The Hidden Twin
By Adi Rule
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2016 Adi Rule
All rights reserved.
We look like two ordinary girls. No more than eighteen. She with a sun-yellow cap, my face half-hidden by dark goggles. Legs dangling, our hair swirls in the Caldaras City mist, long locks intermingling. Our arms weave through the dawn-lit metal railing of an old aviary high above the square. Up here, Jey and I might look similar to anyone below whose gaze happens to find us. We might even look like sisters. But no one could accuse us of the truth. We are too far away for anyone to know we're twins — for anyone to realize only one of us is human.
A handful of the priests of Rasus have gathered at the fountain in the center of High Ra Square for morning meditation. A few citizens sit near them on the white marble flagstones, heads bowed deeply. Some hurry by with only a passing nod.
"King Rasus, we thank you for the light," Jey whispers along with the distant murmurs of the priests. She crosses her wrists, palms forward, and stretches out her fingers, symbolizing the sun's rays.
"We really shouldn't do this anymore," I say quietly, but I don't mean "we." The outside world poses no danger to Jey. She is free to exist.
Jey slides an admonishing glance my way until I finally make the reverent gesture to the godking and mutter, "Thanks." My sister likes to share religion with someone, so I come out of my shadows for one dawn each month. I like the view — the way the purple- and blue-robed lesser priests fan out from their black-clad mentors like the brilliant leaves of a night cabbage — but mostly I come for her.
I rest my cheek against the warm, rusty railing. In the distance, beyond the edges of our tilted city, the great volcano Mol looms and frets black clouds. "Not that I don't enjoy getting out of the house once in a while," I say, "but a little exercise and change of scenery are hardly worth getting boiled alive."
"You haven't been caught yet," my sister says.
The priests below continue their meditations, calling forth the glowing spirits of the past. From here, the spirits are little more than gleaming patches of fog clustered at the edges of the fountain.
"That one's victory," Jey says. "I think."
I nod, even though I can't tell the spirits apart the way she can. I don't have enough formal Temple education. Or any formal Temple education, for that matter. I'd be welcomed about as warmly as the monster Bet-Nef, whose ancient, cursed bones still lie sizzling at the bottom of Lake Azure Wave.
But my sister watches the priests with shining eyes — with my eyes, only dark and lovely, not hyacinth blue. It's easy to see that as being the sole difference between us, my only flaw. I try not to think of the hidden differences — the spiderweb of red scars crisscrossing my back. My blood.
I don't watch the priests. I don't want them looking back, no matter how much sunlight and mist and distance separate us. Instead, I study the imposing statue that guards the Temple door on the other side of the square. An obsidian man with broad shoulders and strong, muscular arms who casts a severe gaze on the people below. Sharp teeth, wild hair, terrible bulging eyes. And wings, four of them, delicate and curving like a dragonfly's.
Redwing. A creature of twisted soul with the vengeance of the ancients burning under its skin, the result of an unholy union between a human and an Other. I stare at him, this monstrous stone prince, searching for something of myself in his face.
Morning meditation ends, and I no longer feel as though Jey and I are normal twin sisters distinguishable by eye color. She is human, and I am a dark creature of mythology come to life. Redwing.
"Well," she says, "I'll ... I'll see you tonight."
"Study well." I flash a half smile. "Try not to succumb to distraction. And if you do, well — make sure he's devastatingly handsome, or at least charming enough to make you believe it."
She gives a weak laugh, but doesn't say anything more. I watch her clamber down into the recesses of this half-forgotten old building. We know how to find our way up here without disturbing the little shop or the apartment above it that have claimed the better sections of the lower floors.
I wait a few minutes, then descend, but I will not follow my sister to the college today or any day. I must return home through the city's murk and dark ways, and conceal myself once more.
* * *
When Jey and I were born, somehow my parents convinced themselves we were both human. They even let the local priest of Rasus into our house to perform the holy branding on our splotchy little foreheads.
But our mother was an Other, a princess of light and virtue straight out of a fairy tale. Jey and I are the forbidden product of an Other and a human — always twins, one human and one redwing. A redwing is supposed to be drowned by its parents at birth, but mine thought I was special. You just looked so much like a baby, my father says.
Of course, the moment the priest's razor nicked my skin, the wrong blood came oozing out, black as the world through tight-shut eyes. I cried, the priest gasped, and my mother exploded into a fireball that took our house and the priest with it. The fairy tale was true after all.
