I was safe with Reev. With his silent strength and the subtle tenderness he reserved just for me and the way his arm felt around my shoulders.
He was untouchable.
He was supposed to be untouchable.
REEV WASN’T IN the habit of making friends, so I didn’t know who to ask if they’d seen him. Besides Angee, that is; but she hadn’t been at the Raging Bull, either, and I didn’t know where she lived.
Reev’s past was as much a mystery to me as my own. He avoided talking about the time before he’d found me. Now I wish I’d been bold enough to push him.
The idea of going back to ask Joss for information made me shudder. He wasn’t the type to give anything for free. Few people in Ninurta gave information freely.
Since I had nothing to give, I’d have to rely on myself.
I started my search in the Labyrinth. I doubted I’d find Reev hidden in some obscure corner, but I wanted to cover all my bases. I’d spent months exploring the entirety of the Labyrinth when I was younger, so I knew my way around the maze-like corridors. Checking the ground level and the common areas where people liked to gather was easy enough, but poking around the less stable floors was trickier. I didn’t know how anyone could stay in those sections and not feel as if they were living on a spinning top that could tip over at any moment.
With no sign of my brother in the nooks of the Labyrinth, I left for the North District. I started at the docks and headed up through the cracked streets. My mind tortured me with images of Reev lying bleeding in a hidden alley. Maybe he hadn’t been kidnapped. Maybe he’d just been outnumbered by one of the street gangs.
I peered down alleys and searched through neighborhoods I hadn’t dared enter before. The buildings slanted from poorly constructed foundations. Most of them bore holes where the elements had eroded through stone and wood, revealing the rotting frames beneath like skeletons.
By noon, I was tired and frustrated, and hours late for my shift. Drek.
When I walked through the doors of the DMC, my boss’s nostrils flared. My shoulders drooped. I had to keep this job, but I really didn’t want to beg.
“You’re usually a reliable worker, Kai.”
I winced, waiting for the catch.
Ellane planted her fists on her nonexistent hips and sucked in her hollow cheeks. “Tell you what,” she said. “I got a package I need delivered. Do that for me, and I’ll only cut half your credits next week.”
It was a shoddy deal, and we both knew it. But we also knew I couldn’t turn it down. The address on the package was in a neighborhood a little farther north than my usual route. Since I planned to search the area, it wouldn’t be out of the way.
By the time I reached the neighborhood two hours later, my feet ached. I sank against the side of a building and tucked the package beside me. The uneven stone dug into my shoulder blades.
My plan wasn’t working. People noticed when a new face wandered into their part of the district, and they weren’t friendly to outsiders, especially outsiders with questions. A couple of guys even stalked me back to the main road, but I lost them on the crowded sidewalk.
How was I going to find Reev? I closed my eyes, keeping the panic at bay. When I opened them again, my gaze settled on the outer wall, the one that bordered the entire city, visible above the drab buildings.
The wall marked Ninurta’s border and protected us from the gargoyles that all but ruled the Outlands. They ran in packs, but there was little else anyone knew about them. Despite what the bedtime stories said, they’d only ever been seen at a distance.
I didn’t know how anything could survive out there. The Outlands could be glimpsed easily through the city gate—flat, barren earth as far as I could see. What if Reev was out there? What if he really had been kidnapped by some crazy rebel?
My fingers curled around the cloth of my shirt. No. The Black Rider was a cover-up, either because the Kahl didn’t know where the missing people were or because he didn’t care. Kahl Ninu never even tried to explain why some poorly named rebel would need to kidnap anyone.
The popular rumor in the Alley was that the Rider had tamed his own pack of gargoyles, and he kidnapped Ninurtans to feed them. Not sure what that had to do with overthrowing the Kahl, but maybe it was a psychological tactic. Demoralization or something.
Or it was just another ridiculous explanation to appease the questions. Those taken were never heard from again. Ninurta was a big city, but nothing a thorough guard unit wouldn’t be able to sift through if it put in the effort. If the missing people were still here, the Watchmen would have found them by now.
I gritted my teeth and pushed away from the wall. I would worry about all that later, after I ran out of other options.
I shifted the package, gripping it against my stomach. Delivering the thing seemed so trivial compared to Reev’s absence, but I couldn’t lose my only source of credits.
