Nine was the first person to call me Inch. We weren't supposed to have nicknames. Relationships in the cadres are supposed to be impersonal, and anything that deviates from the strictest professional behavior is frowned upon. But supposed to and realistic don't always match up so well. So early on I was Inch instead of Six, because I was the shortest of the bunch by half a foot at least, even when we'd all reached our tallest heights. Four was called Elephant because of her sticky-outy ears. Eleven was Freckles because, well, I guess you can puzzle that one out on your own. Kids are shit at naming things, you know.
Anyway, Nine stayed Nine, always. She was the oldest of us, and it felt like a sacrilege to bring her down to our level.
Growing up in the Dictator's service, I thought everyone knew how cadres worked. But when I got out, I learned fast that this was a misapprehension. No one even knows about us. They think that Marked girls die in infancy, or don't get born at all. Even if someone has heard rumors about the Dictator's bodyguards, they don't know what we are, what we do.
I don't like the idea of being a secret. It doesn't sit well, the idea that I was raised to think I was something special, when really, I was just something hidden.
So, this is how it is. Or, anyway, how it was. There are ten cadres in the Dictator's active service at any given time. Cadres are always made up of four Marked girls. Physical skills may vary depending on whatever genetics provide, but the mental skills tend to fall out as such: one seer, one speaker, one soother, one spark.
In our set, Nine was the seer. Freckles was our speaker. Elephant--Ellie--was our spark. And I was our soother.
This was good. This was right. For a while, at least.
The boy is tall.
Everyone is tall where I'm concerned, so when I say that I really mean it. He is tall. Pushing seven feet, easy.
He looks like the world doesn't quite fit him, opposite to the way it doesn't quite fit me, and I am entranced.
Then I realize he's Marked, the black spot hardly visible against the dark grain of his skin. And I want him more than I've wanted anything in a long, long time.
I am sitting in one of the upper windows of the covered market, which has been propped open to let in the hot summer wind, eating sweet, buttered corn. I come here because the covered market is one of the few places in this city where Marked and normals interact side by side in peace. I come here for the sweet, buttered corn, four chits a cob. I don't come here to gawp at tall Marked boys.
But as it happens, that is what I am doing now.
I wipe my chin off on my inner elbow and lean forward. There are two white men walking on either side of the boy. One is Marked, the other normal, and it's like nothing I've ever seen before, even here, in this little pocket of tolerance. A little girl, ten maybe, dances around them all in figure eights, gauzy dress flouncing in the wind. She tugs at my boy's hand, and he laughs.
A family. That's what this is.
I'm leaning so far forward now that if I were a regular person I'd probably fall. Splat, and dead, an ignominious end to poor Inch.
But I don't fall.
I wonder what skill set the tall boy possesses. I rock on my heels, and think of Ellie. I debate the wisdom of getting myself noticed again when I just got clear of the Third Cadre, who've been chasing me o'er hill and dale for sixteen months now.
Damn it all.
I was so proud when I was chosen for the Ninth Cadre. The kind of proud that can make your belly burst. I deserved it, too. I worked hard in all my classes. I might have been small, but I was fast, clever, and the best soother out of all seven of us in the running. I knew the secret, you see. Most people, even most Marked, seem to think that it's only sparks who get angry. The real--dangerous, powerful--kind of angry. They think soothers, the good ones, anyway, have to be always Zen and calm and relaxed and weak.
But that's not true. The real power is in knowing how to make your anger cold. There is no one you can't manipulate when you've got a grasp on cold anger, when your emotions crackle like ice on a pond.
I cheated my way into the Ninth Cadre. Don't be surprised. It's what we're supposed to do. It's not enough to be born Marked. You have to prove that you're willing to use whatever powers God or Science or Random Happenstance (whichever version of our origins you prefer) chose to give you.
My physical skill, as it turns out, is a useful one. Most soothers just get funny vocal tricks that hypnotize or confuse, but I can heal.