So Papa, Jey, and I left the purple lin fields of Val Chorm for Caldaras City, a clockwork place of cogs and gears and clank-clank-clanks. The burning, choking volcanic fog I can now breathe like real air stung my tiny insides when we first stepped off the train. My father carried Jey, swaddled in our best linen, at his chest, and me at his side in a basket. I was wrapped in a tablecloth, hidden under bunches of rotten linstalks, with a handkerchief tied around my mouth so I wouldn't make noise.
And so my life began. I have been tucked away, invisible, for the last eighteen years. I may look like Jey, but my blood betrays a different kind of soul.
My father says I'm a good girl, and he's right. I've never so much as stolen a piece of cake or killed an ash beetle. I've never wished harm on anyone, not even the priests who would damn me to Eternal Drowning. I don't allow myself to angrily claw the walls, to scrape the cloudy glass that separates me from the world until my fingernails peel back to black blood. That's what beasts do.
But in my heart, I know my virtue is a safety precaution. I can feel wickedness smoldering in my chest, balled up, writhing. Like the boiling water they pump out of Lake Azure Wave, solid lead pressing it on all sides until it sloshes and frenzies itself into steam, still trapped. I feel like if I did one small evil thing, I wouldn't be able to stop myself until I'd laid waste to the world.
My father says I'm a good girl, and he's right.
* * *
While Jey is starting her day at the college, I hurry through the wet city air, head down, toward the safety of our house and the glass dome I secretly inhabit. Through side streets and dirt-paved alleys I slip, the flapping frayed edges of my duster coat the only sound.
Well below beautiful High Ra Square, I emerge onto Mad Lane, a modest street that flirts with one of the seedier corners of the city but manages to remain respectable. People go about their business; most of the adults are dressed in plain but good clothing, and most of the children appear to belong to someone. I pass a few unpretentious office doors, boardinghouses, and the Pump Room, a busy tavern, before setting my sights on a little alley that connects to the next street I need. While I may not have explored all of Caldaras City on foot, I often visit it on the printed page. Sometimes I feel as though I have navigated the entire world through the maps and books my father brings home for me.
The sounds from Mad Lane are muffled in the alley, and the farther I walk, the quieter it becomes. The cobblestones give way to packed black dirt that deadens my footsteps. The fog has collected here, softening the edges of the rusty walls and barred windows. A wild raptor bird watches a couple of scraggly pigeons from on high. Steam rises from buildings' back pipes, disturbing the alley mist, and I breathe hot air laced with coal and decay.
The raptor turns her head suddenly, a lightning movement, and stares in my direction with unflinching yellow eyes. I have lived with raptors all my life. Those eyes, reflections of a fierce heart that fears almost nothing in this world, flash danger. I start running.
The people — two, I think — who quietly followed me into this misty alleyway cry out in alarm and are forced to take up the chase instead of simply grabbing me from the earth like a snaproot.
With jagged breath, I run. And they run. Muggers, or worse, guardsmen. The mist swirls. I don't look back. It doesn't matter why these people are after me. I must not be caught. I must not be seen.
I glimpse solid black bars through the mist, the thud of my footfalls and those of my pursuers the only sounds in this deserted corner of the city. The gate at the alley's end is closed.
No, no, no.
I grab the bars anyway, trying to pull myself up. I slide down once, twice, the rust scratching and slicing my palms.
Hands on my shoulders. Strong fingers digging into my bones, pulling me backwards. Violence. It's a new sensation. I can't say I like it.
I twist away and lunge at a metal door that booms hollowly under my fists. For the first time, I catch sight of my attackers. A vision of blue.
Priests of Rasus! Burly, sweating with exertion, each wider than the other, they look more like common thugs than holy men. They both brandish flared black pistols, which is a little disappointing, since it seems to me that, by rights, priests should smite their enemies directly with the white rays of the sun.
"Hello! Help!" I call at the closed door, but no one answers. Scrabbling for another solution, I turn to the priests. How did they find me? What do they intend to do?
Do they know what I am?
"What do you want?" I lunge away as they barrel forward.
"Surrender to the godking," one says, a little out of breath. "Rasus will judge you." He lurches toward me, but I give a kick to his liberally draped midsection and he stumbles back a step.
And then I am staggered by a twisting at my center. A hot potentiality at my core, just above my stomach. I stop, a hand flat against the flaking doorframe, holding still, trying not to breathe. My feet burn.
Something in my brain tells me that if I just breathe in, take the long, gluttonous draw of air that my instincts so desperately want right now, that balled-up potentiality will expand and devour and fill me to my fingertips. I feel as though I could rip the doorframe from its wall, and the door with it. And the wall. And the whole alleyway.
Redwing. My skin buzzes and my blood itches.
