Our Dark Duet (Monsters of Verity #2)(9)

“Hello!” he said cheerfully, “and welcome to Checkpoint One. I’m Captain Harris Fordam, here on behalf of the Flynn Task Force . . .”

August had heard Harris give this speech a hundred times.

“You came here of your own choice, so you’ve clearly got some sense. You also waited six months to make that choice, so you haven’t got much.”

He was right; these were the dregs, the ones convinced they could get by without South City’s help, too stubborn to admit—or too foolish to realize—what they were in for.

In those first few weeks, when it was obvious that Callum’s death rendered his promise of protection void, there had been a massive influx, hundreds of people streaming through the Seam every day (Jackson and Rez had been among them).

But some of them chose to stay, locked themselves in their homes, hunkered down, and waited for help to come to them.

And when it didn’t, they were left with three options: stay put, brave the Waste—that dangerous place beyond the city where order gave way to anarchy and everyone was out for themselves—or cross the Seam and surrender.

“You made it here,” continued Harris, “so you know how to follow directions, but you’re also a sorry-looking bunch, so I’m going to make this nice and simple . . .”

Somewhere in the crowd, a man muttered, “Don’t have to take this,” and turned to go. Jackson blocked his path.

“You can’t keep me here,” snarled the man.

“Actually,” said Jackson, “you should have acquainted yourself with the fine print. Entering a screening facility serves as consent to be screened. You haven’t been screened yet, so you’re not free to go. Consider it a precaution.”

Jackson gave the man a good hard nudge toward the stage as Harris’s face turned from cheerful to somber. “Listen to me. Your governor is dead. His monsters see you as food. We are offering you a fighting chance, but safety isn’t free. You know that, because you all chose to pay for it with cash. Well, bad news.” He shot a dark glance at a woman clutching a roll of paper bills in her ringed hands. “That’s not how it works in South City. You want food? You want shelter? You want safety? You have to work for them.” He jabbed a finger at the FTF badge on his uniform. “Every day and every night we’re out there fighting to take this city back. The FTF used to be optional. Now it’s mandatory. And every citizen in South City serves.”

Ani gestured for him to wrap it up, and just like that, Harris’s demeanor flipped back to friendly.

“Now, maybe you’re here because you’ve seen the light. Maybe you’re here because you’re desperate. Whatever the reason, you’ve taken the first step, and for that, we commend you. But before you can take the next, we’ve got to screen you.”

That was August’s cue.

He pushed off the wall and began the long walk down the center aisle, his boots beating out a steady rhythm amplified by the hall’s acoustics. Someone started to cry. The acoustics amplified that, too. He scanned the crowd, searching for the telltale twitch of a person’s shadow that only Sunai could see, the movement that marked a sinner, but the light in the hall and the nervous shifting made it difficult to spot.

Whispers moved through the room as he passed.

Even if they hadn’t yet realized what he was, they seemed to sense he wasn’t one of them. He’d worked so hard for so long to blend in, but it didn’t matter now.

A little girl, maybe three or four—he’d never been good at telling age—clutched at a woman in green. Her mother, he guessed, based on the steel in those tired eyes. August caught the little girl’s gaze and offered what he hoped was a gentle smile, but the girl just buried her face in her mother’s leg.

She was afraid.

They were all afraid.

Of him.

The urge to retreat rose like bile in his throat, competing with the urge to speak, to assure them that there was no reason to be afraid, that he wasn’t there to hurt them.

But monsters couldn’t tell lies.

This is your place, said a voice in his head, smooth and hard as stone. A voice that sounded like his dead brother, Leo. This is your purpose.

August swallowed.

“This part’s simple,” Harris was saying. “Spread out, arm’s distance apart, there we go. . . .”

As August stepped onto the stage, the room went quiet—so quiet he could hear their held breaths, their frightened hearts. He knelt, opening the clasps on his case—the snap as loud as a gunshot in his ears—and withdrew his violin.

Sunai, Sunai, eyes like coal . . .

The sight of the instrument and the sudden understanding of what the FTF meant when they said screening, sent a ripple of shock through the room.

Sing you a song and steal your soul.

A man in his midthirties lost his nerve and took off at a full sprint toward the doors. He made it three or four strides before Ani and Jackson caught up and forced him to his knees.

“Let me go,” begged the man. “Please, let me go.”

“Why?” chided Jackson. “Got something to hide?”

Harris clapped his hands to draw the crowd’s attention back to the stage. “The screening is about to begin.”

August straightened and brought the violin to rest beneath his chin. He stared out at the audience, a sea of faces all marked by emotions so intense they made him realize how his own attempts had paled. He’d spent four years trying to learn—to mimic—these human expressions, as if that would make him human.

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