So, on the day of my final test I cut through the First and Second Cadres, the ones who surround the Dictator at all times, like a hot knife through butter. I sliced tendons and flattened noses and split lips, all while soothing them real quiet, so they didn't even feel that pain, and then I did that thing you never, ever do. I touched the Dictator. Just a little touch. A fingertip brush to the temple, just to show her that I could. It should have meant my death, to show that I could get so close to her, but I have always been a daring girl.
The girls who were supposed to guard the Dictator with their lives were all laid out on the floor, broken in body and ravaged with failure. So, I fixed them up, one by one. And she watched, and calculated my worth.
Not to say that it was easy. Cutting down and then fixing up eight people in a few minutes might look impressive, but it wrung me out like a wet towel. I took so much out of myself that I got a month recovering in bed for the trouble. But the Dictator liked that touch, liked that I'd dared it. So, when I finally rolled myself out of bed I had a pretty new uniform, and three brand new mates to go along with it.
They teach you early: you don't serve the officiant, you serve the office. Dictators come and go, and you are meant to serve them each in turn until your body or your mind finally breaks. But I have to say, I quite liked my first one. The one I dared to touch. Her name meant fair, and I know that really it was fair as in beautiful, but I always liked to pretend that it was actually fair as in just.
I'm honestly not trying to be flashy, jumping from the window like that. It just seems more sensible to make the drop than to push through the crowd on the stairs. No telling where my boy and his family could get to while I waste time on that rigmarole, and I have trouble seeing through crowds.
But then a bunch of people on the ground around me start causing a fuss, so I have to waste time dealing with that anyway.
Soothing a crowd's tough. It's hard to focus on so many minds at once; they slip around like wet noodles through your fingers. I pull, dragging the fear out of them, the surprise at seeing a girl drop from the sky and land safely on her feet. I push, more gently, dousing their sharper emotions like windblown snow.
The family is yards and yards away, far enough that they haven't even noticed the small commotion I caused in the general din of the busy market, but I see my boy's head perk up. His ears turn towards me. And I know what he is.
Before I can stop myself, I remember winter. Days when Ellie and I would sit in the big picture window at the back of the manse, watching slushy rain turn over to snow. She would run one finger down the glass, sending the softest bit of heat in a stream out of her skin, melting the ice as it formed, and I would whisper silly, stupid, beautiful things into a secret place at the curve of her neck.
A spark needs a soother. A soother needs a spark. That's just a fact.
But the boy doesn't look at me. I can tell he is aware, it is all revealed in the set of his shoulders. But he will not turn to look. So, I let go of the minds I am holding, gently, and I lose myself in the crowd, and follow.
The covered market consists of three long buildings in a u shape, plus dozens of outdoor stalls, the fountain, a busker's ring. The family buys eggs. They buy flour. They buy plums. The Marked man and the girl slip off to watch a fiddler playing a sharp, quick song. The other man, the normal one, stops at a cloth monger, looking through bolts of gaudy prints, and my boy lingers behind. Finally.
I cut through the crowd, grab on to his right hand. He feels like a hot water bottle, radiant with warmth.
"Slip your leash and follow me, Lovely," I say, stretching up on my toes.
"And if I don't?" His voice is a clipped whisper. He hasn't moved a muscle, was not startled by my touch.
And then I am off, leaving him behind to think on it. I learned long ago that you have to always keep moving forward if you want to get anywhere in this world. I trust that he will be able to find me when he is ready.
The Ninth Cadre was low on the roster, working on a rotating duty. We only served in the Dictator's presence three nights out of ten: long, boring, quiet nights. But not lonely, because we had each other.
Freckles used to play a game. She'd speak in our heads without warning, telling jokes, trying to get us to crack out of our professional veneer. You'd be standing there all calm and concentrated, when suddenly: What's the difference between a piano and a fish?
We couldn't make a sound, not if the Dictator was asleep, and oh, did Freckles use that to her advantage.
You can tune a piano, but you can't tuna fish!
