I fucked us.
If Micah and I stayed, we’d be dead. There was no way around it. We’d spent our entire childhood trying to keep Prava from killing us, dodging the molesters and the murders and scraping together enough food to make it to our early twenties. And then I went ahead and fucked us. Like usual. The Sparrows—the most notorious league of bounty hunters and assassins—wanted us dead. Actually, the Black Spider wanted us dead. Me, specifically. But he’d issued a price on both our heads which ignited a massive manhunt for my twin brother and me.
Micah wanted to walk away when we found her.
I didn’t think I could.
I didn’t think it was possible to feel so much hate and not swing my duel blades. Or punch both fists through something hard and living. It was something my older brother, Jeremiah, constantly reminded me of: ‘rough hands, rough life.’ It meant I would always be doomed to fight for the things I’d never get. Or the things I’d want. Micah was the opposite—a peacekeeper that was always mending. I tore things apart and he put them back together. It was the way we balanced each other since birth, since Micah came out a whole three minutes before me and claimed the title of oldest and therefore wisest. Even if it wasn’t for the distinct hair color difference—I was born with cobalt and Micah with jade—Jeremiah said he could already tell us apart. We both had the same dark facial features and strong jaws, but it was our expressions, the way we looked at the world that really told us apart. Micah was constantly smiling and laughing. I was always waiting for the other shoe to drop.
It should’ve been obvious what we’d be walking into. I’d told Nero, the Black Spider, a few days earlier that I wanted out. I couldn’t take it anymore. All the killing and capturing—it was eating away at me. It’d been eating away at me my entire life and enough was enough.
“You’re unhappy?” Nero had frowned. But it wasn’t sadness. It was disappointment flaring in his black eyes. Anger.
“I mean no disrespect,” I reminded him, my hands cuffed comfortably behind my empty-holstered back. He preferred it this way. For his subjects to stand defenseless before him. Actually, he preferred people on their knees at the foot of his throne, their wrists and ankles bound. He also preferred to taunt them a bit with a knife, but Nero’s skinny white hands were empty. He’d perched himself like a spider might—one leg kicked over the stone armrest while the other dangled to the floor. He was waiting for me to go on. “But I’m done.”
Nero’s dark eyes sat in the same white face but everything else—his loose clothing and boots and shoulder-length hair—all matched the black, drab walls of his sewer-centered lair. Everything inside it was damp and hot and cornered in sticky gobs of stretching white goo. Some strands connected to the next wall, some reaching further. Foul-smelling drips plunked to the wet ground below, but Nero’s eyes had never left mine.
“Done…” he’d sounded the word out, testing it. “And what will you do now?”
“Find a real job,” I shrugged. “Maybe try for a different district.”
“A different—” he’d laughed at the idea and then stopped himself. “Doing what? I control the cage matches and the fighting pits. No one would hire you to do anything… worthwhile.”
“I’ll find something else. I’ve given you my loyalty for ten years. I’ve done everything you’ve ever asked of me. But I’m done slitting throats for you,” I needed to make him understand. “I’m through.”
“Of course,” Nero had sat back and nodded. “You always have a choice.”
It wasn’t true.
No one left the Sparrows. Ever. Not in the history since the beginning of the realm had anyone ever willingly left. No one even tried. But I was Nero’s top dog, his legendary bounty hunter and, on occasions, his prized mercenary. I had been since he recruited me at twelve. He saw the potential. Watched how I fought my way to class and back home again when I was just a boy, when the older assholes on the street tried to beat up me and Micah simply for making the effort. Because class was a luxury if you could get there. Daily fresh, hot lunch and hours sitting in four-walled protection. That was the dream. And if we didn’t get hit, shot or stabbed on the commute, it was worth it.
We tried class for a few years until it didn’t matter anymore. We needed to help Jeremiah keep us fed along with our baby sister, Sarah. Survival was the important thing now. Not education. And Nero offered me work. Food for a lot of shitty tasks. It was easy enough and if I didn’t think about what I was doing—who I was hurting—I could usually stomach the food I’d bring home. I promised myself I wouldn’t get in too deep, that I’d only work for Nero until I found something else. And then ten years passed.
I didn’t know what I expected. I didn’t know if I thought leaving would be as easy as I’d hoped or if I should’ve expected more. No one had ever left so there was nothing to go by.
And then we found her.
It was a message. This was what it meant to leave the Sparrows. And it was only the start. I knew they would come for Micah next. If Jeremiah hadn’t been killed in that restaurant explosion six months earlier, they would’ve come for him too. And any person who meant something to me. If Judith and I had still been together, they would’ve slit her throat and left her in my bed as a fuck you for playing, no one says no to the Sparrows.
I knew we should’ve left when we found Sarah. They wouldn’t stop coming for us and it was best to just go, flee Prava like we’d always talked about and finally leave the outer Wall, trying our luck in the mystic winds of the White Wasteland beyond. But I couldn’t shake the image of my sister’s body. They left her discarded like trash, covered in dirt and grass with blood and bits of clothing under mangled purple hair. Finding her like that did something to me. It catapulted me into darkness, into a rage I’d never known because my sweet baby Sarah was only nine. Nine. And she was good and smart and sweet and everything innocent in the world, and she deserved a lifetime of happiness outside of Prava. But what she got was an unexpected knock at the door. From men she’d seen her brother associate with. It wouldn’t have made a difference if she kept the door locked and hid. They would’ve found her. Sarah’s fate was sealed the moment I told Nero no.
“You can’t stop them!” Micah had sworn he’d put me down if I tried to retaliate. But that’s the thing about Micah—he always thought I could be stopped. He always thought I could be reasoned with, even by him. “Jo, stop. STOP. I can’t lose another sibling.”
“Then get out of the way.”
“And what do you think is going to happen? You think you’re going to just march in there and kill every last Sparrow?”
“That’s the plan,” I’d strapped on my back holster and reached for my dueling blades.
“They’ll slit your throat. They’ll send you back to me in pieces and then they’re going to come for me.”
“No. I’m ending it. Tonight.”
“There’s fifty six of them and only one of you. Please, Jo,” he’d put his hands on my chest. It was the way he got my attention, a technique to bring me out of the constant pain. “Please.”
“They killed Sarah.”
“I know they killed Sarah.”
“They killed her because of me,” I jerked my thumb back at myself, bearing the weight of her torture. “Because of what I did. And I can’t leave knowing I didn’t do a damn thing to—”
“They’re coming to kill us and you want to walk in there? Come on, Jo. We need to leave. We need to leave Prava now.”
“We will. Tonight,” I scanned our sparse living room. A torn couch sat against the wall and under a window with drapes that used to be yellow. We still had our wooden dining room set with old toys and tools still stashed on it and in the corner by the closet. At one point Jeremiah and Sara shared the space with us. We’d lived here, altogether, as a family. But now we were alone. Just me and Micah left. Just the pair of opposite twins.“Pack your things,” I said. “Pack our things. Take Gypsy and I’ll meet you in the alley between Dunn and Silver. Wait for me there. I’ll take care of as many as I can, but you need to be ready to run. This is it,” I’d thrown my arms around my brother and squeezed him tight. I’d hugged him for myself, for my sister, for the things I was about to do and the journey we would ultimately need to take. This was it. Our moment had finally come. “We’re leaving tonight, Micah.”