‘By the way, I thought you said she was Slated.’
‘Well, she hasn’t got a Levo.’
I gasp with shock, and think back. I held her hand, helped her walk. I didn’t even notice. I had other things to worry about. And I’ve got so used to being able to ignore my own levels, I didn’t think about hers. But with what she has been through tonight, and before tonight by the sounds of things, it would have been enough to make her black out for sure if she still had one.
‘What happened to it?’ I say.
‘Just one of many questions she will have to answer soon. And I have some things to discuss with you. But first, tell me about the fire,’ he says.
I blink at the sudden tears. ‘Ben’s house: his parents’ house. It burned down. Tori watched. She said they were inside, screaming, but Lorders stopped anyone from helping.’
He shakes his head. ‘Think, Rain: what is the date?’
‘The fifth of November. Guy Fawkes,’ he says, bitterly. ‘This was not the only burning tonight. Reports were coming in when you called. Lorders have taken this day that used to belong to us. Remember, Rain. Mark this day.’
I gasp as a series of images flood my mind. Fireworks. Raids. Bonfires! Guy Fawkes: over four hundred years ago, there had been a plot to blow up Parliament. We had used the day to remind the Lorders that their power was not absolute. To remind the people they had a voice.
Now the Lorders used it to remind us that Guy Fawkes was hanged for his trouble.
‘To think they dare act so openly against the people they should serve! Things are getting worse, Kyla. The Lorder grip is tightening. Soon none will dare stand with us against them. The time of reckoning is nearly at hand.’ He stops at the bottom of our road. ‘You need to keep your eye on the bigger picture, Rain. We’ll talk about this some more after school tomorrow. Now go.’
I get out of the car and slip into the shadows, along the houses, taking care. It is still dark, but close enough to six now that people may be awake. Eyebrows would definitely go up if anyone spotted me creeping about dressed like this. But I see no one. When I reach our garden, something catches my eye: a movement over the road? I hug the side of the house and look back, but can see nothing. Yet I’m sure something moved.
I slip through the side door, then go quiet and careful up the stairs to my room: safe, at last.
Sebastian is curled up on my bed, eyes open wide. I change out of Nico’s things quickly and into my pyjamas, then stuff his clothes into my school bag to get rid of later.
There is just enough time for about an hour of sleep, sleep which I desperately need, but there is no chance. Not with fires raging in my mind.
The night is full of questions. How did Tori get away from the Lorders? She’d been returned to them: Ben got that out of her mum. Why, we didn’t really know – she was there one day, then gone. One of the missing. What happened to her Levo?
What happened to Ben’s parents I don’t need to phrase as a question: I know the answer. They asked too many annoying questions of their own. The Lorders happened to them, that’s what. And this, the night after Ben’s mum came here to ask for help. My blood turns to ice when I remember what Mum said to her: ‘You shouldn’t have come here.’ Did Mum turn her in to the Lorders? Her dad was the Lorder Prime Minister who started it all.
I can’t get the sight of their destroyed house out of my mind. Their home became their tomb. Will they get the bodies out? They’ve already been cremated.
According to Nico, a picture that has repeated itself in other places this night. Other victims.
I want to cry for them, but I can’t. All I feel inside is cold, blind rage at what has been done. It pushes all the hurt aside.
It wants out.
* * *
‘Kyla, wait!’ I pause at the library door, turn. Cam rushes up.
‘Have lunch with me?’ He looks both ways and drops his voice. ‘I’ve got cake.’
‘Hmmm, I dunno. Is it chocolate?’
He peeks in his bag. ‘Today it is Victoria sponge. My uncle is a frustrated chef: he loves to bake.’
‘Well, all right,’ I say. Sugar and distraction might help get me through the rest of this long day. All I can think of is Ben’s parents, what Lorders did to them and others like them. And meeting with Nico at the end of the day: we have to do something.
Crossing the grounds, we spot an empty bench, one of two. When boys sitting on the other one see us heading over, they quickly split up and spread their stuff over both of them.
‘Nice,’ Cam says.
‘I’m used to it. Are you sure you want to risk being seen with me?’
‘Are you kidding? You’re a babe.’
I laugh. ‘A Slated babe, don’t forget.’
‘Was that their problem?’ He looks back. ‘Want me to go rough them up for you?’ And he drops into a boxing stance, fists up.
‘All three of them? What would you do if I said yes?’
He looks both ways. ‘Hide. But I have my ways of getting back at people, y’know. When they least expect it.’ And he laughs in a mwahahaha villain sort of way.
‘Sure you do.’
‘Doesn’t what they did bother you?’
‘It used to. But…’ And I stop.
‘People around me have a way of disappearing. That might be their reason, and, if so, I can’t really argue.’
‘Disappearing?’ His face forms into a serious expression. So he does have one. ‘That happens everywhere,’ he says, with such bitterness that I wonder what lies behind it.
‘Look, there’s one.’ I point at an empty bench on its own, behind the admin building. ‘If you dare.’