Ellie always went off first. I remember the curve of her smile taking over her face, white teeth flashing in the dark. Then Nine would go, clapping both hands over her mouth to keep from laughing out loud at Freckles' bad jokes. More often than not, I refused to crack. I always felt like, even if she never said anything about it, the Dictator would know that I had failed.
Anyway, the jokes were stupid.
I was too ambitious for my own good, Ellie would often say. Had too much ice in my backbone. But she was a spark; it was in her blood to pick fights. How could I hold it against her, the very thing I loved her for?
When the cadre was not on the overnight guard we screened visitors that came to the manse. We scanned the perimeter. We filled in for sick leave. We trained, waiting for the day a girl might retire or die, when we might move up in the world. Freckles strummed out songs on her five-string guitar. Nine played chess against herself. Ellie and I fought, and loved, and fought some more.
We had a secret pact, my elephant-eared girl and I. We would not leave the Ninth Cadre except together, no matter what separate opportunities might arise. If I hadn't ruined things, I might be up to Fourth Cadre by now, even Third. But only with Ellie at my side.
On the far side of the covered market there's a transport canal. It's just a tiny branch off the big river, but I figure it's safe to have water nearby in case the spark goes off, and anyway, it's private. Not much traffic.
I hang my feet out over the turbid green water and kick against the canal wall, and I don't turn around when I hear the boy's hurried footsteps behind me.
"What are you?" He is out of breath. Ellie was like that, too, all rush and bother.
I don't want to think about Ellie right now.
I lean back, languid, resting on my elbows. "You know what I am."
"I'm a soother, Lovely. Do try to keep up."
"But you're a girl! Girls--"
"Die? Do I look dead to you?"
"It's impossible. There are no Marked girls."
"Not many, especially considering how many of you boys clog up the asylums." Here I roll my wrist around, revealing the dark spot on my skin. "But I am certainly a girl, and I'm certainly Marked, and so it cannot quite be impossible, can it?"
He lets out a breath that smells like smoke.
"What's your name?"
"Six," I say, not wanting to give him Inch.
I pat the concrete beside me. "Come sit beside me, Lovely, and let us converse for a while."
"You're a bit odd," he says. But he does sit. His extraordinary height is all legs; now we are closer to one another in size.
"I'm curious as to how you are not in asylum with all the other sad, damaged boys. You have a family. How does that happen?"
He frowns. "I'm not sure it's any of your business."
"Then don't answer. Let me stay curious."
But as I say it I push, just a finger's breadth, a bit of soothing meant for just him. He roars back, enflamed. "What are you doing?"
"Testing. So, you do know how to use your skills, at least in defense."
"Of course, I do. My parents wouldn't leave me untrained. I could burn the house down by mistake!"
"I noted the one was Marked. What is he?"
"It's not your business."
He is about to pop off like a match. I hold up my hands. Peace. No manipulation, just peace.
"How old are you?" I ask, just to have something he might answer. Because it is not a conversation if he keeps cutting me off at the knees.
Grudgingly, he says, "Sixteen."
Huh. Younger than I would have guessed. Younger than me. Though of course, Ellie was sixteen, too, when she died.
Damn it, I am not thinking about Ellie.
Adam's skin is too dark to see it, but I can feel blood pounding through the thin branches of the veins and arteries inside his body. Seldom am I so aware of someone. And of course, this boy is a stranger to me. It is all rather unsettling.
"I felt you," he says, echoing the train of my thought. "Without even looking, I knew you were there. What is that?"
"Only biology, I'm afraid. You've not met a soother before?"
He shakes his head.
"It's like having magnets inside your skull. But you'll get used to it. More or less."
He looks appalled. "This is going to happen every time?"
"Probably. There aren't many of us, of course. Only twelve percent of Marked, last census. And half of them in asylums. So, cheer up; I may be your only one."
"Did you really drag me out here to quote statistics?"
"You dragged yourself out, Lovely. Because you were curious. Go on, ask your questions, though you won't answer mine."
