The Heart is a Blade

In SEVEN SINS SHORT STORIES by Emily ColinLeave a Comment

Chapter 1: Gentian

I am not a violent person—not to mention, in the Commonwealth, wrath is forbidden—but when the High Priest comes into view, marching Ari Westergaard toward the whipping post in Clockverk Square, it’s all I can do not to break free from the crowd and put a fist through the Priest’s face.

I don’t do this, of course. I don’t even move. The Executor and the Priests have deemed this Ari’s punishment, and to protest would be treason. Maybe it would be brave to object, the way that girl did years ago, at Gustavson’s execution. Or maybe—probably—it would just be stupid.

I’m not stupid—at least, I don’t think I am. I do well enough in the Instruktors’ classes, even if I spend more time than I should staring out the window, watching the birds flit through the trees and wishing I was out there with them.

Here’s a secret: Sometimes, I wish I was one of them.

I envy the birds their freedom, their ability to soar over the gray buildings of the Commonwealth of Ashes, the endless days of sameness and the rigid expectations, the small cruelties. I’m jealous that they can take to the sky, flying over all of it: the concentric circles of the City and the woods where the bellators train; the drop of the rapids and the dense forest where the Bastarour roam, waiting to devour us if we’re exiled; the threat of the electric fence that surrounds the Commonwealth, protecting us from the hordes that roam the Borderlands.

Try as I might, I can’t escape the feeling that we’re all just animals in a trap.

Envy, along with wrath, lust, pride, greed, gluttony, and sloth, is a terrible sin, so I’m not stupid enough to admit any of this aloud. But I’m not brave, either. If I was, Ari wouldn’t be here in the Square right now, clad in a thin, regulation green shirt despite the freezing weather, taking step after step across the cobblestones toward a wooden whipping post dark with other people’s blood.

He’s here because of me, because he stood up for me. He’s here because of a bird.

No matter what he says, this is my fault.

Flanked on either side by a bellator—those stone-faced, black-clad men charged with keeping order and enforcing punishment—Ari walks toward the whipping post. The frigid wind pins his shirt to his body, emphasizing its long, lean lines. His chin is lifted, his back stiff, his eyes fixed straight ahead, his face as expressionless as the bellators’. He looks every bit as prideful as the Mothers and Priests accuse him of being—but inside, he has to be scared. Doesn’t he? I would be terrified.

He knows that. He has to. It’s why he covered for me, saying the bird I rescued was his. He is taking the punishment that, by rights, should be mine—and when I tried to argue with him, he wouldn’t listen. He stood between me and Johannes, who is an insufferable bully. He lied for me, straight to Mother Trondheim’s face. By then I’d already run away, the way he’d told me to, like the coward I am. But I hadn’t gone all the way back to the dormitory. I’d hidden in the shadows, something I’m good at—no one ever notices stammering, shy Gentian, much less in the middle of the night when the halls are deserted and we’re all supposed to be asleep—and I’d heard every word.

They’re right, Ari is prideful, and maybe that’s a sin. But he’s also something else, something that, as far as I’m concerned, is far more important: Beneath his arrogant, take-no-prisoners exterior, he is kind.

He doesn’t let many people see this; for one thing, kindness isn’t valued in the Commonwealth, and for another, it’s all too easily exploited. Ari’s advantages are his strength and speed, his wits and his charm. The night of the bird, I heard Mother Trondheim call him silver-tongued. I’m his exact opposite—stuttering and clumsy, though I score all right on exams. But when Johannes and the others try to push me around, he stops them, every time.

He is the only one.

Ari and his entourage reach the post, and he stops in front of it, waiting. I scan his features, looking for any sign of fear, but there’s nothing—he looks calm, as if he isn’t about to be whipped and humiliated in front of the entire Commonwealth. The gathering is massive—they’ve even brought the little ones out for this, the children who still live in the Nursery. They mean to make an example of him. But Ari doesn’t turn to look at the crowd, doesn’t even acknowledge us. He might as well be alone in the Square, aside from the bellators and the Priest.

I wish he would look. If he did, he would see that there was at least one person here who cared what happened to him. Who thinks that this is wrong. But he doesn’t turn his head.

High Priest Erlich looks Ari over, an expression of grim satisfaction spreading across his thin, beaky face. I think—and not for the first time, either—that he likes these occasions, far more than he should. “Take off your shirt, boy,” he orders.

Without a word, Ari obeys, pulling the green shirt over his head and dropping it at his feet. His skin is a blank, unmarked canvas, his muscles rippling as he moves, and I feel a shudder go through me at the sight. By the time he leaves the Square, the smooth expanse of his back will be marred forever. I don’t know if I can stand to watch; but I have no choice.

The wind gusts, and another shudder rips through me, this one of sympathy; even with my coat and scarf on, it’s brutal out here. I don’t know which is worse—a winter whipping, where the cold adds to your troubles, or a summer one, when the blood attracts flies. Maybe the icy temperatures will numb his skin, make it hurt less.

“Lift your arms,” the Priest says in that same implacable voice.

When Ari does, the Priest chains his wrists to the post. Ari tugs on the chains, testing them, and I see his lips set in a thin line when he realizes he can’t move more than a few inches.

High Priest Erlich clears his throat and pitches his voice loud enough for all of us to make it out. “So it begins,” he says.

Now, for the first time, Ari turns his head to look at us. I will him to see me, standing next to Johannes—the bastard has finagled his way next to me, with his lackey, Arik, on my other side, in what I’m sure is meant to be a threat: this is what happens to the people who protect you. But Ari’s eyes skate right over my face, and as the wind kicks up, rustling the needles of the pines and sending fallen leaves skittering over the ground, I see him shiver for the first time.

Hatred slices through me, sharp as one of the bellators’ blades. He deserves far better than this.

“Ari Westergaard,” the Priest says. “You have been found guilty of the sin of pride, and sentenced to a public whipping in consequence. Do you accept your punishment and await justice with an open heart?”

Ari’s jaw tightens. “Yes, High Priest,” he says, his voice low but clear. “I do.”

