“It’s wonderful,” I said. His shoulders loosened a little. “You must love the freedom.”
“Bit of a downgrade from the shop, but it’s my own.”
He gestured to the stool and then disappeared into the washroom. I sat down as he came back with a jar and a clean rag. He dipped a corner of the rag into the jar and reached for my face.
I leaned away, catching his wrist. His arm tensed. The muscles in his forearm stood out. The inside of his wrist felt smooth against my thumb. My hand looked so pale next to his.
Was I seriously ogling his wrist?
“I can do it.” I reached for the rag.
“It helps if you can see what you’re doing, and I don’t have a mirror,” he said wryly. He brushed my hand aside. “Relax. It’s not a big deal.”
I held my breath as the rag drew closer, smelling sharp with disinfectant. The cut burned on contact.
He was so close. Beneath the disinfectant, I could smell the earthy, almost spicy scent of his soap—and his own scent underneath it, fresh like a cool wind. He hadn’t trimmed his hair in months, and it had begun to grow past his ears. I almost gave in to the urge to skim my fingertips along the hair that fell across his brow. I focused instead on the black lines inked into his neck. The tattoo was completely different from Reev’s. Graceful swoops alongside jagged arcs. Since I could see only a fraction of the design, I didn’t know what it was supposed to be. Maybe something abstract.
“Good thing I don’t have a mirror. It looks worse than it is.” He spoke quietly. I wished he’d stop being so gentle.
I remained still and didn’t respond.
“You fight well,” he said.
Maybe I was mistaken. Maybe he hadn’t seen after all.
“But you still suck at conversation.”
I frowned, and he smirked at my reaction.
“Reev taught me,” I said.
“No wonder. He sucks at conversation, too.”
“I mean to fight,” I said, and then batted his hand away when his thumb smoothed over the bruise that was probably darkening my jaw.
“I know.” He capped the disinfectant and placed it on the counter. “Give me a second. There’s some food in the cupboard if you’re hungry.”
I wasn’t, so I stayed on the stool to rest my feet and watched Avan dig through his closet. I could see that he didn’t own much beyond the bare essentials, either. He pulled out a linen bag from a drawer and shoved some clothes into it.
“What are you doing?” I stood, shaking my head even though he couldn’t see with his back turned. “You’re not coming with me.”
“Looks like I am,” he said with a nod at his bag.
“No,” I said, louder. “This doesn’t have anything to do with you.”
“I saw what you did in there. When you were fighting, you . . . ” He stopped.
I rubbed my palm against my stomach, but it didn’t help ease the churning. I didn’t know how to deal with this. I wasn’t going to offer an explanation until he asked, but I hoped he wouldn’t ask because I didn’t know how to explain.
“I’m not walking away from this. Whether you like it or not, I’m involved now.” Then he glanced up at me, gaze steady. “And I’m your friend. I can’t let you do this alone.”
It wasn’t that I couldn’t use the help. But Reev was my brother, and Avan had his own responsibilities. I didn’t know exactly what was wrong with his mom because he’d never said, but everyone knew she wasn’t getting better, not with the limited care available in the North District. She never even came down to sit with Avan behind the counter anymore. The sicker she got, the less sober his dad was. What would his parents do without him to help run the shop?
“I don’t need your help.”
Avan shrugged. “But if you do, then it’s a good thing I’ll be there.”
I sighed. It sounded like a sob.
Drek. I clamped my lips shut. I covered my face and pushed past Avan. He looked away.
The washroom door slammed shut behind me, and I collapsed against it. I pressed my palms against my eyelids and forced myself to breathe. In and out. Steady.
A tear slipped out, dampening my palm. My shoulders shook. Another sob escaped my lips, and I clamped my mouth tighter.
I needed Reev. I’d never been alone before. Sure, I could take care of myself; but Reev had always, always been there. How was I supposed to do this without him?
I swallowed hard. Stop. I couldn’t cry. Not now, and definitely not with Avan in the other room, completely aware of what was happening in here. Drek, I’d embarrassed myself in front of him. Now, on top of being a freak, he probably thought I was a stupid kid with no idea what I was doing.
It scared me that maybe he was right.
AVAN DIDN’T SAY anything after I left the washroom. He offered me some water and didn’t try to comfort me or offer empty words of reassurance. He just told me to grab my bag so we could find DJ. I was grateful.
At DJ’s house, the door was opened by a grizzled man with coppery skin and hair the color of the clouds. Not quite yellow, not quite orange, and just as unnatural.
