AN AIR-RAID SIREN wails in the distance, alerting Black City citizens to lock their doors and turn out the lights. They don’t want to be out in the dark alone. They might meet something dangerous. Something like me.
I head under the canal bridge and wait for the girl, taking a packet of Sentry-regulation smokes from my back pocket and sparking up. The nicotine courses through my veins, making them throb with adrenaline; the sensation is almost like a pulse . . . almost.
Footsteps approach the bridge, and a short girl with straggly black hair appears from the shadows, dressed in men’s work boots, tight black trousers and a tailcoat made from a patchwork of clashing fabrics. Her hazel eyes gaze up into mine. She’s brave. Not many cherry-poppers have the courage to look me in the eyes. She hands me an old playing card with two hearts on it, one red, one black. It’s my calling card. It seemed an appropriate choice; that’s what I’m selling her after all, an illusion of love. I slip it into the pocket of my dark green military jacket.
“You’re late,” I say. “Last thing I need is to be caught out here after curfew by a Tracker. They’re just begging for a reason to throw me in jail.”
“Sorry, they’ve put up extra checkpoints, stopping everyone. There’s tanks everywhere!” she babbles. “I guess they can’t be too careful with the Sentry Emissary back in the city, what with the boundary negotiations with the Legion and—”
“You paid Beetle?” I interrupt.
The girl nods.
“Terms and conditions,” I say. “No refunds. You don’t enjoy it, you puke, you freak—not my problem, okay?”
She nods again.
“You pregnant?” She blushes furiously. “I’ll take that as a no. It may cause drowsiness, so don’t drive or operate any heavy machinery.” She smiles at this, and I grin. They always like that. “And no repeats for at least two weeks, all right? I mean it.”
“No kissing. Strictly business, okay?”
She seems a little disappointed by this, but I don’t like to mix business with pleasure. She shyly unbuttons the collar of her coat, revealing her slim, pale neck. Hunger grips my stomach at the sight.
“What do I do?” she asks.
“Lean back,” I say.
She obeys like a good girl. I place a hand against the wall and slip my other hand between her thighs, gently easing her legs apart. Touching her doesn’t turn me on, but I groan like it does, knowing she’ll enjoy that. They all do, even the guys—it’s why they come to me instead of the Haze dens. I slide my body between her thighs so we’re face-to-face. Her shallow breaths are warm against my cool skin.
“Relax, okay? It’s more enjoyable if you relax.”
“My heart’s pounding a mile a minute.” She gives a nervous laugh.
“Can’t say I know how that feels,” I admit.
She tentatively presses a hand against my chest, and her eyes widen. “So it’s true, then? You don’t have a heart?”
“I have a heart,” I growl, shoving her hard against the wall. It just doesn’t beat.
A small tear snakes down her cheek, her thin lips trembling.
“Sshhh, it’s okay, sweetheart. I didn’t mean to frighten you.” I gently wipe her tear away. “Forgive me?”
She nods, then tilts her head to one side, exposing the smooth whiteness of her neck. The poison sacs behind my fangs swell with venom.
Focus, Ash. Don’t blow your load.
I lean toward her, pressing my lips against the soft flesh on her neck, just below her ear. Her pulse flutters under my lips, and I nearly lose it. I begin to nibble on the flesh, tickling the tiny hairs on her neck with my tongue, making them wet with my saliva.
“Do it,” she whispers.
So much for foreplay. I sink my fangs into her jugular. Hot blood spills over my tongue, making my taste buds burst with its sticky sweetness. Man, I love the newbies; they always taste the best. She sighs as my venom enters her bloodstream. I wait for the Haze to take effect before I start to drink from her. That’s the bonus of Haze; my clients get high from me, and I get high from them by drinking their drugged blood. It’s win-win.
A sour, bitter flavor suddenly floods my mouth, and I gag, leaping back.
“What the—” I spit up blood.
The girl stares at me with glazed eyes, blood trickling down from the two puncture wounds in her neck.
“Everything’s sparkling,” she says dreamily.