Next to me, Arik snickers. “About time,” he whispers, quiet enough so that if I wasn’t standing next to him, his words would be swallowed by the wind. But I hear him, as I’m meant to, and so does Johannes, who smirks in response.

My hands fist in the pockets of my coat, where no one can see. I add the two of them to the list of people I would like to punch—if I had any clue how to do such a thing without breaking my fingers.

“Then let it be,” the Priest says. His tone is serene, at least on the surface—but I detect a hint of that same gleeful anticipation lurking beneath it.

The taller bellator steps forward, pressing the whip into Priest Erlich’s hand. The breeze gusts as the Priest lifts the whip, his crimson robes billowing in the wind—but not loudly enough to conceal the whistling noise the leather makes as it cuts through the air, or the awful sound it makes when it strikes Ari’s skin. I see him brace himself a second before it strikes. Then his body jolts with the force of the blow, driving him forward, his face nearly striking the post.

I wince as blood starts to flow from the cut, trickling down the skin of his back. As the Priest’s arm comes down again and again, opening multiple wounds, the trickle becomes a stream. I glance away from Ari’s face—paler than its usual olive hue, sweat studding his hairline despite the cold—and, to my horror, see the blood puddling on the stones beneath him, staining the shirt at his feet.

Ari’s head drops with the next lash. I can’t see his face anymore, but I hear the grunt the whip drives from him—a telling admission of pain. Next to me, Johannes chuckles under his breath. “What do you think of your hero now, Gentian?” he says, elbowing me. Hidden as we are in the crowd, no one can see him—and I’m not so sure they’d stop him if they could. “He’s not so t-t-tough now, huh?”

I ignore the way he mocks my stutter. After sixteen years, I’m used to it. I only care about Ari, who has lifted his head and is scanning the crowd again. Tears fill my eyes—not because of Johannes’ pathetic attempt to bully me, but because of the pain that’s etched on Ari’s features. He isn’t crying—no matter what Johannes says, he’s stronger than most people I know—but I can’t help myself.

If I hadn’t rescued that stupid bird and tried to nurse it back to health, if he hadn’t kept my secret, none of this would be happening. He insisted the bird wasn’t to blame, that they were whipping him because of his pride—but finding him out of bed in the middle of the night with a contraband creature was the last straw. I don’t care what he says. This is happening because of me.

The bird died, anyhow. I’ve seen long-ago vids from before the Fall, when baby birds were only born in the spring, when it was warm outside. Afterward, when climate change brought storms and floods, the seasons turned upside down. Now, you’re just as likely to find a nest in the middle of winter. I did my best to keep the bird warm, tucking her into a box filled with scraps, but it wasn’t enough. He helped me … for nothing. And now he’ll bear the scars for the rest of his life.

Ari bites his lip, and his teeth sink through it, sending a gush of blood down his chin. He hangs from the chains, wrapping his hands around the post so he won’t fall—but he doesn’t make a sound.

High Priest Erlich counts the lashes aloud, his voice growing hoarse: Fourteen. Fifteen. Sixteen. The wind shifts, bearing the metallic reek of Ari’s blood toward the crowd, and my stomach twists, nausea washing through me. There has to be something I can do to fix this. Some way to help, to pay him back for what he’s done for me today. I wrack my mind, but I can’t think of a thing.

The Priest’s face contorts, and for the moment, he stays the whip, his fingers white-knuckled on its handle. “Why do you not cry out, boy?” he says, his eyes narrowing. “Why do you cling so tightly to your pride? It gives me no pleasure to mark you this way. Only show some humility, and all of this will be over.”

He’s addressing Ari, but he’s talking to us, too—the crowd of witnesses. I wonder how many people here think Ari is getting exactly what he deserves—and how many, like me, think this is a terrible sight. I’ll never know; to do anything other than affirm the will of a Priest is treason. But part of me thinks Priest Erlich is lying—that he likes this just fine. It’s Ari’s defiance, his refusal to buckle, that’s the problem.

Ari shakes his head. He spits onto the cobblestones, spattering them with blood. “This isn’t pride,” he manages, contradicting the Priest, and I hear Johannes suck in his breath. “It’s discipline. Whip me if you must. I’ll not beg for you.”

“Stubborn fool,” Priest Erlich hisses in disgust, and the whip comes down again.

I want to be brave, like Ari is. I want to make a difference, to show that I stand for more than what the Priests tell us we should believe. But how?

Ari lifts his head again—but this time, instead of roving aimlessly over the crowd, his gaze finds a single point and holds. Curious, I follow its path—and see a girl, her face pale above the navy collar of her coat, her dark hair bound in a glossy braid. Her lips are pressed into a stern line that reminds me of Ari himself. She stares back at him, her gaze not sympathetic or horror-struck but rather…what? Determined, I decide. As if she’s trying to convey something to him with the force of her stare.

The girl is familiar, but I can’t place her. I know I’ve seen her before, and for some reason I associate her with Ari. This is absurd; we have all of our classes together, and I’ve never seen him so much as speak to a girl, unless it’s to pass her a pencil or excuse himself as he brushes by her on the way to his seat. But something tickles at the back of my mind as I look at this one.

The black braid…that determined expression…the intensity of her stare…

I look at Ari, who’s staring back at her as if he’s absorbing strength from her gaze. At her. At Ari again.

And then I have it.

This is Eva Marteinn, the girl the High Priest called onto the stones the day Gustavson was executed. I’d been standing next to Ari that day, and when the Priests removed the man’s blindfold, I remember wondering if my dorm-mate felt as horrified as I did. Just the week before, when Ari and I had been assigned to weed the gardens, Gustavson had taken the time to bring us glasses of cool water and bunches of grapes, straight from the vine. When no one was looking, he’d even helped me move a few of the worms I’d uncovered into the shade, so they wouldn’t shrivel up in the sun.

