On the shrine world of Palma Alternum was Little Rat, a wiry girl just nine years old. She lived in the alleys, the places between the basilicas with towering spires that brushed the clouds, and churches as big as cities on other planets. Little Rat had heard of, but had never seen, the subterranean libraries that sprawled for hundreds of miles.
Little Rat lived for one thing: to find her name – the name meant to be hers but was given to a girl born seven minutes before her. The Sister Hospitallers had only so many to give in a day, and any child born after the names were assigned received a number.
Little Rat didn’t even know her number, however. The Sister’s space for mewling infants is reserved for those with names; the numbered children are left outside for the Emperor to watch over. Those who don’t survive are thrown away in the morning; those who live often wish they hadn’t. During her first night outside in the rain, Little Rat’s number had turned to mush.
Little Rat had spent her life in one of the many market districts in Gaillaco, a city with as many shops selling incense, prayer candles, and litany parchment scrolls as places to buy food and clothing. Her only friend, an older boy named Brick, has watched over her since she was left to the Emperor’s care.
While Little Rat has never known her number, she does know the day she was born. After years of searching, Little Rat found the last girl to be born on the same day as her, the last girl to be given a name. Her name: Marianna Diaz.
It only took Little Rat a day to find where the imposter Marianna lived, the girl who only received a name thanks to when she was born. Imposter Marianna lived in one of the many chapel tenements; whole city sections that were as much a church as living spaces. The apartment homes were stacked atop each other and covered by a two-block wide arched stained-glass roof that ran for ten miles.
Little Rat wondered about Marianna’s family, who they were and what they did. She first followed the father and learned he was a scribe, a scribe who stole pots of ink he traded in the alleys for vials of pressed sinseed oil, so named for the visions of decadence they induced. It was rumored to come from pressing a strain of mold particular to old holy books found deep in hidden corners of the buried libraries.
Then there was the mother. Little Rat wondered if she too was as foul a being as her husband. She learned, indeed, the two were soul mates. Usurper Marianna’s mother was a mechanic tasked with the repair and upkeep of power armor for the Sisters of the Argent Shroud, the order that protected Palma Alternum. And, like her husband, a thief who stole lumps of holy wax used for the Sister’s purity seals.
Little Rat watched Marianna go to bed then saw her parents pour sinseed oil into their eyes, then lay and twitch for hours.
‘She shouldn’t have that name,’ Little Rat told Brick. She pulled at the mangled tufts of her matted black hair with its shock of near-white gray. Brick said the white hair appeared when she was two, a day after a man tried to steal her. Brick had crushed the man’s head, and Little Rat had cried for hours. In the morning, a streak of hair had lost its color and never returned.
‘It should be mine,’ she said. ‘She stole it from me.’
‘What makes you think it should be yours?’ asked Brick.
‘Only the named join the Adepta Sororitas. She doesn’t need it. I do.’
Brick mustered a grin, but there was sadness in his eyes. ‘At least you know what your name would have been. All I have is a number.’
‘I’m going to take it from her,’ said Little Rat. She felt for her thin knife under the layers of rugs and discarded robes that served as her bed.
Brick’s eyes widened and he puffed his lips, then let the air out slow as he shook his head. He knew better than to try and stop her. It was why the other kids had started calling her Little Rat; she always found a way.
Three weeks later, Little Rat had the Diaz family’s routine memorized. The Diaz parents only used their hoarded sinseed oil at the end of the week when they wouldn’t need to work the next day. A sinseed stupor could last for hours, even after the visions had worn off.
At the end of the day, during the third week of her vigil, Little Rat decided to make her move. The fake Marianna’s parents had taken more sinseed oil than usual and were in their bed when Little Rat slipped through the window. Their daughter, in the kitchen in search of food, gasped as a thin knife was drawn across her throat. Blood bubbled from the cut as the girl fell and tried to speak.
‘Mine,’ said Marianna, scowling and took the dead girl’s ident-card.
Before leaving, Marianna went to the parent’s room and poured the rest of their sinseed oil into their eyes.
Is this what you wanted to see?
‘Did you get it?’ Brick asked. The girl he’d always called Little Rat lifted the card and grinned. ‘I don’t know if I’ll ever think of you as Marianna, you’ll always be Little Rat to me.’
Marianna tugged at her shock of grey hair and stared at the ident-card. ‘I don’t care what you call me.’
‘Then why was getting that name so important to you?’
‘Because it’s mine,’ she said, and ran her fingers over the name on the card.