Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Hidden Twin

Adi Rule

St. Martin's Griffin

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One



We look like two ordinary girls. No more than eighteen. She with a sun-yellow cap, my face half-hidden by dark goggles. Legs dangling, our hair swirls in the Caldaras City mist, long locks intermingling. Our arms weave through the dawn-lit metal railing of an old aviary high above the square. Up here, Jey and I might look similar to anyone below whose gaze happens to find us. We might even look like sisters. But no one could accuse us of the truth. We are too far away for anyone to know we’re twins—for anyone to realize only one of us is human.

A handful of the priests of Rasus have gathered at the fountain in the center of High Ra Square for morning meditation. A few citizens sit near them on the white marble flagstones, heads bowed deeply. Some hurry by with only a passing nod.

“King Rasus, we thank you for the light,” Jey whispers along with the distant murmurs of the priests. She crosses her wrists, palms forward, and stretches out her fingers, symbolizing the sun’s rays.

“We really shouldn’t do this anymore,” I say quietly, but I don’t mean “we.” The outside world poses no danger to Jey. She is free to exist.

Jey slides an admonishing glance my way until I finally make the reverent gesture to the godking and mutter, “Thanks.” My sister likes to share religion with someone, so I come out of my shadows for one dawn each month. I like the view—the way the purple- and blue-robed lesser priests fan out from their black-clad mentors like the brilliant leaves of a night cabbage—but mostly I come for her.

I rest my cheek against the warm, rusty railing. In the distance, beyond the edges of our tilted city, the great volcano Mol looms and frets black clouds. “Not that I don’t enjoy getting out of the house once in a while,” I say, “but a little exercise and change of scenery are hardly worth getting boiled alive.”

“You haven’t been caught yet,” my sister says.

Yet.

The priests below continue their meditations, calling forth the glowing spirits of the past. From here, the spirits are little more than gleaming patches of fog clustered at the edges of the fountain.

“That one’s victory,” Jey says. “I think.”

I nod, even though I can’t tell the spirits apart the way she can. I don’t have enough formal Temple education. Or any formal Temple education, for that matter. I’d be welcomed about as warmly as the monster Bet-Nef, whose ancient, cursed bones still lie sizzling at the bottom of Lake Azure Wave.

But my sister watches the priests with shining eyes—with my eyes, only dark and lovely, not hyacinth blue. It’s easy to see that as being the sole difference between us, my only flaw. I try not to think of the hidden differences—the spiderweb of red scars crisscrossing my back. My blood.

I don’t watch the priests. I don’t want them looking back, no matter how much sunlight and mist and distance separate us. Instead, I study the imposing statue that guards the Temple door on the other side of the square. An obsidian man with broad shoulders and strong, muscular arms who casts a severe gaze on the people below. Sharp teeth, wild hair, terrible bulging eyes. And wings, four of them, delicate and curving like a dragonfly’s.

Redwing. A creature of twisted soul with the vengeance of the ancients burning under its skin, the result of an unholy union between a human and an Other. I stare at him, this monstrous stone prince, searching for something of myself in his face.

Morning meditation ends, and I no longer feel as though Jey and I are normal twin sisters distinguishable by eye color. She is human, and I am a dark creature of mythology come to life. Redwing.

Me.

“Well,” she says, “I’ll … I’ll see you tonight.”

“Study well.” I flash a half smile. “Try not to succumb to distraction. And if you do, well—make sure he’s devastatingly handsome, or at least charming enough to make you believe it.”

She gives a weak laugh, but doesn’t say anything more. I watch her clamber down into the recesses of this half-forgotten old building. We know how to find our way up here without disturbing the little shop or the apartment above it that have claimed the better sections of the lower floors.

I wait a few minutes, then descend, but I will not follow my sister to the college today or any day. I must return home through the city’s murk and dark ways, and conceal myself once more.

