The Immortal RulesJulie Kagawa
They hung the Unregistereds in the old warehouse district; it was a public execution, so everyone went to see.
I stood at the back, a nameless face in the crowd, too close to the gallows for comfort but unable to look away. There were three of them this time, two boys and a girl. The oldest was about my age, seventeen and skinny, with huge frightened eyes and greasy dark hair that hung to his shoulders.
The other two were even younger, fourteen and fifteen if I had to guess, and siblings, since they both had the same stringy yellow hair. I didn't know them; they weren't part of my crowd. Still, they had the same look of all Unregistereds; thin and ragged, their eyes darting about like trapped animals. I crossed my arms tightly, feeling their desperation. It was over. The trap had closed; the hunters had caught them, and there was no place for them to run.
The pet stood on the edge of the platform, puffed up and swaggering, as if he had caught the kids himself. He was walking back and forth, pointing to the condemned and rattling off a list of crimes, his pale eyes gleaming with triumph.
". . . assaulting a citizen of the Inner City, robbery, trespass-ing and resisting arrest. These criminals attempted to steal Class One foodstuffs from the private warehouse of the Inner City. This is a crime against you, and more important, a crime against our benevolent Masters. "
I snorted. Fancy words and legal mumbo jumbo didn't erase the fact that these "criminals" were just doing what all Unregistereds did to survive. For whatever reasons, fate, pride or stubbornness, we nonregistered humans didn't have the mark of our vampire masters etched into our skin, the brands that told you who you were, where you lived and who you belonged to. Of course, the vampires said it was to keep us safe, to keep track of everyone within the city, to know how much food they had to allow for. It was for our own good.
Yeah, right. Call it what you wanted, it was just another way to keep their human cattle enslaved. You might as well be wearing a collar around your neck.
There were several good things about being Unregistered.
You didn't exist. You were off their records, a ghost in the system. Because your name wasn't on the lists, you didn't have to show up for the monthly bloodletting, where human pets in crisp white coats stuck a tube in your vein and siphoned your blood into clear bags that were placed into coolers and taken to the Masters. Miss a couple lettings and the guards came for you, forcing you to pony up the late blood, even if it left you empty as a limp sack. The vamps got their blood, one way or another.
Being Unregistered let you slip through the cracks. was no leash for the bloodsuckers to yank on. And since it wasn't exactly a crime, you'd think everyone would do it.
Unfortunately, being free came with a hefty price. Registered humans got meal tickets. Unregistereds didn't. And since the vamps controlled all the food in the city, this made getting enough to eat a real problem.
So we did what anyone in our situation would do. We begged. We stole. We scraped up food wherever we could, did anything to survive. In the Fringe, the outermost circle of the vampire city, food was scarce even if you weren't Unregistered. The ration trucks came twice a month and were heavily guarded. I'd seen Registered citizens beaten just for getting out of line. So while it wasn't exactly a crime to be Unregistered, if you got caught stealing from the bloodsuckers and you didn't have the Prince's cursed brand gracing your skin, you could expect no mercy whatsoever.
It was a lesson I'd learned well. Too bad these three never did.
". . . eight ounces of soy, two potatoes, and a quarter loaf of bread. " The pet was still going on, and his audience had their eyes glued to the gallows now, morbidly fascinated. I slipped into the crowd, moving away from the platform. The smug voice rang out behind me, and I clenched my hands, wishing I could drive a fist through his smiling teeth. Damn pets.
In some ways, they were even worse than the bloodsuckers.
They'd chosen to serve the vamps, selling out their fellow humans for the safety and luxury it brought. Everyone hated them, but at the same time everyone was jealous of them, as well.
"The rules regarding Unregistered citizens are clear. " The pet was wrapping up, stretching out his words for the greatest effect. "According to clause twenty-two, line forty-six of New Covington law, any human found stealing within city limits, who does not have the mark of protection from the Prince, shall be hanged by the neck until they are dead. Do the accused have any last words?"
I heard muff led voices, the oldest thief swearing at the pet, telling him to do something anatomically impossible. I shook my head. Brave words wouldn't help him. Nothing would now. It was fine and good to be defiant to the end, but it was better not to get caught in the first place. That was his first mistake and, ultimately, his last. Always leave yourself an out; that was the first rule of the Unregistereds. Do whatever you want-hate the vamps, curse the pets-but never get caught.
I picked up my pace, hurrying past the edge of the crowd, and broke into a jog.
