The Week of Sun was my favorite time of year. I couldn’t wait.
Up ahead, a shop sat on the corner of what was once High Street and 6th Ave, but the street signs were so mangled they were no longer legible. As far as buildings went, it wasn’t the worst. It had been painted green at some point in the last twenty years, but now the paint looked like flaking mold. Above the shuttered window front hung the shop name, “Drivas,” in peeling, yellowed letters.
Kahl Ninu had been promising renovations to the North District for years, but nothing had been done. All Ninurta’s resources came from a closed-off district in the White Court, so there was little anyone could do but wait and hope for the best. And suffer ridiculous charges just to request help from the runners.
I sighed. I would need to budget carefully over the next weeks to make up for the tax. And I’d keep a close eye on the mail. A notice would be sent with three days’ allowance to turn over the credits ourselves, or they would be taken automatically. I’d have to snag the notice before Reev found out. Good thing it was summer, which meant more hours and more credits to earn. During the school year, Reev let me work only on weekends.
Kids were required to attend school, but no one enforced it. I once tried talking Reev into letting me work full time so we could save more credits. He didn’t even humor me with a response. Since most of my friends dropped out, going to school was a chore. An unpaid, monotonous, nine-month-long chore. The only real friend I had left was Avan Drivas, whose family owned the shop. But since he graduated last year, I didn’t have much to look forward to once school started in a couple months.
I pushed into the shop. What I liked best about the place was that it was clean. While the stock wasn’t the freshest, they at least had the decency to toss out the rotten produce. The counters were wiped down, the floors swept every night, and the windows washed once a week. I knew this because even though Avan claimed he was just helping out his dad, he practically ran the shop and liked to keep it looking tidy.
“Hey, Kai,” Avan called from behind the counter. His cheek dimpled when he smiled.
I waved and ducked into an aisle, feeling like an idiot. He was a year older than me, tall and olive skinned, with dark hair. We’d been friends for long enough that he shouldn’t have affected me anymore, but try telling that to my stomach. As if to mock me, it did a little flip.
I perused the shelves, picking out a package of dried pear slices and a cucumber sandwich. Meat was difficult to come by, but it would have been too expensive for me anyway. Then I told my stomach to settle down and brought my items to the counter.
“How was the illustrious White Court today?” Avan asked as he rang up my items.
He had nice hands, slender but strong, with long fingers. The muscles in his forearm shifted as he moved. I watched a few beats too long and hastily looked away.
“Blinding,” I said. “I’ll have to roll around outside to get rid of the clean feeling.”
Avan smiled again, his dark eyes lingering on my face before he turned to place my purchases in a paper bag. A jagged black tattoo started under his jaw, crawled down the side of his neck, and disappeared beneath the collar of his shirt. He’d gotten the tattoo a few years ago, around the time I’d begun to think of him as a friend. I tried to imagine what the rest of it looked like.
He reached behind him and then tucked a couple other things inside the bag: a wrapped loaf of bread and a wedge of hard cheese.
“Came in this morning,” he said. “Haven’t put them out on the floor yet.” His voice was deep. When he spoke softly like that, I could almost feel it rumbling inside my chest.
I nodded my thanks. Avan liked to slip me fresh products. That was how it had started—our friendship. I’d always noticed him, of course. Impossible not to. But when I was twelve, he’d slipped me a few apples with a quiet smile. That was the first time he noticed me.
In the beginning, I objected. I wasn’t used to random acts of kindness, and I demanded to know what he wanted. But he never asked for anything and never stopped trying to help. I eventually stopped arguing. Turning down free food would be pretty stupid.
“How’s your brother?” he asked, placing my bag on the counter between us. I was grateful for the barrier, however small.
“Good. How—” I looked away, unable to help glancing at the door in the corner that led up to his parents’ apartment. “How are . . . things?”
Avan saw where I was looking and tensed. He didn’t really talk about his mom anymore, and asking about his dad wasn’t an option, not since I’d kicked him in the groin when I was thirteen. I’d gotten tired of coming in to find Avan at the counter with purple bruises and bandaged hands. So the next time I’d seen Mr. Drivas, soaked in liquor and screaming at him, I’d come up from behind and aimed between the legs.
Avan had tried to shield me as his dad went red with rage. Mr. Drivas hadn’t hit me, though. Even drunk, he knew that Reev would have put him in the hospital.