Watching Gustavson wait next to the Priest for his sentence to be carried out—the bellators standing at the edge of the Square, marking time until they were called to unsheathe their blades—I’d felt just as helpless as I do now…wanting to stop what was happening, but knowing it was impossible. And then a small girl dressed in white had defied the Priest, refusing to accede to his demands. She’d called the bellators to action herself, and they had decapitated the man at her feet.

The girl had been bold—but frightened, too. Her eyes had roamed the crowd, but no one had been willing to look back at her…except for Ari. He’d held her eyes as Gustavson’s blood bathed the stones, even knowing that if the Priest caught him, he’d face a fate worse than kneeling on the stones of the sacristy for hours with a bar of soap between his teeth, the way he had the night before.

Well, now she is returning the favor.

But the way Ari is looking at her—the fierceness of his gaze—there’s more to it than support given and received, I’m sure of it. There’s need in his eyes, as if whatever she’s offering him is all that’s holding him upright.

Friendship is forbidden in the Commonwealth, much less love and desire. We are a society of children bred in petri dishes and borne by surrogates. In the vids from Before, I’ve seen the dangers of what the world once called ‘dating’—flattery, flowers, and food meant to encourage the commission of lustful sins. Such things are beyond verboten here.

But something exists between Ari and Eva—I’d bet the lives of every animal I’ve ever rescued on it.

Watching them, an unfamiliar sensation wakens in my belly, uncurling like a cat in the sun. I can’t label it, can’t name it. But I know it’s nothing I’ve ever felt before. The fear I feel for Ari is still there, but intertwined with it is a feral need of my own—to intercept his gaze, unlocking the secrets it holds. My skin feels suddenly too tight, the blood blooming beneath it. My breath hitches as I watch them watch each other, feeling as if I’m eavesdropping on a private moment but unable to look away.

The Priest’s hoarse voice calls a halt to the whipping at last and the bellators unchain Ari, looping his arms over their shoulders to hold him upright. I hazard a glance at Eva and see that she’s staring straight ahead, looking not at the bellators or Ari but at some remote point beyond the Square—maybe the pines, where shadows twist and shift in the flickering light. It doesn’t matter; I know what I saw.

The cat-in-the-sun sensation floods through my whole body, alarming, exhilarating. And just like that, I know, too, what I can do.

If what exists between Ari and Eva Marteinn is outside the bounds of propriety, I will keep their secret. I will protect him, no matter what it costs me.

My flaws—my stuttering, my clumsiness, my shy demeanor—render me invisible to most people. I’ll take my weaknesses, and transform them into my strengths. I’ll watch, and wait, and do what I must when the time comes.

Seeing Ari grin at High Priest Erlich, his lip split and his back a red ruin, I know this: I may not be fast or charming or witty, the way he is. I may not have what it takes to sustain thirty lashes without screaming, then quote Latin to the Priest through a mouthful of blood.

But I pay my debts.

I can—I will—be brave.

Chapter 2: Three Years Later

Rain pours down, drenching me to the skin. Lightning splits the darkening sky, a fearsome flash that illuminates everything around me—birches, mud, wild blackberry thickets—a minute before thunder booms, loud enough to scare away any animals in the path of the storm. The air is filled with a mélange of scents—leaf mold and petrichor, the sweet aroma of jasmine and the bite of pine.

I don’t usually like loud noises—maybe because, throughout my childhood, they usually presaged some dreadful prank Johannes and his acolytes played on me—but out here in the woods, the thunder doesn’t bother me. It’s part of nature, the cycle of death and rebirth. If I get struck by lightning, at least my death will make sense—instead of being executed for failing to follow what have increasingly come to feel like a series of arbitrary rules, created to keep us obedient and contained.

It’s the contained part that disturbs me more than anything else. If I think too much about the fact that we can’t go beyond the electric fence—that we’re penned in here as surely as the livestock I’ve spent the past two years tending—my chest starts to tighten, making it hard for me to breathe. One time, when I couldn’t get the idea out of my head, I wound up hyperventilating until I nearly passed out. I sat with my head between my knees for ten solid minutes before I trusted myself to stand again, and when Instruktor Tiagen found me, I had to make up a lie about getting lightheaded because I hadn’t eaten enough breakfast. Voicing the alternative—that living in the Commonwealth makes me feel like a rat trapped in one of the gen lab’s mazes—would have been unthinkable .

This is one of the reasons I love storms. There’s something wild and untamed about them, and when I’m outside during one—even if it’s not overly sensible—I feel wild and untamed, too. I don’t feel like Gentian Halvorson, nineteen-year-old vet tech, who spends most of his time tending to animals destined for the slaughterhouse. Here, under the open sky, I feel like I belong—like I am free.

This is how I come to be in the woods where the Bellatorum Lucis trains, even though night has long since fallen and the storm is raging. I didn’t bring a light with me; I didn’t want to advertise my presence. Wandering in the woods isn’t prohibited, but I don’t feel like having to justify my behavior to anyone whom I might encounter. Luckily, the woods are deserted. Most activities in the Commonwealth are utilitarian, and explaining to a patrolling bellator that I’m out here to commune with nature in the midst of a storm is sure to evoke suspicion.

Though I have no interest in—or talent for—the Bellatorum, I feel a forbidden trickle of envy at the camaraderie they share. I crave to belong to something larger than myself, to have a purpose greater than grooming ill-fated animals who are destined to wind up as our next meals. Once, I’d thought the promise I’d sworn to protect Ari would provide that for me, but it’s turned out to be no more than the empty delusion of an idealistic boy.

Over the years, I’ve spent enough time in the woods that I can make my way with relative ease, even at night. Between the gleam of the moon and the flashes of lightning, I can see well enough. My usual clumsiness fades away; I move quietly, though with the cacophony of the storm, I don’t have to be too cautious. As long as I don’t trip over a root and wind up face down in the mud, I’ll be fine.

I’m winding my way around the edge of a clump of blue spruces when I hear voices. So someone else is out here, after all—and close by, too. Listening harder between rolls of thunder, I realize that it’s a boy and a girl—and their voices sound familiar. I strain to hear, and then I recognize them: For some Architect-forsaken reason, Ari Westergaard and his apprentice, Eva Marteinn, have chosen to train at night in the woods—in the middle of a storm.

