To Kay and May, the best friends and sisters a girl could have
DEATH LIVED IN a glass tower at the center of the White Court. I could see the tower from anywhere in the city. It cut the skyline like a blade. Death—she probably had a real name—was Kahl Ninu’s right hand and his personal executioner. Or, at least, that’s what the rumors said. I didn’t really care if they were true so long as it wasn’t my head on the chopping block.
The fact that the Kahl’s executioner lived in the most impressive building in the city wasn’t the only reason the White Court unsettled me. I never went any farther than the barracks along the inner wall, but I could see the Court’s elaborate Grays dashing through the cobblestone streets, some with monstrous forms, their hulking bodies big enough to carry three riders at once.
The strap of my messenger bag dug into my shoulder, and I hoisted it up as I turned right, toward the gate. Twenty-foot walls separated the White Court from the rest of the city. Only people with the right permissions could enter or leave.
“See you tomorrow, Kai.” The Watchman on duty waved me out. As a mail carrier, I had access during work hours.
Once through the gate, the tension left my body. The North District—fondly nicknamed the Alley by some and not so fondly called Purgatory by others—was nothing like the White Court. The buildings here were plain stone and brick, ugly and brown and comforting in their uniformity.
I stepped off the curb into the gutter to avoid a glittering patch of broken glass on the sidewalk. A shattered window sat in the crumbling wall of the building right above the mess, jagged shards still clinging to the frame. As I turned the corner, I glanced at a poster stuck to a dented lamppost. It was one of only a half-dozen posters in this particular neighborhood—no point advertising to people with no credits.
Today, the poster displayed a half-naked man and woman enticing people to visit them down at the docks. I snorted. Last week, it had featured some crap about the wondrous city of Ninurta. Really smart companion advertising there. Who were they trying to kid?
But, hey, as long as Kahl Ninu left me and my brother alone, he could do whatever the drek he wanted.
A shoulder smacked mine on the sidewalk. I didn’t bother checking my pockets. They were already empty. But sometimes I left little notes in them I thought might amuse a pickpocket: “Try me again tomorrow. I forgot my diamonds at home” or “Might have better luck with that guy,” alongside a scribbled arrow.
Well, they amused me anyway.
The sidewalk grew narrower here. Some boys from school loitered around the next corner, their loud voices carrying through the ruptured street. One of them finished off an apple and then lobbed the core at a passing Gray—the gleaming form of a stag with curved horns. Bound for the White Court. The Court Grays were easy to discern from the Alley Grays, which were dirty and rusted.
The stag threw back its head and the rider shouted, but the boys’ laughter drowned out his words.
I avoided eye contact and gripped my messenger bag closer against my side. On my right was a row of shops. Striped awnings dangled from the wooden supports; and posters for the latest underground club, the kind my brother didn’t approve of, plastered the windows.
I stepped over a lumpy brown stain on the ground and cut through an alley, taking the shortcut to the District Mail Center. Laundry hung on either side of the walls, while rusty pipes crawled up the bricks like veins. I kept to the middle of the alley; the walls looked slick with something green and possibly moving.
Up ahead, a young woman with a black-and-white Mohawk leaned against the rungs of a broken fire escape. The metal creaked on flaking hinges as she shifted against it. She stared down at her gray boots, her hands buried in the pockets of her sweater. I walked briskly.
As I passed, I gave her the barest of nods. Just to be polite. Reev always said to be polite even if no one else cared.
The girl lunged, shoving me up against the alley wall. I gasped as we hit the bricks, my bag cushioning the impact. I threw my arm up to deflect her, but she knocked it aside.
Strong fingers, gritty with dirt, clamped around my neck. A clammy palm pressed into my collarbone, and a sharp edge dug into my ribs.
If my tunic ripped, I would deck her. My tunic was drab gray, worn thin at the elbows and with partially unraveled loops stitched along the hems—nothing special, except that Reev had made it for me.
“Bit far from the White Court, aren’t you?” The girl sneered, her lips stained bright red. “How much you think someone’ll pay to get you back?”
I stopped struggling. What? Laughter bubbled up my throat. Okay, this was new.
The fingers around my neck loosened, and the girl jerked a bit. “What’s so funny?”
“I live in the Labyrinth,” I said flatly.