‘Well, let me think. Have you got a portable Bermuda triangle that follows you about?’
I look side to side. ‘I must have left it at home today.’
‘Are you going to put invisibility potion in my sandwiches when I’m not looking?’
‘Then I’ll risk it.’
And I don’t tell him the other reason why it doesn’t bother me so much any more. The list of things bothering me has been well and truly taken over; high school boys being stupid seems low priority.
We munch our sandwiches in silence, and he pulls out the cake.
‘There are two pieces here,’ I say. ‘Were you planning this?’
‘Who, me? No. I’m a growing boy. I always take two pieces of cake. But I don’t mind sharing.’ He hands one across and I take a big bite.
Light, sweet. Yummy! ‘I wish my mum liked to bake.’
‘How long have you lived there?’
I look at him sideways. ‘Not long. Almost two months.’
‘Do you ever wonder about your other parents?’
‘My other parents?’ I stall, though I know what he means. This conversation is venturing into no-go territory, the sort of stuff I’m not supposed to think about, let alone talk about. Slateds have no past; they start over. Looking back is not allowed.
‘You know. Before you were Slated.’
‘Sometimes,’ I admit.
‘Would you track them down if you could?’
Uncomfortable with where this is going, I busy my mouth with eating cake. Tracking down my past life would be well and truly illegal. Just being overheard having this conversation could be dangerous for us, and who knows who listens, or how? I wouldn’t put it past the Lorders to bug every bench in the school – they and their spies like Mrs Ali are everywhere.
‘What about you?’ I ask when all that is left of the cake is crumbs.
‘You said your dad took off. Do you still see him?’
The serious look is back, and the pause is long.
‘Kyla, listen.’ His voice drops a notch lower. ‘You know what I said before, about people disappearing everywhere?’
‘My dad didn’t split. Lorders took him. They broke into our house in the middle of the night, and hauled him away. Haven’t seen or heard from him since.’
‘Oh, Cam.’ I stare at him, shocked. He seems so carefree, so uncomplicated. Yet he knows what it is like to have someone he cares for go missing. Like Ben.
‘Yeah. He was involved in some things they didn’t like. Something to do with finding missing people. Illegal websites and stuff.’
I look nervously side to side. No one I can see is close enough to hear, yet some part of me doesn’t trust this conversation. But I can’t stop myself. ‘And your mum?’ I ask.
‘I think she’d be gone and so would I if it wasn’t for her research. Don’t know much about it, but they want her to continue. They shuffled me off to keep her on side.’
‘How horrible. I’m sorry; I shouldn’t have asked.’
‘It’s not your fault. You weren’t close enough to use your secret disappearing skills! Unless your powers extend up a few hundred miles north of here?’
And Cam is back to kidding about. But he’s not fooling me any longer. There is more going on inside him than I ever imagined.
‘Listen,’ he says. ‘Do you want to go for a drive later? I really need to talk. More than we can here.’
Curiosity wars with caution. But no need to decide, not yet. ‘I can’t today. I’m going to be here late.’
‘Things to do.’
‘What sort of stuff?’
‘Look Mr Curious, I’m just busy; that’s all.’
He pauses. ‘I’ll hang. Give you a lift home?’
‘I don’t know how long I’m going to be.’
‘Doesn’t matter. I’ve got nothing else to do.’
I try to talk him out of it. Last thing I want is for my disappearing powers to manifest if any trouble I land in spreads his way. His mother has had enough of that, already. But he insists he’ll wait by his car until I show, so unless I want him to still be there the next morning, I best turn up.
The hall is empty. I knock once; Nico’s door opens. I go in and he locks it.
‘How is Tori?’ I ask.
‘She scrubs up pretty good,’ he says. ‘A few hot meals and staying off her sprained ankle is all she needs. Physically.’
‘She’s not been any trouble?’
‘No. Not yet. If she is, you will hear about it. I’ve got somewhere I can move her soon; just sorting details. Though she says she can cook. Maybe I’ll keep her.’
She scrubs up good; she can cook. A flash of the green-eyed monster inside sees them sitting down over a cosy dinner tonight. Using the candles I’d noted on his table, and finishing the open bottle of wine on his worktop.
Nico smiles as if he can see exactly what I’m thinking, a smile that says if you don’t like it, it is your own fault.
I flush, and when he points at the chair next to his desk, sit down.
‘I realised something last night,’ he says, sitting on the other chair and pulling it close in front of mine, so we are facing each other. My eyes are locked onto his. The long lashes that seem too dark for pale blue irises. The lock of hair falling across his forehead that I have to suppress the urge to brush back.
I swallow. ‘What is that?’
He leans in close. ‘Rain is back,’ he whispers in my ear, and his words, his breath, are shock on my skin.
He smiles and sits back in his chair, a small school chair that looks ridiculous under him. ‘She really is back. I wasn’t sure how much of her was in you. But what you did last night was her, wasn’t it? Sneaking out in the night. Kyla wouldn’t have done it.’