PROLOGUE – THEN & NOW
Grunting with pain, Hale tried to push herself up on trembling arms. A drop of blood fell from her split lip onto the training room floor, adding to the scarlet splatters that already surrounded her. Rising jerkily to her feet, she swayed slightly, trying to regain her balance while her head whirled.
As she steadied herself, she caught a glimpse of her reflection in one of the large mirrors that lined the opposite wall. Even at sixteen, her close-cropped black hair and nearly flat chest made her look more boy than girl. The fact that she was wearing standard-issue unisex clothing didn’t help matters, either: the snug grey tunic and loose-fitting shorts doing nothing to hide the fact that she was still rather gangly and hadn’t yet developed any feminine curves. Though it didn’t look like it at the moment – with bloody gashes at her lip and forehead and a large bruise around her left eye – she knew her face had been described as pretty, with a promise of being strikingly beautiful once she developed a bit more, but for the time being she could still usually pass for a boy.
And for that, in the meantime at least, she was thankful.
Now if I could just fight like one, she thought.
“Again,” she growled, forcing her back straight, fists clenched at her sides.
“Hale, I think you’ve had enough for one day.”
Hale turned to face Weber, and glared at him. He was a big man, much bigger than her father had been, but he was also oddly calm and quiet most of the time. The premature flecks of grey in his hair, along with his care-worn face, made Hale always think that she would be able to outlast him in their training sessions, but Weber showed not the least sign of fatigue in his posture or expression, while she was barely able to remain standing.
“Again!” she insisted.
“Very well.” Weber sighed. “Greaves.”
Weber stepped back to watch while the only other man in the room approached, and Hale braced herself for the attack. Greaves was only slightly taller than Hale, but stocky, and had been training with Weber for the better part of the last five years. Though Greaves had only just made thirty, he looked something closer to forty, the lines of a hard life etched into his face.
He came at Hale without warning, and before she knew it, after only a few seconds of rapidly exchanged kicks, blocks, and blows, she was on the ground once again, though she had to admit it was a somewhat welcome change to be slammed down on her back rather than face-first again.
Shaking her head, she slapped aside Greaves’s offered hand and got herself to her feet, growling, “Again.”
“Hale,” Weber admonished, approaching them. “You have the push. Why don’t you use it?”
“Because I can’t just rely on that,” she spat. “I have to know I can do it without that.”
“It wasn’t enough for my mother, Weber! It didn’t save her!”
Weber’s shoulders relaxed and his expression softened as he looked at her, and Hale knew they were both thinking back to that day. The look of grief and sympathy on Weber’s face made Hale’s chest constrict while her eyes stung with the threat of tears.
I’m not going to cry. I’m not going to cry. Not here. Not in front of them. I won’t cry!
Panting, Hale watched as Weber slowly circled around and came to a stop behind her. He grasped her by the shoulders and gave a slight jerk, making her mindful of her posture. She straightened as best she could with her dwindling energy and focused on their reflections in the mirror.
“What are you fighting for?” Weber asked, his voice low and firm in her ear.
“Revenge for my parents. Justice for their lives, and the lives of my people. Freedom from Marcus’s chains. Life for myself. Life for every unique human being in the world. My own identity.”
“Who are you?”
Hale studied her reflection – too far away to make out her mismatched eyes – while her hand moved to her chest. Through her tunic, she could feel the familiar and comforting small lump of a pouch where it was tucked securely into her halter bra. A list of names ran through her mind, a dozen memorized stories to go with each name, and she felt the weight of her heritage as both burden and strength.
Clearing her mind, she recited to herself: Edmund, Charles, Landon, Jackson, Douglas, Edward, Benjamin, George, Richard, Michael, Joseph and Thomas, Victor, Peter, Henry, Jacob, Matthew, Justin, Philip, Patrick, Lance; Edmund, Charles, Landon…
“I am a Hale,” she said finally, her voice firm and her head held high. “And Hales never quit.”
“Good,” Weber said, and he took a few steps back from her. “Now. Again.”
I am a Hale, and Hales never quit, she repeated in her mind, and closed her eyes, taking a deep breath.
Again without warning, both Weber and Greaves rushed at her, and Hale didn’t even think as she reacted. She pushed against Greaves just before he could grab her, and sent him flying across the room, then smoothly ducked as she reached back, grabbing Weber and flipping him up and over her head as she yelled wordlessly, dropping him at her feet – a move she’d never managed to pull off successfully.
Hale straightened again, and just began to smile with satisfaction, when Weber drew in his limbs, spun around on the small of his back, and knocked Hale’s legs out from under her. She had barely a second to register the pain of her skull striking the floor before everything went black.
Hale winced against the bright light as she slowly opened her eyes. At least, she tried to open her eyes, but the left stubbornly would not budge, and after a few attempts, the pain told her she probably shouldn’t bother. Letting the one good eye adjust to the glare, Hale carefully took stock of her body, flexing various muscles and making note of sources of pain. Her head was throbbing, and she could tell there would be some tremendous bruises on her shoulders, knees, and hips, among other places, but thankfully nothing seemed to be broken this time.
She started to lift herself with the intention of getting out of bed, but a nauseating dizziness threw her back onto the pillow. Knowing Medic would throw a fit if she tried to stand up in such a state, she closed her eyes and gave in for the moment, trying to relax as much as she could.
Two sets of footsteps became audible just outside the closed door. Through meditations that Weber had taught her, Hale had learned to become aware of particular sounds, and had long since been able to recognize which of the Freemen was approaching, no matter how quiet they tried to be. Before she could hear their voices, she could pick out Medic’s rapid scurry alongside Weber’s smooth, measured tread.
“–and besides that, she’s just a kid!” she heard Medic exclaim as the two men came to a stop just outside the door.
“So?” Weber responded. “Even the youngest of her kind have been taken, and fought for their lives – and failed. Marcus makes no distinction for age. You know that.”
“But she’s a girl!”
“Which is all the more reason I need to train her,” Weber said patiently. “The Freemen are good men, but even they starve for warm bodies in their beds. I can protect Hale from that for now, but it would be better if she had the confidence to do so herself. And beyond these walls? There’s nothing to stand between her and a sex-crazed brute, or even a common thief. Not to mention the officers, and Marcus himself.”
“Yes, but Weber,” Medic sighed, sounding exasperated. “If she keeps pushing herself like this…”
Weber chuckled. “You try telling her ‘no’ when she’s picking herself up off the floor with every last ounce of strength. Just like her father. You remember how stubborn Hale Lance used to be.”
Hale lost track of the rest of the conversation at the mention of her father. It was already coming up on six months since that horrible day, and in her mind she saw it all over again: her father suffering as he died, and Hale unable to do anything to help him. Despite the pain, Hale squeezed her eyes shut, fighting tears yet again.
The sound of the door opening distracted her enough to get her emotions under control, and through her one good eye she saw Medic bustle around the room. The wiry little man rapidly checked her vital signs and made notes on a clipboard while also gathering scissors and gauze to redress a gash along her hairline.