The clunk of the trapdoors releasing echoed very loudly in my ears, even over the gasp of the watching crowd. The silence that followed was almost a living thing, urging me to turn, to glance over my shoulder. Ignoring the knot in my stomach, I slipped around a corner, putting the wall between myself and the gallows so I wouldn't be tempted to look back.
Life in the Fringe is a simple thing, like the people who live here. They don't have to work, though there are a couple "trading posts" set up around the Fringe, where people collect what they find and exchange it for other things.
They don't have to read; there are no jobs that require it, and besides, owning books is highly illegal-so why risk it?
All they have to worry about is feeding themselves, keeping their clothes mended, and patching up whatever hole or box or gutted out building they call home well enough to keep the rain off them.
The secret goal of almost every Fringer is to someday make it into the Inner City, past the wall that separates the civilized world from the human trash, into the glittering city that looms over us with its great starry towers that had somehow resisted crumbling into dust. Everyone knows someone who knows someone who was taken into the city, a brilliant mind or a great beauty, someone too unique or special to be left here with us animals. There are rumors that the vampires "breed" the humans on the inside, raising the children to be their thralls, completely devoted to their masters. But since none who are Taken into the city ever come out again-except the pets and their guards, and they aren't talking-no one knows what it's really like.
Of course, this only feeds the stories.
"Did you hear?" Stick asked as I met him at the chain-link fence that marked the edge of our territory. Beyond the fence, across a grassy, glass-strewn lot, stood a squat old building that my gang and I called home. Lucas, the de facto leader of our gang, said it used to be a "school," a place where kids like us gathered every day in huge numbers to learn. That was before the vamps had it gutted and burned, destroying everything on the inside, but it was still a refuge for a gang of skinny street rats. Three stories high, the brick walls were beginning to crumble, the top f loor had fallen in, and the halls were filled with mold, rubble and little else. The charred halls and empty rooms were cold, damp and dark, and every year a little more of the walls fell away, but it was our place, our safe haven, and we were fiercely protective of it.
"Hear what?" I asked as we ducked through the gap in the rusty fence, striding through weeds and grass and broken bottles to where home beckoned invitingly.
"Gracie was Taken last night. Into the city. They say some vampire was looking to expand his harem, so he took her. " I looked at him sharply. "What? Who told you that?"
"Kyle and Travis. "
I rolled my eyes in disgust. Kyle and Travis belonged to a rival gang of Unregistereds. We didn't bother each other, usually, but this sounded like something our competitors would concoct just to scare us off the streets. "You believe anything those two say? They're screwing with you, Stick. They want to scare you. "
He trailed me across the lot like a shadow, watery blue gaze darting about. Stick's real name was Stephen, but no one called him that anymore. He was taller than me by several inches, but my five-foot nothing didn't make this feat all that impressive. Stick was built like a scarecrow, with straw-colored hair and timid eyes. He managed to survive on the streets, but just barely. "They're not the only ones talking about it," he insisted. "Cooper said he heard her scream a few blocks away. What does that tell you?"
"If it's true? That she was stupid enough to go wandering around the city at night and probably got herself eaten. "
"What?" We ducked through the broken door frame into the dank halls of the school. Rusty metal lockers were scattered along one wall, a few still standing, most dented and broken. I headed toward an upright one and yanked the door open with a squeak. "The vamps don't stay in their precious towers all the time. Sometimes they go hunting for live bodies. Everyone knows that. " I grabbed the brush that I kept here to go with the mirror that was stuck to the back, the only useable one in the building. My ref lection stared at me, a dirty-faced girl with straight black hair and "squinty eyes," as Rat put it. At least I didn't have teeth like a rodent.
I ran the brush through my hair, wincing at the snags.
Stick was still watching me, disapproving and horrified, and I rolled my eyes. "Don't give me that look, Stephen," I said, frowning. "If you're out past sundown and get tagged by a bloodsucker, that's your fault for not staying put or not pay-ing attention. " I replaced the brush and shut the locker with a bang. "Gracie thought that just because she's Registered and her brother guards the Wall, she was safe from vampires.
They always come for you when you think you're safe. "
"Marc is pretty torn up about it," Stick said almost sullenly.
"Gracie was his only family since their parents died. "
"Not our problem. " I felt bad for saying it, but it was true.
In the Fringe, you looked out for yourself and your immediate family, no one else. My concern didn't extend beyond myself, Stick and the rest of our small gang. This was my family, screwed up as it was. I couldn't worry about the trials of everyone in the Fringe. I had plenty of my own, thanks.