I’d never been this far north before. I repeated my boss’s directions in my head and turned left at a corner where a large poster boasted the freshest bread in the city. I doubted it.
The folks in the North District considered everything past the abandoned train tracks and the boarded-up station the Upper Alley. The streets here were still dirty, threaded with cracks and riddled with potholes, but they were better kept than those down by the docks.
I followed the road and ignored the pedestrians who stared at me. A couple of women strutted past in high-collared silver tunics and heels that would’ve made my sore feet sting in sympathy, except the added height only made it easier for them to look down on me. The people here liked to think of themselves as White Court residents living outside its walls, because they had more credits to spare than the rest of us.
If you asked me, though, Purgatory was Purgatory.
I found the house next to a shrine dedicated to a god I didn’t know. Built before Rebirth, the carved facade was crumbling, but it was clear it had been sculpted by a talented hand. Not many people visited the shrines anymore, and the mahjo temple was used now only for farewell ceremonies. Faith and prayers could take a person only so far, especially without the mahjo to reinforce the old beliefs. But I understood why people would want to believe in those sorts of things—they made the world feel less lonely. And you never knew what a person could do fueled by hope.
When I was younger, I used to pretend my powers had been a gift from some higher being. Or that, maybe, these powers had a purpose. That I had a purpose. I had toyed with the idea that I was mahjo or, possibly, even a distant relative of the Kahl. But the history texts never spoke of mahjo with the ability to slow time, and once I got older, I came to accept that I was probably just a freak accident. I didn’t know if or how that connected to my memory loss or why someone had left me on the riverbank, but these were questions I had stopped asking years ago. No point torturing myself.
Once, when Reev was at work, I had watched a farewell ceremony through the paneless stone windows of the temple. After the candles were blown out, the caretakers collected the body and transferred it onto a long, enclosed wagon pulled by a Gray. Led by Watchmen, they’d taken the body outside the walls to be released into the sea beyond the cliffs. The city that stood here before Ninurta had burned its dead and scattered their ashes to the sea, but the tradition had been somewhat streamlined.
I had wondered: Is this what happened to my parents? Had their bodies been sent down the final leg of the river, dumped over its edge into the depths below?
The man who answered the door gave me a quick once-over. His lip curled. He covered his hands with a cloth before accepting the package. In return, I rolled my eyes and dusted my clothes off on his doorstep.
Glad that was over, I searched the Upper Alley for another couple of hours until the soles of my feet screamed and every step felt like walking on thorns. The sky had grown dark, and the shadows between buildings stretched black fingers into the open street. I trudged back home, forcing my thoughts to center on the pain in my feet instead of the panic in my chest.
All the while, I held on to the hope that Reev had spent the day with Angee and forgotten to let me know. But when I pushed open our door, I found the place as empty as I’d left it.
The entire day had passed without a word or message from Reev. I had no more doubts that something was wrong.
Reev’s shift at the Raging Bull had started hours ago, but I knew he wouldn’t be there. He was late once to work—I had been helping Avan wash his shop windows while guessing what his soapy stick figure drawings were supposed to be, and Reev hadn’t wanted to leave the apartment without knowing where I was. I got back to the Labyrinth in time to see two of Joss’s men arguing with the residents and demanding to be let in. The only reason Joss hadn’t fired him was because Reev agreed to work a month without pay.
But today, Joss’s lackeys hadn’t come around.
I didn’t think about what I had to do. Thinking would lead to doubt, and doubt would lead to hesitation. I couldn’t hesitate. Not on this. Not for Reev.
I packed the bare essentials, which was pretty much all I owned. Most of my shirts—loose, long-sleeved tunics mainly—had been hand-sewn by Reev. It cost less, and he could charm the textile workers in the Labyrinth to sell him fabric for cheap.
The only food in the cupboard was the leftover sandwich and a few packages of dried fruit. I gathered them up as well. Then I stopped by the bank and went to see Avan.
I found him sitting on the curb outside his shop with his friend. I was too worried about Reev to let Avan distract me—much. His long legs were clad in gray pants, and he held a cup of water in his hand. He looked like he belonged on a White Court poster, the ones with people too pretty to be real.
