* * *
BLACK CITY BURNING
PURIAN ROSE STEPPED OUT onto the balcony of the Golden Citadel, adjusting the white cotton glove on his right hand. The sun had just started to set over the city, making the giltstone buildings shimmer gold. He was greeted by the melody of a million voices calling out to him across the metropolis, united in their evening prayer. Normally this would bring a smile to his thin lips. Centrum was his creation, his perfect vision of the world: purity, faith and power combined.
But not tonight.
How could he be happy when everything he had worked so hard for was in jeopardy? It had taken fifteen years of bloodshed, bribery and sheer determination to build his utopia, but that half-breed and his race-traitor girlfriend had threatened to unravel it all. Rose flexed his right hand, irritated that the glove wasn’t fitting correctly. Everything had to be flawless; too much was at stake to allow for even the slightest imperfection.
In the city square below him, a team of workmen were preparing the stage for the televised referendum in a couple of days, when the whole country would vote for his segregation laws. The ballot was meant to have taken place two months ago, but after everything that had happened in Black City—the riot between his Sentry guards and the Darklings, which resulted in a teenage boy being killed; Emissary Buchanan’s imprisonment for poisoning its citizens with a drug known as Golden Haze; and the attempted execution of the half-blood boy they were now calling Phoenix—well, it hadn’t seemed like the right time. Public opinion of his government had never been so low.
But that was a few weeks ago, and people’s memories were short. He was a patient man, able to bide his time until it was the right moment to strike, even though he was itching to punish the citizens of Black City for defying him. No fear, no power! they had chanted. It had enraged him at first, but he had found a way to turn the situation in his favor. He was, if anything, resourceful.
His eyes caught on two black ants crawling along the golden balustrade that ran around the edge of the balcony, and a flicker of annoyance crossed his gray eyes. Despite all his power, he still couldn’t prevent His Mighty’s smallest creatures from invading his carefully crafted world. Just like the rebels in Black City.
The sound of footsteps made him turn. By the doorway stood his servant—a young man named Forsyth, who was dressed in long white robes with a red rose emblem on his chest. It was the uniform of the Pilgrims—the devoted followers of the Purity faith, the religion that Rose had founded. The servant bowed.
“Your Transporter is ready, Your Excellency,” Forsyth said.
Rose simply nodded, dismissing the man, and turned his attention back to the ants. He watched the insects for a moment longer before crushing them under the thumb of his white-gloved hand.
He had waited long enough. The moment had come to put his plan into action. It was time he reminded Ash Fisher and Natalie Buchanan why they should fear him.
A STEAM-POWERED STREETCAR rattles along the tracks beside me, spewing clouds of soot into the gray skies shrouding Black City. I take a cigarette from my packet of Sentry-regulation smokes and slip it between my lips, but don’t bother to spark up. Nicotine doesn’t give me the same buzz that it used to; nothing gets me as high as the heart beating inside my chest. I only carry the smokes to give me something to do with my hands when I’m nervous. My fingers find the small parcel inside my jacket pocket, and my stomach flips.
I stroll through the Rise, the poorest district in the city, and turn down Cinder Street—a narrow alleyway wedged between rows of tightly packed Cinderstone buildings. Three boys are playing in the street, blocking my path. Two of them brandish toy wooden swords, pretending to be Sentry guards. They’re chasing the third boy, who is dressed in black clothes, the sleeves decorated with orange ribbons that look like flames when he runs. It takes me a moment to realize the boy is pretending to be me. My chest tightens as I watch him play, thinking about the real fire that blazed up my arms, burning the flesh off my bones . . .
The boy looks up at me with wide brown eyes.
“Phoenix!” he cries out.
The children run over to me.
“I saw you on the news the other day,” Little Phoenix says. “Did you really hijack those Sentry trucks?”
“Yeah,” I say, putting my unlit cigarette back in the packet.
“And steal all those medical supplies from Sentry headquarters?” he asks.
“Yup,” I say.
“Wow,” all the boys say in unison.
