It was only when my sister came to find me that I knew something was wrong. She never left the main room unattended.
I was putting a bag of flour onto the storeroom shelf when Maria burst in and took hold my arm.
“I think we’re in trouble. Trevel’s inside the café.”
It took me a moment to realise who she meant.
“What’s he doing here?”
“I don’t know, he hasn’t said, but he’s brought a troupe with him.”
This was not good. “Is it a retrieval squad?”
“No. He doesn’t work with them.”
“All right, what do you want me do?”
Maria pressed her lips together, looking down at the ground. When she met my eyes again, her expression was calm and determined. “Wait outside here. I’ll come and find you.”
“You did lock the till, didn’t you?”
“Of course I did.” With that, she let go of my arm and hurried out the storeroom, shutting the door behind her.
I felt a combination of fear and adrenaline begin to stir in my stomach. It was a familiar sensation, and one I’d almost begun to enjoy. This time, it seemed to be magnified tenfold. Taking a deep breath, I followed my sister out, turning the storeroom light off in the process.
The back corridor was warm, with red walls. To my right was our back door and right in front of me was the femme suite. I looked to my right, through the glass door. It looked as though there might be a chance of escape out the back; I couldn’t see anyone outside.
Then again, it was evening. Just because I couldn’t see anybody didn’t mean they weren’t there. That couple on Marigold Street learned that lesson the hard way, and we learned from their mistakes.
Maria was coming back. She didn’t look worried, but her shoulders were high with tension.
“Steph’ll be back soon with the butter. Could you help me serve our customers until then?” Maria leaned in closer and mouthed, “Act as natural as possible.”
“I’m not stupid,” I whispered back.
We both went into the main café. I felt myself relaxing a little when I saw the four people standing near the entrance were all men. The eldest had to be Captain Lucas Trevel. Unlike Maria, I’d never seen him before. He was wearing the black leather uniform, with a light blue band tied around his upper right arm. He had sandy-brown hair and sharp blue eyes that were intently studying the picture on the far wall. The three younger men were all in dark grey. My relief increased by a small amount when I saw that they all wore orange armbands.
I had to remind myself not to drop my guard.
“Would you like a table?” Maria asked politely, walking up to them.
“No, thank you. We’re on an assignment,” replied Trevel. He nodded at her. Maria smiled in answer before looking back at me. I could see the anxiety in her eyes.
I glanced down the corridor. The back door was locked, but that wouldn’t stop any of the Guards from entering. The reinforced glass would be no problem whatsoever for them.
I walked towards the counter, opened a small drawer and took out the key to the back door, slipping it into my pocket. The back door was our only option if things went wrong. We wouldn’t stand a chance against them if they turned on us, so we had to get out quickly if it looked like things were about to go wrong.
“What time will they be here?” It was one of the men in grey who had spoken. He sounded bored, and as though he would much rather be somewhere else.
“They should have arrived already,” Trevel answered, looking at the clock on the wall. It was half-past eight; within half an hour, curfew would begin. If they were still here when Jason turned up, we were going to be in serious trouble.
The door to the café opened. Trevel and the other Guards looked up, but it was only Steph.
“Captain Trevel and his group are here on an assignment,” Maria said quickly before Steph could drop the small bag of shopping - or react in a way that would cause the Guards suspicion. “Marsie, could you make sure the suites are adequately stocked for tomorrow? Thank you.”
She knew as well as I did that they were.
I was just about to leave when the door opened again. Two young women in grey walked into the café.
My stomach dropped into my shoes. There was a chance we would get away with it with an all-male troupe. The young women had just lessened those chances.
The taller of the two newcomers had olive skin, with fine and exotic facial features. Her black hair was bound up in a whip-like ponytail. Like Trevel, she wore a light blue armband.
The second girl had dark brown hair hanging below her shoulders. She had a neck that Mum would have called ‘swan-like’, a small nose and sloping eyebrows. She nodded and smiled at us as if we were her old friends. Her armband was dark purple.
“You’re late,” Trevel growled.
“Sorry, sir,” the first girl replied. “We were delayed.”
“I can see that. Any sign of...”
I didn’t bother to hear any more. Instead, I turned and slipped down the corridor towards the suites. Leaning against the wall just outside the femme suite, I looked out of the back door.
By now, it was even more difficult to tell if there was anyone outside. I checked the back door, just to see if it was still locked.
A few minutes later, I looked back into the café. Trevel and the other Guards were standing close together, talking quietly. The brown-haired girl had wandered away from the group, dangerously close to the corridor. She was looking at the collection of teacups we kept in a glass cabinet.
“They’re pretty, aren’t they?” I said, coming to stand beside her. She didn’t look much older than Maria. “We don’t actually use them; they’re just there to look nice.”
“Oh, are they valuable?”
I shook my head. “Not really.” The valuable ones were kept upstairs in the flat Maria and I shared.
Now that I was nearer to her, I could see that she probably wasn’t much older than I was. She might even have been Maria’s age.
“Never seen a purple armband before.”