* * *

When Jey and I were born, somehow my parents convinced themselves we were both human. They even let the local priest of Rasus into our house to perform the holy branding on our splotchy little foreheads.

But our mother was an Other, a princess of light and virtue straight out of a fairy tale. Jey and I are the forbidden product of an Other and a human—always twins, one human and one redwing. A redwing is supposed to be drowned by its parents at birth, but mine thought I was special. You just looked so much like a baby, my father says.

Of course, the moment the priest’s razor nicked my skin, the wrong blood came oozing out, black as the world through tight-shut eyes. I cried, the priest gasped, and my mother exploded into a fireball that took our house and the priest with it. The fairy tale was true after all.

So Papa, Jey, and I left the purple lin fields of Val Chorm for Caldaras City, a clockwork place of cogs and gears and clank-clank-clanks. The burning, choking volcanic fog I can now breathe like real air stung my tiny insides when we first stepped off the train. My father carried Jey, swaddled in our best linen, at his chest, and me at his side in a basket. I was wrapped in a tablecloth, hidden under bunches of rotten linstalks, with a handkerchief tied around my mouth so I wouldn’t make noise.

And so my life began. I have been tucked away, invisible, for the last eighteen years. I may look like Jey, but my blood betrays a different kind of soul.

My father says I’m a good girl, and he’s right. I’ve never so much as stolen a piece of cake or killed an ash beetle. I’ve never wished harm on anyone, not even the priests who would damn me to Eternal Drowning. I don’t allow myself to angrily claw the walls, to scrape the cloudy glass that separates me from the world until my fingernails peel back to black blood. That’s what beasts do.

But in my heart, I know my virtue is a safety precaution. I can feel wickedness smoldering in my chest, balled up, writhing. Like the boiling water they pump out of Lake Azure Wave, solid lead pressing it on all sides until it sloshes and frenzies itself into steam, still trapped. I feel like if I did one small evil thing, I wouldn’t be able to stop myself until I’d laid waste to the world.

My father says I’m a good girl, and he’s right.

For now.

* * *

While Jey is starting her day at the college, I hurry through the wet city air, head down, toward the safety of our house and the glass dome I secretly inhabit. Through side streets and dirt-paved alleys I slip, the flapping frayed edges of my duster coat the only sound.

Well below beautiful High Ra Square, I emerge onto Mad Lane, a modest street that flirts with one of the seedier corners of the city but manages to remain respectable. People go about their business; most of the adults are dressed in plain but good clothing, and most of the children appear to belong to someone. I pass a few unpretentious office doors, boardinghouses, and the Pump Room, a busy tavern, before setting my sights on a little alley that connects to the next street I need. While I may not have explored all of Caldaras City on foot, I often visit it on the printed page. Sometimes I feel as though I have navigated the entire world through the maps and books my father brings home for me.

The sounds from Mad Lane are muffled in the alley, and the farther I walk, the quieter it becomes. The cobblestones give way to packed black dirt that deadens my footsteps. The fog has collected here, softening the edges of the rusty walls and barred windows. A wild raptor bird watches a couple of scraggly pigeons from on high. Steam rises from buildings’ back pipes, disturbing the alley mist, and I breathe hot air laced with coal and decay.

The raptor turns her head suddenly, a lightning movement, and stares in my direction with unflinching yellow eyes. I have lived with raptors all my life. Those eyes, reflections of a fierce heart that fears almost nothing in this world, flash danger. I start running.

The people—two, I think—who quietly followed me into this misty alleyway cry out in alarm and are forced to take up the chase instead of simply grabbing me from the earth like a snaproot.

With jagged breath, I run. And they run. Muggers, or worse, guardsmen. The mist swirls. I don’t look back. It doesn’t matter why these people are after me. I must not be caught. I must not be seen.

I glimpse solid black bars through the mist, the thud of my footfalls and those of my pursuers the only sounds in this deserted corner of the city. The gate at the alley’s end is closed.