“My mom’s fine,” Avan said, interpreting my vague question. When he wasn’t smiling, he looked kind of somber. Even sad. I wondered if he knew that. “So have you heard the news?”
“You know you’re my best source.” More like my only source. I didn’t much care what was happening around the city if it didn’t affect me or Reev, but Avan had connections and was usually well-informed.
And I liked the excuse to stick around and talk to him.
“There was another one,” he said. “Upper Alley.”
My fingers fiddled with the bag. Nobody talked much about the disappearances. They happened a few times a year at most—not enough to cause mass panic but certainly often enough to be noticed—and people either reacted with fear and paranoia, or they looked the other way.
With our own survival to worry about, we didn’t have much concern to spare.
“The Black Rider strikes again?” I said with a hefty dose of sarcasm.
Neither of us believed Kahl Ninu’s claim that a rebel named the Black Rider was kidnapping Ninurtans. What kind of self-respecting criminal would call himself the Black Rider? And aside from the propaganda insisting the Rider wanted to overthrow the Kahl, no one had ever seen or heard of him.
Frankly, it sounded like a half-baked cover-up. Probably because the Kahl had yet to catch whoever was actually kidnapping people. Although with magic at his disposal, I would’ve expected it to be an easy task.
“Someone you knew?” I asked.
“Not really. Met her a couple times, but . . .” He shrugged, and that was really all there was to do.
In a couple of weeks or months, once her family accepted she wasn’t going to be found, they would go to the old mahjo temple at the center of the North District and hold a farewell ceremony. And then they would move on with their lives.
He told me those same two words every day, and I gave him the same answer: “Always do.”
I thanked him again for the groceries and left. I turned down the hill toward the docks. The river separated the North District from the East Quarter, and while plenty of bridges connected them, only a few were safe to cross. The pimps ruled the riverfront, and you had to be careful there any time of day.
A thick wooden post stood next to the dirt road leading to the docks. I traced my fingers along the post and smiled when I found a new notch cut into the moldy wood in the shape of a K. Whenever Reev or I passed this post, we made sure to leave a mark to let each other know that we’d been there and we were okay. I dug a fingernail into the wood below the K and carefully scratched in an R.
The city odors took a noticeable shift as I neared the river. The docks smelled like damp wood and mildew. Trees dotted the banks, but their branches remained stark even in summer. The bark looked scarred, rotted in areas, forming strange depressions: lumps and rivets like its organs bared.
Along the bridge, couples lingered. That would’ve been sweet except I knew most of them were prostitutes with their customers. Some of them didn’t even bother trying to shield what they were doing. I wondered if anyone had ever fallen into the river that way.
You’d think the smell would be a mood killer, but what did I know? I’d never even kissed a boy.
The Raging Bull was the fifth building down the long strip of businesses along the riverfront. All the windows were painted red. A large sign announced “Half off during Week of Sun.”
I ignored the drunken calls of men on the boardwalk and opened the door. Reev stood near the entrance in his usual spot, arms crossed and doing his best “Don’t mess with me” impression. He made it look natural. More than six feet and built like a stone slab, Reev could be pretty intimidating when he wanted to be. That was how he’d gotten this job. Not my top choice for him, but admittedly, there weren’t many.
When he saw me, he frowned. I waved and held up the bag from Drivas’s.
“How many times do I have to tell you to stop coming here? It’s not safe,” he said, pulling me into the lobby. His hand warmed my elbow.
I scanned the lobby. Two women chatted behind the front desk, the only people besides us in the small area.
I shoved the bag against his chest. “You never eat unless I bring you something, so quit complaining.”
One of the women waved. I waved back halfheartedly. Angee liked to introduce herself as Reev’s girlfriend, and I had never heard Reev confirm or deny it. She was nice enough, but I wished she’d stop trying to befriend me. The woman next to her had tight brown curls, heavy makeup, and nothing to cover her smooth, dark skin but a transparent slip. She nodded at something Angee said, while her eyes stayed on Reev.
I didn’t like the way she—and the other prostitutes, men and women—looked at him. The way their gazes lingered, the way their half-naked bodies pivoted toward him whenever he entered the room. I wanted to step between them and Reev, and tell those people that he wasn’t like the clients who paid for them.