"Maybe. . . " Stick began, and hesitated. "Maybe she's. . . happier now," he continued. "Maybe being Taken into the Inner City is a good thing. The vampires will take better care of her, don't you think?"
I resisted the urge to snort. Stick, they're vampires, I wanted to say. Monsters. They only see us as two things: slaves and food.
Nothing good comes from a bloodsucker, you know that.
But telling Stick that would only upset him more, so I pretended not to hear. "Where are the others?" I asked as we walked down the hall, picking our way over rubble and broken glass. Stick trailed morosely, dragging his feet, kicking bits of rock and plaster with every step. I resisted the urge to smack him. Marc was a decent guy; even though he was Registered, he didn't treat us Unregistereds like vermin, and even spoke to us on occasion when he was making his rounds at the Wall. I also knew Stick had feelings for Gracie, though he would never act on them. But I was the one who shared most of my food with him, since he was usually too scared to go scavenging by himself. Ungrateful little snot. I couldn't watch out for everyone; he knew that.
"Lucas isn't back yet," Stick finally mumbled as we came to my room, one of the many empty spaces along the hall.
In the years I had been here, I'd fixed it up the best I could.
Plastic bags covered the shattered windows, keeping out the rain and damp. An old mattress lay in one corner with my blanket and pillow. I'd even managed to find a folding table, a couple chairs and a plastic shelf for various clutter, little things I wanted to keep. I'd built a nice little lair for myself, and the best part was my door still locked from the inside, so I could get some privacy if I wanted.
"What about Rat?" I asked, pushing on my door.
As the door squeaked open, a wiry boy with lank brown hair jerked around, beady eyes widening. He was older than me and Stick, with sharp features and a front tooth that stuck out like a fang, giving him a permanent sneer.
Rat swore when he saw me, and my blood boiled. This was my space, my territory. He had no right to be here. "Rat," I snarled, bursting through the doorway. "Why are you snooping around my room? Looking for things to steal?" Rat held up his arm, and my stomach went cold. In one grubby hand, he held an old, faded book, the cover falling off, the pages crumpled. I recognized it instantly. It was a made-up story, a fantasy, the tale of four kids who went through a magic wardrobe and found themselves in a strange new world.
I'd read it more times than I could remember, and although I sneered at the thought of a magical land with friendly, talking animals, there were times when I wished, in my most secret moments, that I could find a hidden door that would take us all out of this place.
"What the hell is this?" Rat said, holding up the book.
Having been caught red-handed, he quickly switched to the offensive. "Books? Why are you collecting garbage like that?
As if you even know how to read. " He snorted and tossed the book to the f loor. "Do you know what the vamps would do, if they found out? Does Lucas know about your little trash collection?"
"That's none of your business," I snapped, stepping farther into the room. "This is my room, and I'll keep what I want.
Now get lost, before I tell Lucas to throw you out on your skinny white ass. "
Rat snickered. He hadn't been with the group long, a few months at most. He claimed he'd come from another sector and that his old gang had kicked him out, but he'd never said why. I suspected it was because he was a lying, thieving bastard. Lucas wouldn't even have considered letting him stay if we hadn't lost two members the previous winter. Patrick and Geoffrey, two Unregistered brothers who were daring to the point of stupidity, who bragged the vampires would never catch them. They were too quick, they claimed. They knew all the best escape tunnels. And then one night they went out looking for food as usual. . . and never came back.
Kicking the book aside, Rat took a threatening step forward and straightened so that he loomed over me. "You got a big mouth, Allie," he snarled, his breath hot and foul. "Better watch out. Lucas can't be around to protect you all the time. Think about that. " He leaned in, crowding me. "Now get out of my face, before I bitch slap you across the room.
I'd hate for you to start crying in front of your boyfriend. " He tried pushing me back. I dodged, stepped close and slammed my fist into his nose as hard as I could.
Rat shrieked, staggering backward, hands f lying to his face.
Stick yelped from behind me. Blinking through tears, Rat screamed a curse and swung at my head, clumsy and awkward. I ducked and shoved him into the wall, hearing the thump of his head against the plaster.
"Get out of my room," I growled as Rat slid down the wall, dazed. Stick had f led to a corner and was hiding behind the table. "Get out and stay out, Rat. If I see you in here again, I swear you'll be eating through a straw the rest of your life. " Rat pushed himself upright, leaving a smear of red on the plaster. Wiping his nose, he spat a curse at me and stumbled out, kicking over a chair as he left. I slammed and locked the door behind him.
