By Dekker, Ted
Center Street Copyright © 2011 Dekker, Ted
All right reserved. ISBN: 9781599953540
In the year 2005, geneticists discovered the human gene that controlled both innate and learned forms of fear. It was called Strathmin, or Oncoprotein 18. Within fifteen years, genetic influencers for all primary emotions were similarly identified.
Nearly a decade later, in the wake of catastrophic war that destroyed much of civilization, humanity vowed to forsake all that had conspired to destroy it. Out of the ashes rose a new world in which both the advanced technologies and the passionate emotions that led to its ruin were eliminated. A world without hatred, without malice, without sorrow, without anger.
The only emotion genetically allowed to survive was fear. For 480 years, perfect peace has reigned.
There was never a body.
Not even at a funeral. Mourners sat angled toward one another in the stiff pews to avoid looking directly at the empty casket and the destiny hanging over them all. They all knew that only one of two things happened when the body died, one outcome more likely than the other.
The terrible outcome, of course.
Rom, the twenty-four-year-old son of Elias Sebastian, sat in a back pew by himself. He was a plain man by any measure. Not unattractive, but neither was he truly beautiful by the standards of the Order, which reserved true beauty for royalty.
He’d sung earlier in homage to the dead man’s life. It was a humble yet noble job, singing for the dead. Humble because any artist’s life was humble—only by the grace of Sirin, who’d written about the educational merits of the arts, did artisans find work at all in a world unmoved by creative gifts. Noble because being near the dead was fearful business for most. But Rom didn’t mind. He needed the work, and the dead needed their service.
Finished with his job here, he folded the funeral program lengthwise as he waited for a good moment to slip away. There, on the upper flap, was the name of the deceased: Lucas Tavor. Rom folded it again. There was Tavor’s age: sixty-eight. Not so old in this advanced world where one might live to 110 or 120.
He glanced at the man’s empty coffin lying atop its metal carriage between the front pillars of the great basilica. It was one of the finer basilicas in the city, in Rom’s opinion—not because of its size, as it was far from the largest, but because of the intricate stained glass above its altar.
All basilicas boasted their treasures, but this depiction of Sirin, the martyred father of the Order, was more exquisite than the rest. The numbered, compass-like marks of his halo spread like a fractured sunburst above his head, even on a dull day. It was the universal picture of peace, an inspiring image of the man who had preached freedom from the excesses of modern life and from the snares of emotion.
Sirin’s right hand cradled a dove. His left rested on the shoulder of a second man: Megas, holding the bound Book of Orders, canonized under his rule. Every basilica housed the same image, but none as intricate as this.
The priest stood behind the altar, the ordinal rays of Sirin’s halo reflecting faintly upon his shoulders. Two clerics flanked him on the dais as he smoothed the pages of the Book of Orders upon its stand.
“Born once, into life, we are blessed.”
“We are blessed,” echoed the assembly, perhaps fifty in all. Their murmurs rose like specters to the arched vault overhead.
“Let us please the Maker through a life of diligent Order.”
“Let us please the Maker.” The mouths of the clerics moved with the congregation. Beyond them on the dais, the silver censers that exhaled incense through normal assembly hung empty upon their chains.
“We know the Maker exists by his Order. If we please, let us be born into the afterlife, not into fear, but Bliss everlasting.”
Bliss. The eternal absence of fear—or so it was said. Though Rom was less given to fear than most, it took some abstract thinking to imagine being forever untouched by at least some tinge of it.
It was said other emotions existed before the human race evolved, but they, too, were difficult to imagine. These sentiments of a baser age, like excised tumors, never reappeared; humanity finally resisted the black plague that had almost destroyed it.
Rom wasn’t sure he even knew the words to describe them all. And those he did know were meaningless to him. That archaic word passion, for example. Try as he might to grasp this thing, he could only conjure up thoughts of varying degrees of fear. Or another: sorrow. What was sorrow? It was like trying to imagine what his life would be like if he’d never been born.
No matter. Humanity’s one surviving emotion granted Order in this life and the possibility of Bliss beyond. Trying to imagine such a future, though, was enough to make his head hurt.
In front of Rom, a curly-haired boy turned around in the pew. Sticking his fingers in his mouth, he stared bug-eyed as Rom continued to fold the paper program. Rom held up the small project so the boy could see the thing taking shape between his fingers.
A eulogist approached the podium, printed page in hand. The heads of those assembled were now fixed on that empty coffin, no longer able to look away.
“Lucas Tavor was sixty-eight years old,” the man read.
“He fell,” a young woman two pews up whispered. The basilica’s unrestrained acoustics carried her words to Rom. “Broke his hip. One of his children found him a day after it happened.”
It was easy enough to surmise the rest of the story. Society had long embraced the custom of transferring the infirm, the severely injured, and the feeble to an asylum under the auspices of the Authority of Passing. There, humans closer to death than to life might live out the minority of their days, sparing their peers the caustic reminder of death’s inevitable pall. Thus, there was never a body at a funeral, because the one for whom the funeral was held often had not yet died.
Not technically, at least.
Rom stood and adjusted the strap of his shoulder bag. Slipping from the pew, he handed the finished paper crane to the boy, who accepted it with wet fingers.
Outside, on the steps of the basilica, the city spread out before him, concrete-gray beneath the ominous clouds of late afternoon. On each of the city’s seven hills, the spires and turrets of centuries-old buildings stabbed at the heavens like so many lances piercing a boil.
This was Byzantium, the greatest city on earth, population five hundred thousand, home to three thousand of the world’s twenty-five thousand royals, who had come from every continent to serve in her government and state-run businesses. It was the center of the earth, to which all eyes turned in matters politic and religious, social and economic. It was the seat of power to which all earthly dominions had deferred since the end of the Age of Chaos five centuries before, when the world had bowed to the great powers of the Americas and Russia.
Chaos. It had nearly killed them all. But humanity learned from her mistakes, and Null Year had signaled a new beginning for a new world cleansed of destructive passions. Peace had ruled in the 480 years since, and Byzantium was the heart of it all.
The city was more crowded than normal as it prepared to host the inauguration of the world Sovereign—Feyn Cerelia, daughter of the current Sovereign, Vorrin, of the royal Cerelia family. Never before had a future Sovereign been the direct descendant of a ruling Sovereign, and yet the random hand of fate was about to change history. And so Feyn Cerelia’s inauguration was considered a particularly auspicious event, one that would swell Byzantium’s population to nearly one million for days.
Her image had already graced the banners on streetlamps and city buildings for months. For weeks, train cars had brought construction equipment, barricades, and food from all parts of the world to supply Byzantium for the occasion. The black cars of the Brahmin royals and those in service to them had become a common sight on streets unaccustomed to motorized congestion. There had been no mass production of automobiles since the Age of Chaos, and no roadways beyond the city were intact enough to justify the vehicles’ exorbitant cost. Businesses carried out their trade by rail, subway, rickshaw, or private courier. Rom himself had never driven a car.
Rom glanced up the street to the west. In five days, all traffic would be blocked within a one-mile radius of the Grand Basilica near the Citadel. Construction crews had already spent a week erecting the high stands on either side of the Processional Way, which the new Sovereign would travel atop one of the royal stallions. All other attending royals and citizens alike would approach the inauguration in sedate order, on foot.