Ari’s been a member of the Bellatorum Lucis for as long as I’ve been a vet tech—two years, ever since the Choosing, which takes place when we’re seventeen. He swore his oath a year after his whipping, and the next time I saw him, he was dressed all in black like the rest of them, a sverd strapped to his back and a weapons belt hanging from his hips. Efraím Stinar, the lead bellator, even took Ari on as his apprentice—a rare honor, and one reserved for the most talented among their brotherhood.

Ari and I haven’t spoken in a long time. Bellators aren’t encouraged to fraternize with citizens. But he always smiles at me whenever he sees me—not his trademark sarcastic grin, but a real, open smile.

For my part, I do my best to avoid him. Whatever I felt that day in the Square was dangerous. I notice things about Ari—about other boys—that I shouldn’t: the way they move, the fall of their hair, the way their towels cling to their hips when they step from the shower. But only when it comes to Ari do I feel something more, an unmooring sort of desire that tugs at my heart as well as my body. When we happen to be in the same room together, I try not to look at him unless I have to. I’m afraid it’s stamped all over my face, afraid he will see.

If Ari knew the truth, would he regret helping me so many times? Would he still smile at me, or would he be too disgusted to even look my way?

I’ve had no cause to keep the promise I made three years ago in the Square; I’ve never seen anything untoward pass between him and Eva. As far as I can tell, they’d never even spoken until this past Choosing Eve, when Ari and Bellator Riis were assigned to guard an Instruktor doing penance in the breakfast line. Eva had taken issue with the Instruktor’s fate, and I’d watched covertly from my table as she gave Ari a hard time. She seemed to rattle him, in a way I’d never seen anyone do before.

The next morning, the unthinkable happened: At the Choosing Ceremony, when it was time to call Eva’s name, the Executor announced she would be the first female bellator to serve the Commonwealth. I felt the shock wave reverberate through the Great Hall as she stepped onto the dais—and then Bellator Stinar called Ari up to swear an oath as her mentor. He would train her, guide her through her apprenticeship until she was ready to serve as a full-fledged member of the Bellatorum Lucis.

Watching Ari and Eva standing side by side on the dais, I thought of Gustavson’s death, of Ari’s whipping. I remembered the way the two of them had looked at each other. And I had the oddest sense of the Executor as a giant spider, spinning a web in which we were all innocent flies. Then the vision passed, and it was just Ari and his apprentice-to-be, holding each other’s gaze as Efraím’s blade came down, piercing her arm for the blood sacrifice that sealed her oath.

I don’t think Ari would interrogate me if we stumbled upon each other here—or even demand an explanation—which means that I would owe him, yet again. Still, that doesn’t mean I want to encounter him and Eva, and not just because being around him undoes me. If they’re training, that means they’re likely using something for target practice. I don’t want to accidentally add myself to the list. I debate the best course of action just as lightning flashes again, illuminating the clearing on the other side of the grove of spruces.

And then I freeze.

Ari and Eva stand in the clearing, the tip of her blade beneath his chin. Her fingers are locked around the blade’s handle, her body tense. Surely Ari could disarm her, but he does not. Instead he stands there, her knife nicking his throat, as still as I am. His face is guarded, but I know him well enough to recognize an expression I have never seen on it before: Fear.

Of what? Her? He’s at least fifty pounds heavier, with the advantage of two years’ experience. I don’t understand.

The flash fades and the clearing goes dim again. I can’t see them well anymore, other than outlines in the gloom—but when Ari speaks, I can hear him clearly.

“What do you want from me?” His voice is husky, as if the words pain him to speak. “Do you want me to beg? I will, if that’s what you need. Just tell me, so I can get it over with and we can get the hell out of here.”

Now I am more puzzled than ever. Ari’s greatest sin is his pride. I’ve never heard him offer to beg anyone for anything before. In fact, I’ve barely heard him ask anyone for anything. In all the time I’ve known him, he’s been self-sufficient to a fault.

“That’s an interesting proposition.” Eva sounds amused. “Go ahead and beg, then. I’d like to see you try.”

Thunder rolls, so I miss what—if anything—they say next. When it stops, Ari’s voice comes again, lower than before. There’s a note to it I’ve never heard, an intensity I can’t place. “You wanted me to beg, yeah? Then come here.”

I hear rustling, as if they’re stepping on the soggy carpet of leaves and pine needles that covers the ground of the clearing. Alarm paralyzes me—what if they’re moving this way? I squint, peering into the shadows, but I can’t see enough to tell. I can hear Ari whispering, too quietly to make out the words, and then Eva says his name, her voice laden with alarm.

What is happening? Should I try to leave? But if I do—and they catch me—what will the consequences be? Ari will overlook me roaming in the woods; but if he and Eva are doing something they shouldn’t, and he knows I’ve seen them, I can’t imagine he’ll be able to afford to let that—let me—go.

I have to stay here, to hide. I have no choice.

“Eva.” Ari’s voice comes again, sounding as if he’s been running—but I’m sure he hasn’t moved; I would have heard it. “Do you like this? Do you want me to stop?”

What is he talking about? Surely they aren’t—

Lightning splits the sky again, and this time, what I see in the clearing tears a gasp from my throat. I cover my mouth, horrified—but neither of them have heard a thing.

They are kissing—leaning up against a tree, Eva’s hands knotted in his hair, his mouth covering hers. The rain beats down on both of them, but neither of them seem to notice. As I watch, he lifts her, and she wraps her legs around his body, pulling him closer. Their absorption in each other is total, which is a good thing, because I’ve stumbled backward, tripping over a fallen log. I land on my rear in the dirt and sit there staring.

I have never seen two people kiss before, of course, but I know what it looks like, from the vids they show us to warn us of the perils of lust. If anyone found out about this transgression, the punishment would be swift—exile, at the least. Maybe worse. There are few sins in the Commonwealth more serious than this.

