Chapter 1: Two Flowers
There was a story my grandfather told me once.
On the edge of a desert, one flower bloomed, with petals of pink and a stalk of green. Far, far away, on the opposite side of the desert, another flower bloomed. Its stalk was gray, its petals black as inky night. The two flowers never knew of each other, and the desert liked it that way. It kept them separate for many, many years, until one day, when a great sandstorm arose. The winds tore a petal from the pink flower and flung it across the stretch of sand, reeling and whirling, and when things were settled again, the pink petal drifted from the sky, landing in front of the black flower. The black flower saw the beauty of the pink flower it had never met and it lusted.
“You are like that pink flower, Zillow,” my grandfather told me. “And one day, the black rose will come for you.”
. . .
“What are you thinking about, Zill?” The girl in the pew next to me had sharp eyes and a small mouth that was usually chewing itself. Karán – she didn’t have time for impractical thinking, and her stare often fell disapprovingly on anyone that did. For now, her stare was set on me.
I looked to the hymnal in my hand, pretending to be interested in the chorus the rest of the room was singing. “I turn twenty in less than four hours,” I said.
“That again?” From the corner of my eye, I saw Karán’s mouth begin to chew.
“It won’t do any good to worry about it, Zill. You don’t know you’re going to be one of them. It could be Cadence or Laurelia or Pon. It could be any one of those girls. They aren’t twenty yet either.” She tucked her dark hair behind her ear and allowed her stare to linger over me.
She was attempting to be nice. That, or she was in denial.
“No one in our class has been marked in over two months,” I countered, eyes deep again in the hymnal. “Everyone thinks it’s going to be me.” Only four more hours until I’d know for sure. After that, I’d be free and clear, just like Karán. Otherwise, I’d be . . .
“Enough, Zill. Even if it is you, you’ll be fine. You’re fast, maybe even the fastest. You’ll never let him catch you.”
That was what everyone said about Othello too, and now she was dead.
Maybe coming to the same conclusion, Karán fell silent. Meanwhile, all through the chapel, the singing of my classmates rose. It wasn’t a pretty sound. It erred on the side of ugly. A hundred bad singers and five good ones made for an awful clamor. I kept my mouth closed tight. I wouldn’t join in, not today. I’d join in tomorrow, if I were still here, in celebration of making it through the day unmarked.
But just in case, my pack was already loaded, my rations readied, and my weapon cleaned. If the black rose came for me, I’d be ready. No, that was a lie. I could never be ready, not really.
Around me, the bad singing of my peers swelled.
Chapter 2: The Marking
In Eastern City, the metropolis of wind and rain, twentieth birthdays weren’t celebrated or even spoken of. Twenty-first birthdays, on the other hand, were a grand affair because they meant that the marking had skipped someone, or that that person had been one of the lucky few to survive it.
In that way, no one talked about the fact that it was my twentieth birthday, though they all knew. All day, their glances had slipped over, slowly, as if to say, ‘I’m glad it’s you and not me, Zillow Stone.’ True, there were a few like Karán, with whom I’d bonded enough to call friends, that tried to make light of my situation, but really, none of us were friends, not truly. Not until after our twentieth birthdays was it safe to become attached to anyone or anything. We’d all seen too many marked ones disappear. We’d all made the mistake of growing close to someone that never returned, and so eventually, we learned to become cold to one another. The twentieth year was something we all looked to with expectation, wondering always if we’d be one of them; constantly honing our skills, afraid we’d have to use them.
“Are you listening, Miss Stone?”
From the front of the classroom, the nosy priest frowned at me. His skin was as wrinkled as his disposition. No, I wasn’t ‘listening.’ I was watching the clock on the wall, as it ticked closer and closer to my twentieth year.
“Yes, Father. I’m listening,” I lied.
The priest stroked his wrinkled chin. “If that’s true, then which of the collapses was I lecturing on?”
I didn’t know. Of course I wouldn’t. No sane person would be able to concentrate with that ominous ticking coming from the top of the wall; and while I stared blankly ahead, on the verge of reprimand–
“The sixth,” a small voice from behind me whispered.
“The sixth,” I repeated. “The collapse of Southwestern City.”
The priest looked at me shrewdly a moment before returning to the screen stretched across the wall. I had Karán to thank for the save. I shot a look of fake camaraderie over my shoulder as the priest busied himself with swiping the dates of the collapse into the air with his glove. The glove’s fingertips glowed blue, and the dates materialized onto the screen.
“Correct. After the fall of Southwestern City, that left only Southern City, Western City, and our own Eastern City. It was then that we formed an alliance with Southern City to . . .”
With that clock going on that way, my thoughts drifted.
Southern City, metropolis of field and flower – sure, we’d formed an alliance with them, but it hadn’t done any good. They’d been wiped out like the rest. Now, we were alone in this world, alone with them; two great capitals, one east, one west, separated by only a lonely stretch of wasteland. Across the sands and ruins, they waited – the unholy ones.
And we were in their debt.
They had access to the generator, they shared their power with us, and even though we were vulnerable, they refrained from attacking us all at once. That was why the Director allowed the markings to continue – because we didn’t have much of a choice. Besides, our city was overcrowded as it was. No one minded the disappearance of a few University students every now and then if it meant keeping the peace.
In an effort to block out the ticking, I turned to the window.