Beyond the city to the east, the hinterland stretched all the way to the sea. The territory had been reshaped by the fallout of the wars, testament to Chaos. What was once a land of agriculture was now arid and unsuitable for producing the food Byzantium’s population lived upon. Erosion had etched new canyons on the barren face of a countryside previously lush and fertile. And so the city relied on the provisions of Greater Europa to the north and her more fertile sisters—Sumeria, to the east; Russe to the northeast; Abyssinia, to the south. These ancient territories, once better known as Europe, the Middle East, Russia, and Africa, provided willingly for Byzantium, the city once called Rome. Their imports were the tithe of Order, a small price to pay to live in peace.
To the south of Byzantium lay the industrial towns that nearly reached the coast, connected only by rail, her roads as broken as the landscape itself.
Only in the last century had the land shown signs of true recovery. Trees grew along scraggly creek beds, and in some places grasses had reclaimed the soil. Today the countryside was sparsely dotted by the estates and stables of royals wishing to escape the confines of the city for a scrubby patch of green. It offered only meager peace, but anything that reduced fear was a welcome respite.
Rom had heard the city was a place of light at one time, of sun by day and city lamps by night, like sparkling gems strewn against a backdrop of velvet. Televisions and computers connected everyone. Planes crisscrossed the sky.
Citizens owned weapons.
Now personal electricity was rationed. Televisions existed in public spaces and for state use only. Many had phones but computers were restricted to state use. Planes, reserved for royal business, were a rare sight in Byzantium’s overcast sky. And the only firearms in the world existed in museums.
A streetlight sputtered overhead, and Rom turned his head to the sky. No, not a streetlight, but lightning, striking out toward the Tibron River. Rom snugged his bag close and hurried down the sweeping steps to the street.
By the time he reached the underground, it had begun to rain. He hurried down the concrete stairs into the stale subterranean warmth and was greeted with the electric light of the station, the shuffle of foot traffic, the squealing brakes of an oncoming train.
His route home included a five-minute ride to the central terminus, and then a twenty-minute journey southeast. It was enough time to take out his notebook, lay pen to new lyrics for the funeral he was to sing at next week. But even after he had returned the pen to his pocket, they seemed inadequate, too similar to the song he had sung today.
That was to be expected. If there was one thing that had not evolved since Null Year, it was art. Art and culture. As an artisan, Rom understood that the creativity of both had been squelched by the loss of their emotional muses. Even the subtleties of language had remained relatively unchanged. A small price to pay for Order. But a price, nonetheless.
He exited the underground six blocks from home, making his way past the distracted, worried expressions of those descending into the station. A steady drizzle issued from the lighter gray sky above; to the north, the hard edges of the skyline he had just left were obscured by the veil of a proper downpour.
Foot traffic was thin. Those who were out darted to their destinations beneath umbrellas and newspapers. In the street, the lone dark car of a royal sped by, sending an arc of water toward the curb.
Rom ducked his head, rain already running off the wet spikes of his hair into his eyes, and pulled his jacket more tightly around him. He kept to storefront eaves before turning into a narrow alleyway between the broad brick backs of an old theater and an out-of-use hostel.
Today he had done his work diligently. He had earned his modest living. He had been in assembly three times already this week, but he would go tomorrow, a fourth time, for Avra.
Avra, his friend since childhood, who avoided basilica. Avra, with her quiet gaze and fearful heart. His attendance had been their pact for several years now, and why not? It cost him nothing to go for her, and though it might not be condoned by the priests, it might make a difference to the Maker. It was her only chance, anyway.
He was thinking of her troubled brown eyes when a voice sounded behind him.
“Son of Elias!”
The cry echoed against the lichen-spackled brick, over the patter of the rain. Rom turned and stared through the drizzle. A lean figure lurched through the alley’s narrow file, his long, ragged coat flapping wetly behind him. His gaze was locked on Rom.
Son of Elias. Rom hadn’t been called that in years. He squinted against the rain. “Do I know you?”
The old man was now so close that Rom could see his grizzled brows and sunken cheeks, the gray hair plastered to his head. Could hear his wheezing breath. The man closed the distance between them with surprising speed and seized Rom by the shoulders. The thin lids of his eyes were peeled wide.
“It’s you!” he rasped between panting breaths. Spittle edged the corners of his mouth.
Rom’s first thought was that the man had managed to escape the Authority of Passing and was fleeing the escorts of the asylum. He was certainly old enough. And obviously crazed.
But the man knew his father’s name. A sliver of fear worked its way beneath Rom’s skin. What was with this old fellow?
“It’s you,” the old man said again. “I never thought to lay eyes on Elias again, but by the Maker, you have the look of him!”
Two men rounded the corner at the end of the alley and sprinted toward them. In the dull splatter of the rain, it almost appeared that they wore the silver and black of the Citadel Guard. Odd. The jurisdiction of the guard was the Citadel itself—on the other side of the city. Perhaps because of the inauguration . . .
The man tore his gaze away to look over his shoulder. At the sight of the two men, he tightened his grip on Rom’s shoulders and spoke in a rush.
“They’ve found me. And now they’ll come after you, too. Listen to me now, boy. Listen well! Your father said you could be trusted.”
Rom blinked in the rain. “My father? My father’s dead. He died of fever.”
“Not from fever! Your father was murdered, boy!”
“What? That can’t be true.”
The man let go of him and fumbled with his coat, tearing at an inner pocket that didn’t seem to match the rest of the garment. It bulged with a square shape the size of two fists put together. He tore it free.
“He was killed. As all the other keepers were killed. For this.” He shoved the parcel at Rom. “Take it! There’s no one else now. Take it, or your father died for nothing. Learn its secrets. Find the man called the Book. The Book, do you hear me? He’s at the Citadel— find him. Show him you have this!”
Displays of fear were not uncommon, but the old man was clearly demented with it. In reaction, the sliver of Rom’s own fear wormed its way to Rom’s heart.
A third man had appeared at the entrance to the alley. One of the first two shouted back for him to go around. And now Rom could see that they did indeed wear the colors of the elite Citadel Guard. All for an old man?
Rom felt his fingers close around the parcel, damp and still warm from the man’s body.
“Swear to me!”
“I swear. I . . .”
The guardsmen were no more than twenty paces away, running far harder than their aged quarry warranted.
The old man’s voice rose to an unexpected roar. “Protect it! It’s power and life—life as it was—and grave danger. Run!” The guardsmen were only a dozen steps away. “Run!”
The sound of that scream startled Rom so much that he took five or six long strides before he faltered. What was he doing? If the guard were after the man, for whatever reason, he should stop and assist them. He should give them the bundle, let them sort it all out. He pulled up hard and spun back.
They had the old man, sagging in their hold. Something flashed in the rain. The serrated blade of a knife. Not the ceremonial variety Rom was accustomed to seeing in pictures, but a weapon strictly forbidden.
“Run!” the man screamed.
As one guardsman held the flailing old man, the one with the knife ripped the blade across his wrinkled throat. The old man’s neck opened with a dark, yawning gush. His last cry devolved into a gurgle as his knees gave way.