No, no, no.

I grab the bars anyway, trying to pull myself up. I slide down once, twice, the rust scratching and slicing my palms.

Hands on my shoulders. Strong fingers digging into my bones, pulling me backwards. Violence. It’s a new sensation. I can’t say I like it.

I twist away and lunge at a metal door that booms hollowly under my fists. For the first time, I catch sight of my attackers. A vision of blue.

Priests of Rasus! Burly, sweating with exertion, each wider than the other, they look more like common thugs than holy men. They both brandish flared black pistols, which is a little disappointing, since it seems to me that, by rights, priests should smite their enemies directly with the white rays of the sun.

“Hello! Help!” I call at the closed door, but no one answers. Scrabbling for another solution, I turn to the priests. How did they find me? What do they intend to do?

Do they know what I am?

“What do you want?” I lunge away as they barrel forward.

“Surrender to the godking,” one says, a little out of breath. “Rasus will judge you.” He lurches toward me, but I give a kick to his liberally draped midsection and he stumbles back a step.

And then I am staggered by a twisting at my center. A hot potentiality at my core, just above my stomach. I stop, a hand flat against the flaking doorframe, holding still, trying not to breathe. My feet burn.

Something in my brain tells me that if I just breathe in, take the long, gluttonous draw of air that my instincts so desperately want right now, that balled-up potentiality will expand and devour and fill me to my fingertips. I feel as though I could rip the doorframe from its wall, and the door with it. And the wall. And the whole alleyway.

Redwing. My skin buzzes and my blood itches.

I press my back to the door and clench my fingers. “Get away, and I will leave you be.”

The men advance, knocking rotten crates sideways and causing hurried little swirls in the gathered fog. The one who spoke first looks weary. The other is angrier, spitting, “Our duties were laid out by Rasus himself.”

Before I can respond, a young man emerges from the fog, slighter and shorter than the priests, wearing workman’s trousers and a simple gray duster. Over my attackers’ shoulders, I see him take stock of the situation and start to approach, concerned. I try to wave him away before they notice, but he calls out, “You there!” and the priests turn.

“Keep back, Beloved!” the angry one says to him. “This is a Temple matter!”

“Come on, you,” the other priest says, grabbing my arm. I try to wrench free, but he is tenacious and shoves me into the metal door.

“Leave that girl!” the workman says, drawing himself up to his full, unimpressive height and raising his fists.

“Get out of here!” I try to yell to him, but heavy fingers choke my words. The priest who isn’t strangling me swings a heavy fist into the air over the young man’s head.

Papa says I’m a good girl, and he’s right. But as the priest tightens his fingers, and sparks of air-starved blackness start to crowd my vision, I let myself fight back just a little bit. I have to, I tell myself. There’s no other way out. When he relaxes for a moment—possibly so as not to actually kill me—I inhale broadly, granting my lungs a greedy draw of air that electrifies my fibers.

And for the first time, I feel it—a burning, stabbing surge that shoots from the soles of my feet up through my legs, my guts, my heart, out through my fingers. The hot core of the land, the scalding blood of Caldaras itself, rises through my body, joins with my spirit. We are one, it whispers wordlessly. We are everything.

I lash out at the priest, a release, an exhalation. After only a moment, I tamp the surge of energy back down into my core, into the earth below, terrified of what I might unleash.

But now the priest is on fire.

Well. I’ve never done that before.

He rolls on the dirt, trying to suffocate the flickering red edges of his robes. His face is bloodied and charred, his pistol glowing nearby.

The other priest stares at me. “How in wet hell—?”

But I am off, running back down the alleyway. He fires his pistol; a crate explodes in front of me. But I keep running, and he doesn’t pursue. He could not catch me now. I am too fast, and he knows it. I pause, ducking into a grimy alcove, and peer back through the mist.

Damn. The second priest has turned his anger on the young workman who foolishly tried to help me. Damn, damn, damn. The workman tries to protect his face with his forearms as he backs away from the heavy swings of the priest’s fists.