"Bastard. Thieving, lying bastard. Ow. " I looked down at my fist and frowned. My knuckle had been cut on Rat's tooth and was starting to well with blood. "Ew. Oh, great, I hope I don't catch something nasty. "
"He's going to be mad," Stick said, venturing out from behind the table, pale and frightened. I snorted.
"So what? Let him
try something. I'll break his nose the other way. " Grabbing a rag from the shelf, I pressed it to my knuckle. "I'm tired of listening to his crap, thinking he can do anything he wants just because he's bigger. He's had it coming for a while. "
"He might take it out on me, " Stick said, and I bristled at the accusing tone, as if I should know better. As if I didn't think of how it might affect him.
"So kick him in the shin and tell him to back off," I said, tossing the rag on the shelf and carefully picking up the abused book. Its cover had been ripped off, and the front page was torn, but it seemed otherwise intact. "Rat picks on you 'cause you take it. If you fight back, he'll leave you alone. " Stick didn't say anything, lapsing into sullen silence, and I bit down my irritation. He wouldn't fight back. He would do what he always did-run to me and expect me to help him. I sighed and knelt beside a plastic box by the back wall.
Normally, it was hidden by an old sheet, but Rat had ripped that off and tossed it in the corner, probably looking for food or other things to steal. Sliding back the top, I studied the contents.
It was half full of books, some like the paperback I held in my hand, some larger, with sturdier covers. Some were moldy, some half charred. I knew them all, front to back, cover to cover. This was my most prized, most secret, possession. If the vamps knew I had a stash like this, they'd shoot us all and raze this place to the ground. But to me, the risk was worth it. The vamps had outlawed books in the Fringe and had systematically gutted every school and library building once they'd taken over, and I knew why. Because within the pages of every book, there was information of another world-a world before this one, where humans didn't live in fear of vampires and walls and monsters in the night. A world where we were free.
Carefully, I replaced the small paperback, and my gaze shifted to another well-worn book, its colors faded, a mold stain starting to eat one corner. It was larger than the others, a children's picture book, with brightly colored animals dancing across the front. I ran my fingers over the cover and sighed.
Stick had ventured close again, peering over my shoulder at the tote. "Did Rat take anything?" he asked softly.
"No," I muttered, shutting the lid, hiding my treasures from view. "But you might want to check your room, as well. And return anything you borrowed recently, just in case. "
"I haven't borrowed anything for months," Stick said, sounding frightened and defensive at the thought, and I bit down a sharp reply. Not long ago, before Rat came to the group, I would often find Stick in his room, huddled against the wall with one of my books, completely absorbed in the story. I'd taught him to read myself; long, painstaking hours of us sitting on my mattress, going over words and letters and sounds. It had taken a while for Stick to learn, but once he did, it became his favorite way to escape, to forget everything right outside his door.
Then Patrick had told him what vampires did to Fringers who could read books, and now he wouldn't touch them. All that work, all that time, all for nothing. It pissed me off that Stick was too scared of the vamps to learn anything new. I'd offered to teach Lucas, but he was f lat-out not interested, and I wasn't going to bother with Rat.
Stupid me, thinking I could pass on anything useful to this bunch.
But there was more to my anger than Stick's fear or Lucas's ignorance. I wanted them to learn, to better themselves, because that was just one more thing the vampires had taken from us. They taught their pets and thralls to read, but the rest of the population they wanted to keep blind, stupid and in the dark. They wanted us to be mindless, passive animals.
If enough people knew what life was like. . . before. . . how long would it be until they rose up against the bloodsuckers and took everything back?
It was a dream I didn't voice to anyone, not even myself.
I couldn't force people to want to learn. But that didn't stop me from trying.
Stick backed up as I stood, tossing the sheet over the box again. "You think he found the other spot?" he asked tentatively. "Maybe you should check that one, too. " I gave him a resigned look. "Are you hungry? Is that what you're saying?"
Stick shrugged, looking hopeful. "Aren't you?" I rolled my eyes and walked to the mattress in the corner, dropping to my knees again. Pushing the mattress up revealed the loose boards underneath, and I pried them free, peering into the dark hole.
"Damn," I muttered, feeling around the tiny space. Not much left-a stale lump of bread, two peanuts and one potato that was beginning to sprout eyes. This was what Rat had probably been looking for: my private cache. We all had them somewhere, hidden away from the rest of the world. Unregistereds didn't steal from each other; at least, we weren't supposed to. That was the unspoken rule. But, at our hearts, we were all thieves, and starvation drove people to do desperate things. I hadn't survived this long by being naive. The only one who knew about this hole was Stick, and I trusted him.