Since the uprising two months ago, the Sentry government has been finding ways to lash out at us, such as withholding medical supplies from our hospitals or stopping Synth-O-Blood shipments into the Darkling ghetto, known as the Legion. I’ve been working with Humans for Unity—the rebel group campaigning to unify our species—to protect the people of this city. The front door of the house behind them opens, and a pretty middle-aged woman with sandy blond hair appears, wiping her hands on an old dishcloth. I’ve seen her at a few of the rebel meetings, although we’ve never spoken. I think her name’s Sally.
“Boys, get inside this minute and leave that young man alone,” she says.
“Aww, Mom,” Little Phoenix whines.
“Don’t ‘aww Mom’ me,” she says, ushering them inside.
She gives me a shy smile once they’re in the house.
“I really admire what you’ve been doing,” she says in a quiet voice. “I think you’re very brave to stand up to Purian Rose. It’s given so many others in this country the courage to finally do the same.”
“Thanks,” I say, rubbing the back of my neck.
She blushes slightly. “Well, good luck at the ballot tomorrow. I’ll be voting against Rose’s Law,” she says. “The war’s over; it’s time we all forgave each other and moved on.”
“I appreciate your support,” I reply. “See you tomorrow.”
I head toward the small house at the end of the lane and dart around the back of the one-story building. As I’d hoped, the bedroom window is open. I climb through, being careful not to make a sound as I land on the other side.
The tiny room is crammed with old furniture: a desk, two beds, two dressers and a wardrobe. Day’s side of the room is immaculate, while Natalie’s is strewn with magazines, shoes and laundry. Her nightstand is covered in makeup, plus a small container of heart medication that I stole from the Sentry when we raided their medical supplies. I carefully navigate the mess and lean over her bed. Only Natalie’s face peeps out from behind the handmade quilt, her golden curls spilling across the pillow.
“Happy birthday, blondie,” I whisper.
Sunlight catches on her blond lashes as they sleepily flutter open.
“I was just dreaming about you,” she says.
“All good things, I hope?” I say, shrugging off my jacket.
She grabs my belt and pulls me onto the bed with her, making the wooden frame creak under our weight. I worry that Sumrina—Natalie and her sister Polly’s guardian—might hear us, but that thought is quickly pushed aside when Natalie presses her lips against mine. Everything melts away, and it’s just the two of us, our hearts beating in unison. My hand glides down her body, skimming over the soft cotton nightdress until I find the silken smoothness of her legs. My fingers brush over a small mark on her calf muscle where a Darkling bit her a few months ago. Natalie suddenly stops kissing me and bolts upright, cheeks flushed, to look toward Day’s bed. She lets out a long sigh when she realizes it’s empty.
“That could have been embarrassing,” she says.
I chuckle. “I would’ve restrained myself if she’d been here.”
Natalie raises a brow at me.
“Okay, maybe not.”
“Well, since we’re alone . . .” She playfully runs her fingers down my shirt, undoing the buttons.
“Natalie, don’t,” I say, holding her wrists.
A small frown crosses her lips. “I just thought, since it’s my birthday—”
“You know I can’t.”
“The doctor said your burns were healing nicely. Couldn’t we at least try? It’s been so long since we . . .” She doesn’t need to finish the sentence. It’s been over two months since we were last physical with each other. “I love you, Ash. I don’t care what you look like.”
“Then I guess it’s lucky I’m such a stud,” I tease.
She attempts a smile, but the disappointment is evident in her eyes.
“I do want you,” I say, gently running my thumb over her cheek.
“Really?” she whispers.
“Of course. It’s pretty much all I think about, trust me.”
“Then why can’t we . . . ?”
My body tenses up. Because I’m a freak?
“I’m sorry, Ash. I didn’t mean to push things,” she says, sensing my discomfort. “I can wait, it doesn’t matter. Forgive me?”
I kiss her again. This time it’s urgent, hungry, showing her how much she means to me. I do want her—boy, do I want her; that was never the issue. She sighs as my fangs gently nip on her bottom lip.