And then the gaze of the restraining guardsman locked on Rom. The old man was no longer their quarry.
Gripping the parcel, Rom sprinted between the two buildings to the street and took the corner at full speed. The third guardsman was there to cut him off, and neither had time to pull up. They crashed into each other with force that knocked Rom’s breath from his lungs and set the world ringing in his ears.
The guardsman went down beneath him with a grunt. The parcel slipped free of Rom’s grip and skittered on the pavement.
Rom threw himself past the guardsman’s clawing fingers, lunged for the parcel, and rolled to his feet with the thing in his hands. But in the process he lost his bag.
Shouts from the alley—too close.
He should stop, turn back, and give them the package. Clear this up. But the image of that knife and the dark gush of blood catapulted Rom across the street. He barely missed a second collision, this time with an oncoming bicycle.
He veered onto a side street, barely avoiding a young woman carrying a grocery bag. Her arms flew up. He heard her bag crash to the pavement behind him. He sprinted to the first intersection and tore down a street to his right: Entura Street, five blocks from home.
He had just watched a man’s life spurt out of his throat. The look in the man’s eyes hadn’t been madness, but extreme fear. And now that same fear consumed Rom in a way he had never experienced.
Your father was killed.
His mother had never said anything of the sort. Surely she would have known.
At the end of the block he veered left onto a slender cobbled street. It had no streetlamp. He sprinted its empty length, lungs burning.
At the end of the lane was an abandoned print shop, its windows long boarded over, its decorative crenels broken or crumbled away. He knew this place, had poked around it before, even shown it to Avra once, wondering if it would make a second workshop before he gave up the idea as too expensive.
Rom slowed, panting, and looked around. No one present that he could see. He jogged a few paces, searched along the first floor of the building. There—the boards of a ground-floor window, still missing where he had once broken them away to climb inside.
He shoved his way through, grunting as a splintered board ripped the shoulder of his jacket down to the skin. He hesitated just a moment inside as his eyes adjusted to the darkness. The uncanny still of the stale air filled his nostrils.
He staggered past the front room to the larger one in back and fell against the wall just inside the open doorway. He listened for long moments, straining to hear shouts or the prying of window boards. Only his own labored breathing and the skittering of rodents along the far wall broke the silence.
Rom exhaled an uneven breath and slid down onto his rear, ignoring the plaster that dusted his shoulders. Hands trembling, he rubbed the rain from his eyes. But it wasn’t all rain. His fingers came away red. Blood was on the dirty muslin of the parcel, too.
He set the parcel down. But the sight of it, the blood-smeared price of a life—more than one, according to the old man—seemed obscene.
What have I done?
He had run in panic and would surely pay a terrible price. But why had the old man run? And why had the guard killed him?
He was killed, I tell you! As all the other keepers were killed. For this.
What could be worth the price of a life?
He listened one more moment for any sound of pursuit, then, satisfied that he was alone with the rats, he gripped the package and pushed himself up. Rom stepped toward a patch of gray light between the boards of one of the old windows.
His fingers curled in the damp muslin and pulled it apart with a pop of threads along the seam where it had been sewn to the old man’s coat. He got it open. Pulled out a box.
It was a small wooden box, no bigger than the little jewelry box he had once made for his mother. It was dark and damp, as though it perspired on its own. And it was ancient.
The box wasn’t locked, but the iron latch refused to budge when he pried at it with a fingernail.
Even as he tried again, he knew he should turn it over to the authorities, unopened, explain everything. But in running he had broken the law. There was no mercy for those who broke the laws of Order. If what the old man said was true, had the same thing happened to his father?
He crouched, set the latch against the stone edge of the windowsill, and pried it open.
A small bundle nestled inside. Something wrapped in a thin piece of—what? Parchment? No, leather. A section of vellum, folded and rolled, surprisingly supple. He lifted the bundle out and set the box aside. Unwrapping the vellum, he eased out the thing rolled inside it.
A glass vial. It was the length of his palm, narrow at the top and swelling to the width of two fingers at the base, sealed with a stainless cap.
He lifted it up to what little light came in through the window. Shook it. Inside, dark, thick, viscous liquid coated the glass.
Now he could see four marker lines on the vial. Five measures.
For this, a man had lost his life?
Power and life…life as it was, the old man had called it.
That, it had been. As good as a vial of death.
He started to rewrap it but then noticed several faded markings on the vellum. Holding the vial between the fingers of one hand, he stretched the ancient leather open. On one side was a list of what looked to be names—names with dates, each of them struck through. The other was covered with line after line of letters that spelled out nothing he could decipher except for a single, plainly written paragraph wedged into the margin at the top, as though added at a later date. He tilted the vellum toward the dusky light and made out the words:
The Order of Keepers has sworn to guard
These contents for the Day of Rebirth
Beware, any who drink—
Blood destroys or grants the power to live
He read it again. And then once more. But it made no more sense to him the third time than it had the first. The Order of Keepers? The only order he knew was the Order itself. And a Day of Rebirth happened every forty years at the new Sovereign’s inauguration, as it would in five days.
He had never heard his father speak of anything like this. Had never seen anything like it in his father’s possession. Surely the man would have said something? But Rom had been a boy when his father died.
Rom knew only one thing: If what the old man said was true, his father had died for this vial and this message. And if what the message said was true, his father had been a keeper, presumably of this very vial.
Now it was in his possession, and he was as good as dead himself. Running from authority was a capital offense.
His mother. His mother would know what to do and if there was truth to anything the old man had said.
Rom wrapped the vial in the vellum, set the bundle back into the box, and pushed it back into the muslin casing. And then a horrible thought seized him.
He’d left his bag behind and with it, his wallet and identification. The guard would know who he was soon enough. They would come for him at home. And his mother was home.
His pulse lurched into a new, frenetic pace. He had to talk to her before the guard got there, if only to learn the truth.
He snatched up the box and hurried to the opening in the window. Silence. He crawled outside and glanced down the darkening street.
Rom tucked the box under his arm, lowered his head, and ran for home.
The Citadel at the heart of Byzantium contained more power behind its thirty-foot-high walls than in all the world’s continents put together. Within her three square miles lay the marble and limestone apartments of the Sovereign, the supreme court, the senate, and the world’s highest administrative offices.
The secrets of Chaos roamed her ancient tunnels and haunted her archives. The whispers of a passion-filled age flitted through her crypts. The Citadel might be the compass by which the world navigated, but it was to those who dwelled within it foremost a house of secrets.
Saric, son of Vorrin, paced inside a small chamber beneath the center of the great walled capitol. Few of those buzzing about their business above would ever guess the extent of the sprawling subterranean maze beneath them. And few knew these underground chambers as intimately as Saric did. Especially this chamber tucked two floors beneath the assembly hall of the senate.
Here, Megas had drawn together the council that canonized the Book of Orders. Here, he had given the command to destroy all works of Chaos: the mechanized weapons of war, the networks, the technology, the religion, the art, all the reminders of a time when unchained passion ruled—and ruined—the hearts of man.
Here, Sirin, the founder of the Order before Megas, had been assassinated.