When Medic finally stepped out of the way, Weber came up to the side of the bed and looked down at her with that odd, almost-fatherly expression on his face that she’d come to recognize since he’d first brought her to the Underground.
“I know.” Hale sighed. “I know. I’m dead.”
Weber’s mouth quirked up into a slight smile.“Yes, you are. Or, at least, you would be, if that had been a real fight. But you’re definitely improving. You didn’t last half so long when you first came here.”
“How long have I been out this time?”
“Just a few minutes.” Weber chuckled. “Don’t worry, Stanton said you’ll probably be up in time for dinner.”
“No,” Medic Stanton cut in, bustling over to them while shaking his head emphatically. “No, I said she might be able to sit up for dinner, but as for her getting out of bed…!”
“Alright, Stanton,” Weber consoled him. “I’ll have Pots bring something down for her.”
Medic gave a nodding sigh and walked away again, while Weber glanced down at Hale with a smirk and a wink. Despite the pain, Hale couldn’t help smiling back: Pots was one of the few people in the Underground with whom she easily got along, and a visit from him meant she was sure to get treated with some chocolate cake as well.
Turning serious, Weber said, “Now I want you to heal up properly this time before I see you back in the training room, alright?”
“But, Weber–” Hale protested, trying to push herself up into a sitting position.
Weber held up a hand, forestalling both her movement and her objection, and said, “That’s an order, Hale.”
Sinking wearily back onto her pillow, Hale sighed and gave in.“Yes, sir.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll have plenty for you to do while you’re healing. There are some more meditation exercises I’d like you to try, and then I’d like to get you started on some basic weapons training if you’re up for it.”
Hale stared up at him, her expression wavering indecisively between eager and fearful. The first training session she’d witnessed at the Underground was a series of exercises involving knife fighting and knife throwing – with the long-standing ban on gun ownership, knives were usually all they could get their hands on as far as weapons went, but the Freemen were highly effective with them nonetheless. The demonstration had both terrified and intrigued her, and she knew it was something she was simply going to have to learn, no matter how much the weapons frightened her. More than anything, she wanted to gain the cool self-confidence she’d seen in the Freemen as they attacked one another in practice, hoping that one day, trained and armed, she’d be able to join them out in the city on raids and patrols – making herself one more fighter against everything for which Marcus stood.
I am a Hale, she reminded herself. Uncommonly strong. And Hales never quit.
Swallowing hard, she nodded up at Weber. “Yes, sir.”
“Good girl.” Weber smiled, patting her gently on the shoulder. “Now I need to get back to work. You take it easy tonight, and come meet me in the morning. I’m not raiding tonight, so the usual time should be fine.”
Hale nodded as Weber started to move toward the door, but he suddenly turned back and bent closer, asking, “You are locking your door at night, yes?”
“Most nights,” she answered with a shrug.
That fatherly look came into his eyes again as he said, “Get into the habit. We just took on a couple of new trainees, and they haven’t figured out yet that we have a woman here, but they will eventually, and I’d rather you be safe, alright?”
Hale’s eyes widened a little, but she swallowed her nerves and nodded in agreement. “Will do, sir.”
“Thank you.” He smiled, patting her on the shoulder again and turning toward the door. He stopped again, halfway there, and asked, “Oh, and Hale?”
She twisted around on the bed as best she could to look at him, and he smirked. “If they do threaten you, use the push. You’ve got it. Use it.”
Hale started to laugh, then grimaced. “Greaves?”
“Plenty bruised, but he’ll be fine. He knew what he had coming to him when he attacked you. These new guys though…”
He shrugged and grinned at her, then waved and left the room. Hale relaxed back against the pillow, thinking about how naturally the push had come to her when Greaves rushed her, and she tried to picture using it on a random stranger who tried to force himself on her.
The thought made her laugh out loud.
“Something funny?” Medic Stanton asked, looking up from notes he was making on a clipboard.
Hale shook her head, but still laughed as she said, “Sorry, Medic. Don’t mind me.”
Medic shrugged and turned back to his notes, and Hale played the scene over again in her head, trying to keep her laughter silent as she did so.
‘Use the push,’ she thought, hearing Weber’s words again. ‘You’ve got it. Use it.’ Well, it wasn’t enough to save my mother, but it’s something I have, and that’s a start.
Hale took a slow, deep breath, closed her eyes, and settled in to wait out the pain, eager to get back to training as soon as possible.
I can do this. I’m a Hale. And Hales never quit.
She reached up to scratch at her scalp through her close-cropped hair, and winced as her fingers accidentally brushed the bruise on her forehead. Cringing, she lowered her arm and tried again to relax, wishing she could have a moment to herself now that the throbbing in her head was finally subsiding a little.
She waited until Medic left the room, then reached up under her tunic and drew out the pouch she had tucked into her halter bra. Turning it over in her hands, feeling the familiar weight of the object within, her mind automatically ran over the list of names she always carried with her, and her smile grew with each one.
Edmund, Charles, Landon, Jackson, Douglas, Edward, Benjamin, George, Richard, Michael, Joseph and Thomas, Victor, Peter, Henry, Jacob, Matthew, Justin, Philip, Patrick, Lance; Edmund, Charles…
“I can do this,” she thought aloud. “For all of them. For me. For everyone. For life and liberty itself.
“I can do this…”
Fresh from an all-night raid, Hale shrugged out of her long black coat the moment she was safely within the walls of the Underground. As she climbed the stairs to her floor, she passed several of the Freemen as they left breakfast and headed out for their daylight rounds, and all she could think about was the desire for a shower and a few hours of sleep.
Her tunic clung irritatingly to her sweat-drenched skin, and she nearly peeled that layer off as well until she heard the sound of multiple voices as she neared the common room just outside her apartment. Turning the corner at the end of the hallway, a quick glance around the common room’s open space showed her precisely which Freemen sat where: She noted Greaves, Drexell, Ames, and a few others, all enjoying a casual respite now that their duties were finished for the day. If they had been Marcus’s soldiers, her quick glance followed by a few thrown blades would have been enough to kill them all before any one of them was aware of her presence. As it was, Hale strode halfway across the room before a single one of the Freemen noticed her.
The masculine conversation faltered slightly as she passed them, but as no one acknowledged her, she made straight for her apartment and shut the door on the noise of their voices. She unlaced her boots and kicked them aside, then stripped off her black clothes and dumped them in a heap at the foot of her bed, tucking her treasured pouch under the pile before she turned toward the bathroom.
While she waited for the hot water to come, her fingers nimbly worked at unwinding her long braid, her hands moving rapidly from below hip level all the way up to the nape of her neck. She shivered pleasurably as the unbound waves swung across her bare back, then closed her eyes and leaned back, smiling as the hot water struck, the weight of her wet locks dragging her head down.
Hale stood like that for a long while, allowing her posture to sag as the hot water eased the tension out of her body. Slowly, and without looking, she reached for a cake of soap and methodically scrubbed her skin, gently massaging with her fingertips as she did so. Crouching in the dark for long moments, followed by life-threatening dashes across open spaces, had taken its toll by knotting up her muscles, but one by one the aches began to fade under her practiced fingers.
