Read an Excerpt
By L.E. Sterling, Liz Pelletier
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2016 L. E. Sterling
All rights reserved.
When we came into the world, silent and cowled, my sister and I were attached by our big toes. They waited a whole day to separate us, and for that one perfect day, Margot and I were one. After the separation, they tell us, we cried for days, would not be pacified except when we were laid side by side, touching. Our toes show the scars from our being ripped apart. Mine is brown in the shape of a blotchy lock. Margot's is long and thin with little teeth that make it look like a key. We decided this as young girls, as we stared at the freckled flesh that has long since become a part of the story of us. I pull my foot free from my leather boot and wiggle my toes, staring at the inky blot that marks me one of two. Beside me at the courtyard table of our exclusive private school, my sister throws back her hair and looks around for teachers or guards who might be able to convince her to come inside — since I clearly can't.
"I'm not skipping the whole day, Lu. Just this period. I'll be back after lunch. Promise," Margot reasons, staring back at me with a look one inch shy of mischief.
We are supposedly identical, but despite carrying the same long chin, we don't look precisely alike. Our mother tells us I'm built like a bird: thin and small, with a cap of deep shadow-brown curls and dark gray eyes. Margot is a smidge taller, fuller, her hair a shade lighter and three shades straighter. Her eyes are a mystery: green and gray and a glint of gold. And when Margot walks into a room, she commands all eyes while I, the sparrow, sit unnoticed and observe. Margot is fire: bright and ready to burn out of control. I am the less exciting twin, the responsible twin.
Despite Margot being older by one and a half minutes, it has always fallen to me to watch over her. I'd not call her wild — our parents wouldn't stand for a wild child — but she does know how to skate the boundaries. Still, though I've not given our parents a moment's worry, Margot is the family favorite: the one our mother most enjoys and our father coddles. And me? I'm the one who keeps her out of scrapes so she can enjoy her favored status. It may seem like I'm doing a lot of work, but I get something out of it, too. As long as I keep Margot in the limelight, I'm not the one our parents expect to entertain visiting businessmen and politicians. Which is the reason I'm currently outside in the cold arguing with my sister instead of sitting in my favorite class.
"You can't skip, Margot. I mean it. Besides, what do you think you're going to do? Half the city is on lockdown today."
This is Dominion, after all. The Plague has escalated the last few years, sweeping over the world on its dark horse and gobbling everyone with its diamond teeth. Whole sections of the city are kept under constant martial law to prevent the lawlessness that comes with rising body counts.
I stare up at the gray, moody sky before turning back to my twin, who busily packs up her things. A fat raindrop falls with a plop onto my inky blot of a birthmark. I sigh. She'll not listen. This I know for sure.
"What are you even doing, Margot?"
She's been skipping a lot lately. Meeting someone in private. I suspect she's going around with Robbie Deakins, the boy she's had a crush on since seventh grade, although I can't see it when they're together. We live in a very small world. It's nearly impossible to keep secrets in our set. But between us, my sister and me, it's even harder.
"Just heading out for a walk with some friends. Don't worry so much," she scolds.
"It's not like you to keep secrets from me." I shove my toes back into my boot and regard my beautiful twin shrewdly. "And I know you're doing more than going for a walk."
We are not like other people, despite how normal Margot likes to imagine we are. Our mother tells us we are like pieces of the same puzzle, and she's right. When we're apart, I can feel us stretching to fit the pieces together, no matter the distance.
We should have died at birth. They thought about killing us: two babies dressed in our bloody cowls and so supernaturally quiet that the doctors and midwives were looking for hammers. But we lived, and as we grew, we slowly came to know that we were unique, though two. At times I think I can read her thoughts, like bells in my mind. And what Margot feels, I feel — sometimes more sharply than even she does. Her pain, her joy. Her excitement ...
It's our secret, and one we guard closely. Lock and key.
There's one secret more. We never speak about it, but I'm different still. Sometimes I can say with certainty who's going to catch sick next. I know when the street preachers and their rabble will erupt into violence. Today's death and violence is nothing compared to the ugliness of tomorrow. She has her own special gifts, my sister, but this one, this secret, is mine alone.
I also know when I'm wasting my breath. I stand up, pulling my coat closer around me as the sky opens in earnest. "Fine," I tell her sternly. "But I won't cover for you. You get in trouble, you dig yourself out."
"Fine," she says, then leans over to kiss me on the cheek before rushing off in a blur of color, cheeks bright, eyes shining. "Love you," she tosses back over her shoulder.
But as I make my way to the doors on the other side of the large courtyard, jumping over gray-black puddles and getting drenched, a traitorous thought — all too familiar of late — flashes through my mind: why does Margot get to have all the fun?