Feyn, Saric’s half sister, called the room morbid. Until recently, Saric had agreed with her. Seven days recently, to be exact. Now he found the chamber filled with strange energy and with the specters of a history he had only begun to appreciate.
The room hosted a variety of items in similar states of disuse or decay, each of them an illicit survivor of Megas’s decree: ancient books, some of them frivolously written for nothing but entertainment and the heightening of emotion, their crumbling pages barely legible; a pewter goblet from a time when basilicas housed worshippers of a different god; a collection of curved knives, one of them with a jewel-crusted sheath from the ancient region of India; several swords and a long spear, the head of which had deteriorated to a metal nub; and an automatic weapon that had long ago ceased to function properly. Saric had never learned its origins.
The hexagonal chamber itself had once been nearly destroyed by fire. Ever since, the blackened stone walls had a propensity for retaining moisture. Anything hung on them tended to molder, including the chamber’s focal point: a tapestry of Saric’s father, the Sovereign Vorrin, defaced for a decade now by the lichen living upon its threads.
Saric ran a ringed hand over his hair and down to his nape, smoothed the V-shaped patch of hair beneath his lower lip. Like the chamber walls, he was sweating.
“You will tell me again what is happening to me,” he said, very quietly.
The alchemist standing near the center of the chamber was not a young man. Corban was one of the High Peers of Alchemy, those advanced members of the alchemists’ secretive inner sect.
“I have already explained, my lord.”
“Fragments!” Saric said, turning on him. The word ricocheted off the stone. He lowered his voice. “I am not one of your mice to collect pellets when you drop a few in my direction. I want to know everything that is happening to me. Now.” A tremor ran through his bones.
So much had happened in seven days. In the space of so many scant hours, a new world had lifted the hem of her skirts before him. A world of seething pleasures and sweaty rage.
Rage in particular was its own form of pleasure, he had learned, one of a few truly pleasurable releases for the new beast that grasped at the world from the cage of his chest.
Corban inclined his head. “Then I will start at the beginning.”
When the alchemist tilted his head, his neck looked exceedingly fragile. He was a slight man, though the long robes of his office disguised the fact well.
“Within a generation of Null Year, our alchemist forefathers began to apply analysis of the human genome to systematically curing the diseases that ail humanity. The cancers, the blindness, the epidemic viruses—”
“Save me the propaganda.”
“You ask for answers. You must be patient—”
“You school me on patience?” Sweat snaked down Saric’s spine. “I don’t have another five hundred years. My sister is preparing her inaugural address at this moment. I have days. Which means you have minutes.”
He willed the tightness around his lungs to relax. Right now, he felt that he could kill a boar with his hands. That he could leap, unharmed, from the turret of the Citadel’s watchtower.
That he might tear out his own eyes.
He dragged his sleeve across his forehead, half expecting to see it come away red. His entire body hurt. His entire being burned.
The alchemist folded his hands. “As we learned to correct the inherited mistakes of our DNA, we decoded the emotional ills of humanity as well. You must understand that the limbic system of the brain—a circuit comprising the amygdalae, the hippocampus, and the hypothalamus, among others—”
Corban blinked. “When we identified the coding of these emotions, we also discovered a way to eliminate them, all but that one required for our survival—”
“Fear. Yes. Yes, I know all about the evils of emotion as preached by Sirin. Tell me what has happened to me.”
“As you say, Sirin preached against the volatility of emotion and denounced the passions. To that end, Megas offered a solution: a pathogen with the genetic code to alter the DNA of any host. Airborne, highly contagious. They called it Legion.”
Legion. The name hung in the room.
“Sirin wanted nothing to do with Legion,” Corban said. “Even though his philosophies were already failing, he would not embrace the solution. And so he was removed—not by emotion-crazed zealots, as history teaches, but by Megas.”
Saric drew a slow breath. “You are telling me Sirin was assassinated by Megas himself.” The whole world believed that Sirin had been assassinated by radicals. It was the inciting event of the world’s new Order.
“Yes. And those few who know it guard this secret with their lives.”
Saric looked around the chamber with new eyes. “So. In that moment the Order gained both its martyr and its proof against every zeal Sirin condemned.”
“Indeed. And Megas had the means to ensure the world’s eternal loyalty.”
“So it’s true, after all, that Sirin was killed by zealots. Just not the ones we thought.”
“I suppose so.”
“This pathogen, this Legion that stripped humanity of all but fear—you’re saying it worked.”
“The virus did its work within the space of a few years.”
“And so the nonemotional state of the world is not the selective preference of evolution as we have all been taught, but an act of oppression.”
Corban hesitated. “I would call it an act of liberation.”
Saric drew a slow breath. The knowing filled him with strange satisfaction. It also unsettled. He moved to the console and lifted the jewel-crusted knife, thoughtfully dragging his thumb over the twisted prongs of the settings. “You’re saying everyone—including me—is infected with a virus.”
“No. It’s no longer a viral infection. Nearly half our genetic code is derived from viruses. Think of it…as a new volume added to the library of our genetic code.”
“So in the face of all our talk of living as evolved humans, you’re saying we’ve selectively devolved?”
The alchemist pursed his lips. “I would say we have customized our emotional makeup in the same way that we selected the translucence of the skin that you Brahmin seem to favor, the paleness of your eyes that you consider beautiful.”
“By simply turning off the switches to those emotions that no longer serve us.”
“In a manner of speaking, yes.”
Whatever this virus had done to humanity, the alchemists had found a way to undo it in him. The chaos of emotions had come roiling back into veins and neurons too tepid to house their fire, and Saric wasn’t sure if he wanted to kill the alchemists or thank them for it.
Emotion. So long forgotten, even the words for emotions had become nothing but a wisp, a feckless currency without backing. Hope. Envy. Disgust. Love.
Love. The archaic emotion in the Age of Chaos was now simply understood as a duty based on honor and respect, stripped of emotion. But what had it felt like? He tossed the jeweled knife atop the console.
“So that’s it. The world has been castrated.”
“Despite our vast knowledge, emotion retained her mysteries. The most complex workings of Legion were not completely understood by us.”
Saric glanced at him.
“The alchemists continued to study emotion’s underpinnings. Through the process, we learned to restore some of the emotions we once turned off with Legion.”
“Yes, the atraviridae. We call it Chaos, for obvious reasons.”
“The dark virus,” Saric said softly.
Corban continued. “And so I came to you seven days ago and the rest you know. You are looking on the world as a new creature. I say new because although we have reanimated the emotion centers of your brain, it is not exactly the same as it would be had you been born that way. It is, I like to think, an improvement. Pravus chose well.”
Pravus the Elder, foremost among the Peers. He, too, had taken the serum quite a while before ordering Corban to administer it to Saric.
“You are his right-hand man,” Saric said. “I wonder why he didn’t choose you for this…honor.”
Corban’s gaze slowly lifted. It was flat but guileless.
Saric said, barely above a whisper, “You would have done it, wouldn’t you?”
Corban was silent.
“But you don’t have the royal blood that Pravus needs. Ah. Pity.”
But Corban could not comprehend pity. Even for himself.