Feeling a little energy return along with tremendous refreshment, Hale shut off the water, quickly dried herself, then wrapped one towel around her body while rubbing another along the length of her dripping hair as she stepped back out of the bathroom.
The towel fell from her hands as she froze, instantly alert. Her eyes immediately went to her bed, where the pile of dirty clothes was ever-so-slightly shifted. She rapidly glanced around the room, and didn’t see anything else out of place, but that one small change was enough to tell her that someone had been in her apartment.
She had long since given up locking her door, knowing perfectly well that none of the Freemen was stupid enough to try anything with her – and if one did, she was capable of handling him, so the lock seemed superfluous. Hale stared at the pile of clothes, half-doubting herself for a moment, thinking maybe the heap had not in fact changed.
One item at a time, she moved the dirty clothes aside, and froze again.
The pouch was gone.
Frantically, she grabbed for the dirty clothes again, running her fingers through each item, tossing them aside, then dropping to her knees and checking the floor and under the bed. When she ran out of places to look, she rushed through the entire search once more, but to no avail. The pouch – her one treasure, her one family heirloom – was nowhere to be seen.
On the other side of her door, a cacophony of voices rose up, and she could just make out a few words: the name of the newest Freeman, Bergin, and a clash of admonitions and encouragements about something he had to show them.
A growl escaped Hale’s lips as she threw aside the towel that covered her body and hurriedly yanked on a set of clean underclothes, slowing down only long enough to make sure particular scars were hidden beneath the snug black material. Her closest weapons to hand were in her thigh sheaths, so she strapped those on in a blur, took a blade in each hand, and threw open her door.
Greaves reclined in a low, worn armchair as he sipped at a large mug of black coffee, being careful to avoid the chips in the rim. He feigned studious relaxation while subtly running one hand along his side, checking that his blades were ready in case he needed to put the newest Freeman in his place.
He glanced across the common room at Bergin, their newest recruit. The tall twenty-three-year-old had started making snide comments the moment Hale disappeared inside her room, and after a few minutes, some of the others joined in, uttering lewd, suggestive hints and wishes about the young woman.
Having known Hale for just over a decade, Greaves knew she could handle herself with just about anyone, but he readied himself just in case, knowing Bergin had not yet been truly introduced to just what Hale could do – and certain that the young, cocky attitude was sure to lead the boy to try something stupid.
His hunch proved correct when Bergin jumped from his seat on the lumpy old couch and approached Hale’s door, calling back in a loud whisper, “I’m telling you, she has something illegal. I’ll prove it.”
“Bergin!” Greaves called after him, but the young man ducked inside Hale’s room.
Greaves was on his feet, waiting for the sound of a struggle. Stepping closer, the only sound that came to his ears was that of running water, and before he could cross halfway to Hale’s door, Bergin emerged with something in his large fist and a grin on his face.
“What you got there, Bergin?” Ames asked.
“None of your business,” Greaves growled over his shoulder, then faced Bergin. “Hand it over, lad.”
“Come on, Greaves,” Drexell called. “Quit blasting the fun.”
Greaves looked up at Bergin, the sure smile still there on the young man’s face. They stared down one another for a long moment, then Greaves shrugged and stepped back, muttering as he returned to his seat, “Suit yourself. Hale will make you pay.”
“That little thing?” Bergin laughed. “I doubt it.”
Greaves took up his coffee mug again and smiled to himself. Bergin had no idea what was coming to him once Hale learned she’d been robbed.
Bergin rejoined the others while a chorus of voices piped up: “Come on, man. Show us. What’s in the pouch? Yeah, come on, what is it? Show us!”
The young man held back the item, peeking inside the pouch to try to get a first look at whatever it was he’d taken from Hale’s room. As Greaves watched, Bergin was just about to tip the pouch over onto his open palm when Hale’s door violently swung open.
“What in the name of Lethe is going on out here?” Hale growled, storming into their midst.
Greaves knew he was technically almost old enough to be Hale’s father, but when the young woman came to a stop, glaring from man to man, he couldn’t help joining the others in openly staring at her.
Her damp hair shone as it spilled down her back like an inky black river, a sharp contrast to her creamy white skin, uncharacteristically visible. Greaves knew the others were surely copying him as his eyes slowly raked up Hale’s body, taking in the toned, slender legs, only interrupted by the thigh sheaths she wore but otherwise fully visible beneath her low-slung, skin-tight black shorts; above that was a trim waist and flat belly, capped by a full swell of breasts. Though they were covered and snugly restrained by a black halter bra, those curves were deliciously tempting, and Greaves felt his fingers twitch, wanting nothing more than to reach out and fill his hands. He was suddenly and painfully aware of just how long it had been since he’d last had a woman, let alone seen one in anything close to this state of undress.
Greaves tried to tear his eyes away, but they lingered on her breasts as he fought to get control of himself. On the left side of Hale’s chest, a swirling black line peeked out from the wide halter strap of the bra – Greaves knew of the mark, but had never seen it fully for himself. None of them had, and he doubted any man ever would, as Hale had always been so particularly careful about keeping it hidden. As Greaves forced his eyes to slide away from the mark, something else peeking out just below the bra caught his gaze. Below Hale’s left arm, and wrapping slightly around to her back, her skin looked oddly rough and discolored, something like a burn or surgical scar. With only a sliver of it showing, however, it was difficult to tell for sure, and Greaves couldn’t recall any occasion that would have caused it.
It wasn’t the only scar that marred her skin, however, and even those were somehow oddly appealing. Hale had certainly taken her share of cuts and bruises over the years – several occasions that Greaves had witnessed himself when they’d been out on raids together – and the faint lines that remained just served to show how tough the girl had become. Her passion for life and for her mission was written plainly in every defacing mark, making her even more desirable – in Greaves’s eyes, at least – than if her skin had remained flawless.
When his eyes finally reached Hale’s face, though, reason caught up with him and he stepped back, taking in the relative positions of those in the room. The deadly anger in Hale’s mismatched eyes – and the sharp daggers in her hands – obscured everything else, and Greaves braced himself for whatever potential violence might ensue.
Hale’s glance flicked from one man to another until it stopped on Bergin, and the moment her eyes found him, she started forward, whipping around her right hand and pressing a dagger up under his chiseled jaw.
“Hey, you can’t–” Drexell protested, stepping toward them, but his movement was instantly arrested. Without taking her eyes off Bergin’s annoyingly-handsome face, Hale lifted her left hand and leveled the other dagger at Drexell’s heart, the point making the slightest indentation in his tunic. Drexell raised his hands and slowly stepped back.
Keeping her eyes locked with Bergin’s, Hale lowered her left hand, sheathed the blade, reached across herself – the back of her hand brushing Bergin’s hip as she did so, so close were they standing – and pried the pouch from his left fist. He gave only the slightest resistance, and smirked at her when he let it go.
Hale raised her left hand to eye level, clutching the worn velvet pouch in her fist, and shook it once at him, growling, “Don’t ever take my things again.”
