Joss’s door was closed. I dropped my bag and leaned it against the desk. I wiped my hands on my pants, then slapped my palm on the little bell at the corner of the desk.
Joss sauntered out of his office, brown liquor bottle in hand, followed by another of his security guards. Reev had introduced us once. I forgot his name, but I remembered the guard had an easy laugh.
When he spotted me, he immediately looked away. My hands curled into fists.
“Knew you’d come back,” Joss said.
“Where’s my brother?”
Joss scratched his forehead with the bottom of his bottle. “I told you. He left.”
“Reev hasn’t come home yet. Did anyone actually see him leave?”
Joss clucked his tongue. “Really should leave it alone.”
There was a challenge in his eyes, daring me to push him despite his warning. He did know something.
“What did you do to him?” I asked, my voice shaking.
“What makes you think I did anything? I’m his boss, not his babysitter.”
“You almost fired him the last time he was late. His shift started hours ago, he’s not here, and you don’t seem to mind.”
“Maybe I gave him the day off.”
“You’re lying,” I said, slamming my fist against the desk. Reev had never been given a day off in all the years he’d worked for Joss.
For a long moment, Joss stared at me.
“All right,” he said, tilting his head and jutting out his chin. “If you want to know so badly, I sold him.”
I repeated the word in my mind—sold, sold, sold—but I didn’t understand its meaning. “What?”
“You know, exchanged for credits,” he said slowly, as if I was an idiot. “Peddled. Bartered. Pitched.”
“To who?” How was this possible?
“The Black Rider. Ever heard of him?”
The Black Rider wasn’t real; he wasn’t—
“Gave me a price I couldn’t turn down. I’m a businessman, after all. I know how to spot a deal.” His eyes trailed down my body.
I crossed the room in an instant. The guard grabbed me. I thrashed, fists aiming for whatever they could reach. I could see only Joss. The smug curve of his mouth. His eyes on me. Gloating.
Something dark and wild twisted inside me.
“Calm down, Kai,” the guard said, his soft voice countered by his hands like steel binding me. “This won’t end well for you.”
“I’ll kill you. I’ll drekking kill you!”
The guard grabbed my flailing wrists and secured them both in one hand. He clamped his arm around my shoulders and chest, lifting me and pinning me against him. Joss watched me struggle, taking a languid sip from his bottle.
I immediately stopped. He enjoyed seeing me like this. My heart raced, pounding against the arm that held me immobile.
“You know, I was willing to give you time,” Joss said, leaning close. “Time to realize that working for me was your best option now that big brother’s gone. But I’m glad you came back. Expedited the process, so to speak. And let’s not kid ourselves here. I know you want this.” His breath was thick and cloying against my cheek. “I’ve seen it in your eyes. You’ve thought about it.”
I spit in his face.
At first, he did nothing. Then pain burst in my jaw, my head knocking into the guard’s shoulder. My vision blurred. I could hear a low buzzing laughter.
I groaned and blinked. My face throbbed. Only the arm around me kept me upright.
“Didn’t know you had a temper,” Joss said, leaning close again.
His fingers dug into my chin. I couldn’t stop the tiny moan of pain that slipped past my mouth.
“Look at your pretty face. Now we’ll have to wait for you to heal up. But we’ll open the bidding in the meantime. Those eyes ought to intrigue a good number of clients—never seen blue that pale before. And you’ll need some training.”
It was taking way too long for the spinning to stop. I squeezed my eyes shut, senses extending around me. My mind skipped across the threads, waiting. Time vibrated against me, as if in anticipation. But the guard still had me pinned. I wasn’t sure I could break his hold even with time slowed.
The front door opened. Maybe if I shouted for help—but if it was a customer, I doubted he’d care. If anything, he’d probably start the bidding.
Avan! I spun my head around, the sudden motion making my jaw ache. I craned my neck, twisting my body, but I couldn’t see past the guard’s burly shoulder. What was he doing here?
The guard turned. I saw a dark shape, then there was the crack of knuckles meeting cheekbone, and the arm around me slackened.
My mind jumped at the threads. Time crawled. I dropped to a crouch, wrenching my wrists free. Then I spun around and kicked out at Joss.
My grip on the threads slipped. Time flew forward. My foot smashed into Joss’s knee, and he went down in a tumble of limbs. His head smacked the floor. I grabbed for time.
