Read The Black Key Online

Authors: Amy Ewing

The Black Key

Dedication

F
OR
F
AETRA
,

I
MISS YOU EVERY DAY
.

One

T
HE
M
ARSH REALLY STINKS WHEN IT RAINS.

Raven and I huddle under a dying tree just outside the walls of Southgate. Fat raindrops pelt down on the hoods of our cloaks, softening the rough-spun fabric, turning the hard-packed dirt beneath our feet to soft mud that sucks at our boots.

The rain doesn't bother me. I want to lift my hood and let the water splash on my cheeks. I want to join with it and feel myself fall from the sky in a million little pieces. But now is not the time to connect with the elements. We have a job to do.

This is the third time we've been to Southgate over the
last few months, since Hazel was taken. With the Auction date moved up from October to April, the members of the Society of the Black Key—the Lone City's homegrown rebel force, led by Lucien—have been working overtime to gather more people to our cause, to stockpile weapons and explosives, to infiltrate royal strongholds in the outer circles.

But none of that will matter if the royalty can just stay hidden, snug behind the massive wall that surrounds the Jewel. That's where we come in. The surrogates are stronger when we work together, and it will take every girl we can get to crumble that huge wall to pieces. To strip the royals of their main protection. To let the people into the Jewel.

Raven and I have traveled to all four of the holding facilities, along with the other surrogates Lucien saved from the Jewel—Sienna, Olive, and Indi. Northgate was the worst—all cold iron and stone floors, drab uniforms, and no personal items allowed. It's no wonder Sienna hated it so much. She didn't like going back there either, but we need a surrogate who knows the facilities, and who knows the girls.

We've been showing them the truth a few at a time, helping them access the elements, changing them from surrogate to something more. Raven has a unique and intangible ability—she can access a special place, a cliff overlooking the ocean, and she can bring others with her as well. It's a dreamlike, magical spot where girls like us form an instant connection with the elements. I've been there more times than I can count over these past months.

We have to be careful with who we choose—only girls going to the Auction, who will be on the trains heading
directly inside the Jewel. Lucien got us the lists.

There is no hidden door to Southgate, like the one at Ash's companion house, and no Regimentals prowling outside either. Southgate is a fortress in the middle of a sea of mud-brick hovels. The Marsh is even sadder than I remember it. The sulfuric smell of the mud beneath my feet, the sparse, scrubby trees, the dilapidated homes . . . it all screams
poor
in a way that I never quite understood until I lived in the Jewel.

Even the Smoke and the Farm aren't as bad as this. The unfairness is like a slap in the face. A huge part of the Lone City's population is living in squalor and no one cares. Worse, no one really
knows
. What do the citizens in the Bank or the Smoke know of the Marsh? It's a faraway place where the people who shovel their coal or scrub their kitchens or work their looms live. It's not real to them. It may as well not exist.

“Only three girls left to show the elements to here,” Raven says. “Then it's back to Westgate in a few days.”

She's cut her hair short again and her eyes gleam with black fire beneath her hood. She is not quite the Raven who left this holding facility with me last October for the Auction, nor is she the hollow shell the Countess of the Stone had tortured her into when I rescued her from the Jewel. She is somewhere in between. She has nightmares about her time spent locked in a cage in the dungeon of the palace of the Stone. She still hears snippets of people's thoughts and feelings—whispers, she calls them—a side effect of the Countess's doctor cutting into her brain over and over again.

But her laughter has returned, and her wit—especially
when she talks to Garnet. And she trains each day with Ash, strengthening her once frail body until her wiry frame has become lean and hard.

She glances up at the immense wall towering over us. Climbing it was never an option. Its stone surface is perfectly smooth, no cracks or crevices for handholds. We spent hours sitting around the dining room table with Sil discussing the best ways to break into the holding facilities. In the end, it was Sienna who came up with the idea. We can't go over the walls, or go through them (at least, not without attracting seriously unwanted attention).

But we can go under them.

The power of the elements has grown stronger in me over the last few months. Sienna is stronger too, as well as Indi, the surrogate from Westgate. Sienna can connect with Earth and Fire, Indi only with Water. So far, no other surrogate besides Sil and I has the power to access all four elements. Olive, the little curly-haired girl from Eastgate, is the only one who still balks at using the elements she connects with, Air and Water. She's the only one of us who still uses the Auguries. And she is the only person in the White Rose who has a good word to say about the royalty.

But Olive, Indi, Sienna, and Sil are far away in the redbrick farmhouse I've come to call home. They're probably all asleep now, snuggled up in warm beds, safe in the wild forest that protects the White Rose.

“Violet?” Raven says.

I nod. “I'm ready,” I say, closing my eyes.

It is as easy to join with Earth as it would be to slip into a hot bath. I become the earth; I allow the element to fill
me up until we are one unit. I can sense the layers of dirt beneath my feet, a heaviness in my chest. All I need to do is ask and the earth will respond.

Dig
, I think.