Saric felt a sudden stab of something like loneliness. He wondered where Feyn was, if she had finished writing her inaugural address, and in what posture she sat now, at this moment. He wondered what she had chosen to wear today and what supper her breath smelled of and the directional cant of those ice-cloud eyes.
Corban must have seen the tremble in Saric’s hands or the sweat on his brow, because he pressed with a question of his own.
“You are confused about what you’re feeling?”
Saric stepped away and took a deep breath. “I have…strange sensations that I don’t know how to describe. I can barely contain them. The effort of it is like pain. I crave things I never wanted to possess. The women—”
The man whispered. “Desire, my lord. Lust.”
Saric gave a slow nod. “I crave to take things from others. I think of killing someone just to push the life out of their lungs with my hands, especially if they would stop me.”
“Anger. Perhaps jealousy.”
Anger. Jealousy. They might as well have been the names of colors to the blind.
“Anything else?” the alchemist asked.
“I want things. The robe of my father, which is fine velvet embroidered with gold. But more, I want the office that goes with that robe. I am jealous for it.” There, he had said it, given voice to the two-headed asp that struck even now with great pleasure and fury at his insides.
“Ambition, my lord. And clearly, that is the whole point. Pravus would return power to the house of alchemy through you, who is half alchemist by blood.”
Indeed, the plan. So Pravus had the same thirsts but needed Saric to quench them.
Ambition. It was the greatest of those serpents within him. It made him feel full, to have them inside him, and very tall. He felt great in this room, as though he filled it merely by standing in it. As though the Citadel could not contain him, as though the world itself would not, perhaps, sate him. Everyone else—everything else—felt minuscule in comparison.
“I wonder, my lord,” Corban said, coming closer. “Do you feel anything else? Joy perhaps?”
“They also called it satisfaction. A sense of well-being, according to the record. Fulfillment.”
Saric looked at the relics around him. “I feel joy every time a new woman is brought in for me. I feel joy at the sound of her screams.”
Corban was studying him with intense scrutiny.
“Has your lab rat satisfied your curiosity, then?”
“You misunderstand my motivation,” the older man said. “And I do not believe that what you describe is joy. We have reignited some emotions, but not all. Only those of a darker nature, apparently.”
“My appetite for meat has increased. It’s what I crave, to the exclusion of all else—”
“That isn’t unusual. Meat is the mainstay of the world diet.”
For nearly two centuries, the law had restricted citizens’ caloric intake, monitored carbohydrates, and eliminated sugar. It was common knowledge that carbohydrates, even those found in vegetables, shortened life. To think, in the age of arcane science there had been diets based on vegetables!
“No. I can’t even bear the thought of overcooked food. It repulses me. In fact, the smell of the venison that you ate for supper repulses me.”
“You can smell that?”
“I can smell blood anywhere and prefer my meals running with it. And then there is this—” Saric pulled away the sodden neck of his cloak and in three strides loomed over the alchemist.
“Do you see how my veins stand out against my skin?”
In just the last day his jugular had turned nearly black beneath the surface, as though it ran with ink. Saric’s skin was already translucent, so much so that he never needed to accentuate the vein along his forearm, as some royals did, with blue cosmetic powder. Indeed, Saric had been pleased at the change and marveled at it. But as he had watched the blue branching of his veins darken, he had wondered with fear and fascination what it meant.
“As far as side effects go, I would think you’d find it pleasing,” the alchemist said. “Now, if that is all, my lord—”
“It is not all. I want to know what the Chaos serum might do to my wife, Portia. Each of the women I’ve given it to has died, sometimes before I finished with her.”
Corban shook his head. “I strongly urge against it. We’ve allowed it in the women brought to satisfy your new tastes, knowing they would not survive. But giving it to Portia is inadvisable. We studied your bloodline for months before administering the serum. Clearly, it does not suit all bloodlines, and many of our initial samples did not yield…favorable results. Let me remind you that there are only three who know of your recent conversion, including yourself. It is extremely dangerous to share this secret with anyone.”
Saric turned away. So there it was. Was he even now dying as a result of his reanimation?
If he was, he would wrest from this world every drop of pleasure and power he could. What did it matter? The very foundation of the Order was a lie.
Besides, he was in Hades already.
A shudder passed up through his spine. It took all his resolve to keep it from overtaking his limbs.
“And yet, Corban, we will have to get a fresh sample of the serum. Because I am most interested in sharing this—these new passions—with my wife.”
A sharp rap came from the other side of the door. And then he smelled it: copper and salt.
Two guardsmen entered the chamber. One of them, the taller of the two, carried a sack, the mouth of it gathered in his fist.
Saric took the sack from him, hefted it once as though weighing it, and then emptied it with a heave in Corban’s direction.
The head of an old man rolled out. It lolled before coming to rest faceup. The eyes were open with an unlikely mixture of fear and amazement.
“The keeper, yes,” the taller one said. The other, who looked far stronger, glanced at Corban.
“He’s the last, then.”
“The last that we know of. Besides the one you have in the dungeons.”
“The vial. Where is the blood?”
The guard hesitated. “The old man found him.”
“The son of Elias. The keeper passed it to him, before we could get it.”
“You’re saying a dead keeper’s son has the blood.”
The guardsman nodded.
Saric let out a slow, controlled breath. “You saw this.”
The blood was rumored to be superior to the Chaos serum Saric had received. It would return the one who took it to the fully devolved state of chaotic man. A reawakening, to be precise, more complete than the one he was now experiencing. Whether it actually had such properties remained to be seen, but at least one thing now was certain: It existed.
“You know where he will go?”
“Yes, sir. We’ve had him under surveillance for years, since the death of his father.”
“Find him. Get the blood. If I don’t have his head by day’s end tomorrow, I’ll have yours.”
Rom thought the familiar sight of the narrow lane behind the houses on his block would calm the hammer of his heart. He expected the modest homes on Piera Street, with their cracked paint and old brick, to set right the axis of a world suddenly jarred askew.
The slim houses with their straight sides and asphalt shingles seemed at strange odds to him, even against the mundane sounds of barking dogs and someone replacing the lid on a metal trash bin.
He glanced back twice as he ran down the left side of the drive, then slowed near the outbuilding of the fourth house. The paint on the outbuilding had peeled to a nondescript gray, though the sill of the lone window was new and still almost white.
Rom’s workshop, inherited from his father.
His father, a simple artisan like him. Was what the old man said even possible, that his father had been one of these keepers?
Not twenty feet away, he could see the back of the home he shared with his mother. Light shone through the kitchen window, which was cracked open. From inside came the sounds of dinner in progress: a spoon scraping the contents from a pot, that pot being set with a clatter in the sink below the window.
No sign of the Citadel Guard.
The familiar form of his mother, Anna, leaned over the sink. His fear began to abate at the sight of her making dinner as though it were any normal night, but it sailed again at the reality that he had just committed a capital offense.
What would she say when he told her? Would she turn him in? She was obligated by Order to do so, but he didn’t think she would—not if she knew they would kill him. To disobey Order was a fearful thing, the courting of Hades. But to aid or introduce death to your own flesh and blood was equally fearful, akin to bringing death on oneself. It was a conflict of fears that the Order couldn’t resolve, no matter that assembly services preached obedience regularly.