“You wouldn’t have. They aren’t very keen on letting my kind out of the College. I haven’t been to town in a long time.”
“Really?” I asked softly.
She looked at me with sad eyes. They were the colour of melted sugar. “Yeah.”
We both jumped. Trevel was glaring at the girl, who immediately straightened her posture.
“You’re not here to socialise. Now get moving.”
“She wasn’t socialising. We were just having a friendly conversation.”
I didn’t intend to sound cold and haughty, but I did, and that was a mistake. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Maria tense and looked fearfully at Trevel.
Trevel took a few steps closer towards me. I had to tilt my chin upwards slightly to look into his face. “It might have been ‘a friendly conversation’ for you, but we’re on an assignment and Verdran knows better than to be distracted. I’ll thank you not to do it again.” He looked at Verdran again and motioned sharply with his head; she headed towards the door, where the others were waiting. Trevel followed her and the door shut behind them.
All of us sighed in utter relief.
“Shall I go and see if...” I gestured towards the corridor. Maria nodded; I hurried down the corridor until I stood in front of the femme suite. I knocked three times on the door and opened it.
The suite had a pink interior, with plump chairs and cushions. Seated on one of the chairs was a sixteen-year-old girl with dark red hair. An empty plate and glass was on the floor just in front of her chair. As I entered, she jumped and looked up at me with fearful eyes.
“It’s all right, Sage,” I said reassuringly. “Everything’s fine.”
“Are you sure? What if that guy you told me about doesn’t get here?”
“He will.” I knelt down in front of her. “Jason’s never let anyone down. He’s never been caught and he’s never let anyone else be caught. He’s the best there is.”
Even as I said it, I felt uneasy. The Watchmen weren’t out yet, but Trevel and the Guards were still in the vicinity. What if they were watching the café?
Sage smiled, but the corners of her mouth trembled. “I just want to see my family again - just for a little while.”
“You will see them,” I promised her. Then I got to my feet, picking up the plate and glass. “Are you hungry? Would you like another sandwich?”
“No, thanks. I’m fine.”
“Jason should be here in a few minutes.” I left the suite, closing the door quietly. Just as I was rejoining my sister and Steph, we heard the warning gong echo through the City. It was quarter to nine.
“Wouldn’t it be funny if those Guards were caught breaking curfew?” Steph took the glass and plate from me and put them on the nearest table.
“They won’t be. They will have been given passes.” Maria looked at the clock and frowned. “You’d better get going, Steph. Thanks for all you’ve done today.”
“No problem. I’ll see you both tomorrow.”
After she had left, I asked: “Shall I stay with Sage until Jason gets here?”
“She could probably do with some company. There’s nothing here that needs doing.”
I found Sage where I had left her, sitting on the exact same chair. She was holding out her hands in front of her. A cushion hovered above her empty palms.
I shut the door quietly. “You’re a Red Class.”
Sage didn’t falter; she frowned in concentration, her eyes fixed on the cushion. “Mm-hmm.”
I knelt down on the floor again. She didn’t seem to want me to leave, but she didn’t talk to me either. Eventually, she parted her hands and the cushion dropped to the floor. Sage exhaled noisily and took a few deep breaths.
“How long have you been at the College?”
“Four months. It feels like forever.” She looked at me with sad eyes. “You’re lucky, you know.”
I did know. I was reminded of it every time I saw a retrieval squad. Mum used to hold my hand and Maria’s tightly when we passed them in the street.
I wondered if I should tell her about the Guards. I didn’t want to scare her any more than she already was, but she needed to know about them and so did Jason.
“Knock, knock!” a voice called from the other side of the door. “Safe to come in?”
“We’ll be right out!” I replied. Sage followed me out of the suite.
Jason Rowe was wearing his black jeans and thick fleece. His dark blond hair just touched his shoulders and a large smile lit up his hazel eyes. “Hi, Sage. I’m Jason.”
She nodded. “Hi.” Her voice was barely audible.
“Jason, just so you should know, there were five Guards in the café a few minutes ago. Don’t worry, Sage,” I said quickly once I saw the fear in her eyes. “They weren’t here for you.” At least, I really hoped they weren’t. “But they might still be in the area.”
“Thanks. I’ll keep an eye out for them.”
He grinned again. “Come on, Marsie - when am I not careful?”
Jason was always careful. That was why he’d never been caught.
“You’d better get going,” Maria said as she came to stand beside me. “You don’t want to lose time.”
Jason and Sage slipped out of the back, Sage looking back to mouth ‘Thank you’ at us. After Maria locked the door, we waited for a few minutes, holding our breath and each other’s hands. But there were no angry shouts or figures running into the darkness.
Maria hurried to close the red blinds above the back door. “I’ve already locked the front door,” she said.
“How much washing-up have we got to do?”
“Not a lot - you did most of it before the Guards arrived. I’ll take care of it if you cook.” She smiled.
If we didn’t talk about what had just happened, we wouldn’t jinx it.
“I’ll sort something out.”