Bergin said nothing, just smiled down at her with narrowed eyes, then yanked the pouch back from her hand and tossed it down onto the floor behind her. He didn’t even flinch when she pressed the blade more firmly against his throat. She didn’t try to draw blood, but got her hand close enough to let her knuckles really touch his flesh.
He glared at her, his eyes daring her to turn and retrieve the pouch, but she waited just a second longer, letting all his thoughts enter her own mind through the contact of his skin. She saw in his thoughts that the pouch had slid under a small table just behind her, and read his imagination playing out a scenario: her turning around, dropping to her hands and knees to reach under the table for the pouch, him coming up behind her, grabbing her around the hips with one arm, slamming her face down onto the ground with the other, and using the seconds while she was momentarily stunned to tear aside her shorts and his trousers, freeing himself to thrust his way inside her.
Hale took a step back, sheathed the knife, spun on her heel, and deliberately dropped to her hands and knees. She feigned reaching for the pouch, and just as he was dropping down on his knees to grab her from behind, she flew into action.
Greaves quietly breathed a sigh of relief when Hale stepped away from Bergin and sheathed the dagger. Thinking all was well, he started to move back to his chair while Hale dropped to the ground to retrieve her property, but stopped after only a step when he saw Bergin rush toward her.
In a blur of motion, Hale flipped from her knees to her back, wrapped her legs around Bergin’s as his knees hit the floor, and flipped him over so she was straddling him. She slammed his head back on the floor, tore aside the lacing of his trousers, shreds of black fabric scattering from her hand, and used the other hand to whip a blade free of its sheath and press its point right between his legs.
It all happened before Greaves or any of the others could even think to move. Bergin looked up at Hale, his eyes wild with fear and surprise. A stain slowly spread across his trousers, bringing along with it a telltale foul odor.
“And the next time you so much as think about raping me,” Hale growled, “I won’t stop my hand.”
She pressed the point ever so slightly, not enough to draw blood, but enough to make him yelp, then flipped off of him, retrieved the pouch from under the table, stormed back to her room, and kicked the door shut behind her.
A few seconds of utter silence passed, in which all the Freemen stared slack-jawed at the closed door, then Greaves threw his head back and roared with laughter.
“Serves you right, lad!” He chuckled, looking down at Bergin, who was still so stunned that he hadn’t moved a muscle. “Serves you right.”
Hale leaned back in her chair, her ankles crossed up on the corner of the old conference table while she waited. Without looking, she pulled a small switchblade from the pocket of her long coat, flipped it open, and speared a piece of chocolate from a bowl at her side. Pots had made the delicacies just for her, and as she popped the morsel into her mouth, she savored the moment as it slowly melted on her tongue. A hint of a smile tugged at her lips, both from Pots’s affection for her – something akin to that of an uncle for his favorite niece – and from the soothing sensation of having that delightful flavor in her mouth.
There had never been a Hale who didn’t crave chocolate, but as the years had progressed, they’d had to do without as it had become harder to come by. Around the world, cacao farms were dwindling – just one of many crops that were increasingly difficult to sustain since the Great War – so the rare chance of coming across any stock of cacao, let alone a method of transporting it, was almost cause for celebration.
But the market always provides, Hale thought with a smile. Old Marcus had removed chocolate from production and rations, along with many other items that had once been produced in abundance, citing the ‘unfairness’ of having delicacies available when some people couldn’t even work enough hours to earn bread – which, certainly, was nothing but nonsense, considering the government dictated who worked where and when. Of course, since the raiders often found cacao and other banned items in Marcus’s stores, it was clear that he was authorizing someone to produce them for his own use. Hale’s smile turned to a grin as she thought of all the things they’d taken back from Marcus and dumped into the Underground black market, where free trade was still secretly conducted.
The government may deny, but the market always provides.
Staple crops were certainly more important, of course, but these little delights were sometimes enough to make the world seem almost bearable; and Hale, wanting to see the world brought to rights after the destruction of the Great War and the Marcuses’ policies, savored every reason she could find to keep on pursuing that possibility, no matter how small or insignificant.
As she slipped another piece of chocolate onto her tongue, the Freemen finally started trickling into the room. Greaves gave her a nod as he took his seat, the lines worn into his face shifting as he smiled at her. He still looked considerably older than his years, but Hale knew under his gruff expression, lank hair, and weary shoulders, there was a strength that few of the Freemen could match.
Next came Bergin, whose cocky smile vanished from his face the moment his eyes met hers. He’d been actively avoiding her since she’d shamed him in front of the others, and sat down as far from her as the table would allow. If Hale hadn’t been what she was, she would have probably found the youth attractive: his chiseled jaw, rippling muscles, and startling blue eyes all combined perfectly to draw a female eye. From a purely aesthetic standpoint, Hale could understand why the boy thought so well of himself, but in the short time she’d known him, the only thing that really stood out to her was his strength and his skill with a blade – and she just hoped his cocky attitude wouldn’t get him killed.
Drexell and Ames arrived a moment later, laughing jovially as they muttered quiet jokes to one another. Though Hale never really got close to any of the Freemen, she thought of that pair as the friendliest of the bunch. Both were of average height and build – neither quite as tall as Bergin nor as stocky as Greaves – and rather plain of face, but they were all easy smiles and helpful attitudes. While some of the others might argue, neither Drexell nor Ames would ever question an order from Weber, or even from Hale for that matter. They were happy doing their part, no matter what it was – although Hale had seen Ames frown a bit when he was assigned kitchen duty, though he never openly complained.
A few others filed into the room, followed closely by Weber, and then everyone rapidly took seats around the large table and fell quiet, waiting for their leader to speak. Hale remained where she was, casually reclined and occasionally plucking another piece of chocolate from the bowl while Weber ran through the boring business details about their latest raids.
“And now,” the leader said, pushing aside his papers once all the market business had been discussed, “Bergin would like to address the group.”
Hale raised an eyebrow, glancing across the table at the youngest Freeman. He seemed to be studiously avoiding Hale’s glance as he rose from his seat and unfurled a large set of maps, spreading them across the table. With a sigh, Hale took her feet from the table and sat forward with the others.
The brute strength of Freemen hands turned suddenly delicate as they handled the large sheets. One of the maps was exceedingly old and outdated, but had provided a foundation for gathering knowledge about the city. Weber’s predecessor, Jadrien, had discovered the map, though had never explained how he’d come about it, and since that discovery, the Freemen had been slowly searching out the map’s roads and waterways, trying to determine what had changed.
The Great War had badly marred the face of the city, though Hale knew it was in surprisingly good shape compared to other parts of the world, where entire peoples and towns no longer existed. Still, the bombs that had fallen on the land had destroyed a great many things and changed others, so the old map was no longer entirely trustworthy. It didn’t help matters that none of them could read the labels on the old map, as the lettering system had been abolished by Old Marcus long ago. Lying beside that map was another that they were methodically putting together: They had already drawn in the roads that remained from before the War, and slowly but surely the delicate lines spread across the paper as changes were taken into account and marked down for study.