If the North District was Purgatory then the Labyrinth was Hell. The Labyrinth was what we called the East Quarter, specifically the maze of stacked freight containers–turned–homes, so closely packed together that it had transformed into a city within the city. Operating by its own unspoken rules, the Labyrinth sat about as low as you could on the social ladder—which, in Ninurta, was saying something.
“No one’s going to pay a credit for me.” Which was a lie, because Reev would pay every credit he’d saved for us to get away from the dripping metal walls and claustrophobia of the Labyrinth. He’d give up even more than that for me, and I could never let that happen.
“I saw you leave the White Court,” the girl said, her sweaty hand sliding against my skin. Her nervousness didn’t reassure me; it only made her more unpredictable.
“Look closer,” I said, and glanced down at the messenger strap on my shoulder.
I brushed aside my long black hair, and the girl focused on the yellow bird sewn into the old canvas. It was the District Mail Center’s logo—a quaint bit of symbolism about flying and freedom, which was deeply ironic and something I didn’t think about for fear my eyes would roll clear to the Outlands.
The moment the girl realized what she was looking at, her body grew rigid and her already pale face went ashen.
“W-well,” the girl began, “you—I—” She shouted a curse. The knife at my ribs dug harder; I sucked in my breath. The girl swore again.
“Are we done then?” I felt kind of bad for her. She couldn’t have been much older than me. Maybe eighteen or nineteen, though most kids around here had broken into their first shop by the time they were five. Didn’t know if that was true for me—I couldn’t remember anything from before I turned eight.
I had to get going or I’d be late returning my bag to the DMC. My route was timed, and I couldn’t afford to lose any credits.
The girl’s hand tightened around my neck. “You’re pretty,” she said, her gaze flicking across my face. “And those eyes are something else.”
I groaned. Here we go.
“Bet you’d get me a good price at the docks.”
I had heard enough.
I reached out with my mind, feeling for the threads of time that flowed around us. They were everywhere, if you had the ability to see, intertwining the people, the weathered buildings, the stones beneath my feet. They moved everything forward in constant motion. Always forward. I imagined my fingers dragging the fibers, making them catch and slow.
Time never truly stopped. That, as far as I could tell, wasn’t possible. But I could slow it down for a few seconds, just enough to get the advantage.
The girl’s painted lips continued to move in minute degrees, her voice an indistinguishable thrum. I fought the threads that snared me as well, twisting out of the girl’s grip and pushing at the knife against my gut. The weapon was crude, nothing but a scrap of broken metal with one end wrapped in rags for a handle.
I couldn’t hold the threads for very long. Time slowed only in the space around me, and the mounting pressure to continue forward and catch up with the rest of the threads broke my grasp. Time snapped ahead, rebounding. I wrenched away, riding the momentum of speeded time, and hit the ground. Pain flashed up my arm.
Behind me, the girl gasped.
Dread rooted me in place. She saw.
I jumped to my feet, brushing off my palms as I spun to face her. She couldn’t have seen. No one but Reev was aware of my manipulations. For everyone else, the perception of time remained unbroken, preserving the belief that no one but the Kahl possessed magic.
The girl wasn’t looking at me. In fact, she wasn’t even standing. She knelt beside the alley wall, her knife jutting from her belly where she’d fallen against it.
I watched as she slid sideways into a boneless heap. Her head hit the ground with a crack. I flinched, searching up and down the alley, but if anyone saw what happened, they had already moved on. Nothing I could do would help her now.
As I turned away, the girl moaned. I glanced over my shoulder. I couldn’t see her face, but I could hear her mumbling.
I looked toward the exit to the open street. I should leave her. Her nervousness and the clumsy way she had attacked me made it obvious she wasn’t a seasoned criminal. But she wanted to sell me at the docks—she deserved whatever she got. The city would be better off without another desperate mouth to feed, and with people disappearing every year, what was one more?
Besides, this wasn’t a hidden alley. Someone would probably find her in time.
But what if she has someone waiting for her? A brother. A sister. A baby hungry for dinner. What would happen to her family if she didn’t get up again?
The nearest runner was around the corner. Alerting the runners was the only way to get ahold of the Watchmen—short of walking into their local post, which I sure as drek wasn’t doing. But the runners charged a ridiculous tax for their services, credits Reev and I couldn’t spare, and while I could lie about my name, they’d demand an ID to verify citizenship.