I creep toward them several paces, careful to keep to the grungy, dark edges.

“You have no idea what that thing was you just helped escape!” the priest yells. The workman staggers as a blow connects with his jaw. I cringe at the crunch. “You half-boiled, featherless son of a dead stritch!” He lands a wallop, and the workman collapses, blood running over his chin.

I have spent my life trying not to be noticed. It would be wise to turn back down the alley to Mad Lane, to try to salvage what safety I can and escape these priests and their Temple duties, to forget the exhilarating rush of violence.

But a swell of nausea seeps into my stomach as I watch the bloodied face of the workman, who can’t be much older than me, his eyes squeezed closed to fight the pain. The blue-robed priest is kicking him now, shiny boots landing blow after blow on the still body on the ground. He is being beaten for trying to help me.

The workman manages to get his arms up over his face, but the holy man keeps striking. The sounds are sickening—dull thumps and cracks and strangled cries. “Who in wet hell do you think you are?” the priest growls at him. This gives me pause. It is a question I have never been able to answer successfully.

Redwing. A creature of evil and menace, who doesn’t care if some workman gets battered to death in an alley.

Other. A being of strength and light, who stands against injustice.

Human …

Ver’s ass, the priest has noticed me. I am still too far away for him to have a chance at catching me, but he reloads his pistol. The workman writhes on the ground, smearing his own blood on the dirt. I swallow.

The priest peers through the thin mist. “Have you decided to submit to judgment?” He fixes me with a beady gaze. He’s brave, I must credit him that.

“No,” I call out.

He puts a hand on his hip. “Then what in blazes are you doing?”

I gesture to the bleeding heap at his feet. “Well, I’m not beating a man to within an inch of his life.” I step forward. “Yet.”

What the hell am I doing? Being a hero? I put my hands back into my pockets to hide their trembling.

The workman lies motionless. The priest raises his pistol. He stands chest first, his other arm hanging away from his body. Simian. Our basest selves, as the hungry, leathery creatures of old are to the graceful raptors of today.

But my blood is different from his. My blood whispers power and lava. It roils in my gut and dances in my fingers. It calls out to the hot blood of the land.

“She’s dangerous!” the other one calls hoarsely from the ground, but I can see the priest working himself up, convincing himself he can take on the monster all alone. My lungs twitch, pleading for the lavish intake of air that will feed the ball of furious energy at my center.

I do not wish to hurt this man, I tell myself. Wishing harm on others is wicked. I do not want to be wicked—but it felt so right when I cast the other priest away and bloodied his face.

No. No more violence. I intend to walk away—until the mangled workman lets out a wet gurgle. Until the priest breaks his focus on me and says over his shoulder, “Still here, scoundrel?” Until he kneels behind the workman, grasps his hair to raise his battered head, and presses the flared end of the black pistol against the underside of the prone man’s chin.

It is only then that I allow the potentiality at my core to escape from my fingers in the slightest flick. Just a flick, that’s all. I don’t ball my fist. I don’t pull back my shoulder. I just need to stop one man from killing another. There can’t be anything wicked about that, can there?

A jet of fire lashes the back wall of a decrepit building, melting it. The burned priest on the ground groans and tries to slither away from the puddle of molten metal.

I stride toward the prostrate workman as the other priest watches, frozen, no longer a threat. He has dropped the pistol, and his eyes dart every way, scrambling to find an escape. Terrified.

I attack him anyway. I breathe from the tips of my toes, a wave of burning air that slams him into the iron gate at the back of the alley with such force that he doesn’t come down. He is wedged, unconscious and quickly purpling with injury. He may be dead. They may both die. I don’t know.

What have I done? Protected myself, protected this brave young man. But it was too easy. Too thrilling. Righteous justification thrums in my chest, but something else pulses, too—something that stings as I gaze at the motionless, battered men. What else might I justify with this newfound fire?

