On my palm is the rook. I’d clenched it so hard the battlement spikes that top the castle have cut my hand. There is a perfect ring of six indentations in the skin, filling with pinpricks of blood.
I’ve had this nightmare many times before. But this time, it changed.
At the beginning when I run, terrified, the details are always as clear as the sharp edges of crystal: I can feel the sand slipping away under my feet. Each ragged breath I take as I run. The fear that makes me go on, beyond endurance. But after I fall, it changes.
In the past, it has always gone misty, vague. I am still terrified, but the details become remote and unreal. Blurry around the edges. And someone is yelling to never forget and to put up a wall: the wall of bricks. A concrete representation of what hid Rain inside me. Was this when I was taken by Lorders, and Slated? What else could be so frightening?
But tonight, it changed. The clarity stayed through to the end. The man with me was also different. He wasn’t yelling, he was holding me and I was clinging to him until he was torn away. My eyes were clenched shut but I could feel the grit of the sand, the cold salty breeze off the sea. Hear the pounding of my heart and the crash of the waves. It felt real.
Who was the man who ran with me, who said he would never leave? Never became seconds; he was torn away almost as he said it. And what happened to him, to me? What came next?
The fear that lingers from the dream turns to frustration, then anger. I slam a fist into the mattress. Why can’t I remember what really happened, now that I have these other memories back? Why?
So much is still missing. Inside, I feel empty, hollow. Suddenly limp, I sag back in bed, tears trickling down my face that I don’t even bother to wipe away.
* * *
A muffled vibration at my wrist pulls me out of sleep, confused. My Levo…? But it doesn’t work any more. I squint at the numbers in the dark: 5.6. Even if it did work, my levels aren’t low enough to make it vibrate.
The com underneath: it must be. A call from Nico? My stomach swirls with nervous butterflies.
I fiddle under my Levo to press the hidden button. ‘Hello?’ I whisper.
‘Took you long enough.’ Nico’s voice radiates tension.
‘Sorry. I didn’t realise it was you.’ And how clever to make calling sound like my Levo vibrating. No one would blink unless they saw the numbers weren’t low.
‘Can you talk?’
‘Yes.’ The house is quiet, dark. Everyone asleep but me and Sebastian. He stalks across the bed and stares at my wrist, keeping a safe distance as if some danger lurks there.
‘We’ve got trouble.’
‘What is it?’
‘Tori is missing.’
‘I had a meeting. And when I came back just now, she was gone. She seemed pretty settled until you were here yesterday: what did you talk about? Where do you think she has gone?’
Nico is keeping control, now, but there is a definite edge to his voice. Whatever she does is my fault. Whatever she might say if forced or otherwise about where she has been, or who with. My fault she was there at all.
‘I don’t know. We talked about Ben and his dog. That’s about it.’
He curses. ‘If you think of anything, call me.’ There is an abrupt click, then silence.
I lie back and stare at the ceiling. Where could she be? I review yesterday, the little we said. Tori was held in tight most of the time, contained. The only time cracks really showed was when she spoke about Lorders taking her from home, and her mother.
I sit bolt upright. I told her that Ben had been to see her mother, that her mother said she had been returned. Tori was furious with her. That is it, isn’t it?
She’s gone to confront her mother. Call Nico!
I should call him. But I’m already up, pulling clothes out of drawers, getting dressed in the dark.
This is my mess to fix, and I’ll not do it his way.
Careful and silent, I creep down the stairs, out of the house. No time for anything else, I ease Mum’s bicycle out of the shed. The door clunks when I shut it, and my heart jumps in fright; a flutter inside. But no lights go on, no curtains move.
There is no time for discretion. On the bike I head down the road as fast as I can go, hoping no one watches.
Ben had pointed out Tori’s street once when we ran: on the other side from here of the hall where we have Group. I don’t know which house, but I remember Ben saying it was the big one at the end. Hopefully that will be enough to work it out.
If Nico has her address, it is one of the first places he will go.
And if he doesn’t already know it, he will soon. I pedal harder.
The night blurs past. If she is there, I can understand why. She’d hoped her mother was missing her, didn’t know what happened to her, and I crushed that hope. Stupid! She’d wanted to know Ben’s reaction to her being taken. That was the evidence, but why didn’t I just say he went on about her, and not tell her he went to see her mother? He did talk about her often enough. Enough that it made me jealous. Is that why I didn’t tell her?
I reach her street and slow down, trying to control my breathing after such a mad dash. It is after midnight, yet the big house at the end is lit up. There are cars parked everywhere, and an unseen piano tinkles in the background. Some guests have spilled out onto the lawn, and there are voices, laughter. I tuck my bicycle in some bushes and slip closer, through the shadows. There are too many eyes about, but at least this should have stopped Tori. She couldn’t be crazy enough to go in with all these people. Could she?
After the big house the road ends; there is a footpath sign, woods. That is where she’d hide.
On the opposite side of the street I slip behind front garden hedges, hoping the neighbours sleep despite the party noises, and are not looking out their windows.