The earth in the Marsh is different than in the Farm—scratchy, thin, and unhealthy. The pounding of the rain muffles the crack as the dirt before our feet opens. I reach out further with my mind, asking the earth to carve itself out, down, down, down, until I hit soft brown soil. I create a passage easily; Earth is more than happy to accommodate my needs. When I sense the scraping of stone, I know I've hit the bottom of the wall's foundation. I push my tunnel farther—the wall is thick and I must make sure I clear it.

It is such a strange sensation, to be so aware of the tunnel and yet be physically standing high above on the ground. Like I have two sets of eyes, hands, ears, nostrils. I wonder if it's a bit like how Raven feels when she hears the whispers—having someone else's thoughts in her head alongside her own. I sense when the stone falls away and there is only light and dirt above me. My tunnel climbs, the earth and I carving out a space together until, with a little pop, we burst through the mud and out into the courtyard that lies on the other side of this wall.

Once the job is done, I release my connection with the element and open my eyes.

Raven is watching me with a wary expression. “Your face looks so weird when you do that, you know.”

“Ash thinks it's beautiful. Haunting, he says, but beautiful.”

She rolls her eyes. “Ash thinks everything about you is beautiful.”

Of all the people we left back at the White Rose, Ash is probably the only one not sleeping right now. Even though we've done this so many times, at all four holding facilities, he still worries. I imagine him in our loft, staring up at the slats in the barn overhead, wondering where we are, if we made it, if we'll get caught, when we'll be home.

But I can't let myself think about Ash worrying about me. I peer down into the dark tunnel.

“Let's go,” I say.

The tunnel is narrow, just wide enough to fit us single file. It's impossible to get a hold on the crumbling dirt, so Raven and I just slide down the sloping wall until we hit the bottom.

It's maybe ten feet under the wall, where we are encased in absolute darkness for a minute, and then we're on the Southgate side, staring up at the tunnel leading to the courtyard. It looks like miles from this perspective.

We scramble up the slope and emerge into Southgate's courtyard, muddy and out of breath.

This is where the real danger is. Outside, in the streets of the Marsh, no one would ever recognize us, except for our immediate family members. No one has seen us since we were twelve. Raven's family is far away to the east, mine to the west, but it's only my mother left to recognize me. My brother, Ochre, is a part of the Society now, working in the Farm. And my sister, Hazel, has been kidnapped by the Duchess of the Lake, to serve as my replacement.

No
. I can't let myself think about Hazel right now. I
can't afford to be distracted. I'm doing this for her. To save her. To save all the surrogates.

But still, it's impossible not to worry. Lucien said the Duchess has made an arrangement with the Exetor. An engagement. Between the Exetor's son and the Duchess's future daughter. He said that her surrogate—my Hazel—is pregnant.

And if that's true, then Hazel is dead. Childbirth kills surrogates.

No.
I shake my head and glance at Raven. She was pregnant when I rescued her from the Jewel in December. She survived. Hazel will, too. I'll make sure of it.

But now I have to focus on the task at hand.

The building looms up before us, a stark outline against the rain. It looks smaller than it felt when I lived here, though that probably comes from spending so much time among the immense palaces of the Jewel. Besides, Southgate is the smallest of the holding facilities. Northgate was enormous. Even Westgate and Eastgate are bigger than this. Westgate has a huge garden all around it and a solarium in its center. It's actually quite pretty.

“Come on,” Raven whispers. We skirt around the mound of dirt I pushed out to make the tunnel—I'll replace it after we leave, hiding our tracks—and make our way to the greenhouse.

The glass structure glistens in the rain and we slip inside and pull back our hoods. Raven shakes out her hair and glances around.

“Are we early?”

I take out Ash's pocket watch. Thirty seconds to
midnight. “They'll be here,” I say. It's warm inside the greenhouse, the air thick with the scent of growing things, earth and roots and flowers. The rain patters gently as Raven and I wait.

At precisely five seconds past midnight, I can just make out hooded shapes hurrying across the courtyard. Then the door to the greenhouse opens and the group of girls we've been waiting for floods in.

“Violet!” some of them whisper, rushing over to greet me and Raven.

Amber Lockring strides forward, throwing back the hood of her cloak, her eyes gleaming. “Right on time,” she says with a grin.

“Five seconds late, actually,” Raven points out.

Amber wasn't one of our friends here, though she lived on our floor. Raven confessed that Amber called me a freak on my first day at Southgate and Raven bent her arm behind her back until Amber said she was sorry. They had never liked each other after that. When we got the list of girls going to the Auction, Raven immediately chose Amber as the first one to reveal this secret to. When I asked why, she narrowed her eyes and said, “She hates the royalty just the way I did. And she was the only other girl in our dorm who wore pants.”

I had to smile at that. If they hadn't hated each other so much, they might've been friends.

“You brought them?” I say.

Amber gestures proudly to the figures still huddled by the door, three girls with varying expressions of fear and suspicion on their faces. “Tawny, Ginger, and Henna.
They're the last ones. This is all of us going to the Auction.”

I do a quick head count. Only nine out of the seventy-seven girls at this year's Auction are from Southgate. And they stand before me now.

“Did anyone see you?” Raven says.

Amber snorts. “No. Obviously. I have done this before, you know.”

“Great job,” I say.

“Ready?” Raven mutters.

I step forward.

It's time to show these girls who they really are.

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