Everything slowed again. Behind me, Avan and the guard grappled. My fingers wrapped around the neck of Joss’s fallen liquor bottle. I brought it up in an arc just as time rushed forward. The bottle shattered against the guard’s head. Glass spewed through the air, so rapidly that the shards looked like an explosion of lights.
Pain sliced through my cheek. I whirled, diving for cover as a crash rang out behind me. I’d managed to knock out the guard.
I remained where I was, breathing hard. My body trembled. Warm hands gripped my arm. The touch was gentle, but I flinched anyway as Avan helped me to my feet. He peered down at me, his fingers sweeping along my bruised jaw and brushing glass out of my hair. I shuddered again, but for a different reason.
“Kai, did you—” He looked from me to the men sprawled on the floor.
The way he spoke my name, combined with the look in his eyes—intense, questioning, uncertain—made me realize. He’d seen it. He’d felt it.
I couldn’t deal with that right now. I reached for my bag, ready to run. “Why did you follow me?”
A strangled gasp came from the hall. We both looked to find a woman gaping down at the mess on the floor, her hand pressed to her barely covered cleavage.
“Come on,” Avan said, touching my waist.
“You’re Reev’s sister?” the woman whispered.
I gave her a closer look. She was young, with hair as smooth and white as milk. My skin was pale, but hers was ivory. Her only spots of color were a black streak through her hair and bright-red lips that shone wetly, as if she’d painted them with blood.
Her eyes were like polished metal, framed by snowy lashes. She looked familiar. Maybe I’d seen her here before. But I was pretty sure I’d remember.
I crossed the lobby, stepping over the glass. The woman shied away, her gauzy robe fluttering around her thighs. Her hands braced against the wall, and her long hair shielded her face.
“Did you see what happened to him? Or where they took him?” I asked.
She kept her face averted. I studied her delicate profile. She probably made Joss a lot of credits.
“Reev,” she murmured.
I didn’t like the way she said his name. Like a plea. Like a wish. Was every prostitute here in love with him?
“He didn’t talk much, but he didn’t treat me like spoiled meat.”
My nails dug into my palms. I knew how much my brother was worth. “Did you see what happened to him or not?”
“Yes,” she whispered to the wall. “There were people. . . . They moved like shadows. They drove something metal against the back of his neck and”—a shiver ran through her thin arms—“and he seized up. Passed out. They took him.”
I couldn’t breathe. I stepped back clumsily, glass skidding beneath my boots. My foot bumped Joss’s leg, and I glared down at him. He was still knocked out. Fury blazed beneath my skin. I should throw him in the riv—
“Kai.” Avan touched my side. His fingers curved against my ribs.
I jerked away. If this woman liked Reev so much, she should’ve done something to help him. “Do you know who they were? Did you see the Black Rider?” I asked her.
“I didn’t see any faces, but I think I know someone who might know something.” She bit her lip. “Wait for me.”
She disappeared down the hall, her feet silent on the dingy wood.
I looked at Avan. He surveyed the bodies on the floor. Probably thinking the same thing I was: they wouldn’t be out for much longer.
“Do you think they’re telling the truth? That the Black Rider is real?” For the longest time, I had scorned that name. It had been nothing but a pathetic joke. Now, I didn’t know what to think. People who moved like shadows?
“We could wake him up and ask,” he said, nudging Joss with the toe of his boot. His eyes flicked over my shoulder.
“Here,” the woman said from behind me. Apparently, she was used to creeping about the building. With Joss as her boss, I didn’t blame her.
She held up a folded square. Her fingers passed with a dry hiss over the aged paper as she unfolded it to reveal a map.
“Where did you get that?” I asked, moving forward to get a better look. It was old enough that the ink had completely faded along the creases.
Ninurta was little more than a mess of sketchy lines beside the Outlands, but I recognized the city’s general layout. The White Court occupied the lower left corner. A black line bordered the Court, with the southernmost portion of the wall protecting the city from the sharp cliffs beyond. The map didn’t show what existed past them. Maybe the sea. Maybe nothing at all. Looking at it this way, the White Court resembled a prison more than a refuge.
The river snaked through the lower right corner, separating the much larger North District from the East Quarter, which was taken up almost entirely by freight containers. Beyond the square that represented the Labyrinth was another freight yard, one formed after the founding of Ninurta. Now that area, too, had become residential. Avan lived there.
Finally, the outer wall encased all of Ninurta, protecting the city from the Outlands. The Outlands stretched across most of the map, ending on the right with the forest. Beyond that, a dark swath marred the edges: the Void.
