I woke to the cold kiss of steel on my throat.
Though I’d grown accustomed to sleeping safely since our arrival in Salvation two months ago, I’d lost none of my edge. Before my attacker realized I was awake, I knocked the knife away and tumbled him over my head. While Stalker recovered, I rolled to my feet and scowled. Momma Oaks would skin us both if she caught him in my room. People took reputations seriously, and mine was already bruised, due to my insistence on being myself.
“Good work, dove.” Stalker’s grin flashed in the moonlight.
“What are you doing here?” It was the middle of the night, but he loved his little tests.
“We’ve got incoming. I heard the second bell.”
My ire cooled. He wasn’t just checking my reflexes in spite of our precarious situation. Belonging to no one, we had to make sure we didn’t wear out our welcome or anger the townsfolk by flouting their rules. Most seemed designed to discourage unauthorized breeding, and they didn’t like it when I went off to spar with Stalker. It hadn’t taken me long to figure that I wasn’t a normal girl—at least by Salvation standards. So we trained in secret these days, no daylight matches.
“Let’s have a look. Turn around.”
With minimal fuss, I dressed in Huntress attire and strapped on my weapons, which I hadn’t permitted anyone to take, despite complaints of how “inappropriate” it was for me to carry them. Most of those came from women who dropped by the Oakses’ house to whisper their disapproval of my heathen ways. Savages raised me in a cave, to hear them tell it, but as I’d informed Momma Oaks, I earned my scars and blades. They could pry the latter from my cold, dead hands. Respecting the teacher’s sensibilities, I did wear long-sleeve blouses to school to hide my Huntress status.
Stalker slid out the open window, the same one he’d climbed in a few moments before. If I didn’t look forward to our nighttime matches so much, I’d latch it, but only those fights made me feel like a Huntress these days. Following him, I leapt to the branch of the tree and then swung down into the quiet yard.
It was a warm night, bright moon patterning the ground with silver. Each blade of grass felt heavenly beneath my feet. Once, I’d walked on broken stones and hard cement, deep in the belly of the earth. It had been a noisy place, full of echoes, soft moans, and whimpers in the night. But that world was gone.
Now I lived in Salvation, where the buildings were sound, white-washed, and clean, where men had their work and women did different tasks. I struggled with that reality. Down below, my sex hadn’t mattered much. Most of our titles there were neutral with the exception of Huntress, and we retained that one because in the early days—before we realized females could fight as fiercely—only male Hunters protected the enclave. When the first Huntress changed everything, she wanted an acknowledgment of her achievement … and so the distinction remained, unlike the Builders and Breeders who had always been both genders.
They treated their young differently in Salvation as well. Regardless of the threat, brats weren’t allowed to fight … but I’d spent too long defending the enclave to feel comfortable about lying abed while others battled on my behalf. They had built the town like a wooden fortress with strong fortifications and a sturdy gate; a protective wall with walkway and sentry towers kept the Freaks out, safeguarding the populace, but I wasn’t sure it would hold forever. Both Stalker and I had asked to assess the numbers Salvation faced, and how well the guards drove them off. It seemed like a reasonable request, but the folks in charge—elders who were actually old—preferred that young people spent their time puzzling how to read and cipher numbers. There were also history lessons and endless tests on information that nobody in his right mind would ever be required to know.
I found it insulting. If someone already knew how to weave cloth, why would anyone waste time making him learn how to bake bread? It was a waste of effort, but they had rules for everything in Salvation. Breaking them had consequences, which was why I had to be careful.
Along with Stalker, I stole through the darkened town, avoiding dogs that would set up a racket. I found it curious that people kept animals for companionship and not food. When I’d asked Momma Oaks when she planned to cook the fat creature that slept in a basket in the kitchen, her eyes almost popped out of her head. Since then, she’d kept her pet away from me, like she suspected I meant to turn it into stew. Clearly, I had a lot to learn.
“I smell them,” Stalker whispered then.
Lifting my head, I sniffed the night wind and nodded. Anyone who had encountered Freaks—or Muties as they called them Topside—wouldn’t forget the stench: rotting meat and oozing sores. Once, a long time ago, they had human ancestors … or so the stories said. But something bad happened, and people got sick. A lot of them died … and some of them changed. The dead ones were lucky, Edmund claimed, but Momma Oaks always shushed her husband when he talked like that. She had some idea that we needed to be sheltered. Her protective instincts made me laugh, considering I’d fought more than most town guards. I paused, listening.
Weapons weren’t quiet in Salvation, so if the fight had started, I’d hear the boom of their guns. That gave me time to scramble up to the southernmost sentry tower, where Longshot stood watch. He wouldn’t run me off with angry words about how I ought to be in bed. Over the past weeks, he’d showed great patience with my questions. Other men said it was none of my business and reported me for unfeminine, improper behavior; more than once I’d found myself in trouble with Momma Oaks over my nocturnal jaunts.
As usual, Longshot didn’t protest when we slid up the ladder and joined him. From this vantage I saw by flickering lamplight the land unfolding before me. If I pushed past, I could gain access to the walls, but then his fellow guards would yell at me for getting in the way. I didn’t have a gun, so I couldn’t shoot Freaks anyway. Plus, Momma Oaks would hear about my misdeeds again, which led to extra chores and a lecture about how I wasn’t trying to fit in.
“You never miss a fight,” Longshot said, cocking Old Girl.
“Not if we can help it,” Stalker answered.
“It doesn’t feel right … I’m used to helping. How many are there tonight?”
“I counted ten, but they’re hanging back, just out of range.”
That information sent a cold chill through me. “Trying to draw you out?”