I yank on the heavy oak door and barrel through, fuming over Margot's latest caper. Grayguard Academy is as old as the hills and we've been attending it practically since birth. I know every nook and cranny, every dip in its polished marble halls, every loose joint in its four-hundred-year-old wooden stairway. So I'm flapping my wet coat free of rain rather than looking where I'm going as I fly from the hallway up the flight of stairs, a route that will take me to my class more quickly.
And smack right into something as hard as bricks.
I bounce and careen backward, losing my footing. My arms flail, but I can't catch anything but a whiff of real danger and the fact that the object is a man. He reaches out to grab my hand, but my arms have already started sailing over my head. Images of splattered brains all over the highly polished marble floor flash through my mind as I fall back, back, and snap still in mid-air. Adrenaline spikes through me as my head-over-heels tumble is suddenly halted. I'm not dead.
And the man in front of me, a gorgeous wallop of a man, holds me from certain death by the hem of my skirt. I'm lucky, I muse as, teetering on my heels, I'm suddenly cast back to the time when a much younger Robbie Deakins held Margot suspended in the same position and bartered a kiss for her freedom. Back then I kicked him in the shins and Margot told me I knew nothing about boys. As I take in the one before me, I reckon that statement still holds true.
"You should watch where you're going," the stranger says, but the words are delivered without a sting. For a moment I'm struck dumb — not by my escape from a near-death experience, since I continue to dangle over the stairs at an odd angle — but by the man before me. At first I'm caught by his lips, just the right kind of full, the lips of an angel. Then I take in his cheekbones, high and carved in a face more long than square, with a nose to match that flares slightly wider at the nostrils. Though it's all the rage in Dominion, he has no facial hair, making him seem younger than he likely is. I see a sinfully long, dark sweep of eyelash, a dark arc of eyebrow topped with a mop of messy blond locks that fall over one eye. The other eye is an intense, moody blue that rakes me from head to toe.
He carries himself with all the menace of a trained killer.
"You ... you shouldn't be here," I splutter haughtily, feeling heat rise to my cheeks, though whether I'm more embarrassed or concerned I can't tell.
"But I am here," he says in dark, rich tones. He peers scandalously down at my legs, "and you're welcome."
I gasp in outrage. I try to bat at the hand that holds my skirt, but I can't reach, and somehow this makes me feel even more helpless.
"Let me go," I fume imperiously.
"If I do that, you'll fall," he tells me reasonably enough. But there's nothing reasonable about the way he looks me over: frank, assessing. The gaze of a true predator. Nor how each scrap of my skin seems to tingle under his heated gaze. His lips curl into a smile. But the worst part: I don't like what it does to me. "What will you do for me if I let you go?" And there, in that singular second, the stranger crosses the line between potential friend or foe. He is not one of us, this vulgar, magnetic stranger. Every instinct in my body warns that this man is not safe. No one outside the Upper Circle is safe.
I narrow my eyes at the intruder. For intruder he surely is. They don't allow non-students in this wing, not even the mercs who watch over us after school. And he surely can't be a merc. Mercs wear House uniforms, while my self-proclaimed savior is in a black shirt faded almost to gray. On the front is a stick figure skeleton painted in a flaking white. Even from here I can see a frayed hole in the knee of his pants, the strange nakedness of his toes. He's wearing sandals. No one wears sandals. He seems too beautiful, too self-assured to be rabble, but one never knows.
I lick my lips. "Tell you what, Laster. I'll give you a head start before I call security."
His eyes sharpen. They must be catching the light, I muse, as for a moment a flash of emerald sweeps across his cornea before turning back to a dark indigo.
"Well aren't you a ray of sunshine?" He leans back. "What are you, anyway, some sort of nun?" he asks, taking in my high-necked white blouse and dark-blue wool skirt that falls below the knee.
"What are you," I throw right back, "some kind of blind hermit? You've not seen a single school uniform while you've been traipsing through our halls? If you know what's good for you, you'll get out of here."
"No, I haven't. Not one like this," he says, suddenly quite serious, all but ignoring my warning. At his words I stop trying to break free. Something passes between us, quick as lightning. It's so unexpected, I can't catch my breath.
I'm so distracted I almost don't notice the sound of fabric ripping.
"Uh oh," says the stranger, lips curling into a sinful smile.
"My skirt is ripping."
"Yes it is."
"Let me go!" I yell in my most imperious tone.
But the stranger just shakes his head and clucks at me as though I'm a small and naughty child. "Terrible manners."
It takes me a beat to understand he's serious. He'd as soon see my skirt rip off than let me go. "Fine," I fume. "Please help me out of this ridiculous position so I neither lose my skirt nor scramble my brains, kind sir."
The stranger cocks his head at me. That one lock of hair falls back away from his eye, revealing a face of stark perfection. He cups a hand over one ear, holding me effortlessly in place with the other. "What was that you said, Princess?"