He glanced down at the muslin-wrapped box in his hand. It felt glued there, stuck tight in the clasp of fingers that had forgotten how to unclench. He had to get control of himself, to think.
Rom rounded the small building, digging in his pocket for his key ring. He found it and quickly unlocked the shop. Flipped the light switch.
No guardsmen waiting to kill him.
He latched the door behind him and gazed at the trappings of his life, oddly irrelevant now in the face of crime: the distressed worktable in the center, the equally weathered workbench along the wall. The lathe, the bins of wood and metal scraps he’d salvaged from other projects and abandoned buildings. The workshop was just as he’d left it that morning, even down to the half-finished cup of coffee on the workbench.
He glanced at the tattered chair in the corner, the one with the permanent dent in the seat cushion. It was where Avra sat when she came to visit after she was done for the day in her father’s laundry shop.
Avra. Again, he tried to picture what she would say if she knew what he had done. Because of their association, she would soon fear for herself even more than she already did, which was saying much.
But right now he had his own fears to contend with.
He walked to the worktable, set the box down. One thing he knew: He couldn’t run from the Order forever. They would find him and kill him because of a mysterious vial, the importance of which he couldn’t begin to grasp.
He wet a rag and wiped blindly at the dried blood on his face, then threw the rag into the trash. He paused, grabbed the rag back out of the trash, bundled the box in it, and pushed it to the bottom of the bin.
After exchanging his dirtied jacket for another one lying across the back of the chair, he headed out of the workshop to the house.
Inside, the glow of a lone electric light illuminated the kitchen. Another lit the small living room toward the front of the house. These were the two small extravagances they afforded themselves, those two lights that would be replaced by candles as soon as dinner was over.
In the kitchen, Anna retrieved two glasses from the cabinet. A secondary school teacher, she had always been considered wise and was often sought out by her students for advice. “If Bliss truly exists in the hereafter,” Rom’s father had once said, “your mother will be the first to receive it.”
And then he had gone on to investigate for himself. That was five years ago.
“How was your day?” Anna said to Rom over her shoulder.
Stew steamed from a bowl at the center of the small kitchen table. But rather than soothe, the smell of it only turned his stomach.
“And take off that old jacket before you sit down. Didn’t you at least wear your good one to basilica?”
When he didn’t respond, she glanced up, struck by his frozen silence. “Rom? What’s the matter with you?” She set down the glasses and came to him. “Are you ill?”
“Something…” He cleared his throat. “Something happened today.”
“What do you mean, something? And what happened to your head?” She pushed back his bangs and leaned in to examine him.
“I was coming home from basilica and there was an old man waiting for me on the way home. He said he knew Father.”
Her brow arched, but she remained her stoic self. It took a lot to awaken Mother’s fear, a trait she’d passed on to him. “Many people knew your father,” she said, as if to say, So what?
The place settings on the table were as clean and vacant as fresh faces. What he wouldn’t give for it to be any normal dinner on any normal day.
“I thought he was crazy, but then the Citadel Guard came. They must have been following him—”
“The Citadel Guard?”
“He said Father didn’t die of fever, but that he was killed.”
“But that’s not true.”
“He gave me a box—the same one he said Father was killed for. He made me take it. And then the Citadel Guard…”
Her gaze held steady, and she said nothing.
“Mother, they had a knife.” A tremor had come into Rom’s voice. “I watched them cut his throat, there in the alley. They killed him.”
Now she paled, showing the first signs of a fear not even she could suppress.
“You must be mistaken.”
“I watched it! I saw his blood spill out.”
She hesitated, then said quickly, “His path was his to follow. As was your father’s. Neither is any of your concern. None of it. Remember that and this will all pass.” She turned back toward the table and then hesitated. “I trust you discussed these things with the guard.”
So then, here it was. The mistake that would surely earn him his death.
She turned back, her face a white slate.
“I dropped my bag,” Rom said. “They know who I am.”
For several long seconds, they stared at each other, speaking with their eyes what was now painfully obvious. In this one simple act, Rom had done the unthinkable. He had forever altered not only his life, but hers.
“So they know where you live,” his mother said.
He felt powerless to stop the fear slicing through his mind. If such a wise and reasoning person as his mother was afraid for her life upon hearing what he’d done, how much more should he fear for his own?
“You should not have run.”
The words hung between them.
“Don’t fear, Mother. I’m going. When they come, there will be nothing here to cast suspicion on you. They won’t hurt you.”
“Yes, you should go.”
He carried the greatest respect for her. He honored her in the way the Order prescribed. And although her living or dying was really none of his concern, he felt obligated to show his commitment by removing her from suspicion when they came for him. He had no business affecting her journey with his own mistakes. Her request that he leave was her way of saying he must take his own journey—with its consequences—without affecting her own.
“But before I leave, I need to know. Did anyone ever call Father a keeper?”
“A keeper? What is that? I’ve never heard the term.”
“Then he hid himself from you as well?”
“Your father’s path was his path. Whether he was killed or whether he died—what concern is it really to either of us? Our responsibility right now is to love one another enough to do what is best. To keep Order and ensure our own proper passing. Perhaps to meet in the afterlife.”
Love. Truly, Mother and he loved each other, for what was love but the obligation of loyalty?
“I’ll get the box and go.”
She went very still. “You still have this box.”
“You brought it to our home?”
“It’s in the workshop.”
“You must report it immediately! Give it to them and tell them your having it was a mistake.”
“They’ll never believe me. The time for that is past. I ran, Mother. They chased me for a long time.”
She averted her eyes, stepped to a chair, and sat carefully, staring off toward the window.
“I’ll leave now,” Rom said.
“No.” She looked at him. “It’s too late. Go get the box. We’re both at risk now. We’ll take it to the Citadel together.”
She pushed up from her chair, looked around her, and then started to untie her apron. “We’ll go. We’ll take it to the Citadel and clear this up.”
She seemed sure of herself. In the face of her confident loyalty to Order, her unquestioning regard for compliance, his fear eased. She was right. It was the right thing to do. It was what he should have done from the beginning.
“I’ll get my coat,” she said. “Go get the box.”
Rom went out the back, not bothering to shut the door behind him. Inside the workshop, he dug the box from the waste bin.
It was the box that had determined his father’s fate and would now determine his own. His fingers tingled at the thought and he wondered if he would ever know its meaning. The question was cut short by a scream.
Rom’s heart seized. It had come from the direction of the house.
Another scream cut through the night air. His mother’s. Raised, muffled voices followed in its wake.
He dropped the box and spun toward the door. What Rom did next did not come from a place of reason or wisdom or even honor. He simply reacted, without thought, tearing for the house before he knew that his legs were even moving.
He flew up the steps to the back porch, crashed through the open doorway into the kitchen, and then pulled up sharply. There in the entrance to the dining room stood a guardsman with his back to Rom. A knife was in his fist, pointed at the floor.
It was the second time that day he’d seen such a sight, and this time it struck him as even more surreal than the first. These images were not meant to exist. Not in real life, not in front of any decent man’s eyes, not in his home.
The guardsman with the blade glanced over his shoulder, saw Rom, and turned to face him.
