The Black Death
Nobody knows if he is one man, or one of many. He terrorizes the city of Bermeia every night — burning ships, ambushing soldiers, murdering nobles in their beds. He is the savior of the poor, the homeless, the whores, the orphans, and the oppressed. And, following a botched assassination of the king, he is dead. A thousand witnesses saw him burn — yet still a man in a mask haunts the city, causing trouble for the king’s soldiers at every turn.
In truth, the Black Death is dead — but after his execution, his sixteen-year-old brother finds himself forced to take on the role to provide for his family. Liam, the first Black Death, is cold, calculating, and ruthless — but his brother Kayo is, decidedly, not. Still he dons the black leather, the mask, and the hood and attempts to steal just enough to scrape by.
Romero Sangor took the throne fifteen years ago among a whirlwind of scandal. As Regent of the throne, when his brother Rafael was viciously murdered under mysterious circumstances, Romero took over in place of Rafael’s son until he came of age. But the prince vanished soon afterward, leaving nobody to stop Romero from declaring himself the king and expanding his empire across the continent.
Still, Romero’s crown sits heavy on his head. If the rightful heir still lives, Romero is likely to lose his throne and his head the minute the boy comes of age. So out of sheer self-preservation, he orders a decades-long hunt for the prince, including searching everyone who enters or leaves the city, capturing stray children in an orphanage, and later ordering the orphanage burned to the ground with the children still inside, that leads to the deaths of dozens of innocent boys and girls.
Liam, 19, is the original Black Death, a role he created himself to fight the injustices under Romero’s rule. Liam’s parents were cruel, abusive drunks who, one day, forced him to swallow a hot coal as a punishment. Liam was mute for months afterward and his voice never recovered; underneath his strong accent his voice is hoarse and raspy, a characteristic he utilizes well as the Black Death.
Shortly after this incident, Liam, unable to run away, murdered his parents in their beds. No one believed a nine-year-old capable of such a thing, so he was never caught, and was instead sent to the orphanage. There he took a liking to Kayo, three years younger and constantly finding himself in trouble, and adopted him as a brother. He continued to look out for Kayo over the years, including saving him from the orphanage fire.
After the orphanage burned down, Liam rounded up the survivors into what he called a “family”, with himself, Kayo, and their adopted brother and sisters as “parents” and the young surviving kids as their “children”. He set himself up as the leader, helping them survive by taking shelter in the sewers, stealing food, and hiding from soldiers, and finally finds them a home in an abandoned shrine. Over the years, Liam takes in any stray child he finds into their “family” without question, doing his best to provide enough food, clothes, and safety to go around.
Despite this, Liam is as far from sweet and cuddly as a person could possibly be. He is cold, manipulative, cruel, and utterly devoid of sympathy for anyone whom he believes is guilty of a crime. He has a strong sense of justice, and as he slowly turns into the Black Death, he uses his talent for violence, torture, and murder to help the common people and punish the soldiers, nobles, and royals who have taken advantage of them. Eventually, he tries to assassinate the king himself, believing that this will make a difference in the way things are, and manages to sneak into the castle, fight Romero, and leave a scar across his throat before he is captured.
Kayo, 16, has no idea where he came from. He grew up in the orphanage, dropped off on their doorstep with his sister Alysia when he was still a baby. The orphanage was able to decipher their names, but little else, and quickly gave up on ever finding their parents. Until the age of 12, when the orphanage burned down, Kayo had never set foot outside its doors.
Kayo takes over as the Black Death after Liam’s execution. Kayo has all the physical skills that Liam did, but has a markedly different approach to being the Black Death, and is reluctant to take the role in the first place. He only steals from Romero’s soldiers what his family absolutely needs to survive and goes through painstaking measures not to strike to kill.
Kayo was forced to become the Black Death when his family faced starvation, and his sole motivation is to get through a single winter without losing someone else that he loves. He knows the names, histories, preferences, and fears of every single one of the nineteen children under the age of 12 that are in their care, and half of them are only there because he found them and took them in. He takes in every child he can and refuses to turn anyone away.
Kayo is not coping well with Liam’s death; he is moody, secretive, temperamental, and plagued by nightmares and morbid thoughts. His siblings insist that he’s good, sweet, and self-sacrificing, that he is incredibly smart and has a talent for battle strategy and logistics, that he loves his family with all his heart and would do anything for them. But after months of watching Kayo suffer in silence, getting worse instead of better, they’re starting to doubt that he will ever be the same.