The unfamiliar sensation I felt three years ago, the cat-in-a-sun one, is back, curling low in my belly. I watch Ari’s hands move over Eva’s body, slow and sure, watch him bend his face to hers, and realize I am jealous. I want him to touch me that way. I want to know whether his dark hair is soft or rough, feel what it’s like to hold him in my arms, hear him speak to me in that husky, undone voice: What do you want from me? Do you want me to beg? Remembering how beautiful he looked when he took off his shirt that day in the Square, I’m filled with an all-consuming need to skim my fingertips over his skin, to press my lips to his the way Eva is doing right now and make him shiver in my arms.

A pure, desperate want courses through me, followed quickly by shame. I can’t feel like this. I can’t even think it. What in the nine hells am I supposed to do?

I have to get out of here.

 Scrambling to my feet, I wait for the next clap of thunder. When it comes, I move as quietly as I can through the underbrush, then run full out, heedless of the branches that scratch my face or the mud that cakes my shoes. I’ll go back to the dormitory and change my clothes, and I’ll forget this ever happened—

The next second, I smash headlong into something solid and bounce off it, tumbling face-down into the muck. When I sit up and blink to clear my eyes, I see two bellators standing over me—Jakob Riis, who was with Ari that day in the breakfast line, and his apprentice, whose name I can’t recall.

Damn my sins-cursed luck.

To say Riis has a face like a ferret would be doing the ferret a disservice. In the moonlight that filters through the trees, I can see rain dripping from his pointed chin. His beady eyes narrow in suspicion as he prods me with the toe of his boot.

“Care to tell me what you’re doing here, citizen—and where you’re off to in such a hurry?”

My stomach lurches. Thankfully, this is one occasion on which my stutter comes in handy; it’s all too easy for people to underestimate me—if they don’t get sick of listening to me first. I peer up at Riis and—what the devil is his name?—endeavoring to look as pathetic as possible, which, under the circumstances, isn’t difficult. “I-I-I—”

As expected, Riis heaves a sigh of disgust. “What’s the problem, citizen, did you get too much mud in your mouth?”

“I recognize this one,” his apprentice says, sounding equally repulsed as he wipes rainwater from his face. “He can barely complete a sentence. If you want to get a straight answer out of him, you’ll be standing here all night.”

Riis’ head tilts, considering this, and for a moment I feel relieved—maybe they will just walk off and leave me here in the mud, without further interrogation. But then I remember my promise.

If Riis and his apprentice go further into the woods, following the path I took—it would be hard to miss, even in the dark, and surely they’ll be curious about what sent me crashing through the woods like a deer in rut—they will doubtless come upon Ari and Eva. And if they find the two of them in a compromising circumstance, there’s no way they’ll keep it to themselves. Bellators are cutthroat competitors by nature. These two will report what they’ve seen to Efraím Stinar, who will go right to the High Priests or even the Executor himself—and then the next execution I’m forced to witness in the Square might be Ari’s own.

I cannot let that happen.

Watching him and Eva together, I’d thought my heart was a finely-blown glass, shot through with cracks and about to shatter—but I’d been wrong. My heart is a blade, and with it, I will cut whoever I need to. Ari can’t be mine—that’s not possible—but if being with Eva is what he wants, then I will protect him.

My mind races, trying to come up with a strategy, a way to distract the bellators, as Riis shrugs. “Maybe you’re right, Karsten,” he says, contempt giving way to boredom. “Let’s leave mudmouth here to his own devices. We have far better things to do than to waste our time with him. Count your blessings, citizen; today’s your lucky day.”

He turns to go—and, desperate, I reach out, snagging the pant leg of his gear. “W-w-wait,” I choke.

Riis stares down his nose at me, his expression incredulous. “Let go of me,” he says, each syllable a warning.

By the Architect. I’ve laid hands on a bellator. Such things aren’t done. They’re untouchable, above such things.

Well, it’s too late to take it back now—and at least I have his attention. I unfurl my fingers and look up at him, wrapping my arms around my knees. “S-s-sorry, Bellator Riis,” I manage, exaggerating my stutter, and am gratified when his expression settles into something that resembles satisfaction. Men who crave power as he does are petty. The fact that I have bothered to learn his name will go a long way.

“Your apology is accepted,” he says with an air of magnanimity. “What do you want?” He folds his arms across the chest of his rain-slick gear, waiting.

“I’m lost,” I say, widening my eyes. “I t-thought I remembered that there was a b-b-blackberry thicket near the edge of the w-woods. But when I t-tried to f-find it, I couldn’t…and then it started to r-r-rain. I’ve been w-wandering for hours. I’m wet, and I’m c-c-cold. Please, can you h-help me?”

Riis stares down at me, expressionless, and for a terrible moment I wonder if I’ve gilded the lily. But then he laughs, and I remember what I should have known all along: Bellators like him expect the rest of us to make idiotic choices, and have no concept of how to rescue ourselves from the consequences. We are the sheep, and they the dogs that guard the clueless flock. By those lights, it’s totally reasonable that I would venture into the woods in the middle of a thunderstorm, searching for a ripe crop of berries.

As if I’ve summoned it, lightning flashes again, illuminating the four of us: Riis and Karsten, their arsenal of blades—enough to qualify as an entity unto itself—and me, sitting in a mud-soaked, ignominious heap. For good measure, I wipe my eyes and sniffle, as if I’ve started to cry—it’s not as if anyone could tell the difference, in this sins-forsaken storm.

Riis gives an irritated snort and hauls me to my feet. “Unbelievable,” he mutters. “Passing up an opportunity to track those useless excuses for bellators so we can shepherd a citizen foolish enough to misplace his path, two hundred yards from his own front door.”

You know I can hear you, I want to snap—but instead, I meld my features into the obsequious chump he expects to see…never mind that I’ve just discovered that he’s only here, in the woods, to follow Ari’s trail. Now, more than ever, I need to play my part.

“So you’ll h-help me? Th-th-thank you so much.” I reach toward him with shaking fingers, as if overwhelmed by my gratitude. “May the Architect b-b-bless you—”

He dodges backward, evading my grip, looking more put-upon than ever. “Enough of your blather. This way. Let’s go.”