“Didn’t Beetle tell you I don’t take clients on meds?”
She lurches toward me, and I grab her before she falls into the water.
“I love you,” she slurs, trying to kiss me.
I shove her, hard. She falls back against the wall and slides to the ground. Her eyes roll back into her head, and she begins to spasm, white foam bubbling out the corners of her mouth.
“No, no, no! Wake up.” I kneel down and shake her, panic rushing through me.
The girl jerks, her boots leaving black scuff marks on the cobblestones. Fragg! This is why I don’t take clients on meds. You can never tell how they’re going to react to the Haze. I shrug off my jacket and place it under her head.
A Sentry tank rolls over the bridge, and I shut my eyes and wait for it to pass. Even though the war is officially over, I still get chills at that sound. Wherever they went, Death followed. I had a few close scrapes during the war. During those days, the fact that I was a legal citizen and half human didn’t mean much to them. If you weren’t 100 percent human, you were the enemy. Every day was a fight for survival. Not much has improved since then; I’m still the enemy in most people’s eyes. All they can see is the Darkling in me. The tank turns down Bleak Street toward the Sentry Emissary’s headquarters.
The girl groans. It’s too dangerous here; I have to go. I could just leave her . . . No, that’s not an option, but I can’t take her to the hospital. I’d get in so much trouble.
I peer down the canal. A yellow barge is moored about one hundred feet away. The lights are off. Where is he? He’s meant to be my wingman; that’s why I came to the bridge in the first place. Can this get any wor—
An explosion of pain bursts inside my chest, and I clutch a hand over my lifeless heart. I sense someone behind me and turn.
A girl stands by the entranceway, lit by the headlights of a passing truck. In the fleeting light, I catch a glimpse of cornflower-blue eyes flicking between me and the Hazer writhing on the ground.
Her gaze finally fixes on me.
I fall back, struck down, as the pain in my chest blooms again.
Shivers run through my body, rushing toward a single point in my chest. There’s a spark of electricity and then:
“I DIDN’T SEE ANYTHING, okay? I’m not looking for trouble,” I blurt out, fear spiking in me.
The boy clutches his chest, like he’s in pain. He looks up at me with sparkling black eyes, and my heart stumbles and races to catch up with the beat. He blinks, shakes his head like he’s trying to remember where he is, while my head spins as it dawns on me that I somehow recognize him. But how? Even in my panicked state, my brain’s able to process the fact we haven’t met before. I sure as hell would’ve remembered him. I don’t need to see his fangs to know what he is: hair like black fire and glittering eyes are all the evidence I need. A twin-blood Darkling.
I should be running a mile—every instinct is screaming at me to leave, but my feet are glued to the ground, my body paralyzed, as memories I’ve repressed all year flood my mind: a pair of white fangs, my father’s anguished face, blood spraying across the ceiling.
The drugged girl beside him moans, her dark hair falling away from her face. She looks just like my sister, Polly.
“Help me,” she whispers.
I hesitate, uncertain. What if she were my sister? Would I leave Polly here with him?
My decision is made for me when a Sentry truck pulls up on the road overhead and the engine cuts out. I dart under the bridge and press my back against the mildewed wall, placing a finger to my lips. A moment later, a door opens and footsteps echo along the road above us. The Darkling boy tenses, glancing up at the sound.
“I’m sure I saw her,” a voice says above us. Sebastian.
There’s silence for a moment. I shut my eyes and pray he leaves.
A man snorts. “She’s more bloody trouble than she’s worth.” The deep voice sounds like Kurt, one of Sebastian’s troop leaders.
“I suggest you hold your tongue—unless you want me to cut it out?” Sebastian says.
“Sorry, chief,” Kurt says quickly. “I didn’t mean any disrespect.”
“Let’s try down Bleak Street,” Sebastian suggests.
They head off on foot. I let out a long sigh, and so does the twin-blood Darkling boy. We warily eye each other for a few seconds. I doubt he’ll attack me when there are Trackers so close by. He’s a twin-blood, not one of those mindless Wraths, so he’d understand the risks to himself if he attempted it. This thought eases my mind a little.
