The small group gathered solemnly in the darkness, ten shadowed faces hidden from one another, and yet their sorrow bled openly into the space between them. It carried a hint of malice, a touch of anxiety, a small bite of hatred. No, they were not a joyous group.
And how could we be, Wyth berated himself, when Ace is dead.
It was not only the former Ace, of course, who was absent. So many had fallen, so many had been lost, that even now there were holes in their numbers. The thirteen were incomplete. But still, the choice must be made among those who remained, experienced members and new recruits brought in to fill a few of the recently vacated roles.
Those two were obvious, their discomfort clear to his discerning eye. To one side, Dix toyed nervously with her fingers, weaving them through one another again and again. Those thin, supple fingers were, of course, her greatest asset, as well as the reason she had been chosen to join the group. Her strong connection to Deuce had given her the right.
The other new member was harder to spot, at least through behavior. But all of them could pick him out easily, thanks to the pale skin and thin build that so clearly resembled his brother. Vier, if Wyth was correct.
Wyth knew all the others there, but could only easily identify a few. The nondescript cloaks and dark hoods disguised their features well enough that, although a few were easy to guess, most were indistinguishable. It was difficult to know even where their bodies ended and the shadows began.
It was for a purpose, of course. They never did anything without a reason. They were choosing new members, the third such meeting. Another member would join them soon – Akera, the eleventh. This time, it had been Vijf to propose a candidate: her adopted son. Most of the members were friends or relatives – or had been, at one point – of at least one other. They all spun together to create a web of loyalty which, theoretically, would discourage betrayal.
So much for that plan.
Still, things proceeded as they always had and always would. The faceless shadows whispered among themselves, discussing the prospects of this new candidate, the chances for betrayal. It weighed heavily on all their minds, Wyth knew, and would be a substantial factor in the initiation of any and all the new members.
In the end, their new Ace – the Ace of Spades, he had chosen – was left to make the choice. To accept him, eight of the ten would have to agree. Seven had, while two had rejected. Ace, glancing once around the circle, pushed the hood back from his face, revealing his identity to those whose eyes were not as good as Wyth, their minds not as sharp. He was easily distinctive, his hair shining white even in the darkness, his eyes almost glowing – the hue of stale blood.
“We have a new brother today,” Ace intoned solemnly, stepping into the center of the circle. “Let us welcome him with pride.”
And yet, the sadness hung over them still. No one could really replace another, not when at least one of the figures there was still mourning a death. And the two empty spaces in the circle still haunted Wyth.
He reached beside him as the circle broke, grasping his brother’s hand tightly. It wasn’t often he needed Saith’s support, but today he did. He was glad that he at least had no personal reason to mourn, none of the pain that shone in so many other eyes.
Saith’s hand squeezed back as the twins walked slowly away, back into the dimly lit corridor leading to the basement. It was as if both were reassuring themselves that the other still lived.