Thunder rolls again as I comply, my heart pounding in triple-time. Tonight, I’ve done three incredible things. I’ve discovered a secret that threatens the life of the boy I have sworn to protect. I’ve fooled a bellator and his apprentice, and tricked them into helping me, in the name of upholding my promise. And I’ve learned that, though I once allowed Ari to take the whipping that was meant for me, I can, indeed, be brave.

Then and there, I make a decision. I refuse to be ashamed of the way I feel for Ari, how my desire for him sears through my veins where the blood should be. The Priests say it’s wrong, that feeling like this about anyone, let alone another man, is a terrible sin—but it doesn’t feel wrong. It feels…beautiful.

I may not ever have the freedom I dreamed of, soaring above the Commonwealth and leaving it behind forever, but I can have freedom within my self—to love who I want, and make his world better because of it. I can be true to my heart, even if no one knows it but me.

Loving like this will free me.

Head held high, I follow Riis and his apprentice out of the woods.

Chapter 3

The sirens blare, a piercing sound that hurts my ears. I want to cover them, to protect myself from the invading noise that feels like a needle, penetrating the soft center of my brain—but that would draw attention to a weakness I’ve learned to keep hidden, so I refrain. I have enough problems without giving people ammunition.

If I’m forced to, I can cope with the sirens. What I can’t do when they’re going off like this, though, is think—and I need to do that now, desperately.

Usually, when the sirens go off like this, it’s a drill. In fact, I’ve never known it to be otherwise. They’re for alerting us to invasion from without, not threats from within—but the latter is exactly what’s happening tonight.

I did my best to protect Ari, but my best wasn’t good enough. He and Eva got caught. I don’t know who Informed on them, or how, but three days ago, the Executor gathered us in the Square to announce that Ari had been exiled and Eva was imprisoned, awaiting her sentence. He didn’t say why—all he alluded to was “transgressions against the Commonwealth”—but I can think of only one reason.

Ever since then, Johannes has been insufferable. Through some unfortunate twist of fate or deliberate affront, my cot is next to his. For the past two nights, all he’s done is harangue me about how he’d always known Ari was a traitor, how the Bastarour will rip him apart, et cetera ad nauseum.

And on the third night, the sirens began to blare.

The only advantage of this is that I can’t hear his diatribe over their incessant bleating. But neither can I think—which is what I need to do, if I’m going to find a way to keep my promise.

The sirens are blaring because—after they exiled Ari—he’s somehow managed to return. I don’t understand how he survived the Bastarour, but if anyone could manage it, it’s him. What’s truly beyond me, though, is why he would come back. He must know there’s nothing for him here—that the bellators will happily put a knife through his throat the moment he shows his face. He’d have better luck with the hordes.

I sit on my cot, ignoring Johannes, trying to figure out what to do. I refuse to admit defeat, to acknowledge that saving him is hopeless. Ari hasn’t given up—so neither will I.

In the pauses between the siren’s shrieks, Efraím Stinar’s voice rises, coming through the speakers strategically located throughout the Commonwealth: “Bellator Marteinn. Exile Westergaard. Show yourselves. It will be easier for all of us if you do.”

Bellator Marteinn. Exile Westergaard. They’re together, then?

Now I understand. He didn’t come back out of fear of what lay beyond the fence. He came back for her.

I can’t decide if this is the bravest thing he’s ever done—or the most foolish. What I do know is that Ari’s out there, with Bellator Stinar’s Thirty on his trail, and nothing to stand between him and certain death except the blades he and Eva carry.

I may not be much, but at least I am something. And anything I do will be better than sitting here like this. I know I can’t have Ari the way I want. But knowing that he’s out there somewhere—even if it’s not with me—makes my gray world livable. Losing him to Eva and the Borderlands is bad enough; the thought losing him to death at the hands of the bellators carves a yawning chasm inside me, where my heart should be.

Saving him isn’t selfless; quite the opposite. It’s an act of self-preservation.

I get to my feet and edge past Johannes, who grabs my wrist. I see him mouth, Where do you think you’re going? But I don’t bother to answer. Instead I wrench my wrist free, slipping past him and my oblivious dorm-mates, who are fixed on the spectacle outside—luckily, my cot is by the door—and then out into the hallway. I listen, but Johannes doesn’t follow. He’s full of bluster, but under all of that, he’s a rule-follower and a coward. If the dormitory is supposed to be under lockdown, with his longtime enemy roaming armed and dangerous in the streets, then in the dormitory he’ll stay.

Keeping to the shadows, I make my way down the stairs and out into the storm that’s raging outside, the thunder competing with the sirens to create an indescribable cacophony. The moment I step out of the dormitory and onto the concrete walkway, I’m drenched. Thirty seconds later, I start to shiver.

Why, when it’s time to make good on my promise to Ari—the one he doesn’t even know about, more’s the pity—is it always pouring?

The streets are deserted. When I make my way around the corner of the dormitory and onto the path that leads to Clockverk Square, I see no one. But I also need to make sure that no one sees me—every citizen in lockdown probably has their faces plastered to their windowpanes, wanting to be the one to catch a glimpse of the traitors and Inform on them. Pride in one’s accomplishments is verboten, but you can dine off the notoriety that comes from committing an act of patriotism in the name of the Commonwealth for weeks. And there’s never been an opportunity like this—not since I was born, anyhow.

Rain splashes the sidewalk, seeping through my shoes. I can’t just stand here. I need a plan.

The siren stops, and I rub my temples, blinking rainwater out of my eyes. Thank the Architect. But my relief is short-lived, because now I hear voices—and the sound of feet pounding through puddles, coming my way. Heart thumping, I step back into the alleyway that cuts between my dormitory and the machine shop, at the very edge of the Square.

“What do you mean, you don’t know what they’ll do?” The voice is sharp-edged, impatient—and familiar. It belongs to Kilían Bryndísarson, the Commonwealth’s lead interrogator—a ruthless bellator who will stop at nothing to extract the truth from a sinner. When I was small, we were told that if we didn’t live virtuously enough, Kilían would snatch us from our beds in the night.