The workman opens his eyes as I approach. I feel his rapid breathing as I pull him up against the wall. He watches me fearfully as I sweep a lock of light hair out of his eyes, my senses assaulted by the rush of power and the nearness of the dark red gash across his cheek.

“I’ve never seen someone … do that,” he croaks.

“You don’t say,” I mutter, and he makes a gurgling sound that might be a laugh. “Are you all right?” It is an idiotic question; the answer is all too evident. What I need to know is who will care for him, whether he can stand, where he needs to go. But I look into his weary gray eyes and ask if he is all right.

He smiles at me. His voice is a whisper. “I’m fine.”

“I am a monster. I’m sorry. I—I wasn’t certain of that until just now, to be honest.” I don’t know why I say it.

But the workman just closes his eyes and leans his warm, bloodied head against my shoulder.

Voices. Our scuffle has attracted attention. Through the alley fog, I see the distinctive shape of two city guardsmen’s tall helmets.

“Are you able to rise?” I keep my voice low. “Friend, can you rise?” The workman comes around, and I help him to his feet, the tendons in his neck straining with his effort. “We’ll have to try these doors quickly. Don’t want to be caught murdering priests.”

He gives another strangled laugh, as though our punitive public boiling would be hilarious.

“Come on, fella, keep it together,” I mutter, pulling his arm across my shoulders so he doesn’t collapse.

“My name’s Corvin Blake,” he says. “And those priests aren’t dead. At least, the one stuck in the gate isn’t—he’s still breathing. That other one, well, he’s a little crispy, but he’s moving.”

It’s true. There is life in the burned priest, though he doesn’t rise from the dirt. He may die yet. The guardsmen are coming. “Yes, well, we still have to get out of here quickly.” I steer Corvin toward the edge of the alley.

He twists, wincing, and says, “That one. That’s where I was going.” We stagger over to a sturdy, flaking door, and he pulls a key from his pocket.

When we are through the doorway, I spin the hefty locking mechanism behind us. Corvin is growing heavier. I wrap an arm around his waist and half drag him down a narrow hallway into a small, dark office with a curtained doorway at the back that hints of industry and space and more people on the other side. Paper is stacked and strewn everywhere, as well as all manner of paraphernalia, from letterhead and grainy photographs to pencil nubs and stray metal bits that might be associated with the machinery I can hear in the back. A dingy portrait of a stern gentleman stares down a well-worn map on the opposite wall, and a woman with perfectly tamed red hair sits behind the desk, writing.

She leaps to her feet when we enter and rushes over to us. “Oh, Rasus, Corvin! What happened to him? Get him to the sofa.”

We carefully rest him on her worn silk sofa. Through the window, a bright sign hangs over the sidewalk:

CALDARAS CITY DAILY BULLETIN

Items of Import and Interest to All Citizens

The damn newspaper. This is just what I need.

The woman kneels beside him, her hand on his cheek.

“I was being accosted by some ruffians in the alley,” I say. “Corvin was brave enough to step in and got the worst of it, I’m afraid.” I open my eyes wide at him. Please, friend, don’t mention my fire trick. I am not out of danger yet. This place means exposure—I have a face here.

The woman sweeps a straw-colored lock of Corvin’s hair aside, the one that just won’t seem to stay put. “Then that was a gunshot I heard. The guards will have heard it, too. Corvin, if they’ve hurt you—”

He puts his hand over hers. “Dear Nara,” he says. His smile stretches the gash on his cheek in a way that makes me wince. “I’m all right. A little banged up, that’s all.”

The woman turns to me, taking in my appearance but not in the appraising way I would have expected. Facts without judgment. A reporter, then. “Who are you?” she asks.

I sense no hostility—or warmth—from her. My answer comes before I can think about it. “I’m not sure.”

The woman raises her neat eyebrows. “I see. Well, thank you for—” A sharp rap from the back hallway silences her.