“There you are.” He was a thick-faced man with flat lips and dark eyebrows, holding the knife as if it were a natural extension of his arm. “Bring her out!”
Two other guardsmen, also bearing knives, hauled his mother around the corner, each holding her up by one of her arms. Her dress was red from a trail of blood that flowed from a three-inch gash in her right cheek.
This was his mother, frozen by terror. Gone was her customary cloak of wisdom or any pretence of surety. She was visibly shaking in their grasp.
“Rom…” Her lips, stretched thin, were quivering. Her eyes pleaded as though she were a child.
The door behind Rom opened, and with a quick glance he saw that two more men had entered the house. He was surrounded.
“Please don’t let them kill me!” She hung between the guards, her words devolving into terrified sobs.
Rom saw it all in still frames, the inevitability of it all. He was going to die. As was his mother.
Oddly, for the moment at least, Rom felt no fear. He felt nothing at all.
“You feel that, boy?” The thick-faced guard lifted his blade and pressed it to his mother’s throat. “You feel the fingers of fear wrapping around your heart?”
Blood seeped over the blade’s edge where it bit into the skin of her neck.
“You feel it because you have no doubt that what you see with your own eyes will also happen to you.”
Fear found Rom like a fist to the throat.
“I know because we all feel the same,” the thick-faced man said. And indeed, there was the glint of fear in his gaze. “We all have our ways of serving the Order. Mine is to help you do the right thing. Where is the package?”
Though his mother begged for her life, he knew he could not affect her journey, especially when surrounded by so many guardsmen. So then it was not his concern and she would surely find Bliss.
His own journey might still lay ahead of him, but he knew these men had no intention of letting him live, box or no box.
“Tell me,” the man repeated.
His mother’s eyes pleaded. Tears spilled down her cheeks. “Please, please. I don’t want to die. Rom!”
He was going to die! Panic crowded his mind. He was going to die and the thought of death, so close, rode him like a monster more powerful and vicious than any he’d known to exist. His body began to tremble.
“You’re flaunting Order, boy! No?” The guard calmly sawed into his mother’s throat, severing her scream along with her arteries and at least part of her spinal cord. Her body went limp like a thing unplugged.
The other two released her arms.
Rom lost his mind to fear before she hit the floor, while the man who’d killed her still had his back to him. He threw himself forward, crashing into the back of one man who stood in his way. The guardsman fell into one of those who’d held his mother, putting them both off balance.
But Rom wasn’t keeping track. He was simply getting out. Over his mother’s body, into the living room, through the front door before any of the guards could collect themselves.
Only then did he manage to string together enough reason to form logical thought. To realize that the only thing in the world that interested these men now was the box.
The box was his only leverage.
Rom ducked to his left, around the house toward the workshop. With any luck they would pursue him out the front while he made for the back of the house.
Shouts reached him as he sprinted through the workshop door. Then he was inside and across the room, skidding and nearly going down as he grabbed the box from where he’d dropped it.
He regained his balance and ran out of the workshop. They were coming, rounding on him from the side of the house in the falling darkness. He wheeled left and ran toward the waist-high iron fence between his house and the neighbor’s. If there was any route of escape it would be here.
He vaulted the fence, landed with a skitter of stones, and sprinted across the narrow back lot—and the next one after that. When he reached the end of the third lot, he veered toward the lane and sprinted across the old cobbles.
A shout issued from the alley less than twenty paces off. Rom ran through the narrow file between two houses on the other side of the lane, out to the opposite street. Past house lots, past a copse of stunted trees to a path at the edge of a tiny neighborhood park.
The perennial clouds that obscured the sun by day obscured the moon most nights as well. But Rom would have found his way along this path in pitch darkness.
He could think of only one person who might help him make sense of his predicament.
It took him ten minutes at a steady jog to reach her neighborhood, where he ducked around the corner of a small outbuilding. Hearing no sound, he ran, bent low along the rear walk of several row houses, to the fifth one. When he’d made his way to the back of the building, he stopped midway at a heavy door with a combination lock and listened for any sign of pursuit.
He entered the code and let himself into the building, but he did not breathe any easier.
Seeing his mother die so violently left him with no doubt as to his own fate. If they would kill her simply to put fear into his heart, they would think nothing of killing him.
He saw it again—the obscene gush of blood, the slumping of Anna’s body, the way she had collapsed to the floor.
In the Age of Chaos, before humanity had evolved out of its slavery to emotions, he might have suffered their debilitating effects. He remembered the word sorrow, whatever that was, and knew it might have rendered him a lump of useless flesh, in which case he would have been dead by now.
Then again, fear had nearly incapacitated him. Now he would have to control that fear if he hoped to survive.
He turned up a short staircase of decaying cement. The landing separated into two doorways. He entered the code into the left one and silently let himself in, wondering momentarily if he would enter another death scene.
The kitchen and living room inside were quiet, dimly lit by a single lamp.
“Avra?” His voice seemed too loud.
He hurried past the kitchen to the hallway that led to the only bedroom on the floor. The door pushed open easily.
She bolted up from her bed along the adjacent wall. A book fell with a thump to the floor.
“Rom!” she breathed. “What are you doing scaring me like that?”
For a moment, he told himself it was all untrue. That it had not happened—the murder of the old man or of his mother. Here in the familiar clutter of Avra’s bedroom, unchanged in all the years he had known her, he could almost believe it.
But then he remembered the box in his hand, the ache in his fingers from his death grip around it.
And its death grip on him.
He would find no refuge here. They had found him at home; they would come to this place soon enough.
“I need your help,” he said.
She stared back with startled eyes so dark he couldn’t tell where the irises ended and the pupils began. At first glance one might mistake her for a girl younger than her twenty-three years. Lithe-framed and small-boned, she embodied youthful fragility, though she was stronger than anyone might guess.
“What are you talking about? What’s wrong with you?”
They were running out of time. He looked around, found her shoes, and grabbed them. “We need to go. Quick. Put these on,” he said, dropping them before the bed. He blew out the lantern on the desk and then drew the curtain aside. “Hurry!”
“Hurry why? You’re scaring me!”
“We have to go.”
“My mother’s dead.” His voice was as empty as he felt.
“What?” She blinked.
He glanced at her from the window. “I saw a man killed today and I ran. He was killed for this.” Rom held out the bundle in his hand.
“What do you mean, killed?”
“Killed. Murdered. We have to go!”
“Go where? You’re not making any sense!”
He willed himself to talk around the panic rising up within him with each passing second. “The Citadel Guard killed a man for this. The man who gave it to me, they slaughtered him. With a knife. And then they came to my house.”
“They came for this. And they killed my mother.”
“I need your help. And you need mine. They came for my mother and they’ll come for you.”
“You think they’re going to kill me?” Her voice had risen in pitch.
Outside, a dog barked.
Rom peered back out the window into the darkness behind the building. Two forms passed the glow of a lower-level window. “They’re here!”
She sprang to her feet but then stood there, frozen.
“I don’t want my journey to end today,” he said. “But if I stay here, it will. And if you stay, I think yours will, too. If you’re ready for that, I’ll leave. But I promise, they’ll kill you.”
She hesitated only one more moment, her breath coming shallow and quick in the air between them. And then she shoved her feet into her shoes.