An icicle of fear stabs my heart. I flatten myself against the wall of the machine shop, the wet stone rough against my back, and pray he doesn’t decide to come this way.

“It’s obvious,” Kilían continues. His voice is closer now—he’s paused at the mouth of the alley. Suppressing a whimper of terror, I press myself even closer to the wall, wishing I could meld into it completely. “They’ve already done for Eleazar. Who knows how Riis will fare—you took him to the infirmary yourself. There’s only one option left to them. Please tell me you’re bright enough to figure out what it is.”

“Escape.” It’s Riis’ apprentice’s voice—Karsten, that’s his name. “Through the forest. They’re going to try to get beyond the fence.”

Kilían gives a grunt of approval. “The boy survived the Bastarour the first time around. He’s wagering he can do it again. Let’s hope his companion doesn’t demonstrate similar fortitude.”

Karsten snorts in response. Then, to my immense relief, I hear the thud of their footsteps again as the two of them move on.

My mind spins. Ari and Eva have killed one bellator, and injured another. If there ever was a possibility that either of them would be reintegrated into the Commonwealth, it’s gone now. Kilían’s right, the only option is for them to brave the Bastarour and then try to disarm the electric fence—though how such a thing might be done, I have no idea.

I can’t do anything about the fence. But I do know how to deal with the Bastarour.

I wait a full minute, counting to sixty to be sure. Then I poke my head out of the alley to make sure Kilían and Karsten are gone.

I see no one. Not in the Square, not on the streets.

Moving as fast as I dare, keeping to the shadows, I step out into the rain and run for the vet tech center. I press my palm against the pad that gives me access; someone will see the data logs later and know that I’ve entered the building when I was supposed to be in lockdown, but there’s nothing I can do about that. There’s nothing I can do about the muddy footprints I’m leaving all over the floor, either. It’s not like I have time to stop and clean them up.

I race for the pharmacy, where we compound the drugs that we use to treat our livestock. As a tech, I have access to them—including the tranquilizers. I know the dosage needed to sedate the Bastarour; last year, two of them got into a vicious fight with each other, and the bellators needed to use dart guns to subdue the animals, so we could treat them. Only the senior vets were allowed to go; they cared for the Bastarour right in the forest, not wanting to risk bringing them into the clinic. But I’d been the one to prepare the darts.

My hands shaking, I fumble for my keys, unlock the drug cabinet, and draw up the dosage. There are six of the animals in the forest. I fill nine syringes, just in case I miss. The dart gun holds seven; I cap the remaining two syringes and stuff them into my pocket.

If I miss, the animals will kill me. Maybe I’ll wind up using one of these on myself, to put an end to my misery if they get hold of me.

I’ll just have to lure them close enough that missing isn’t a possibility.

Water drips onto the floor—another telltale clue as to my presence here—as I load the darts into the gun, strap it across my chest, relock the medicine cabinet, and run for the stairs. Back out into the rain I go, toward the path that leads into the woods where I saw Ari and Eva kissing. I crash through the trees, the dart gun banging against my back, branches catching on my clothes, water slicking my face and stinging my eyes.

I can’t let myself think too much about what I’m about to do. If I keep moving, if I just focus on taking the next step, and then the next and the next, then eventually I’ll reach my destination, and there will be no turning back.

Because if I think about it—the fact that I’ve stolen tranquilizer darts and am running through the bellators’ training territory, on a mission to tranquilize the Bastarour and abet two traitors’ escapes—I’ll turn around and go back. And if I do that, there’s no way I could live with myself.

I burst through the last copse of trees and emerge on a hillside, fronting a meadow. In the distance, I can see the edge of the forest, the one that contains the Bastarour. They can’t leave—their shock collars prohibit it—but there’s nothing to prevent citizens from entering. After all, who would want to? Except—obviously—me. And the people I’m trying to save.

There are multiple entry points to the forest. It surrounds the entire Commonwealth—first the City, then the wooded training territory, then the hills and gorges, then the forest, then the fence. I have no idea where Ari and Eva will enter it…but the Bastarour roam the forest in its entirety, and they are trained to sense—and hunt—unwelcome humans.

The beasts will find me; there’s no doubt in my mind. It’s just a matter of which of us will strike first.

But I know animals—I’ve worked with them all my life. I don’t mean the Bastarour any harm; it’s not their fault that they were bred and raised as weapons. Maybe somehow they’ll sense that. And if not, all the tranquilizer will do is knock them out for a few hours. It won’t hurt them.

A buzzing sound fills the air, and I rub my ears, trying to make sense of it: Is it a weapon of some kind? Am I hyperventilating from sheer terror? Then lightning streaks from the sky, striking a tree in the middle of the meadow. For a moment I see the forest beyond it clearly, a forbidding tangle of limbs and foliage. The air fills with the acrid scent of ozone, searing my nostrils. Then the flash fades, cloaking the meadow in darkness once again.

I’m far enough away that the strike doesn’t hurt me, but every hair on my body stands at attention nonetheless. It’s foolish to be outside during a storm like this—but what’s even more foolish is what I do next: break from the safety of the treeline and race across the meadow, in the wake of the lightning strike, in plain sight of whatever bellators might be watching from the shadows.

I’m panting hard when I make it to the other side of the meadow. Bellators train every day, but my exercise lately has been limited to our mandatory twice-weekly fitness sessions. It doesn’t matter much; if a bellator had seen me, they wouldn’t have had to catch up to me to kill me. They’re experts at distance bladework; I’ve seen the demonstrations, a warning to us citizens that someone is always watching, and the consequences of our actions may be both swift and unseen.

My chest heaving, I take the first step into the forest. The blackness encloses me, terrifying and absolute. There’s no trail here; the best I can do is to push my way through brambles and thickets, one arm up to protect my face from the lash of branches. It’s only partially effective—I feel a sharp, slashing pain a moment before warm blood begins to trickle down my cheek.