“That will be the guard,” Corvin whispers.

“I’ll take care of them.” She rises, pats her prim suit, and strides away.

I look at Corvin. “I should—”

“Shh.” He puts a finger to his lips. “Not the front door. More guards will be watching this street. Best to wait it out.”

I blink at him. Awfully knowledgeable about these sorts of things for an average good citizen. I hear Nara’s voice raised; if the guardsman wants entry, he’d better have signed permission from the Commandant’s proper authorities. I decide I like Nara.

But the office is stuffy, and the sun is getting high. I must get home. How long until it’s safe for me again outside?

I cross the room, squinting at the window I dare not approach, my attention snagging on a copy of what must be today’s Daily Bulletin on the desk. An impossible headline stares up at me.

COMMANDANT: “ARE REDWINGS REAL?”

My breath catches. My skin prickles. It must be a joke, right? The one thing that has kept me safe and hidden has always been that, to most people, I am a fairy tale.

“Something interesting in the Bulletin?” Corvin says. I turn toward him, expressionless. He cranes his neck, peering at the paper on the desk. “Ah. Our bedtime stories come to life.” I say nothing. Corvin watches me with curious eyes. “Do they scare you? Redwings?”

I smile. “The people of Caldaras may fear redwings, but no one really believes in them, do they?”

He leans back. “I don’t know.”

“Surely not.”

He glances at me again. “We’re very modern. In so many ways. But fear and hope are eternal. Every morning, the people gather in High Ra Square to mouth the meditations along with the priests, dazzled by the sparkling incarnations of long-dead emotions. If someone were to ask the crowd, in all honesty, ‘Do you think redwings are real?’ I think most of the people would shake their heads and say something vague that sounds very much like no, but that isn’t actually no. Most people are just waiting for the first person to say yes.”

I am silent. I look down at the paper, trying to seem casual, my eyes flickering over the words. But once I start to read, I can’t stop myself. My subconscious takes over like a parched throat, gulping with abandon.

In the Empress’s name, Commandant Zan has acquired the bonescorch orchis, which was lately discovered deep within the passages of the Red Mine by fire truffle hunters. Those who believe Others still walk among us think the orchis is the key to rooting out any redwings that may be hiding in our midst. The orchis is being kept at the Copper Palace, where Commandant plans to unveil it at Crepuscule two weeks from today. Onyx Staff calls for the orchis to be handed over to the Temple of Rasus, insisting Commandant is unqualified to harness its power, and will undermine the Temple’s efforts to seek out and destroy this insidious threat. Commandant responds, “Are redwings real? If so, it is not exclusively a Temple matter, but a matter of concern for the whole of Caldaras.”

The words overpower me like Mol’s fire. A bonescorch orchis.

I have heard of these delicate plants before, in children’s stories. They are said to burn brightly in the presence of redwings, useful for tracking them down. They are also, like redwings themselves, said to be a myth.

Perhaps Commandant Zan believes the legend of the orchis to be a fraud, that he can show the people of Caldaras City once and for all that redwings do not exist.

How unfortunate for me that at least one does.

It was too much of a coincidence for the priests to have found me on the one day I’m out of hiding. They must have known exactly where to look.

This bonescorch orchis told them.

Corvin tries to sit up. His breath has grown shallow. I leave the paper on the desk and go to him, unsure how to be of help. “We need to get you to a doctor,” I say, my hand itching to smooth back that lock of his hair again.

He shakes his head. “I will be fine. I’ve had worse than this.”

I frown. “But—”

“Listen,” he says, leaning toward me, his voice conspiratorial. “You should tell her.”

I straighten up. “What? Tell who? What are you talking—?”

“Nara,” he says, and reaches for my hand. His fingers are cold and my palm stings as he lightly brushes his thumb across it. “You should tell her.”