He wouldn't risk everything he had by stealing from me.
I gazed over the pathetic items and sighed. "Not good," I muttered, shaking my head. "And they're really cracking down out there, lately. No one is trading ration tickets anymore, for anything. "
My stomach felt hollow, nothing new to me, as I replaced the f loorboards and split the bread with Stick. I was almost always hungry in some form or another, but this had progressed to the serious stage. I hadn't eaten anything since last night. My scavenging that morning hadn't gone well. After several hours of searching my normal stakeouts, all I had to show for it was a cut palm and an empty stomach. Raiding old Thompson's rat traps hadn't worked; the rats were either getting smarter or he was finally making a dent in the rodent population. I'd scaled the fire escape to widow Tanner's rooftop garden, carefully easing under the razor-wire fence only to find the shrewd old woman had done her harvest early, leaving nothing but empty boxes of dirt behind. I'd searched the back-alley Dumpsters behind Hurley's trading shop; sometimes, though rarely, there would be a loaf of bread so moldy not even a rat would touch it, or a sack of soybeans that had gone bad, or a rancid potato. I wasn't picky; my stomach had been trained to keep down most anything, no matter how disgusting. Bugs, rats, maggoty bread, I didn't care as long as it faintly resembled food. I could eat what most people couldn't stomach, but today, it seemed Lady Luck hated me worse than usual.
And continuing to hunt after the execution was impossible. The pet's continued presence in the Fringe made people nervous. I didn't want to risk thievery with so many of the pet's guards wandering about. Besides, stealing food so soon after three people had been hanged for it was just asking for trouble.
Scavenging in familiar territory was getting me nowhere.
I'd used up all resources here, and the Registereds were getting wise to my methods. Even if I crossed into other sectors, most of the Fringe had been picked clean long, long ago. In a city full of scavengers and opportunists, there just wasn't anything left. If we wanted to eat, I was going to have to venture farther.
I was going to have to leave the city.
Glancing at the pale sky through the plastic-covered window, I grimaced. The morning was already gone. With afternoon fading rapidly, I'd have only a few hours to hunt for food once I was outside the Wall. If I didn't make it back before sundown, other things would start hunting. Once the light dropped from the sky, it was their time. The Masters.
I still have time, I thought, mentally calculating the hours in my head. It's a fairly clear day; I can slip under the Wall, search the ruins and be back before the sun goes down.
"Where are you going?" Stick asked as I opened the door and strode back down the hall, keeping a wary eye out for Rat. "Allie? Wait, where are you going? Take me with you.
I can help. "
"No, Stick. " I turned on him and shook my head. "I'm not hitting the regular spots this time. There are too many guards, and the pet is still out there making everyone twitchy. " I sighed and shielded my eye
s from the sun, gazing over the empty lot. "I'm going to have to try the ruins. " He squeaked. "You're leaving the city?"
"I'll be back before sundown. Don't worry. "
"If they catch you. . . "
"They won't. " I leaned back and smirked at him. "When have they ever caught me? They don't even know those tunnels exist. "
"You sound like Patrick and Geoffrey. " I blinked, stung. "That's a bit harsh, don't you think?" He shrugged, and I crossed my arms. "If that's how you feel, maybe I won't bother sharing anything I bring back. Maybe you should hunt for your own food for a change. "
"Sorry," he said quickly, giving me an apologetic smile.
"Sorry, Allie. I just worry about you, that's all. I get scared that you'll leave me here, alone. Promise you'll come back?"
"You know I will. "
"Okay, then. " He backed away into the hall, the shadows closing over his face. "Good luck. "
Maybe it was just me, but his tone almost implied that he was hoping I'd run into trouble. That I would see how dangerous it really was out there, and that he'd been right all along. But that was silly, I told myself, sprinting across the empty lot, back toward the fence and the city streets. Stick needed me; I was his only friend. He wasn't so vindictive that he'd wish me harm just because he was pissed about Marc and Gracie.
I pushed the thought from my mind as I squeezed through the chain-link fence and slipped into the quiet city. I could worry about Stick some other time; my priority was finding food to keep us both alive.
The sun teetered directly above the skeletal buildings, bath-ing the streets in light. Just hang up there a little longer, I thought, glancing at the sky. Stay put, for a few more hours at least. Actually, feel free to stop moving, if you want.
Vindictively, it seemed to drop a little lower in the sky, taunting me as it slid behind a cloud. The shadows lengthened like grasping fingers, sliding over the ground. I shivered and hurried into the streets.