I glared down at the girl bleeding into the dirt. Drek.
WHEN I WAS ten, Reev had spent one of his Sundays off work with me by the river. We’d scavenged for bugs on the muddy bank and wondered what mutant abilities we might get from falling into the murky water. He pretended to throw me in, and I had been so stupidly scared he would actually do it that I twisted my ankle fighting him off.
Reev had felt terrible. He promised not to be so rough, and I told him to shove his promise in the river because nobody put restrictions on my brother, not even my brother. It made more sense in my head.
He had carried me all the way to our box in the Labyrinth. I remember the way his hair scratched my face, the heat of his shoulder against my cheek, and the smell of the river—sickly sweet like rotten fruit—on his clothes. His voice murmuring unnecessary apologies had been the only soft thing about him. Everything else had been—still was—hard, unyielding, strong.
I hadn’t wanted the weekend to end. I wanted another day. I wanted it so badly that when I woke up the next morning to find Reev still home, I thought I’d gotten my wish.
The thing was—I had. It was Sunday again.
Reev had gone to work only to discover that no one else realized it was supposed to be Monday. After the confusion wore off, chilled anger had crept into his face—his mouth went flat, and his eyes hardened into gray stones. He’d never looked at me that way before.
“Promise me,” he’d said, “you won’t do that again. Ever.”
I couldn’t speak because the change in him scared me so much. We’d seen the Watchmen take people—drag them away on their Grays, through the gates of the White Court, never heard from again. In the Labyrinth, we had a saying: Keep silent, keep still, keep safe.
But only Reev had noticed. There were no Watchmen pounding down our door.
The threads moved around me, growing more tempting the more they came into focus. Rebirth had wiped out nearly all the mahjo, the magic users. The Kahl’s line was supposed to be the last of them, and he used his magic to help the city. If I had a special ability, one that didn’t hurt anyone, why shouldn’t I use it, too?
“Kai,” Reev had said. “Promise me.”
We stared each other down, but the flicker of fear in his eyes finally made me nod.
I had broken that promise too many times to count. I couldn’t help myself. That had been the first time I’d realized I was different. Once I knew what the threads were and that I might be the only person who could see them, they fascinated me.
The next day, time had adjusted itself by continuing on with Tuesday. All around me, people muttered about how Monday had flown by, and they couldn’t remember a thing they’d done that day. It didn’t seem as if even Kahl Ninu had noticed. I’d never been able to repeat that level of manipulation, and I still didn’t know how I’d done it.
Every source of energy in Ninurta came from the Kahl’s magic, but nobody had ever seen him at work. New energy stones were available for purchase every month, and the Grays, constructed of magic and metal, continued to run the streets like shining beasts. Who were we to question it? I couldn’t do anything half as useful, but whether my abilities were magic or a freak of nature, I couldn’t say.
I didn’t dare call myself mahjo, even in my head. That status felt too attached to the Kahl, and I had no delusions about being his equal.
And now, with a hefty tax headed my way, maybe I should practice some control.
After the stop at the runners—who were so slow that they should have been called crawlers—I hurried to the DMC to dump off my bag just in time. I should’ve been more worried about the woman who had almost died than the state of our credits. But I wasn’t.
As I left the DMC, I stared straight ahead and walked quickly past the Watchman standing guard at the double glass doors. He followed me with his eyes.
A few days ago, that same Watchman had trailed me into the back room where I store my bag and offered me twice my weekly pay for “personal service.” Fortunately, my boss popped in a second later to see what was keeping me, and I escaped.
Outside, a stream of human traffic blocked the sidewalk. Walking was the only way to get around the city without a Gray, and the streets were fairly crowded this time of day. I waded through the pushing bodies to reach the other side of the street. I kept close to the shop windows, most of them dark or boarded over. A row of pigeons fluttered away as my shoulder bumped a sagging awning. I looked up, but they only flew far enough to find a new perch across the street.
For 358 days a year, the birds didn’t fly any higher than the buildings. As if they had forgotten how. But in five days, the clouds would part and release sunshine into the city. For one week a year, the river danced with lights. The trees dared to bud. And the birds took flight, becoming brown specks against a gray sky.