Ani Raye has been asked to appear for an appointment at her principal's office. This is a strange request and she finds herself wondering what could possibly await her behind his orange door. In the school cafe, she meets with her best friend Khyran (K) and her trainer Stratten. K and her mother substitute Willa is also introduced.
I pushed myself into moving out of the chair as the Lowers tittered nervously and gazed at my table. The rest of the Mess Hall shone while my table looked like an aerial view of the Great Massacre. I walked to the front of the Hall and paused with my hand on the handle of the pull-open door.
Someone had whispered my name.
I glanced from one gleaming surface to the next, squinting against the stark fluorescence of tube-light against steel, and heard it again.
‘What?!’ I asked, too loudly, voice echoing in the stillness of the empty hall. Strange, how I thought of it as empty even with all the Lowers in it. Those blue-robed servants never seemed to make any sort of noise…
I looked down beneath the counter, narrowing my eyes a little. Although the rest of the hall was way too bright, beneath the counter it was dingy and dark. A Lower girl was huddled down there, swathed in the blue rag-tunic, trembling.
‘H...he…he said I could t-trust you-‘ the girl babbled quickly, words mixing into each other, accent odd as if she never really spoke at all and was rusty with lack of practice. The girl wilted into the metal wall of the counter as I met her gaze, scratching at a long, thin scar on her face nervously. She looked washed out, a pale shade of grey. Her eyes and hair were a pale brown, skin pale and anemic in complexion. Beads of sweat shone on her upper lip and she kept wiping her forehead.’ he said so’
‘Who?’ I asked sharply, confused and concerned. If anyone saw her talking to me, a Trainee….the other Lowers would give her hell, and the Trainers would sack her.
‘Him. Your…the boy, your…uh, friend? Friend! Yes, your friend, the boy, nice boy, very nice, green eyes…’
Shit, of course it was him.
Everyone walks by the Lowers; K makes “friends” among them. I should have known.
‘Um. Um…yes. Yes?’ the girl seemed to seek reassurance from me.
‘Yes’ I said, for lack of anything else.
‘Will you’, the girl said, rummaging in the folds of her tunic with two shaking clumsy hands. ‘, Huh, give this…this, what, this letter…to him? To nice boy with green eyes’
I felt my eyebrows rise.
From a Lower.
I didn’t even know they could speak, let alone write.
I rubbed my temples, wincing at the light shining brilliantly all around us, driving swords into my already strained eyes.
‘Guess, yeah’ I said, taking the very brown, very crumpled note from her. ‘, Who should I say it’s from?’
‘Jina. My name is Jina’
‘Right’ I forced a smile in her direction and she trembled all over like I’d just slapped her, so I figured I should move.
I walked out, a little chilled. Lowers always frightened me, shook me somewhere deep inside, and I hated that feeling. The note in my fingers was curiosity in the disguise of paper.
Ani-and-K. One being. One person to the School and it’s students.
So, what was meant to be K’s…was Ani’s too? Right?
I opened the note slowly, easing the creases with my thumb. She had written and re-written the note, then inked furiously over all the parts she’d wanted to hide. Three sentences in broken, unreadable, mispelt language were cramped into a tiny square at the bottom of the page.
I squinted hard to read, the wrong spellings and awful language adding to my headache brought on by the day and all its effects on me. White-hot lightning left retinal echoes on the back of my eyeballs when I closed my eyes to the pain. I was so pissed off at everything, and the stupid orange door was at fault. The words on the page only poured more oil on the inferno that was already inside me.
An inferno that froze into ice when the words made sense on the fifth read. Splintering shards of it seemed to freeze my veins to a deep blue, change my blood to sluggish sludge.
‘Oh God, K…’ I muttered to myself, reading it again, ignoring the spelling.
If I talk to you, and they catch me,
They won’t sack me or tell me to go home.
They will kill me as a lesson to others like me.
They will kill her as a lesson to others like her.
Other Lowers like her.
My breath caught in my throat. Who were ‘they’? The Trainers?
I could understand Jina’s fear better now. Her stuttering, incoherent, terrified speech.
The trembling. The flinching.
The…grayness about her.
‘Raye! What the hell, girl, don’t you have somewhere to be?’
My whole body going rod-straight I turned to Trainer Mee and Trainer Jovian.
‘No, sir. No, ma’am. Free, this and next hours’
Trainer Jovian fixed brown eyes on me. I dropped the note and put my spiky shoe heel on it, grinding it against the concrete.
‘Free?!’ barked Trainer Mee, moustache quavering.
‘Yes, sir, got my Subterfuge and Stealth now, sir- but Trainer Heir is busy charting a course for the Boys’ Capture and Ground exercise’ I chattered out smoothly.
Trainer Jovian grinned. ‘Yes, Stratten’s letting them use all the stuff from his Equipments class and
’s letting them have her stuff from Tracking and Encounter’ Nara
Trainer Mee pulled a face of sullen disregard and cast his eyes to the sky. ‘Don’t see the point of Capture and Ground. It should be Capture and Kill- that’s what they should do when they see a real Shade. Capture and Kill. Simple.’
‘They can’t just kill K, Zoran,’ Trainer Jovian reproached with a sharp edge to her voice. ‘, He’s a Trainee’
‘Oh, great’ I moaned, unthinkingly. ‘, K is the fugitive for Capture and Ground? Again?’
Capture and Ground was a complicated Hide and Seek. One person was the Fugitive, hiding from the Hunters. The Fugitive paint-balled the Hunters with a paint-gun- which was his only weapon. If you’re paint-balled it’s equal to you being dead, and you’re out. The Hunters carried all sorts of gear, and when they captured the Fugitive, they would use it to make sure he didn’t escape. Game over is when either all the Hunters were down, or when the Fugitive was caught.
K never got caught, making him the best Fugitive ever. But some of the Hunters forgot it was just a game at times. I couldn’t forget the night when he came to Willa, biting his lip to stop the tears, a blade-tipped dart in his ribs. Willa had basically ripped Trainer Heir for making K the Fugitive repeatedly.
He was at it again.
‘If you’re free, Ani, come run a race’ said Trainer Jovian, cocking her head to the side, regarding me like I was a pleasant little treat to eat.
Trainer Mee smiled a wicked little smile. ‘Oh yes, please Ani’