Bergin leaned forward, stretching a hand out to each map, and pointing at matching locations as he said, “We found traces of this road here still in existence, though under a pile of rubble, but we were able to follow it and gather more details about the river district…”
Hale’s eyes followed Bergin’s hands as he pointed out the new lines that had been drawn on the map, showing rubble or makeshift roads where there had once been buildings, or new buildings where there had once been parks. A few new lines filled up some small blank spaces on the new map, and slowly but surely unobstructed routes to the capitol building were becoming apparent.
Too apparent, Hale thought. Studying the maps, she worried that the Freemen were going to become rash and try to plan an attack on the front door of the capitol itself, when what they really needed was a way to get in unseen. Something underground, preferably, but the old tunnels were proving harder to map than the surface, collapsed and blocked up as many of them were discovered to be.
“When we were here last night,” Bergin continued, pointing at a newly-marked sector, “we came upon a squadron, their leader whispering orders in the dark. He mentioned Marcus would be coming here…” He pointed at a well-marked building. “…at midday to observe the training of new troops. If we can get there– What?”
Hale had rolled her eyes and sat back, violently spearing another piece of chocolate on her blade, and the movement had distracted Bergin. He glared at the interruption, spitting out his last word as Hale comfortably settled back into her chair.
“He won’t be there,” Hale said quietly, shaking her head while turning her eyes to her hands as she removed the delicacy from her knife and popped it into her mouth.
“You didn’t hear the officer,” Bergin countered. “He said specifically–”
“He won’t be there,” Hale insisted.
“How can you know that?” Bergin growled.
“Alright!” Weber roared while appearing outwardly calm, and Bergin immediately sank into his chair. “Bergin, I would advise you to trust Hale on this. However, that being said, please continue with what you were going to say, since it may be adaptable to another strategy.”
Bergin glanced from Weber to Hale, looking like he was going to protest again, but instead he just shuffled to his feet and muttered away, outlining a plan to take a small group of Freemen to where Marcus would supposedly be, with the intention of taking down as many officers and soldiers as possible, and then going after Marcus himself.
Hale only half-listened, knowing the boy’s plan might actually work – but only under cover of darkness, and more importantly, only if Marcus would actually be there, which she knew perfectly well would not happen.
Her voice broke a silent moment between comments, and everyone turned to look at her. Bergin particularly looked surprised as he worked his mouth, stuttering over a response.
“Hale,” Weber said gently when the others didn’t speak up. “Are you sure about this?”
She looked up at Weber and their eyes locked for a long moment, sharing a look of understanding. Weber knew a great many of her secrets, things she’d never told any of the others, and he was clearly concerned about her revealing them quite yet.
“Could be informative, if nothing else.” Hale shrugged, trying to appear unconcerned, though her mind worked in a whirl, wondering if her hunch might prove correct. “It would be much easier at night, but if we can stay hidden, we can at least gather more information about the soldiers even if we can’t actually eliminate any of them.”
Weber shrugged with resignation, then asked, “Any others?”
“I’ll go,” Ames chuckled.
“Could be fun,” Drexell added, elbowing his friend.
“Aye,” Greaves put in, but he didn’t look happy about it.
Hale watched Weber as he glanced around at all the Freemen assembled there, then he sighed and nodded. “Very well. Bergin, this is your plan, so you are responsible for their lives. Understand?”
The boy’s eyes widened and he tried to hide a nervous swallow, but he nodded agreement all the same.
Weber sighed again. “Alright. Take what men you’d like, and may your blades be swift.”
* * *
Hale looked over at Bergin as they moved slowly through the city, and heard him mutter uncomfortably, “No wonder you all prefer night raids.”
She nodded agreement but continued silent, keeping her eyes peeled for signs of danger. All of them had changed their clothes to look more worn, and found ways to strap on weapons so that they’d be in easy reach but out of sight. As best they could, they adopted stooped postures, trying to blend in with other citizens as they shuffled down the dirty streets, but even then, the Freemen stuck out like sore thumbs. Unlike the sunken cheeks and narrow frames that were visible all around, every one of the Freemen was clearly strong and well-fed, which was more than enough to draw attention.
Bergin hunched forward a bit more, clearly self-conscious about the eyes on him, particularly with his height and build. Beside him, Hale casually reached up to the frayed collar of the coat she wore, making sure it was turned up to at least partially cover the back of her neck. Weber had urged her many times over the years to keep her hair cut short, since any length of hair on a person was considered suspect, but though she’d held a blade to her locks plenty of times, she’d never been able to bring herself to actually saw through them. At least on night raids it wasn’t a problem, but out in daylight, even with the length of her hair tucked down inside the back of her coat, she still felt on-edge about the feature being noticed.
The group split up and moved through the city, trying to blend in as much as they could. At certain crossings, they came just close enough to see one another and then split off again.
Hale regrouped with Bergin and Drexell, and saw the others off in the distance, as they came down on the far side of a crumbling old bridge that crossed a river running through the city on its way to the ocean. From the maps they’d drawn, Hale knew the river didn’t follow quite its original course, but it was still plenty swollen despite the change in the land around it.
Up ahead, a large piece of bare ground lay pock-marked and desolate, the sight of a heavy bombing from the time of the Great War. In the midst of the open land, an enormous pile of rubble lay scattered about, some of it still gleaming white in the sunshine.
“The old White House,” Drexell muttered, nodding toward the pile.
“The what?” Bergin asked, following his gaze.
“Until the time of the Great War,” Hale explained while still keeping them moving, “that was the site that held the center of government.”
Hale glanced over and saw Bergin’s jaw drop, and he spat incredulously, “The center of dictatorial rule, and they called it the White House?”
“I know!” Drexell laughed, though trying to keep his voice low. “Bland, isn’t it?”
Hale shrugged. “Not much better than the Ivory Tower.”
The others fell silent at that as they all looked off toward the gleaming capitol building in the distance, the Tower rising in pristine glory over its starving citizens. Hale had to fight to tear her eyes away from the structure, trying to stay focused on the mission.
Unfortunately, she knew that their destination would put them closer to the Ivory Tower than any of them had ever been. Struggling with an inner torment, she raised her hand to her chest, just able to feel the pouch tucked between her breasts, and ran the list of names through her mind. It helped to calm and focus her thoughts, and despite the tormenting pull she felt, another feeling began to grow within her.
This could be it, she realized. If Marcus actually comes, this could be the end. Everything I’ve worked for…
Hale clenched her fists, trying not to get her hopes up, and forced her eyes back to surveying their surroundings. Better to mark a threat before it marked them, or all hope would be lost.
They finally reached their rendezvous point, and found Ames grinning as he rubbed his hands together, bouncing excitedly on the balls of his feet.
“I took out two soldiers,” he announced, grinning as he whispered. “They never even heard me coming.”
“Golden!” Drexell grinned back.
“Hush!” Hale whispered, and Bergin looked abashed, having failed to take control of the men in that moment.
With a few rapid signals, the Freemen split up again, creeping closer to the new arena that had been constructed for the soldiers’ training ground. They hid in shadows and dashed across open spaces, silently taking down any officers they encountered as they went. The Freemen gathered again, almost at a place where they could scale the wall, and waited for Bergin’s command.