“Come on, Avan, we need you there,” his friend was saying. I think his name was Wen. Aside from inviting me to a couple of parties—I always had to turn them down because of Reev—Avan’s friends never had much to do with me. “Jag’s got this new brew she wants us to try.”
Avan rested his cup on the stone beside his hip. “You guys can go without me. I’m over it.”
He waved when he saw me, his eyes lighting up. The sight made my breath catch.
Wen flung an arm around Avan’s shoulder. “You’re getting boring.”
Avan shoved him off with a smirk. “And yet I’m still more interesting than you.”
“Ass,” Wen said, laughing. He jumped to his feet and brushed off the seat of his pants. “We’ll look for you in case you change your mind.” Before taking off, he acknowledged me with a playful salute. I returned the greeting by pretending to doff an invisible hat.
“Hey, Kai,” Avan said in that voice that hinted at a smile even when he wasn’t wearing one.
When he wasn’t behind the counter serving customers, he was more subdued. I preferred him like this. It felt more real, even though I had no idea if it was. Avan had always been difficult to pin down.
“Working hard, I see.”
“My dad’s got it covered.” He pushed a hand through his hair—an action I’d imagined myself doing too many times to count—and regarded my pack. “Moving?” He grinned, flashing his dimple at me in a way I knew was completely deliberate. Heat filled my face anyway. “There’s space in the freight yard. I could show you around.”
“I need a favor.”
The teasing disappeared. I studied his features—I’d long since memorized them—before looking away.
“I’m giving you shared access to my credit balance,” I said.
For a second, he didn’t react. Then his eyes narrowed. I wasn’t sure how he’d take this news, but I wanted him to understand that I trusted him.
The thing was—before knowing Avan, I’d known his reputation. According to the rumors, Avan used to refuse to go home, crashing with whoever would have him and paying with whatever they asked from him. Girls. Boys. He rarely objected, even though he was beautiful enough to be as selective as he wanted. It was why I’d been suspicious the first time he’d slipped some apples into my grocery bag.
I didn’t think I’d ever stop feeling ashamed for having doubted him.
“Just go to the bank and tell them who you are,” I continued. “I’ve already arranged for it to be approved once they verify your ID with the registry. I’ll need you to pay our next month’s rent, and if you don’t hear from me after that, then . . . well, keep the credits. Consider it late payment for all the free food.”
I had covered a lot of ground today, but the North District was large enough that it could take a couple of weeks to explore fully on my own. I didn’t know how long it’d be until I found Reev. Days or weeks or . . . No. I refused to consider the possibility of not finding him at all. But if I couldn’t find him in the North District, then I would have to leave it. Which meant leaving Ninurta.
Something turned unpleasantly in my stomach, but I ignored it. One thing at a time.
Avan stood. He wasn’t quite Reev’s height, but standing next to him still made me feel small. I avoided his eyes, dark and searching, and instead focused on his lips. They were great lips. Quick to smile, but just as quick to tighten into an unreadable line. Like now.
“What are you planning? Where’s Reev?” He touched my arm. This was the closest we’d been in weeks.
“He’s—” I choked on the word gone. He wasn’t gone, just— “Not here. I have to do something important, and you’re the only person I trust not to blow the credits on something stupid.”
He arched an eyebrow with a steel bar pierced through it. “I’m flattered, honestly, but I don’t think you’ve considered—”
“It doesn’t matter what you think,” I said harshly, because I was letting him distract me. I shook off his hand and swallowed the guilt.
“You don’t care about my opinion, but you want to give me access to all your credits,” he said flatly. “Makes a lot of sense.”
I forced myself to meet his eyes. Despite the cool disdain in his voice, I saw concern there. I didn’t know if he’d ever shown me his real self. I wanted to believe he had.
“Look.” I could try to reassure him, but there was no point. “If you don’t want the credits, that’s fine. Just keep your mouth shut about it, okay?”
“Take care of yourself.” I hurried away. I didn’t look back, and he didn’t call my name again.
The front desk was still empty. I hoped nothing bad had happened to Angee, but my concern was for Reev. I had no idea if Joss knew anything, and I doubted he would tell me if he did, but I had to try.
I didn’t think the Raging Bull ever closed, but with no receptionist and no security guard, it felt unnervingly empty. I could tell it wasn’t, though, by the smells. A mix of soured sweat and overly sweet perfumes.