Well, maybe it’s for the best. The blood will summon the Bastarour. No matter where they are in the forest, they’ll smell it and give chase.

I hear the sob of my own breath under the rolling boom of thunder and the steady patter of raindrops on the canopy above. Grimly, I push deeper into the forest, thorns catching my clothes and vines twining around my ankles. The gun smacks against my back as I move, reassuring me that it’s still there.

Then, as I step into a rare clear spot, bare enough that the dim light of the moon reaches the forest floor, I hear what I’ve been both hoping for and dreading—the crash of something large through the trees, heading my way.

There’s no point in going to meet it; it will find me, and soon. Instead I pull the strap of the dart gun over my head. My finger trembles on the trigger.

A low growl reverberates from the shadows, vibrating in my chest, my limbs, my head. It is the single most menacing sound I’ve ever heard, and I shake so hard, I almost drop the gun. But I don’t. I hang on to it, scanning the spaces in between the trees for clues as to what shouldn’t be there—what doesn’t belong.

I’m focusing as hard as I can. But even still, I don’t see the Bastarour until it steps from between two trees, detaching from the shadows like a piece of the night come to life. I catch my breath. The creature is monstrous—ink-dark and massive, with the streamlined body of a panther, the bulk of a tiger, and the elongated muzzle of a wolf. As it tilts its head to regard me, the moonlight falls across its face, and I can see the stripes it inherited from its tiger ancestors. Its wolflike ears prick, listening for further invaders—and then its lips draw back, revealing its teeth, as it scents the air.

It is monstrous, all right—but it’s also beautiful and powerful, in its own way. And it’s trapped here, just as much as I am.

“Hello,” I say to it, keeping my voice low, soothing.

It assesses me with its flat green eyes, as if trying to determine the most effective way to vivisect me. And then it lifts its head and howls, telling its brethren that it’s located their prey.

This is the best chance I’ll have. As the creature bunches its hind legs, about to leap, I raise the tranquilizer gun and fire. To my amazement, the dart lands true, sticking in the beast’s shoulder. It yelps, takes one wobbling step, then another…and then falls in the brush at my feet.

I hardly have a moment to savor my victory before another beast bursts from the trees, this one even bigger than the first. Rain streams into my eyes, clouding my vision, but I know I’ll only get one shot. If I miss, I’ll die.

I pray to Ari, rather than the Architect—after all, what has the latter ever done for me? Help me. Guide my aim. My finger tightens on the trigger, and when the dart flies, it sinks into the beast’s flank. Its eyes widen, as if it’s as surprised as I am. It growls, a guttural sound that trails into nothingness as its knees give and it collapses.

Then a third one leaps from the shadows, knocking me onto the ground with an impact that drives the air from my lungs. It growls and snaps, its jaws closing not on my neck but on the dart gun. It seizes the weapon, strap and all, and rips it from my grasp, hurling it into the trees.

Despite the fact that I’m probably about to die, I can’t help but be impressed.

The Bastarour stands over me, growling and snapping. Thick ropes of saliva drip onto my face. Its breath floods my lungs, stinking of old blood, as it lowers its head, teeth coming closer and closer.

It could kill me in an instant, but instead it’s toying with me, extending the pleasure of the hunt.

My instinct is to struggle, to fight to break free. With an effort, I suppress it. The moment I fight back, it will snap my neck. And so I don’t move, nor do I look away; we’re in a battle for dominance, the beast and I, and if I drop my eyes, it will see that as the final white flag of surrender.

I can’t move my right arm; the beast has pinned it, sharp claws digging in. But I can move my left. Slowly, I inch my fingers toward my pocket and the backup stash of tranquilizer darts.

The beast growls again. It paws at my chest, ripping through the fabric of my shirt and drawing blood. I worry that the scent will drive it into a frenzy, but instead it lowers its head and licks the blood from my chest, its tongue rough, as if savoring an appetizer before a particularly delectable Idle Day meal.

It’s disgusting. But it’s also a distraction.

As the Bastarour laps at my blood, its claws digging into my arm and its saliva drying on my face, I feel my fingers close around one of the syringes. I draw it out, slip off the cap, and fumble for the plunger.

The beast must sense danger. It lifts its head and roars, then lunges for my throat. I try to get my free arm up, to protect myself, but it’s no use. Its breath is hot on my neck, its teeth inches from my jugular. I roll out of the way a second before it pinions me with a giant paw, drawing even more blood. It roars again in triumph—just as I wrestle one arm free from beneath its bulk and stab its shoulder with the syringe.

The needle sticks, but my thumb slips off the plunger, and now the creature is more enraged than ever, lunging and snapping. My fingers fumble across its rain-soaked hide, desperately searching for the syringe. For a moment I think it’s hopeless, that I’ll never find it in time. At least I took care of two of them for you, I think. I did the best I could.

But Lady Luck smiles on me, and my hand closes on the syringe. I seize it and jam the plunger down. The beast stiffens in shock—and then collapses on top of me, going limp.

Panting and dripping blood, I wriggle out from underneath its bulk. I half-expect another one to come hurtling out of the woods—but then I hear it howl, far away, and realize the rest of the beasts have found what they’re after.

I’ve cut the pack in half, given Ari and his apprentice a fighting chance at freedom. It’s far more than I’d hoped for, and as I ease off my shirt and rip it in strips to stop my bleeding, I allow myself to feel a fierce, forbidden sense of pride in what I’ve done.

The beasts lie at my feet, unconscious but breathing steadily. I’d give anything to be able to examine them, to rid them of their taste for human flesh and be able to set them free. But such a thing is beyond my grasp. So instead I yank the syringes from their bodies and turn my face to the sky, letting the rain wash the blood and saliva away.

“May the Architect speed your way, Ari Westergaard,” I whisper, the words coming clear and even, though there’s no one to hear me but the trees and a pale slice of moon.

I have been the hero of Ari’s story more than once, even though he didn’t know it. Now the only thing left is to be the hero of my own.

Shoulders squared, I turn and go back the way I came, resolved to face my fate.