“Tell her what?” My mind sparks and sputters—how to explain the fire? I had a weapon—a fire gun—grenades—Corvin was hallucinating—anything other than the truth.

He doesn’t say anything, but gently turns my wrist. I look down at my upturned palm and gasp. I felt the old iron gate digging into my hands as I tried to climb it, but I didn’t realize it had actually cut me. It isn’t bad—little more than a scrape—but it has been seeping; my hand is stained with my blood.

My black blood. A redwing’s blood. There’s no explaining that away.

I jerk my hand back and look at Corvin, the color draining from my face. “You’re mistaken. I—”

“She can protect you.”

I stare at him in silence for a moment. Finally, I whisper, “I highly doubt that.”

The groan of the back lock spinning into place heralds Nara’s return, her footsteps crisp and purposeful along the hallway. “Upstairs,” she barks, and at first I think she means me, but she extends a hand to Corvin. “Can you walk? To bed with you. I’ll have Orm come up and look you over.” She seems to have regained control of her authoritative self. I’m beginning to think the worried, tender Nara I encountered earlier is a rare beast.

“All right, don’t worry. I’m going.” Corvin rises, shuffling unsteadily toward the curtained doorway at the back. He turns and smiles a strange mixture of sweetness and pain that catches me off guard. She can protect you. I don’t believe it.

Nara watches him go, then turns to me, businesslike. “You should be in no danger leaving through the front door now.” She gives me a shrewd look. “Unless there is something else I can do for you?”

I have questions, and she senses it. She waits, arms crossed, and here I stand, electric with curiosity. I must be careful; it is dangerous here. I mustn’t give too much of myself away.

But I need answers, and Nara looks like she has a lot of them.

I gesture to today’s Bulletin. “You’ve seen this article?”

She doesn’t look at the paper. “You hear the presses back there? I wrote that article.”

“Could it be real?” I ask. “The bonescorch, I mean.”

She shrugs. “The Commandant and the Onyx Staff certainly think it’s real. I haven’t seen it myself. Why the interest?”

My nerves give a jolt, but I remind myself she is a reporter. Gathering information is what she does. It’s her nature. “Just curiosity.” I give her what I’m sure is an unconvincing smile.

Nara’s face is impassive. “I’m surprised this is news to you. It’s been the talk of the city. Are you from the Temple?”

I almost laugh. “No. No, I most certainly am not.”

“That was emphatic,” she says, fingers twitching. Is she thinking about grabbing a pen?

Ver’s ass. I shouldn’t have given so much away. I smile, babbling, “Oh, you know. History never really interested me. And the whole celibacy thing.” My face flushes. Right. I’m clearly a woman of the world, as evidenced by the fact that a word that means the opposite of sex is making me blush.

But all Nara says is, “I see. I just thought you must have been somewhere secluded not to have heard about the bonescorch.”

“We, uh—we don’t read the Bulletin much.” Not lately. It seems my father has been protecting me again.

“No matter,” Nara says evenly.

Too much. I’ve given her too much. “Thank you for your time,” I say with as much composure as I can manage. “Now I really must go. I’m sorry about your—husband.”

She snorts. “Brother. He can take care of himself. Usually.” Her voice softens. “I do appreciate your helping him.”

I turn to go, but when I place my hand on the door handle, Nara is behind me.

“Take this,” she says, handing me a small card: NARA BLAKE, EDITOR. Startled, I look up and am transfixed by her fierce, clear eyes. “In case you need anything else.”

I step into the street, stumbling a little, and slide into an alley. As I hurry home, I flick the corner of Nara Blake’s business card with my forefinger.

ARE REDWINGS REAL? The Bulletin sings its sensational print in my mind over and over. Am I an insidious threat, as the Onyx Staff says? The fact that I do not exist has always kept me a little safer. Or maybe it has kept others a little safer from me. But just now, those priests in the alleyway, the fire I called forth—

Today is the day I became real.



Copyright © 2016 by Adi Rule