. Let me settle this. You know it is the only way.”

“I disagree,” Aaron’s Death stated, his gray eyes steady.

The other boy’s Death waved a dismissive hand. Gold rings glinted on his fingers. “Fine. A matter of semantics: not the only way, but you know it is the best way.”

“I disagree,” his Death repeated.

Aaron crouched down next to the body and traced it over with experienced fingers. The clothes were exceedingly plain. Not unlike his own, especially not in the dark. But finer. Much finer. The cloth was new and thick. The dead boy’s black hair was short in a street urchin’s style, but cut perfectly even at the bottoms and the sides. Not exactly the work of a lone boy cropping his own hair with a knife. He might have been an inch or so taller than Aaron and a bit more well fed, but his face, his eyes—

“May his soul not wander.” Aaron shut the dead boy’s eyes and stood, having confirmed what he already knew. The boy looked like him. Eerily so, especially in the dark. Especially to those who needed to do their work and be gone. The upper town took note of murders in a way the caves of Twokins never would.

He’d missed another part of the Deaths’ conversation. He should probably stop doing that.

The other boy’s Death was talking. “…Right. Of course. Because it is such a simple substitution, just a changeling for a child. Who’s to notice?”

He was growing loud enough to attract attention. Loud enough that he should attract attention, but not a single window on the shophomes around them was unshuttered as the Death shouted, and gesticulated, and generally made his displeasure plain.

“No one else can see you, or hear you.” A question to confirm what Aaron already knew. His own Death nodded. “But I can. Because I’m already supposed to be dead?”

No nod this time. Aaron’s Death had turned his attention back to his coworker. “You cannot do this without my consent,” he stated. “I do not give it.”

“Be reasonable—”

And then he began to say a word, perhaps a name, but Aaron’s Death silenced him with gray eyes that were like a storm front.

“We will try my plan,” he articulated with painful clarity. “Or we will do nothing. Then they both will die. Make your choice.”

“I would like to try his plan,” Aaron offered, into the silence that followed.