The Story Of Who
After Râini [Midnight] — The Block
It was Bess' whimpers that woke me at midnight. Every night, like clockwork, she was plagued with memories of a sister she didn't know—memories marked by bloodshed and screams.
"Tina. Tina," she whispered in her sleep now, clutching my arm and burying her face in my chest. Her skin was clammy with sweat and tears; automatically my hand reached into her hair to press her closer, as though I could protect her from the horrors she imagined her sister had faced.
By the time the blur cleared from my eyes, my nightgown was sticking to my skin and Bess had finally started to calm down. The warmth in the air felt as oppressive as the scented smoke churning from the incense burners. Up above, the ceiling fan turned slowly, lazily dispersing the air while doing nothing to cool the room down.
When I tried to get out of bed, Bess dragged me back and pulled me into a tighter hug, and for a while I stayed there, listening to Joy's soft snores and enjoying the weight of everything I had managed to keep for myself.
Bess' arms around me should have been enough yet my thoughts drifted further and further, to another planet in another star system—to days when it hadn't been necessary for me to learn how to be charming.
"Mother, Father, Jethro," I whispered over and over again, as though I could have ever forgotten them. If I closed my eyes I would see their faces; I would trace all the creases and edges I had etched into my mind from memory; I would add laughter lines and crow's feet to my parents' faces, and Jethro's... I didn't know what he would look like now. I couldn't even fathom how he might have grown.
I liked to think he was a little bit like Bess, so full of life and optimistic, both clingy and independent. Did he have nightmares about me as well? Had he been old enough to remember?
I didn't like to think of what would have happened to him if he turned out to be just like me—if he swayed minds or moved objects through space. Instead, I liked to think of the little sister or brother I hadn't met yet—a child as curious and annoying as Jethro had been when he was small.
I wondered if they were ever told about me. And Father... Did he recognize the woman on the billboards as his daughter or did he disown her the moment he saw how much she resembled him? Did he hold memorials for the little girl he left behind on Milday or had he slotted her into the spot in his minds reserved for the forgotten?
In the end, it didn't matter what they thought of me. They were safe. That was all I cared about—for them to be safe and remain safe, forever. That was why I did everything I had ever done, and these thoughts filled me with so much contentment that before I could fully immerse myself into the feeling, my mind had to write over it with my most unsavory memories.
Quiet. The only person I've ever owed. My best friend—Bess' older sister.
"You can't save me," she had said, even though I was the one who drove the knife into her, "but my sister. My sister..."
Quiet. I didn't have to wonder what she would be doing now, wherever her soul had ended up.
She would have been practicing her best dances or choreographing a new one, tiptoeing over a stack of mats to evade the matron's sharp ears. And when she caught me rolling my eyes, she would drag me to the center of the room and kiss my face until the other girls started giggling. She would palm my cheeks, raise my head so our gazes met, and say, "I know you don't believe in yourself, Who, but I do. You're going to be something one day, and I'll be there when it happens."
She was the only one who never was. That something had murdered her before it had even been born, before she she had ever gotten to see what it was truly capable of.
"Save my sister," she had whispered to it then, lips red and bloody, "don't let her suffer like I do. Promise me!"
And from then on the promise took hold of me like a noose, tightening with every day that passed since the moment I had seen Bess in a line up of girls being sold by their families to the Block.
"They will do it again," Quiet had told me once, her pinkie hooked in mine. "Sell one of us so that the rest won't starve. My sister will come here, Who. I just know it. It's only a matter of time."
Back then, we had had dreams. Dreams to change things—to be more than objects, to be more than what we were told to be. We never thought about escaping—life in the Block was all we had ever known, where else could we go?—but now I knew better.
No matter how popular you got or how influential your patrons were, the moment you stepped past those bright-red curtains—onto the stage—it was your neck up next on the chopping block, your life being sold to the highest bidder.
I needed to get Bess out of the Block, before it killed her too.
"I'm sorry," I whispered into her hair as I pulled away. "But you'll understand one day."
Something in me broke a little when her hands reached out to where I had been laying, in search for me. "[Sleep]." I pressed a kiss to her forehead and tiptoed to the incense burner.
One hand found the little paper envelope I had hidden beneath it days ago while the other pried the lid off the burner. I stared into the smoke and for a moment everything faded away: I was back in Milday, staring into a bowl of tasteless oatmeal.