I shrug off my shirt, tossing it on the floor. I lie down, pulling Natalie on top of me, my heart racing. This is the first time she’s seen my scars since I was taken to the hospital after my failed execution. Her fingers inquisitively explore my skin, her touch feather-light as she skims over the patchwork of burnt flesh on my upper body. I flinch slightly; the scars are still tender.
The burns on my back, neck and hands have almost gone, and in a few more months, the ones on my shoulders and arms will look less alarming. I wish they’d heal entirely; I hate being reminded of that day. But that will never happen. So instead I’m wrenched awake every night, thrashing and screaming, convinced I’m on fire.
“What were you so worried about, silly?” Natalie finally whispers. “Did you honestly think I’d be put off by a few scars?”
“I’m not exactly the guy you fell in love with,” I say.
“That’s true,” she says, placing a hand over my racing heart. “You’re better. You sacrificed yourself to save me, Ash. Trust me, that earned you a few extra boyfriend points.”
I grin. “Maybe I can stick to buying you flowers in the future.”
I gently cup her face with my hands, and she stops laughing, the mood shifting. My eyes drink her in, admiring the cute dimple in her cheek, the cornflower blue of her eyes, the gentle curve of her rose-pink lips.
My stomach clenches as I get this sudden, panicked feeling in my gut that I’m going to lose her. It’s the same sensation I’ve been getting since my crucifixion. So far Purian Rose has left us alone, but how long will this last? I kiss her, forcing those dark thoughts aside.
“What would you like to do today, birthday girl?” I murmur against her lips.
“This,” she replies.
“Sounds good to me.”
Our plans are immediately dashed when there’s a brisk knock on the door. We barely have time to pull the covers over us as Sumrina, my dad and Beetle enter the room. Beetle smirks when he sees me, the pink flesh of his scarred cheek puckering—a nasty remnant of the bombing that took down part of the Boundary Wall. Sumrina can’t hide her shock at the sight of my burns, muttering “mercy” under her breath, while Dad just gives me a weary look, the lines on his forehead furrowing. His hair has turned as gray as his minister’s tunic, making him look decades older than he is. The stress of losing Mom, followed by my murder trial and crucifixion, has taken its toll on him.
“I thought you might be here.” He passes my shirt to me.
“Natalie and I were just talking,” I say in a rush, shrugging on my top as Natalie sinks farther under the sheets.
Beetle laughs, then quickly tries to disguise it as a cough when I glower at him.
“I’m guessing this isn’t a social visit?” I say to him.
“Sorry, bro. You’re needed at the Legion. There’s been an incident,” Beetle replies, adding quickly: “No one’s dead. But it’s probably best if Roach fills you in on the details.”
I frown. It must be pretty serious if he’s leaving it up to his aunt Roach—the head of Humans for Unity—to tell me what happened.
“Am I needed too?” Natalie asks.
Beetle glances at the ground. “No, just Ash.”
“Oh,” she says, deflated.
I rub the back of my neck, flicking a look at Natalie.
“It’s okay, Ash,” she says. “You should go; it sounds important. See you tonight?”
I give her a chaste peck on the cheek, not wanting to give my dad any more reasons to have a hernia.
“Catch you later, birthday girl,” I say, slinging on my jacket. “I’ll give you my gift tonight.”
I slip my hand into my pocket to check that the parcel is still there, and my stomach fills with nerves, both excited and anxious about this evening. I’m throwing her a surprise birthday party, which I’ve been planning for weeks, but that’s not all. Tonight, I’m going to ask Natalie to marry me.
WE PUSH OUR WAY down Bleak Street, which is heaving with bleary-eyed commuters heading to work. Some of them nod at me as we pass by. Plastered across shop windows, walls and lampposts are hundreds of Humans for Unity flyers, with slogans like NO FEAR, NO POWER! and ONE COUNTRY UNITED and VOTE NO TO ROSE’S LAW! On all of the posters is an image of me staring moodily off into the distance with smoke billowing behind me—a phoenix rising from the ashes. Roach shortened my name from Black Phoenix to Phoenix, thinking it would sound snappier in the promos.