“Avan,” he said. His smile was broad and, for lack of a better word, dirty. He lifted an eyebrow at me. “This your girlfriend?”
I did not blush. “No,” I said stiffly.
“This is Kai. Can we talk?”
DJ stepped aside and ushered us in. The place was laid out the same as Avan’s, except the walls had been painted an obscene yellow. I felt as if I’d walked into an egg yolk, except egg yolks didn’t have people making out on a bed in the corner. The couple on top of the sheets carried on, completely oblivious. I turned my back, my face hot—only to see Avan watching them. I jabbed him with my elbow. Staring was rude, even if the couple didn’t appear to notice or care.
“What happened to your face?” DJ asked, his eyes on me.
People here usually knew to mind their own business. “I thought it needed a change,” I said.
DJ snorted and moved into his kitchen.
Avan propped up his elbows on the counter. “We need information about the Black Rider.”
DJ stopped shuffling through the cupboard. Then he straightened and flung the cupboard door shut so forcefully that the couple on the bed jumped, rumpled heads popping up.
They were both guys. The one on top glared at us, his messy hair all over his face. “Closed party.”
“Get out,” DJ said. At first, I thought he was talking to us, but he was looking at the bed. He flicked his head at the door.
The guy gave him an incredulous look. I would probably react that way, too, if I’d been in the middle of . . . Yeah. He tugged his partner up by the arm. They were slender but wiry, with black hair and buttery skin, their faces flushed. Even though I’d seen much more skin, especially down by the docks, their intimacy embarrassed me. They were more than a prostitute and his customer.
I tried not to stare but couldn’t help noticing the way one of them looked at Avan. It was a full-body look.
Avan’s lashes lowered, but not before his eyes met mine.
“You’re welcome next time,” the guy said to Avan before the door closed after them.
Avan tucked his hands into his pockets, his mouth tipped into a half smile. He looked uncomfortable, which was weird because Avan had always seemed unaffected by the attention. He glanced at me again and then looked away just as quickly.
“What makes you think I know anything about the Black Rider?” DJ asked, grinning.
I filled in DJ on what had happened at the Raging Bull. When I finished, he lifted his cup of water in a salute.
“Congratulations,” he said, and took a large gulp.
I tensed. What did he mean? “I’m getting my brother back.”
DJ groaned and set down his cup with a loud clink. “Oh, you’re one of those.”
“So he’s real?” Avan asked. He leaned against the wall, arms crossed.
“Well, that depends,” DJ said. There was that dirty smile again. It reminded me of Joss.
I opened my mouth to snap at him, but Avan interrupted me. Probably for the best.
“We don’t have anything to give you,” Avan said.
“Then I guess I got nothing to tell you,” DJ replied.
I wasn’t going to walk away with nothing.
“A thousand credits,” I blurted. It was a good chunk of what Reev and I had saved to get out of the Labyrinth. A couple more months and we would’ve had enough for a decent place in the Alley. But that money meant nothing without Reev.
DJ looked at me. “Twelve hundred.”
My lips tightened. “Deal.”
“I’ll go with her to complete the transfer as soon as we’re done here,” Avan said. “You know I’m good for it.”
DJ grinned. “I like that about you, Avan. You keep your word.”
“So is the Rider real?” I asked impatiently. I wasn’t giving him a credit if his information wasn’t worth it.
“As real as you and me,” DJ said.
I felt ill. “Is he inside Ninurta?”
“Of course not.”
I curled my fists against my stomach. I’d been holding on to the hope that the Rider operated from within the city—underground, definitely, but at least within the walls. Within reach.
“But how was it possible to get Reev out?” Avan asked.
“Oh, easy. The exits are everywhere.”
That didn’t make any sense. The wall protecting Ninurta from the Outlands was higher than the one around the White Court. And the only way in or out was through three guarded gates. So unless the Black Rider could walk through walls, there was no way he would have gotten past the Watchmen.
“Let me ask you this,” DJ said. He steepled his fingers in front of him, as if he was about to impart some great wisdom, which I seriously doubted. “Do you know what the sentinels are for?”
Of course I did. Everyone did. “They’re Kahl Ninu’s personal guards.”
DJ nodded vigorously. “Yes, yes, but why would the Kahl need a personal guard?”
“He’s Kahl. He could walk around in nothing but a pink wig, and no one would question it.” For all I knew, maybe he did. Only those in the White Court ever saw the Kahl in person.
“I’d question it,” Avan said.