I press my back to the door and clench my fingers. "Get away, and I will leave you be."
The men advance, knocking rotten crates sideways and causing hurried little swirls in the gathered fog. The one who spoke first looks weary. The other is angrier, spitting, "Our duties were laid out by Rasus himself."
Before I can respond, a young man emerges from the fog, slighter and shorter than the priests, wearing workman's trousers and a simple gray duster. Over my attackers' shoulders, I see him take stock of the situation and start to approach, concerned. I try to wave him away before they notice, but he calls out, "You there!" and the priests turn.
"Keep back, Beloved!" the angry one says to him. "This is a Temple matter!"
"Come on, you," the other priest says, grabbing my arm. I try to wrench free, but he is tenacious and shoves me into the metal door.
"Leave that girl!" the workman says, drawing himself up to his full, unimpressive height and raising his fists.
"Get out of here!" I try to yell to him, but heavy fingers choke my words. The priest who isn't strangling me swings a heavy fist into the air over the young man's head.
Papa says I'm a good girl, and he's right. But as the priest tightens his fingers, and sparks of air-starved blackness start to crowd my vision, I let myself fight back just a little bit. I have to, I tell myself. There's no other way out. When he relaxes for a moment — possibly so as not to actually kill me — I inhale broadly, granting my lungs a greedy draw of air that electrifies my fibers.
And for the first time, I feel it — a burning, stabbing surge that shoots from the soles of my feet up through my legs, my guts, my heart, out through my fingers. The hot core of the land, the scalding blood of Caldaras itself, rises through my body, joins with my spirit. We are one, it whispers wordlessly. We are everything.
I lash out at the priest, a release, an exhalation. After only a moment, I tamp the surge of energy back down into my core, into the earth below, terrified of what I might unleash.
But now the priest is on fire.
Well. I've never done that before.
He rolls on the dirt, trying to suffocate the flickering red edges of his robes. His face is bloodied and charred, his pistol glowing nearby.
The other priest stares at me. "How in wet hell —?"
But I am off, running back down the alleyway. He fires his pistol; a crate explodes in front of me. But I keep running, and he doesn't pursue. He could not catch me now. I am too fast, and he knows it. I pause, ducking into a grimy alcove, and peer back through the mist.
Damn. The second priest has turned his anger on the young workman who foolishly tried to help me. Damn, damn, damn. The workman tries to protect his face with his forearms as he backs away from the heavy swings of the priest's fists.
I creep toward them several paces, careful to keep to the grungy, dark edges.
"You have no idea what that thing was you just helped escape!" the priest yells. The workman staggers as a blow connects with his jaw. I cringe at the crunch. "You half-boiled, featherless son of a dead stritch!" He lands a wallop, and the workman collapses, blood running over his chin.
I have spent my life trying not to be noticed. It would be wise to turn back down the alley to Mad Lane, to try to salvage what safety I can and escape these priests and their Temple duties, to forget the exhilarating rush of violence.
But a swell of nausea seeps into my stomach as I watch the bloodied face of the workman, who can't be much older than me, his eyes squeezed closed to fight the pain. The blue-robed priest is kicking him now, shiny boots landing blow after blow on the still body on the ground. He is being beaten for trying to help me.
The workman manages to get his arms up over his face, but the holy man keeps striking. The sounds are sickening — dull thumps and cracks and strangled cries. "Who in wet hell do you think you are?" the priest growls at him. This gives me pause. It is a question I have never been able to answer successfully.
Redwing. A creature of evil and menace, who doesn't care if some workman gets battered to death in an alley.
Other. A being of strength and light, who stands against injustice.
Ver's ass, the priest has noticed me. I am still too far away for him to have a chance at catching me, but he reloads his pistol. The workman writhes on the ground, smearing his own blood on the dirt. I swallow.
The priest peers through the thin mist. "Have you decided to submit to judgment?" He fixes me with a beady gaze. He's brave, I must credit him that.
"No," I call out.
He puts a hand on his hip. "Then what in blazes are you doing?"
I gesture to the bleeding heap at his feet. "Well, I'm not beating a man to within an inch of his life." I step forward. "Yet."
What the hell am I doing? Being a hero? I put my hands back into my pockets to hide their trembling.
The workman lies motionless. The priest raises his pistol. He stands chest first, his other arm hanging away from his body. Simian. Our basest selves, as the hungry, leathery creatures of old are to the graceful raptors of today.
But my blood is different from his. My blood whispers power and lava. It roils in my gut and dances in my fingers. It calls out to the hot blood of the land. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Hidden Twin by Adi Rule. Copyright © 2016 Adi Rule. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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