Tori is easy to find in the dark trees that overlook her old house, in a pale blue hoodie that almost glows in the dark. I creep up next to her and touch her arm. She jumps, turns and sees it is me. Turns back to watching the house. ‘You have to learn to dress for these sorts of things,’ I say.
She doesn’t answer, eyes fixed. I follow them: there is a group of a half dozen, talking, laughing. One woman, the rest are men in tuxes. She must be freezing in that slinky black dress, arms bare. Laughing at something one of the others said, her head thrown back.
‘Is that her?’ I whisper.
She is beautiful, like Tori. Both have long dark hair. Had she asked for a Slated with similar features? I’ve heard rumours some do that, request a designer son or daughter. Perhaps when Tori got older she took too many eyes away from her mother: a younger, more beautiful version of herself.
‘Why are you here, Tori?’
She doesn’t answer. I take her hand, ice cold, in mine.
‘Come away. Come with me,’ I say. ‘There is nothing for you here.’
No reaction. Her eyes are fixed and staring, straight ahead. Then a tear glistens and runs down her cheek.
‘I just had to see her. I wanted her to tell me why I was returned, to hear her say the words. See what justification she has.’
‘Busy place tonight.’
‘Yes. Maybe that would be even better. In front of all her friends. Imagine the embarrassment!’
‘The Lorders would take you again.’
She flinches. ‘It might be worth it.’
I tug her hand. ‘Come on. Before we’re spotted.’
She tears her eyes away from the woman who had been her mother.
‘What did I do wrong?’ she says, and another tear spills out, chases the other down her cheek.
I shake my head. ‘Nothing. Nothing at all.’
She lets me lead her away, listens when I tell her to bend down and slip along the hedges, out of sight.
We get to where I stashed the bicycle. ‘Come on, I’ll double you,’ I say, and she gets on the seat behind and I cycle, standing up, down the road. Legs protesting after the dash earlier.
‘Where is there to go?’ she says in my ear.
‘Nico. Where else?’
‘He’s going to be really pissed.’
‘Yes. He is.’
Nico isn’t home when we get there. The house is locked, but Tori knows the door combination and soon we are inside.
She is shaking. I find his whisky, pour her a glass. After a moment have a sip of it myself.
Then I call Nico and tell him where we are.
Tori is sound asleep on the sofa.
‘What did you give her?’
‘Sedative. Knock her out for a day or so while I work out next steps,’ he says, his voice cold. ‘That was too close to disaster. You should have told me where she was.’
‘I didn’t know; I guessed.’
‘Your guesses are good, Rain. You should have told me.’ He walks closer; much taller, he looks down, and I fight the urge to back away.
I stand my ground. ‘She was my responsibility. It was up to me to deal with it. What are you going to do with her?’
He stares back a few heartbeats, then nods, as if to himself. ‘I still think there may be a use for her. In the meantime I need to put her someplace more secure.’ He sighs. ‘What am I to do with you?’ His lips curve up in some semblance of a smile, but the ice is still there behind it.
‘I’m sorry, Nico. I just wanted to fix it; it was my fault.’
He stares at me for one beat, two. His eyes soften. He puts a hand on each shoulder, pulls me close and I nestle in against him. Afraid to move, afraid to breathe, to do anything to spoil this.
‘Your heart beats so fast,’ he says at last. Pushes me away, looks into my eyes. ‘I’m not angry with you, Rain. At least not the way you think I am.’
Relief swells through me. ‘You’re not?’
‘No. I was scared.’
‘You, scared?’ Even saying the words sounds wrong. Nico isn’t afraid of anything.
He half smiles. ‘Yes. Even I have fears. I was scared of something happening to you. What if you’d got caught? You should have told me where she was, so I could deal with it. You need to stay safe, Rain. I need you to stay safe.’
I stare up at him in wonder. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘Don’t be sorry. It was brave of you. But promise me something: don’t rush off to rescue anyone again without checking with me, first. Deal?’
‘One more thing before you go. Those plans you did of the hospital are wonderful, but I want the people, too. Faces. I know you can draw them. All the faces from the hospital. Nurses, doctors, security. Everyone you come in contact with now or have done in the past.’
‘What will you do with them?’
He doesn’t answer, and all I can think of is that nurse who died the last time Free UK attacked the hospital. Her blood pooling on the floor. My stomach twists, and I fight to keep it down. If they can identify them outside the hospital, they are easier targets.
‘You know, Rain. But don’t waste your sympathy on Lorders’ servants. Remember whose side you are on. Think about it. If you’re not with us, then you are with the Lorders and everything they stand for. You might as well have handed Tori over to the Lorders yourself. Snatched Ben and ended his life. Tossed the match that burned his parents alive. Think about it, Rain. Now, go.’
I head for the door, the long bike ride home. Anxious to escape into the night. But I force myself to look back. Tori’s chest rises and falls; her face, peaceful in sleep, a marked contrast from the pain it held earlier.
‘She’ll be all right?’ I can’t stop myself from asking.
Back home, I feel my feet are fighting for purchase, slipping down a long and sandy slope. Nico wants faces. But giving them to him would be like handing out death sentences for nurses and doctors.