Reeling in mortification, I mumble, "I said 'please.'"
I hate his arrogance, his certainty as he reels me in, one fistful of skirt at a time as though I'm a fish hooked on his line. Worse still, I think as I watch the play of bulging muscles under the thin and fraying layer of his shirt, it costs him no effort.
When I'm two fistfuls from upright, I lunge for his arms. He's slender but broad of shoulder. Beneath my grip his arms are rocks that I grasp on to for dear life.
And then we are far, far too close for comfort.
The beautiful stranger's eyes glitter as he stares down at me. He looks as though he'll say something when a fleet of feet sound in the hallway below, accompanied by the cultivated voices of my schoolmates, drawing away his attention.
With a pang, and utterly against my better judgment, I realize I want it back.
He sweeps an arm behind my back and sets me squarely on the step below but makes no other motion to leave. His other arm sweeps around me, locking me against his body. We're so close I can smell cinnamon on his breath, can feel the rise and fall of his chest as he breathes. It occurs to me that I still have his biceps locked in a death grip. I swallow past my embarrassment and loosen my fingers one by one.
The stranger's eyes marble into vibrant green again. His eyes narrow, and for a moment I feel like I'm staring into the face of a wild beast. On the heels of that thought crashes another. Maybe he's True Born.
I dismiss the errant thought as quickly as it comes. There are no True Borns at Grayguard.
"You'd better go before they arrest you, Laster," I tell the stranger, taking a trembling step down the stairs. When had my legs started shaking?
The stranger's arms remain around my back, though they loosen somewhat. He glances down at me with something like regret stamped on his features.
"Some day someone is going to have to teach you how to behave," he tells me cockily.
"And I suppose you'll be the one to do it?" I throw back, shrewish. I am not flirting, wouldn't even know how. But the man before me is surely not accustomed to being rejected by any woman, let alone a school girl, and most Lasters don't know their place. He throws me a lopsided grin.
My heart lurches again at the appearance of a sharp dimple. I stare at his white teeth, the curl of his lips. Concentration melting away, I remove my hands from his arms. Having nowhere to go but his flesh — which, my fevered brain reminds me, I must avoid at all costs — they dangle uselessly in midair.
"Maybe I will be," he finally drawls. His hands trace from my back up to my shoulders. He gently holds me in place while he steps around me, then bounds gracefully down the stairs. I turn and watch the lithe muscles in his back shift under his shirt. He has the spare and supple movements of a cat, I think, as he hits the landing and turns back to me.
The stranger flicks a glance at me through a lock of his hair. "Be seeing you, Princess," he salutes before waltzing down the hall as though he owns the place.
Once he's gone I give myself permission to sink down on the step, knowing my shaking legs won't support me a moment longer. My heart races, though for the life of me I can't figure out why. I'm not the sister who chases after boys — no matter how gorgeous they are. And I certainly wouldn't chase after one like that, so rude, so messy. We Fox sisters are Upper Circle. Our parents would make sure I'd never see the light of day. Worse, they'd marry me off to the nearest middle-aged senator in ten seconds flat.
Still, as I sit there and shake — a delayed reaction from a near-death experience, I keep reminding myself — I can't help but relive, over and over again, the way he looked at me. His eyes had raked every square inch of me as though he knew me better than my own sister did. Better than I know myself.
Hand to my chest, I close my eyes and pray to all the gods in Dominion that I never see his face again. Because for some absurd reason I can't shake the uncanny feeling that maybe I will.CHAPTER 2
By your eighteenth birthday you're supposed to know. They're supposed to tell you.
Splicer. True Born. Laster.
Margot and I, though, all we seem to be getting for our eighteenth birthday, still over a month away, is another round of Protocols at the Splicer Clinic.
The rain comes down in stripes as we're bundled into our father's shiny black Oldworld car and stall at the sooty iron gates surrounding our home. Two sentries ride shotgun on the electric gate. They hold machine guns with one hand and iron pegs with the other as the gate slowly glides open. Fritz, the one with the steel-colored flattop, is our newer merc, ex-army. Shane, the one with the Celtic knot work bulging over his biceps and the crazed glint in his eyes, has been with our father since we were girls. He's one of only a handful of people in the world Margot and I trust.
I spy the first sign as the car crosses through the gate and wades into a sea of people. Evolve or Die. I don't understand these signs. Father says they indicate that a lot of rabble have gone mad.
The boy holding it up can't be more than twelve, but you can never tell these days. He's got the startlingly gaunt frame of the starving or sick, his face smeared with dirt and desperation. Chances are he's either a goner himself or his family has been wiped off the map and he's providing for himself.
Excerpted from True Born by L.E. Sterling, Liz Pelletier. Copyright © 2016 L. E. Sterling. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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