Hale shook her head and hissed, “This is a waste of time. Marcus isn’t even here.”
“You don’t know that,” Bergin growled back at her, clipping his words.
“Actually, I–” Hale began, then broke off, whipping her head around to one side.
“What is it?” Greaves asked.
“I really didn’t think that was actually going to work…” Hale muttered, then sprang to her feet and dashed away.
“Hale!” Bergin growled behind her as she melted into the shadows, and a muffled chorus of footsteps followed her as she moved away from the training grounds. “Where are you going?”
Ignoring him, Hale kept moving, slinking from shadow to shadow while the Freemen crept along after her. Using her natural abilities, she navigated the unfamiliar streets for several blocks, and eventually came to a stop not far from the Ivory Tower itself.
Hearing panted breath all around her, Hale peeked around the corner of a building and saw a group of white-clad soldiers marching purposefully in her direction, being led by a figure dressed in pure black.
Hale hissed between her teeth, and muttered, “Marcus…”
“Marcus!” Bergin gasped, leaning around her to get a look. “Where?”
Hale shoved him back out of sight and ducked back into the shadows herself, growling, “Quiet, you fool. They’re coming right for us.”
“How many?” Ames asked, two blades that had been hidden within his clothing suddenly appearing in his hands.
“A dozen soldiers, at least,” Hale told them in a whisper, trying to keep fear and disappointment out of her voice while her hopes faded. “And surely more within call. We need to vanish. Now.”
“We can take a dozen.” Drexell grinned, also pulling free his knives.
“No, wait–” Hale began, but Bergin cut her off.
“Marcus dies now,” he growled, taking a large knife in each fist. “On my signal–”
“No, Bergin, wait, you have to understand that–”
“Now!” he cried, cutting her off, and roared wordlessly as he ran from their hiding place, heading straight for the soldiers.
Hale spat a curse and joined the others, following Bergin into open daylight, knowing she couldn’t just abandon the boy to slaughter but fearing that they were all running toward their own deaths. The soldiers, caught by surprise, hurried to protect their leader, but several quickly fell under the Freemens’ blades. The close fighting made the soldiers’ guns all but useless, so they pulled free blades of their own and grappled with the Freemen, all the while trying to keep Marcus out of reach.
In the midst of the chaos, while Hale pulled her bloody knife free of a soldier’s body, she locked eyes with Marcus, and time slowed to a crawl. His handsome face was framed by long, sleek, black hair, and his confident posture was supported by a muscular body – even under his shadowy clothes, Hale could tell just how strong this man was.
He stood there calmly, his eyes boring into hers, and though she stared back, she knew she’d never be able to pick out precisely the color of them. Then again, nothing else mattered but the fact that he was there within her reach. As Marcus’s protectors fell around him, Hale saw the action play out in her mind: the Freemen taking down the last of the soldiers while she rushed straight forward, plunging her dagger straight into his heart.
I can do this, she thought. I have to do this.
A clear space opened before her, and she started to move.
Several rapid explosions tore into their midst, bringing time back to its normal speed in Hale’s mind. Shaking herself, she saw the confident smile on Marcus’s face before she noticed a dozen other soldiers running straight toward them, firing at will.
“Do not shoot the woman!” Marcus ordered as the soldiers approached.
Risking all, Hale darted forward, the blade in her fist just inches from Marcus’s chest before an arm caught her around the waist and dragged her back. Marcus never so much as flinched.
“Hale, no!” Greaves growled in her ear, dragging her away.
“Let me go!” she shouted back.
“You’ll get yourself killed!” he yelled, still clinging to her as they ran. “Come on!”
The other Freemen were already running for their lives with the soldiers rapidly closing the distance between them. Shots continued to ring out, and as Hale looked around, trying to get her bearings as she ran, she glanced over her shoulder and saw Marcus still rooted to his spot, calmly watching her as she ran, an amused smile on his face. Hale tore her eyes away, and as she did so, she saw Ames lurch and fall to the ground, followed soon by another.
“Ames!” Drexell cried, but Greaves pushed him along.
“He’s dead, lad,” the older man growled. “Best not join him.”
The Freemen scattered as they ran, seeking out places to hide or ways to escape being seen. Greaves turned down one street while Hale took another, and after a few more turns, she found a covered entrance to the underground tunnels. She slid the last several feet, lifted the hatch just enough to squeeze through, and dropped down into darkness.
Hale wandered the tunnels, waiting until nightfall before she climbed up to street level near the Underground. Melting into shadows, she sneaked to the back entrance of the building and wearily trudged inside.
After a bit of searching, she found Weber in one of the common rooms, deserted but for the Freemen who had been out with her that day. A rapid glance was enough to count that, of the dozen of them who had gone out that morning, only seven of them remained.
“Hale.” Weber smiled, breathing a sigh of relief, and even the others looked a bit more easy at her return.
Her eyes fell on Bergin, and though he avoided her glance, she couldn’t help glaring at him. She clenched her fists, wanting to tear into him for his foolishness and for the lives lost, but it was clear from his posture and expression that he’d already gotten enough verbal lashing from Weber. The only available chair was near Bergin, so she dropped into it, seeing in her peripheral vision that the young man shifted away slightly.
“Well, at least we learned one thing,” Drexell said quietly, though the positive tone was clearly forced. “That guy they had in the parade a few months back was definitely not Marcus. Good lookalike, but not the same guy.”
“I could have told you that,” Hale muttered, but so quietly that only Bergin heard her, being closest. He turned to glare at her, but looked away again just as quickly, his posture sinking even further.
The silence stretched, until finally Weber said quietly, “This is why we need more information. Your observations today did gain us some ground, but at a cost that we cannot afford to pay again.” Everyone hung their heads, thinking of Ames and the others they’d lost. Weber cleared his throat and continued, “Honor their memories by continuing the search, continuing your missions, and one day we’ll find a way directly into the Tower. No more foolish, unplanned attacks, particularly without first consulting your brothers-at-arms, alright Bergin?”
Bergin’s fists clenched in his lap, but he nodded and mumbled, “Yes, sir.”
Hale looked up at Weber as the leader heaved a sigh. They shared a look, and Hale could tell from his expression that Weber would want to speak to her privately about the day’s events. She’d been trying to keep her own feelings tightly clamped down all afternoon, and seeing the concern in Weber’s eyes made her suddenly anxious to have a few moments alone with him to unburden herself.
“Alright.” Weber sighed again. “All of you go eat and rest, and we’ll get back to normal rounds tomorrow night.”
The Freemen silently filed away, and once they were all gone, Hale got up and quietly followed Weber down to his office.
While his siblings were busy with their own shares of the morning household chores, nineteen-year-old Nagi Skyler squinted through his dirty glasses as he scrubbed the worn dining table and the floors, being careful to preserve every precious drop of water that could be saved for later. Some he used to clean off their scant collection of dishes, and the rest he left in their ration bucket, tucking the bucket safely in a corner and draping a clean cloth over it.
He stacked the clean dishes on the little bit of counter space in their tiny kitchen, then squeezed through the crowded apartment to the tiny shared bathroom, where he used the wash rag to wipe off his face and hands. It wasn’t as sanitary as a bath would have been, but it was better than nothing, as a real bath was by no means an option while water was so strictly rationed.