I shook off the nostalgia before it could cripple me, and tipped the contents of the envelope into the burner, holding my breath as the white powder rushed over the smouldering incense cone.
Just as I was putting everything back in its place, the shields deactivated, Matron Ann stepping into the room with a keyring of access cards clutched in her outstretched hand. "Matron Elsa wishes to see you," she said.
When I turned to face her, she was still staring straight ahead, into the space in front of her. The smile that was usually present on her lips was gone, replaced by a hard frown that made her powdered face look more plain than it was.
I pulled one of my nightdresses from the drawers and plucked the keycards from her. "[At ease]."
Her limbs loosened and her gaze focused but she still looked past me as though I wasn't there at all.
She took her gown off and handed it to me. I stopped her before she could start taking off her underwear, giving her my nightdress to wear.
"Good," I told her when she plucked the comb holding her hair into a bun and dropped it in my palm. Without it, her hair fell down her back in well-oiled waves. "Now go to bed."
As she settled herself in my bed, I stripped out my clothes and changed into hers. I didn't need to look to know that cuddled next to Bess like she was, with her face hidden, she could almost pass me.
After pinning my hair up in the stringent bun all matrons wore, I caked my face in a thick layer of powder and walked out of the room.
Already, I could feel the sleeping draught I slipped into the incense begin to take effect. It would be hours before any of them woke up again but still that wasn't enough. I was already behind schedule.
TWO HOURS AFTER MIDNIGHT
A Matron's outfit can only get you so far once you're out of the Block but where I was going it still remained a symbol of status. With every step I took away from the oppressive building, more memories began to come back to me. What had started as the whisper of a plan in my ear this morning revealed itself to be the work of three years worth of networking, and with this realization came the disgruntling feeling of being a stranger in my own body.
The something crept and grew, until it laid claim to what should have been my restful moments, and when the sun rose, it would slither back to where it came, unseen and unremembered until the sun vanished beneath the horizon once again. It had made me a star, and once it got Bess free and I fulfilled my promise, I would retire it. Permanently.
The rickshaw I hired dropped me off at the large warehouse that housed the nearest slave markets and sped out of sight the moment it extracted its payment from Matron Ann's card. I had not done even half of what I needed to do yet I could already feel the old me creeping in.
I needed to focus. It had taken almost three years of planning to get to this point, I couldn't screw it up just because I was distracted.
I held a fake ID up to the door's scanner: a fake name and a face that looked similar enough to mine that the discrepancies could be ignored. Most important was the identity it conferred to me—a slave trader known for selling quality girls. It was an identity I had worked hard to earn.
"Mistress Malvini," the AI chimed, "welcome."
I strode into the building, letting my feet guide me through the darkness to the wall that hid a path of secret tunnels from view. I pressed my palm against it and the cold metal melted to wrap itself around me and spit me into the space behind it.
The way was lined with torches. I grabbed one from the wall and held it in front of me to ward off the bats that had also made it theirs. With every step I took, the past stretched further and further away from me until all that existed was the danger. It thrummed in my veins—begging to be released—so I did. The space around my trembled and pulsed.
Above, I sensed the nocturnal creatures hiding from my flame. Their simple thoughts brushed against me like feathers, and when I pushed further, I felt them snap and break away.
Through their eyes, I watched myself walk into a trap.
"Mistress Malvini," someone called, as a net fell down on me from the ceiling. But I had no time for ambushes. Bess didn't have time.
"Let me guess. I offended the wrong patron," I said, as the bats watched the man circle me in the darkness. He pressed his hand to his belt and an arc of electricity shot through the net and into me. The moment my body crumbled to the floor, my psyche crushed what remained of the bats' presence, and when the men swarmed to pick me up, I swarmed them.
Their cries still echoed in my ears, even when the current passed and I regained consciousness.
I opened my eyes to a scene littered with too many corpses of man and bat. I picked up the torch and watched their auras dim until nothing remained but the slickness of their blood on the tunnel's walls
"Humans," I couldn't help but hiss under my breath, standing up and throwing the net to the floor in disgust. Bones crunched beneath my boots as I walked to the only wall that remained bloodless. I pushed past it and leveled my eyes on the row of cages that lined the road into the markets.
I was running out of time.