Maps were hard to come by. Ninurtans didn’t leave the city, so there was no need for them. The maps from before Rebirth remained within the city records hall for research and history. It seemed unlikely that a prostitute would happen to have one.
“One of my regulars makes me keep things for him,” she said. She looked down nervously at the map in her hands. “Things he wouldn’t like to be found with. I would be thrown out if anyone knew. B-but I overheard him talking once on the docks, and he said something about meeting with the Black Rider. At the time, I thought he was joking. But he might know something.” She pointed to the freight yard on the outskirts of the city. “This is where he lives. His name is DJ.”
“DJ?” Avan said. “Dusty Jax?”
“You know him?” I asked.
“He lives a few places down from me.”
The woman tipped her head to the side, her hair sliding against her skin. The movement was both sensual and innocent. “Then you won’t have any trouble.”
Avan gave her a cool, assessing look. I was skeptical, too, but if Avan knew this guy, then there was no harm in checking him out.
She folded the map on its well-worn creases and then withdrew something from her robe. A blade flashed. Avan’s hand snapped out and caught her wrist before she could raise it.
She didn’t struggle. She just looked at Avan’s hand and said, “This is mine. I thought you might need it.” Her eyes flicked up to his face. The smile she gave him made me want to shove them apart. “You have kind hands. Maybe too kind.”
Avan released her. She offered the knife to me. The blade was chipped and scratched and in need of a whetstone. Engraved marks decorated the handle, but they were indistinct and dulled with age.
“Why are you helping us?” Not that I wasn’t grateful.
“Because,” she said, fingers clenched around the knife handle, “if you find the Black Rider and Reev, then that means you might also find my sister. E-even though Tera’s been missing for years. Maybe . . .”
I accepted the knife. It was unexpectedly heavy, and I tightened my grip.
“Thanks.” I took the map as well and shoved both items into my bag. “I’ll ask about her, if I can.”
The woman watched me with slender fingers wringing at her waist. “Please be careful with the knife. It means a lot to me. If . . . After you find the Rider, I’d like for you to return it.”
It would depend on where my search took me. I couldn’t guarantee whether I’d even see this woman again.
“WE SHOULD CLEAN your cheek.”
Avan’s hand brushed my face. Heat shot down my neck, and I stumbled over the crooked boards of the bridge. Annoyed, I pushed at his fingers, and then blinked in confusion when they came away red. I touched my cheek, surprised to find it wet.
“It’s nothing,” I said quickly, and wiped at it. I didn’t wince at the sting, but I clenched my teeth, which only made my jaw ache more. I ignored Avan’s knowing look.
“And you’re willing to trust that the bottle was clean?”
He had a point. Okay, after we cleaned my cheek, then we would talk to DJ. Knowing which direction to take, any sort of lead, helped to temper the fear. The suffocating uncertainty of where the Rider might have taken Reev. The thoughtless rage that made me want to go back and throw Joss off the bridge.
Once we reached the other side of the river, Avan gestured with his chin for me to follow him. We walked along the bank, the waning light dyeing the river with ink. We kept above the sinking mud, alongside the stripped trees that stood like corpses in the gloom. The Labyrinth loomed behind us, a black shroud across the sky as the river angled north, and we continued east toward the freight yard.
Unlike the Labyrinth, the freight containers here had been arranged into neat rows, one level only, and with enough space between to provide the illusion of personal property. It wasn’t much, but the happiest I’d ever seen Avan was the day he moved out of the apartment above his dad’s shop.
My feet still ached. I tried not to limp but didn’t succeed. If Avan noticed, he didn’t show it.
We made our way through streets carved out by the large rectangular metal boxes. Some of the residents had set potted plants out front, bits of green that fought to survive beneath a sea of yellow clouds.
I cast furtive glances at Avan as we walked. I could barely see him in the dark, but he didn’t seem bothered by what had happened. Why didn’t he ask about what he’d seen? Now that we were safe, wasn’t he curious?
I wanted to know what he was thinking, but I didn’t want to ask. His silence was both frustrating and a relief.
His place turned out to be the last in his row. It sported a fresh coat of green paint. He unlocked the door and held it open for me to enter first.
Avan shut the door behind us and switched on a lantern. The place was larger than mine, in length anyway. A distinct kitchen area took up one end, sectioned off with a built-in counter and a stool. A rumpled bed larger than a cot—but not by much—sat against the adjacent wall beside a standing closet with a couple of tunics spilling out the bottom. There was even a real wall separating a washroom in the corner.