She never had a name of her own, and never needed one. From a young age she was on her own, surviving on the streets by stealing, hiding, hunting, and killing. She managed somehow to cross from the lower city to the upper city — a feat that, for a homeless child on her own, is supposed to be almost impossible — and, unable to leave the city entirely, continued on just as she had before.
She was present at the execution of the Black Death, who is her hero, the man she admires and idolizes most in the world. Later, when she hears he has returned, she doesn’t want to believe it — but then she sees him with her own eyes, climbing buildings and jumping through the air to escape the soldiers. When the Black Death falls through the roof of her hiding place, she hides him from the soldiers and saves his life — only to see how young he is and realize that he’s an imposter. Kayo manages to convince her to follow him to the orphan’s hideout, only to change his mind. After a few arguments and fistfights, she finally decides to stay, and he finally decides to let her.
Rose is given her name when Kayo’s sisters, Alysia and Artemis, see the rose necklace she wears. The necklace is a beautiful red rose set in real gold, worth a king’s ransom, but Rose has no idea how she obtained it; she has had it since she was born, and refuses to entertain the idea of selling it. In her mind, it is the only link she has to the family she has never met.
A life on the streets turned Rose almost feral, and after so long just scraping by, she has some trouble adjusting to life with the orphans. She is suspicious of everyone, hostile and defensive, and resorts to violence at the slightest opportunity. She also steals anything she can sneak away and has no desire to help anyone but herself. She is terrified of the younger orphans and feels completely out of place among Kayo and his siblings, who keep giving away food and shelter and clothing without asking for anything from her in return. Despite her illiteracy and complete lack of any sort of skill, she is surprisingly smart and resourceful, though many people tend not to realize this until it is too late.
Alysia, called Lis by her family, is around 21, several years older than anyone else, and is the unofficial “mother” of the younger orphans. She is responsible for the upkeep of the orphans and their home, and makes sure that the children are fed and clothed properly. It is a role that she fell into by accident, mostly due to her maternal nature and the strong bond that develops effortlessly between her and almost every child who comes into her care.
Alysia was found on the doorstep of the orphanage when she was five years old, with the baby Kayo in her arms. She was gravely injured; as best as anyone could tell, she was trampled by a horse in the streets. Her head injury was so severe that she had to relearn how to eat, walk, and talk. All she was able to recall from her previous life was her name and Kayo’s, or a close approximation. She and Kayo might be half-siblings, but they are likely not related at all; still, she raised him almost completely by herself, and even as teenagers, they are still strongly attached to one another.
Dominic, 18, is tall and large, somewhat reminiscent of a bear. Despite his looks and size, he has a soft heart and a strong, if off-color, sense of humor. He was born in the lower city, but after the death of his family, he managed to sneak into the upper city and take shelter in a barn that turned out to belong to Artemis’s father. He became her “imaginary friend”, almost like a secret pet, until Artemis lost her father and the two of them were shipped to the orphanage together.
Dominic and Kayo both have Savillan blood, sharing the same olive skin and dark almond-shaped eyes. They are often mistaken as brothers, and make no effort to correct the assumption.
Artemis, 19, is beautiful, intelligent, and ruthless, with a sharp tongue and a quick temper. She met Dominic when she was eight years old, and the two have been together ever since, eventually falling in love and becoming as close to a married couple as orphans are allowed to be. She works for a high-end tailor and is a skilled seamstress with an eye for design.
Artemis is the daughter of a successful merchant, who, after the death of Artemis’s mother, raised his only daughter as he would have raised a son, and taught her reading and writing, swordplay, archery, horseback riding, and other masculine pursuits. She and her father lived a happy life together in the upper city until, at the age of nine, he was arrested for failing to keep his poor opinion of the king to himself. After his arrest, everyone, including Artemis, believed that her father was dead, and she and Dominic, who was secretly living in her father’s stables, were sent to the orphanage.
There are nineteen children living with Kayo and his siblings. Some are from the orphanage; others are from around the city, runaways, orphans, or strays. The eldest is, Sofiya, is 12; the youngest, Celia, is around 6 months old. They spend most of their time in the tower of the shrine, allowed to leave their rooms only with the supervision of one of the older children. They are not permitted to leave the shrine at all, in case they are caught by the soldiers and arrested or killed. None of them seem to mind; they seem to agree unanimously that life in the shrine is far better than life in the streets.
The list of children includes: Michael, Sofiya, Eoin, Cian, Jon, Tessa, Marie, Andrew, Carolyn, Sara, Holly, Elijah, Sadie, Emily, Arina, Isis, Julian, Calder, and Celia.