“Thanks,” I say to him.
“No worries, blondie. Any enemy of the Sentry is a friend of mine,” he drawls.
A strange sensation pulls at my heart as I take a step toward him. I pause. That’s odd. I take another step. It happens again, a definite tug this time, drawing me closer to him, despite the warning voice inside my head that’s telling me to keep my distance.
I kneel down beside him and the Hazer girl, my black tulle skirt fanning around me.
“What happened?” I say, turning the girl’s head, revealing the two puncture wounds. “Haze?”
“She needs to go to the hospital,” I say.
“That’s not going to happen. She knew the risks.”
“She could die.”
He shrugs. “Not my problem. I’m not getting executed for her.”
I glance down at the girl again and anxiously bite my lip, drawing blood. Big mistake. The Darkling boy’s head snaps up, his nostrils flaring, and the air around us sparks with static. His gaze is like a thrilling darkness sliding over my body, cold like winter’s frost, leaving a trail of goose pimples where his eyes have touched me.
It’s a force Darklings use to mark their prey in order to ward off others of their kind. I’ve only been touched by the Sight once before, the night my father died. The Darkling boy slowly surveys me, his eyes drifting to the shiny red scar cutting across my skin over my heart, visible beneath the fine lace of my corset. I hurriedly cover the scar with my hand, and he drops his gaze, breaking the spell.
Footsteps approach the bridge, and my stomach leaps into my throat. Sebastian and Kurt have returned.
“Let’s get back to headquarters,” Sebastian says to Kurt as he climbs into the truck. “Natalie’s probably gone home.”
“She better have,” Kurt mutters. “The Emissary will have my head if her daughter gets chomped by a rogue Darkling. Bloody nippers, I don’t know how they keep getting over the wall.”
The Darkling boy’s eyes narrow. “You’re the Emissary’s daughter?”
Fear tiptoes down my spine. I gulp, realizing the danger I’m in.
“I don’t want any trouble,” I say.
“Too late for that, blondie.” The corners of his mouth curl up to reveal his fangs.
I hurriedly edge away from him. My back slams into the cold stone wall. I’m trapped.
The Hazer girl groans.
“I think she’s going to be okay. There’s no need for anyone else to get involved,” I say, panic rising in my voice.
We eye each other steadily, waiting to see what’s going to happen next. There are only two options: he lets me go and trusts I won’t report him. Or he kills me.
My heart bangs against my chest. I hold my breath, waiting.
He snarls. “Tell anyone about me, and you’re dead.”
He gets to his feet, and in a flash, he’s gone.
THE BLACK COBBLED STREETS are deathly quiet as I head home, but that’s normal at this time of night. You’d have to be suicidal or insane to be out here after curfew. I’m still deciding which one I am.
I hurry home, knowing it’s unlikely I’ll encounter any more trouble tonight but not wanting to push my luck. The soot-encrusted Cinderstone houses on either side of me smolder in the dark, still burning after last year’s air raids that destroyed the city.
I can’t resist running my fingers through the soft ash coating the walls of the houses, staining my skin black. Black. That’s the color of my world here: black streets, black buildings, black skies. Black everything. I’ve almost forgotten what color looks like.
A memory of the Sentry girl’s blue eyes flashes across my mind, and my chest tightens. What happened back under the bridge? I swear I felt my heart . . . what? Stir? I laugh. The idea’s so stupid; my heart’s never moved a millimeter in my whole life. It just sits lifelessly inside my chest. It must’ve just been the bad blood from that Hazer girl. That can mess you right up. Yeah, that must’ve been it. I can’t allow myself to hope.
Above me, digital screens the size of billboards dominate the rooftops, looking out of place against the Gothic architecture of the centuries-old buildings. The screens broadcast continual footage from SBN, a government-owned network. It only shows propagandist messages, advertisements and news stories promoting the Sentry government.
A female voice booms out from the monitors. “And now a message from your government.”