"This is unreal. Where did you come from?"
"A place very far away. They teach us well how to hide."
"You're not exactly hiding now."
"And doesn't that make you feel special, lovely boy?" I smile, all white teeth, and, wonder of wonders, the pretty, sullen child smiles back.
One day the Dictator called for me because she had a headache that she could not shake. Under the sixteen wary eyes of her top tier guards, I put my hands to her and relieved it with a flicker of chill. After that, she started calling me in a lot.
Those headaches were odd. All of the seers were set on finding the cause of them. When they were unsuccessful, the Dictator resorted to more prosaic medical diagnostics. There must be a tumor, we all thought, or a blockage. There had to be some cause.
But if there was, no one could find it. I came when called, soothed as much pain as I could.
And the Dictator died.
The cadres watched the struggle for succession cautiously. Don't serve the officiant, serve the office, but still, when a new officiant comes in, things are bound to change. Ellie was convinced that the new Dictator would restructure the cadres just for the sake of it. She fretted about our impending separation, biting her nails to the quick. When we slept she tugged at my hair, and bit my shoulder to keep from screaming. I was at a loss as to why she was so distraught. I didn't relish the thought of a new administration, but she was falling to pieces over it, with no reason given.
Nine reassured us. The transition would be fine. She kept up on politics better than the rest of us, and knew all the candidates for succession. Plus, she was our seer. I trusted that she would know how to handle any situation.
The new Dictator was invested. A man, which hadn't happened in many years.
And everything changed.
I can still see echoes of the sun when I close my eyes. I stretch out, my hands pillowing my head against the concrete, and let the warmth soak through my skin.
Adam has asked me a thousand and one questions about asylums. I keep assuring him that I've never seen the inside of one, but he doesn't quite trust me. I've caught him trying to push my emotions, too. Enflame me. Well, he's young, and he probably doesn't get much practice. It's forgivable.
"Why are you so obsessed with asylums, Lovely? There are much nicer things we could be talking about."
He debates with himself over what to say, then lies back next to me. As if that makes speaking easier.
"My dad grew up in one. But he won't tell me a word about it."
"Nor should he. They're going out of favor, you know. Give it another fifty years and people may finally realize: it doesn't matter how hard they try locking the Marked away, we'll just keep coming up. Like weeds."
"That's putting a lot of trust in people."
"No. I don't trust people. But I trust systems to fail."
He shouldn't be so easy to talk to, but he is. With my eyes closed, when he isn't speaking, I can pretend it's Ellie right beside me. Which isn't fair to any of us, but there you have it.
"Will your parents be looking for you?" I try to be anxious--I've lost track of time--but it's difficult to summon the energy.
"Nah. I told them I'd catch a ferry home later. Anyway, April's had a ton of sugar and she'll be running them around in circles."
"April. Your sister?"
"Queen of the castle, long may she reign."
I am suddenly so, so jealous of this boy. A sister. Parents. How do any of us get that lucky?
He shifts to his side. "Hey, you should come back with me tonight. Pop always cooks enough for an army, and Dad knows about Marked stuff. More than he ever tells me. You would fascinate him."
Already wants me to meet the parents. Sweet.
I sigh and crack open my eyes, blinded by the afternoon glare.
"You don't want my kind of trouble. I shouldn't even have approached you. But. . .magnets."
"You're in trouble? What trouble? Can I help?"
Ah, the gallant knight comes riding by. You can't tell me, Inch, that you didn't want this, a little bit.
"I'm not in trouble. I am trouble."
Points for melodrama, there.
He huffs out a frustrated breath. "So, what is this, then? What are we doing here?"
"We are having a conversation, Lovely. I thought that was rather obvious."
"But what's the point? You just pop into my life for an afternoon, tell me oh, by the way, there're people in the world who will feel like they are chained to you, and pulling, and then you just pop out again?"
"Then why didn't you just leave me be?"