As he stepped out of the bathroom – one of his young sisters darting past him to take her turn as he did so – his mother called from the bedroom, “Skyler! I need your help, please!”
Even over the noise of several people actively employed, the apartment was so small that the Nagi matron didn’t have to raise her voice to be heard. Skyler scooted around one of his brothers in the narrow hallway and peeked through the open bedroom doorway, seeing his mother rapidly sweeping up bits of hair that she’d trimmed from her husband’s head.
“Here,” she panted, thrusting the worn scissors into his hand as she gathered the last of the hair and stuffed it into a waste bag. “Start on Jem while I get changed for work.”
Skyler’s older brother, Jem, took the seat their father had just vacated, and Skyler silently went to work trimming his brother’s hair. With limited water, it was easier and healthier to keep hair as short as possible, and since razors were illegal, they had to make do with old scissors. While Skyler worked, one of his sisters scurried through the room with an armful of clothes, and paused to give him a wry look, knowing she was next. The girls hated their close-cropped hair even more than the men did, but there was nothing they could do about it.
By the time Jem’s hair was finished, their mother had already changed for work, gotten the laundry organized, and handed out lunch tickets to the children. She took the scissors back from Skyler and started working on one of the girls while Skyler ran off to get himself ready for his own job.
He gathered up the three smallest children and got them hurriedly bundled up, having to walk them to their school on the way to his job, but before he could turn around to tell his parents they were leaving, a heavy knock sounded at the front door.
The entire family fell silent, staring at the door. Tension filled the room, the children dashing away to cower in the corner, and the parents slowly creeping out to the front room, swallowing hard. Being closest to the door, Skyler slowly reached out, his hand trembling as his fingers closed on the door knob.
The door shook violently with another pounding knock, and Skyler rapidly opened the door and stepped back as three of Marcus’s soldiers filed into the room. Their crisp white uniforms were a startling contrast to the squalid space, and with fingers on the triggers of their guns, the three big men glanced from face to face, taking in the trembling family. One of the men openly spat upon the freshly-scrubbed floor, and Skyler did his best to hide his anger and disgust, knowing it would earn him a beating.
The soldiers continued silent for a long moment, until one of them locked eyes with Skyler’s mother. She rapidly tucked the scissors out of sight, but it was too late: The soldier had seen.
While the other two soldiers stayed where they were, only moving to point their guns at different targets every few seconds, the third strode forward, paused momentarily at Skyler’s mother, then shoved her aside and went to the open bedroom door, where one of the girls was fearfully clinging to the chair, and a pile of hair littered the floor around her.
The soldier kicked at the bits of hair, then came back out of the bedroom and barked, “Search them.”
The other two flew into action, turning over furniture and tearing open the few boxes and cabinets in the apartment, scattering belongings with neither care nor thought. Skyler and his family tried to stay out of the way, but the soldiers carelessly pushed them aside anyway, even sometimes stopping one of them to probe and grope for hidden items that might be in pockets or concealed beneath layers of clothing. Skyler bore it the best he could while a gun was held to his temple, as did his father and brothers, but when the soldiers went after the women, groping freely, it was all Skyler could do to stand still and not interfere.
“Nothing, sir,” one of the soldiers announced. “No gold, no weapons, no books. Nothing illegal here, unless they’ve got it hidden under the floors.”
The leader of the group sighed and glanced around, the expression on his face showing he was probably contemplating the idea of tearing up the rotting floorboards. With another sigh he looked again at the pile of hair in the bedroom, then whirled on Skyler’s mother, growling, “Do you have a license to cut hair?”
Skyler’s mother trembled, but answered, “No, sir, but I–”
“So you’re taking work away from someone who does have a license,” the soldier accused, his tone daring her to argue.
“Sir, please, I–” His mother licked her lips, her eyes darting around nervously. “Our water rations were cut again, and–”
“Silence!” the soldier roared, and everyone backed away.
Some of the smaller children ran to Skyler, being closest to them, and clung to his legs. The soldiers glared at them for moving, but didn’t say anything. Everyone was silent for a long moment, and Skyler could see fear in everyone’s eyes, but an odd look of resignation on his father’s face. A subtle glance from the Nagi patron made Skyler rapidly glance around the room, and he realized that he and the smallest children were closest to the door, without even a soldier to block their path. He felt his heart race, knowing precisely what his father was trying to tell him just by staring intently at him, and Skyler wondered if he’d have the courage to follow through.
Finally, after another glance around the room, the lead soldier muttered something under his breath, and stepped toward Skyler’s mother, grabbing her roughly as he said, “You are under arrest for crimes against your fellow citizens, in the name of Marcus Thane.”
Before Skyler could think, chaos erupted in the room. A chorus of voices rose up in protest and in fear, and several bodies moved – some in attack and some in flight.
“Go!” Skyler’s father screamed as one of the soldiers knocked him down.
With tears stinging his eyes, Skyler picked up his three-year-old sister, took his five-year-old brother by the hand, and kicked another child into a run as he dashed out into the cold, sprinting down the street as fast as he could without losing the children.
“Mama! Papa!” screamed the little girl in his arms, and Skyler couldn’t help crying along silently with her, certain that he could hear gunfire somewhere behind them.
Skyler ran until the little ones’ legs couldn’t keep up any longer, and then they slowed to a walk, constantly looking over their shoulders to see if they were followed. Hurrying down one empty street, several blocks from home, Skyler suddenly veered off into a dark, narrow alleyway, stopping to set down his sister and catch his breath.
The children clung to him, all of them still in tears. The oldest one, a ten-year-old boy, meekly tugged at Skyler’s coat and asked, “What do we do now?”
“I want to go home,” the little girl cried quietly.
“We can’t, sweetling,” Skyler mumbled, hugging her as he crouched. “Not yet, anyway.”
“What do we do?” the boy asked again.
Skyler looked around, feeling lost. He knew perfectly well that there was no going back: Any of the family who hadn’t gotten away would be either dead or on the way to prison by now, and what was left of their apartment would soon be removed to make space for someone else. The reality of homelessness slammed into him, and Skyler wasn’t sure there was anywhere they could go: If not discovered already, the soldiers would soon learn where each of them was assigned to work or school, so none of those places would be safe either.
“We’ll figure something out,” he assured them, though he didn’t feel very confident himself.
* * *
Nagi Skyler looked down at his little sister as she clung to his leg, trembling with fear, exhaustion, and hunger. With a sigh, he plunged his arms into the garbage pile again, looking for something – anything – that looked even remotely edible.
They’d been homeless for months, and she was all he had left of his family. In all their wandering, they’d never again seen any sign of their parents or the older siblings, and in the meantime, they’d also lost the two boys who had run with them.
The ten-year-old had been the first to go. After a week with little food and hardly any shelter to speak of, other than curling against one another in a cold alleyway while they slept, the boy had gotten desperate and ran off, telling Nagi that he would be right back. By the time Nagi had gotten the two smallest children hidden and quiet and run after the boy, he arrived just in time to find the child being arrested for trying to steal from the breadlines. He never saw his brother again.