“Where are we going?”
This, he had already thought out. She wouldn’t like the answer.
“Do you trust me?”
“Yes.” She grabbed her cloak and threw it over her shoulders.
He took her hand. Together they ran down the hall. When she turned toward the kitchen, he pulled her the other way.
“No. Quickly. The front.”
He blew out the lone lamp in the living room. In the darkness, she unlatched the front door.
They waited. Rom blinked, strained to readjust to the dark.
When the dog began its manic noise again, he whispered: “Now.”
As they ran down the steps and out into the night, Rom sent a prayer to the Maker. He asked only one thing: that he not witness a third killing tonight.
Electric light high inside the tunnel flickered through the windows of the underground train. It leapfrogged over the empty seats in stripes. It played through the auburn strands of Avra’s hair.
They stood together toward the back, Rom with one arm around the back exit rail, the other around Avra, who could not seem to still her trembling. He knew the reason. Avra, of all people, was not prepared to chance her own death. Though the pall of it had hung over her for years, she was less prepared than anyone for the inevitable.
Her hair caught in the day-old stubble against his chin. He closed his eyes, inhaled the soapy scent of it, and tried to imagine that it were any other day. That her breath against his collarbone was not uneven, the small fingers digging into his back were not ice-cold.
The box, that toxic bundle, was pressed between them, hidden inside the folds of Avra’s cloak where she’d shoved it upon sighting a compliance officer near the underground entrance.
She shuddered and he tightened his arm around her as the train lurched around a corner.
“I can’t believe it. I can’t believe it,” she whispered. “Are you sure she’s dead?”
He thought of the gurgling gash in his mother’s neck, the way she had crumpled. The blood—so much blood—soaking into the floorboards. He thought of her terror, and his.
He looked across the train car to its only other passengers: an older woman reading a paper, and a university-aged man who stared out the dark windows at nothing.
Rom wondered if he would ever again have the luxury of idle thought or random dreams. Somehow, he doubted it.
She turned her face into his shoulder. “I don’t see how I can help you. Maybe you should just turn yourself in.”
“I’m not ready to die.”
“But if it’s your path—”
“And what if it’s yours? Are you ready?”
She fell silent.
“I know I’m risking Bliss by running. I know. But I can’t go in. Not yet. I need you to help me think this through. And I can help you stay alive. Because I’m telling you, if they find either of us, we’re dead.”
“You said it’s a vial of blood,” she said. “Whose? Why would an old man say that about your father, and why does the guard want it? Why didn’t the old man just give it to them?”
“I don’t know. Shhh.”
Across the car, the young man glanced at them. The woman reading the paper had begun to tear one of her fingernails with her teeth. Rom was sure they hadn’t overheard, and that they had fears enough of their own to keep them occupied.
The train came into the station. “We get out here.”
She hadn’t asked yet where they were going, and he hadn’t told her.
They passed through the station toward the gate, their gazes flicking along the platform to the other end where two compliance officers stood in conversation. Ducking low, they hurried past the gate and filed up the stairs to emerge on the street. Lamplight reflected in yellow pools on the pavement. The air was heavy, promising rain.
“We’re going to the basilica, aren’t we?” she finally said.
“Isn’t there anywhere else?”
“Not at this hour. Which is why no one will be there.”
Overhead, the sky broke. Rain began to fall in light, smattering drops, and then in the onslaught of a downpour. Together they ran across the street, past the wan lamplight, through the darkness to the looming form of the basilica.
He still had the key from the funeral service earlier today; it was routine for him to pick it up in advance so he could come in early and practice. Sometimes, if he had extra time, he lit the candles upon the small aisle altar for Avra. The clerics would say the candles didn’t fulfill her need to attend services in person, and they were surely right. But he had done it now for years in secret because she’d asked him to. Besides his mother, there was no one he honored as much as Avra, for reasons that not even he understood.
They entered through the small wooden side door. Inside, the cavernous space of the basilica echoed with the sound of the groaning hinges. The stained-glass depictions of Sirin and Megas seemed oppressively bleak despite their clear eyes, recast in the last few years in the pale, icy blue coveted by the Brahmin royals.
He relocked the door behind him. The sound of the bolt sent a hollow echo like the closing of a vault through the cavern of the sanctum.
“This way.” He led her to a narrow door at the side, opened it, and flicked the switch on the landing. Electric light, sallow as the streetlamps and only half as strong, barely lit the old stairwell. They descended past the first landing and the second, and then into the basement corridor past an old service elevator. He stopped at a storeroom midway down. Any farther and they would end up in the ancient crypt. Avra would not be able to endure that.
For the first time in his life, he wasn’t sure he could, either.
The room was long—long enough to have two doors on the hallway—and stored several stacks of folding chairs, spare seven-branched candelabras, boxes of candles. And there was the casket from the funeral earlier today. It lay atop its metal carriage against the far wall.
He turned away, unnerved by it now in the feeble light.
He dug several vanilla-wax tapers out of a box, set them in one of the candelabras, and lit them with one of the candle lighters from the corner. He flipped off the room light so that the coffin lay in darkness.
Avra stood in the circle of the candlelight, looking completely lost. Rom took a chair from a stack, set it down, and opened it for her. But instead she just stood there, holding the box with the blood.
“We can never go back, can we?”
“I don’t know.” He took the box from her and set it on a small table next to the candelabras, noting that her hands were positioned as if she were still holding it. A moment later, she lowered her arms.
Rom strode to the chair and sat in it himself, got up again, rubbed at his face, sat back down. Looked at the box.
“You’re making me more nervous,” Avra said.
It was everything he could do to remain calm. “Help me think. I can’t think.”
“You shouldn’t have taken the box.”
“I know. But the old man talked about my father. He told me to swear. And then…and then they killed him.”
She let out a shaky breath. “Anyone would have run. I would’ve.”
“Run, yes. But taken the box…”
“You shouldn’t have taken the box.”
“But I did.”
“We could leave the city, go to Greater Europa,” she said. “To my parents’—”
“No. They’ll turn us in.”
“We can’t stay here! Maybe your mother was right. Maybe we should just go to compliance.”
“Are you forgetting everything I say the moment I say it?” He jabbed a finger at the box. “They’re killing people connected to that thing. They killed my father!”
“You don’t know that! Your mother took him to the wellness center herself. He was sick with fever.” But she shuddered when she said it. Rom knew Avra would never go willingly to a wellness center.
“She was right,” Avra went on. “Your mother was a wise woman. She was…” She trailed off, staring at the box. “What about a priest? You could tell one of the priests. They should know what it is. They could take it.”
He hesitated, considering that. “The writing inside the box talked about death. Maybe a priest would know what to do.”
“Then that’s it, we’ll take it to a priest. The priest can turn it in.”
Rom got up and paced away, shaking his head. “I don’t know why, but I think they’d still come after me. They killed my mother and she hadn’t even seen it yet! No. They’re killing everyone associated with it. Which now includes you.”
“But I don’t have a clue about this box! I want nothing to do with it!” Continues...
Excerpted from Forbidden by Dekker, Ted Copyright © 2011 by Dekker, Ted. Excerpted by permission.
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