I feel cold in my stomach. My fingertips itch. It sounds almost vicious when I say, "Because I'm lonely. Because I'm so lonely, I could choke on it."
I'm not looking at him, but still I know how his face falls.
And now, because I am a coward, I run away.
My second Dictator was a little cracked. Maybe more than a little. Maybe that's just how I justify things.
In any case, he liked the idea of girls surrounding him at all times, and not because he had any appreciation for our skills. He wanted us to fight each other. Like gladiators, in an ancient arena.
What started as training exercises gradually became faux-combat. Then real combat. Blood was drawn. It escalated over, and over, and over again. He brought in militiamen to be his true guards. We who had been raised our whole lives to serve ended up darting around like baited bears for entertainment.
Nine told us to grit our teeth. We must bear it, until the Dictator tired of his games, or else was ousted by his rivals. If there was one thing we should all be practiced in, it was endurance.
But Ellie was losing her mind, and she would not tell me why. Nine knew. Nine could read minds. But she would not tell me, either.
It was my job to heal the wounds that the girls gave each other. It bored the Dictator--I bored the Dictator--but it meant there could be more fights, so he allowed it. But it brought out something brutal in him and soon, very soon, what had been glancing wounds became mortal ones, and I could do nothing about that.
Whenever a member of Ninth Cadre was called up to the ring, Nine would volunteer in her place. She was our leader, it was her job to keep us safe. But she could not fight every fight, and one day when she was down in sick bed with a broken ankle I hadn't been able to fix up, the Dictator got to Freckles.
Since she was the speaker he decided that her ears gave her advantage, and she should fight blind.
It took her a long time to die. She begged, but I kept pulling her back from the brink. It was the hardest I had ever worked to save someone, but of course it failed in the end.
"Inch, he's not going to stop 'til we're all buried in the garden," Ellie said. Her cheeks were luminous red. She was hot with anger in a way she hadn't been for months.
"What can we do about it?"
"You already know."
We should have been able to go to what remained of the other cadres to join our quest. But we did not trust them anymore. Only each other.
Ellie died, but then, so did the Dictator. And that is all I have to say on the matter.
I still carry scars from Ellie's nails, her teeth. And so she cannot really be gone. You don't get to make us your tragedy of the moment, just because she died and I did not. And so I will not tell you all that happened on that day, or even most of it. You cannot have her death, only her life: a smile flashing in the darkness, a burst of heat from her fingertips.
I've been running since that day, across half the known world, and I suppose I shall run 'til I drop down dead. Nine joined the Third Cadre after ours was decimated, and the Third Cadre has followed me farthest. Sometimes, I wish she would just catch me. If only to find out what she might say.
"Six," Adam shouts. "Six!" Damn it all, I should have given him a different name. I have not heard Six in so long, and oh, how it hurts.
The best buskers have gone off to get drunk on their takings, half of the vendors have tied up for the day, and the covered market is trickling towards empty. Adam's long legs let him catch up faster than he has any right to and I am horribly aware of him, of where he stands. Ten yards behind me, seven yards, three.
Why ever did I think I'd want to know that feeling again?
He touches my shoulder and I will my spine to ice.
"Don't just run off, Six. It's not fair."
"It isn't. But I am not fair."
His lips part in an eager, puppy-dog expression, and he moves to take my hand, and my Mark presses against his skin. Oh, this is terrible. This is exquisite. I don't know what will come of it at all, and that I do not like.
"Hey, are you hungry?"
"No, but I suspect you always are." How many calories must he burn through, to fuel a vessel so large?
"You suspect right. Let's get tacos? Then. . .well, we'll see. But don't just run away."
He is trying to pull my emotions out again, flame them up. He has a lot to learn about that. I could teach him, I think recklessly. If I didn't have to keep on moving.
For a moment it is all too much. Then I look up into his dark eyes. He cannot replace what I have lost. But, already, I think he could be something new. A friend. I have not had enough of those in my life.
I should drop his hand, but instead I squeeze it tight.