Through the yellowed glass, I saw the other tower, identical to ours, where the boys were being lectured in a class similar to our own, no doubt by a nun with a sour face. University policy stated that we were to remain separate from them until our markings had passed. Why? Because love was even more gripping than friendship, or so I’d heard. It was for our own protection, or so they’d said.
We’d played with the boys when we were children, before entering the University, but they were different now, taller and leaner. I’d seen them around the city. I’d exchanged glances with the ones I used to know; not that I could exchange much else. If anyone saw an under-aged girl chatting them up, there’d be hell to pay.
Karán had made it through her twentieth birthday without being marked, so she and some of the others were allowed now to meet with the boys that had also passed their twentieth years unmarked. Would I join them soon? Or would I . . .?
It was getting closer. It was almost here. I knew it. Everyone knew it, and yet, no one acknowledged it. Only the clock on the wall dared to speak of time’s forward movement.
How much longer now? I wondered. Ten minutes? Five? I refused to look, as though looking would be signaling my consent.
I heard Karán’s breathless protest before I saw the door handle turn. The priest’s endless babble ended, and a quiet disquiet fell over the room; and I, very slowly, turned my neck to see the door push open. The sound of my throat swallowing drowned out everything else for but a moment before the hushes of the class began. Whispers and utters and mutters flurried around the room, all aroused by a shape in the doorway. A person stood in the shadows of the hall, and at the sight of him, my chest began to thud louder than it ever had before.
From the front of the room, the priest cleared his throat loudly – a warning for the rest to become silent.
I waited in my seat, as I’d been instructed to do, as so many had before me. I supposed I was lucky that my time of birth wasn’t in the middle of the night. There was nothing more terrifying than the thought of being snatched away in the dark.
The person in the shadows strode into the room with a few determined steps. The fidgeting of chair movement followed. Again, the priest cleared his throat. But even if I wanted to disobey and fidget to my heart’s content, I couldn’t. I was stuck, transfixed on the person who had come for me.
He was a boy of average height and strong build, with hair like fire and eyes like ice. Scarlet hair and an icy blue gaze – I’d never seen anything like it. The boy was striking. His eyes were striking. Penetrating, they peered around the room before settling on me. He was dressed in the same uniform all Markers wore, an unassuming black jumpsuit with the sleeves rolled up. His skin had a vibrant glow, like one who spends much time outdoors under the sun. His mouth was flat, held in a serious position, and below his eyes, small tattoos jutted outwards – three pointed triangles under each. All of the Western City Markers had those. They were made to look like the sun’s rays, or so I’d heard.
Sights firmly set on me, the boy approached. Still, I didn’t fidget. I couldn’t, and I did my best to make my gaze as strong as his. I’d let him know right away that I wasn’t an easy mark. Karán was right. I was fast, maybe even the fastest, and I’d trained diligently. I wouldn’t give up without a fight. I’d be one of the lucky few who returned.
Expression emotionless, the boy moved through the desks, past Cadence and Laurelia and Pon, all of whom had yet to reach their twentieth year. Their fear dripped off of them, almost detectable, but I was different. Not knowing whether or not I’d be marked was the worst part. Waiting had been the worst part, and now that I knew for sure, I felt a certain settling deep down in my core. This was going to happen, and the sooner I accepted it, the better off I’d be.
Gaze intense, the boy came right up to the edge of my chair. I looked up at him without fear. No, that was a lie. There was still some fear, but it was masked by something else.
I narrowed my eyes. His remained the same, though his mouth turned downward slightly in the corner.
You won’t beat me, I thought. You just won’t.
As if to hear me, the boy’s mouth turned upward at the corner this time, into a grin that looked amused.
I narrowed my eyes further and set my jaw tight. You won’t, I thought. I won’t let you.
Fully grinning now, maybe even sneering, the boy tipped his head to the side. “Zillow Stone?” he said.
“My Marker,” I replied, through my teeth. I was required to say it, but no one ever said I had to hide my disdain while doing so.
“Hm.” The boy made an amused sound through his lips. “Give me your hand.”
I realized my palm was sweating only after it met his, which was dry by comparison. Was sweat a sign of weakness? If it was, the boy didn’t react. He held my palm in his hand and fished around in his pocket with his opposite fingers, taking out a thick silver pen. It wasn’t an ordinary pen. I’d seen similar ones come through the door many times. I watched as he slid his thumb into an indent in the pen’s side. The indent reacted by glowing yellow. With my hand resting limply in his, the Marker raised the lit pen into the air and plunged it straight down into the back of my hand. Though I held back as much as I could, my mouth let out a small whimper, one I immediately regretted.
The boy did nothing but watch and wait for the pen’s indent to turn green, at which point he slid the tip from my skin, covering the puncture with his thumb. I wanted to rip my hand away, to grab my backpack and pelt him on the side of the head with it, but I couldn’t. The rules were very clear.
Beneath the boy’s thumb, my blood bubbled in reaction to the implant. Hot stinging moved through my flesh for a helping of seconds before subsiding. The boy felt it too, for when it was done, he removed his thumb and inspected my hand. Beneath my skin was a green glow, roughly the size of a coin.
It was done.
Their people were born with extreme lust for ours, and just as my grandfather had warned all those years ago, one of them had come for me.
I, Zillow Stone, had been marked by an unholy one.
While I digested the truth of it, the boy leaned over, placing his lips nearly to my ear, and whispered, “Run.”
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