But I suspected they knew that. And it was why they wanted him.
“Is this your sister?” the woman next to Angee asked. She looked at us and pursed her lips into a pretty pout. “She doesn’t look a thing like you.”
I scowled. Reev had wavy, dark-brown hair and gray eyes. His nose had a slight hook, and he had thin lips and an angular jaw. I, on the other hand, had straight black hair and almond-shaped eyes that weren’t quite blue—more like a watered-down version. Reev once said they were like the icicles that formed on the tree branches in winter. My lips were fuller, and I used to press my fingertip against my pointy chin as if I could imprint a cleft there like Reev’s. The rest of me was skinny enough to look malnourished, and the top of my head reached just shy of Reev’s shoulder.
We didn’t share a single physical trait, because Reev wasn’t actually my brother.
He’d found me when I was eight. He’d been younger than I was now—sixteen and barely able to feed himself—but he rescued me off the riverbank and raised me as his sister.
“How much did it cost?” Reev asked, taking the grocery bag from me. “Should I transfer some credits?”
I shook my head. “Avan gave us fresh bread. As fresh as it can be, I mean. I’m pretty sure that’s fresher than usual.”
He frowned again. He didn’t approve of Avan because of his reputation, but the free food required his grudging acceptance of our friendship. “You should get home now. There’s an energy drive down the street, and they’ll be here for the next couple days.”
I understood what that meant. The Alley had several energy clinics, but the drives held near the river were geared toward the people in the Labyrinth—and those afraid to wander too far from the safety of its narrow walls. Energy drives meant free credits to anyone who didn’t mind needles, and it brought out even the most desperate of folks. Reev didn’t want me running into any of them.
“Where’d you hear that?” I hadn’t seen it on my route this morning.
“One of the girls told me. She was just there.”
I ignored the way my stomach knotted whenever he talked about the girls who worked with him. “If you even think about volunteering, I’ll kick you. When you’re asleep.”
His shoulders relaxed. “Of course not. Same to you. Minus the kicking.”
Donating blood for the energy stones always tempted me. Depending on how much I gave, I could cover the cost of the runners’ tax, and Reev would never be the wiser. The problem was that the energy clinics were rarely clean, and a bunch of people died every year from infection. The energy drives, however, were sponsored by medics from the White Court, so they were probably safe.
But it was best not to test it. I wasn’t keen on dying, and my abilities to manipulate time didn’t include rewinding it—with the exception of that first experience, which had been a fluke.
I’d just have to work some extra hours and eat what Avan was willing to give me for a few days.
“Come for a job?” asked a voice like gravel.
I turned, backing up into Reev. Reev’s hand came down on my shoulder. It felt like a shield.
The owner of the Raging Bull, Reev’s boss, was a middle-aged man named Joss. He was thin, with orange hair that made his loose, pale skin look sallow. He smelled like cloves and something earthy and damp. I kept hoping he’d fall into the river and drown.
He snapped his yellow-stained fingers at the nearly naked woman, who then darted down the hall, but his eyes remained on me. When I refused to look away, his mouth twisted, and he gave my body a lazy inspection.
I leaned back against Reev, letting his warmth chase away the chill in Joss’s eyes.
“She just brought me dinner,” Reev said. “Go on, Kai. Get home.” He nudged me toward the door.
“Let me know when you change your mind,” Joss said, winking at me. He had fleshy lips that drooped at the corners and flapped when he talked. “I could get you double Reev’s salary for your first time.” He cocked his head and took another look at me. “Oh, yeah. Definitely a virgin.”
“Joss,” Reev said. I was probably the only person who could hear the anger in his voice.
“Come on, Reev, everyone’s hurting for credits. Use what you got. Or rather, what she’s got.”
To be honest, I’d thought about it. There weren’t a lot of other places I could get that many credits. It would be enough to get us out of the Labyrinth like Reev wanted.
But it would hurt Reev, and his approval meant more to me than anything. Not to mention the fact that Joss creeped me out.
I took half the bread for my own dinner and munched on it as I left the docks. In front of the bridge, a woman pulled her bawling kid along the dirt path. Out of habit, I studied her face, even though I knew I wouldn’t see anything familiar. Nine years in Ninurta, and I’d yet to find anyone who looked enough like me to make me wonder.