Nagi remembered watching in horror as the poor boy was dragged away. Even though the brothers managed to lock eyes for just a moment, the little one never cried out for him, but desperately pointed away, silently telling Nagi to get back to the others. The child’s bravery broke Nagi’s heart, but he obeyed, knowing that trying to rescue his brother would only get them both killed, and leave the little ones defenseless.
Tears streaming down his cheeks, he’d run back to where the children were hidden, and felt some small bit of relief when he found them still there, hungry but safe.
Several weeks later, the five-year-old boy became severely ill and couldn’t move on his own. With his failing breath, the boy admitted that he’d been giving part of his food to their toddling sister – after Nagi had already been giving part of his own share of the food to both of them. What they had was little enough, but as the girl was always weak, the boy wanted to make his sister feel better, so he’d starved himself for her sake. The boy died in his sleep, curled up between his older brother and little sister, leaving Nagi and the girl as the last.
Fighting tears of desperation, Nagi kept digging, not wanting to lose his sister as well. His stomach churned painfully – he couldn’t remember the last time he’d eaten, which meant the girl hadn’t eaten in almost as long. She’d already fainted on him more times than he could count, and it was all he could do to keep her warm enough to stay alive.
“Ha!” he cried out as his hand closed upon a crust of bread. Miraculously, it was wrapped in a bit of paper and only had a tiny speck of mold starting to show on one side. Plucking that bit and tossing it aside, he tore the crust into two pieces, handing the larger to his sister and only taking one bite out of his own piece before tucking the rest safely into his pocket. There was no telling how long they’d have to search for more food, so that bread could very well need to last them at least a day or so.
The girl nibbled a few small bites, then started to put away her crust as well.
“One more bite, sweetling,” Nagi insisted.
The little girl shook her head, and pointed at his pocket.
He forced on a smile. “I’m alright. I’m saving it for later.”
His stomach belied him, roaring a tremendous growl the moment he stopped speaking, and the little girl put her hands on her hips and frowned up at him. “I’m not having more unless you have more, too, Skyler.”
Nagi sighed and dropped to his knees, meeting her eye-to-eye. The poor thing was still shaking, but her expression was determined, and he knew she was probably thinking of him starving to death like their brother, just as he was worrying the same for her.
“Alright.” He resisted the urge to sigh. “Tonight we’ll have a feast.”
A genuine grin lit up the innocent little face, and Nagi couldn’t help smiling back as he rose to his feet and took her hand. He pawed through the garbage one more time, making sure he hadn’t missed anything, then turned to lead the girl away.
He hadn’t gone more than a few steps when he stopped, suddenly conscious of eyes on him. In the fading light of the setting sun, there were far too many shadows all around, so he couldn’t tell if his worry was rational. He squinted through his dirty glasses, then wiped the lenses as best he could and looked again, but no matter how much he looked, he couldn’t see anyone anywhere.
Still, he couldn’t shake the feeling that someone was watching them. His sister looked up at him questioningly, but Nagi couldn’t quite make himself move. There was something close by, and the more he hesitated, the more his fear turned into curiosity, which in turn gave way to longing.
It was the oddest sensation he’d ever felt, and it made absolutely no sense. Instead of continuing the way he’d started, he angled off in a different direction, feeling almost pulled along.
Just as suddenly, the sensation vanished, and he no longer felt as though he was being watched. He found himself standing in the middle of the empty street, staring blankly ahead, feeling almost as though he’d lost something precious.
“Skyler?” the little girl asked quietly, tugging on his hand.
Nagi Skyler shook himself and forced on a smile. “Sorry, sweetling. I guess I’m more hungry than I thought. I’m starting to see things.”
The little girl rolled her eyes and stamped her foot, ordering, “Well, come on then. Let’s go eat!”
“Lead the way,” he laughed, and followed her, though he looked back over his shoulder several times as they moved away.
Nagi stared up at the building, trying to figure out precisely why he felt so drawn to it.
The feeling had only come to him a few times over the years, but it got stronger each time, so it was becoming harder to resist. After that first awareness of it, that day he’d been searching for food with his sister, he’d shrugged it off as some sort of hunger delirium, but as the years passed, and he felt it again even after rare moments when he was well-rested and full, he started to believe the feeling actually meant something.
For a while, he’d been drawn to another building in another district, and though he kept finding his way to it, he’d never had the nerve to actually set foot within its walls, though he was sure he’d seen people sneaking in and out. After a few years, the odd feeling had vanished from that building and had changed to the one he was looking at now. Despite his efforts, he kept returning to it, curious about the feeling but not liking the appearance of the large, dark figures he’d seen come and go from there.
At least, he thought he’d seen people milling around that building, but he was never quite sure. The shadows played tricks on his mind, and he never saw anyone go near the building in broad daylight. Nagi shook his head and sighed. Maybe he was just going crazy.
He pushed his broken glasses up his nose and walked away, aware that the feeling was trying to draw him back, but he had to fight his curiosity over it, knowing that he needed to at least try to find food and shelter before the sun went down.
It was much easier now, just having to fend for himself, but he would have gladly given up more food for the chance to have his sister back – or any of his family, for that matter. As he walked the streets, he passed the ration booth where his sister had been taken from him the year before. He stopped, staring at the closed booth, but seeing once again that moment when the soldiers had picked up the girl and hauled her away without a word of explanation. Women and girls of all ages had been disappearing all over the city that way, and though rumors flew about as to where they were taken and for what purpose, no one ever really knew for sure, and no one ever saw the girls again.
Nagi adjusted his broken glasses again, remembering how they’d been knocked from his face when he’d tried to reach for his sister. The beating he’d gotten that day had left him barely able to walk, and it took a few days of being curled up in a dark alley, cold and hungry, before he’d had the strength or the desire to get up and keep moving. In a daze, he’d found his broken glasses clutched in his trembling fist, and he’d been so worn down that it had taken him several minutes to remember what the shattered lenses were supposed to do.
Shaking aside his memories, Nagi continued on, looking for a place that might have food, but as he got lost in his thoughts again, he found his steps bending back toward that building. Using a rather circuitous route, he found himself back where he’d started, slinking down the length of a dark alley until the building was directly across from him again.
Nagi Skyler peeked out of the narrow alleyway and looked up at the skyscraper across the street. It was one of the few buildings that was still relatively intact in the district. Though it looked abandoned and just as worn as any of its neighbors – several windows were smashed in and the main entryway was roughly boarded over – the more he thought about it, the more Nagi was sure he had seen people sneaking in and out in the dark.
He watched from the shadows of a pile of garbage, seeing the darkness creep in all around him as the sun set in the distance. His stomach grumbled painfully as he waited.
Finally, from the deepening shadows, he just discerned a dark figure as it emerge from the side of the tall building. The figure paused briefly to nod at another figure, the latter disappearing into the shadows from which the former had come.
Nagi stood and tightened the fraying scrap of rope that served as a belt, swallowed his nerves, and obeyed the pull as he crossed the street.