“Okay, bad example,” I mumbled, “but you know what I mean. Why shouldn’t the Kahl have a personal guard?”
“But what are they protecting him from?” DJ pressed.
“You tell me,” I snapped. Why did he keep answering my questions with more questions? I was giving him twelve hundred of our hard-earned credits for information, not riddles.
Before any of this happened, I would’ve said Ninu’s dogs were for show. But if the Rider really was targeting him and the citizens, maybe the sentinels had a purpose after all. I recalled the sentinel outside the Labyrinth and saw again the way he’d reached back and caught that rock without even looking over his shoulder. The sentinels were certainly as well trained as they were reported to be.
“They’re not just his guard,” DJ said. “They’re his personal army. If they were only guards, why would Kahl Ninu need more recruits? Why continue to build a guard unless . . . ?”
“Unless they’re losing fighters,” I finished. I looked to Avan, who seemed to have drawn the same conclusion.
“But even if the Rider does exist,” Avan said, “we’re not at war.”
“What makes you think Kahl Ninu would tell us if we were at war?” DJ asked.
“Who would we be at war with?” I countered. “The gargoyles? There’s no one but us, and the Black Rider is one person.”
“Don’t be stupid. He wouldn’t be able to kidnap all those people by himself.”
“But we would know,” I insisted. “War isn’t something you can hide.”
“Being that naive is going to get you killed,” DJ said. “Keep that up and you won’t last a day outside the walls.”
I was not naive. Everything this guy said impressed me less and less, and I wasn’t very impressed to begin with. But I was desperate, and he was our only lead.
“So we’re at war,” Avan said simply.
DJ nodded at him and continued, this time without the patronizing tone. “The Black Rider has already slipped through the cracks of the wall—her brother and all the others who’ve gone missing are proof of that. He’s amassing a force strong enough to overtake the city. For years now, Kahl Ninu’s been sending out his sentinels to find the Rider’s base, but they’ve never found it.”
“The Black Rider has taken Reev to join his army?” So that was why DJ congratulated me. He thought my brother had been conscripted. It sounded ridiculous, though. How could that ever work?
I guess conscription was better than being taken as gargoyle food. Although, if the Rider was real, then who knew what other rumors might be true.
“Reev would never cooperate,” I said.
I knew my brother, and if DJ’s information was even partly right, then what worried me most was that Reev would never give in. He’d fight the Black Rider to the end.
“How would he convince a bunch of kidnapped people to fight for him?” Avan asked. I couldn’t tell if he believed DJ or not. “With threats?”
DJ’s eyes gleamed with a manic enthusiasm. “Consent isn’t necessary. Those taken are turned into hollows: empty soldiers with no sense of self or will.”
My guts twisted, but my mind rebelled. It couldn’t be possible. The threads shimmered as if to mock me—what did I know about what was possible?
“How do you know all this?” Avan asked.
“I’m the Rider’s gatekeeper into the city.”
That got my attention. I jumped forward, fists clenched on top of the counter. “Then you saw him take my brother!”
“Into the city,” he repeated, regarding me with an unimpressed purse of his mouth. I didn’t intimidate him. “His hollows leave when and how they please, and never by the same route.”
I didn’t want to trust his information, but we didn’t have any other choice. Reev was gone—that wasn’t a lie, no matter how much I wanted it to be. And no one who disappeared had ever come back.
I would change that.
“Fine,” I said, and then repeated it louder. “Fine. So how do we find the Rider?”
DJ spread his arms wide. “That’s the question, isn’t it? First, you’ll need to get to the Void.”
Dread swelled inside me. I held my breath. The last thing I wanted was to show DJ how his words affected me.
Beyond the outer wall lay the Outlands. Beyond the Outlands was the forest. And beyond that, the Void.
“And then?” I asked.
“And then you lose yourself.”
AVAN TOLD ME he had a plan. Seeing as how my own plan involved stealing a Gray I didn’t know how to ride and hoping we could outrun the gargoyles, I was open to it.
We headed for the river and the nearest bridge. When we passed the post marking the path down to the docks, I had to pause to run my fingers along the wood. Reev’s numerous Ks. My Rs. And then the single mark Reev had left yesterday. It had been only a day, but already so much had happened. It felt like ages since I’d last seen my brother. My chest hurt with missing him.
Avan walked ahead, his shoulders relaxed and his stride casual, as if he knew exactly what he was doing. He was so good at pretending to be okay that I often let myself believe it because it was easier.