Burn Bright - By Marianne de Pierres

A sneak peek at Book Two: Angel Arias

One

For Mum, Dad, Nicci, Simon, Paul and Colleen.

(One phrase, Simon: Crawley traffic lights.)

Retra pressed her fingers to her thigh. The intense pain from her obedience strip had receded to a steady throb and nausea. Perhaps that was the worst it would get, now that she’d left the compound.

She glanced back. No shout came. No lights followed her. The rust-mesh fence that segregated the Seal enclave from the rest of Grave rose like a grey fortress in the dark. And she’d climbed it.

Pain can be dismissed.

Her brother Joel had said that to her after Father had beat him one time. Retra remembered that more clearly than anything after he ran away to Ixion. It was the thing that gave her hope. She could control pain. And she could follow him.

So she’d practised. Hours with her arm twisted, or something sharp pressed into her skin; practised thinking and acting, despite hurt.

And now was the time.

The barge would be waiting at the old harbour ramp where the tugs brought in the coal haulers. Down among the filthy, rat-infested dockside streets she’d find her escape.

Others drifted close as she hurried through the city streets towards the water. She heard their boots on cobblestones, and their quick, heavy breaths rasping the damp air. Hurrying like her.

Don’t miss it! It’s here!

The barge comes twice a year, sneaking in under the cover of night, taking the unhappy ones away to Ixion, Joel had told her. No one knows when it will arrive. That’s why the Elders can’t stop it. The confetti falls. We read it but only we know the code.

What code? Retra had said. I don’t know a code.

The Angel Arias are the code.

What’s Ixion? she’d asked him.

He’d laid his face close to hers, whispering so their parents couldn’t hear. Imagine a place where there are no Elders. No rules. No punishment. Only music and laughter and freedom. That’s Ixion, Ret. That’s me.

Soon after, he’d run away and left her alone.

Fog licked Retra’s face as she ran but she barely felt the chill. The pain was back. Waves of throbbing making her slow down and double over. She gasped for breath, staggered a few steps then kept moving, keeping to the side of the street, letting others pass.

She mustn’t stop now. If Father found her here, he’d beat her unconscious. There was no forgiveness for Ixion runaways who were caught. Only rebuke and shame.

But the throbbing radiated along her leg and up into her abdomen, making the world contract. The decrepit buildings seemed to sag towards her; the cobblestones became too large and uneven to balance upon.

She stopped again and brushed her veil aside to catch a deeper breath. Ahead, a string of shifting party lights lit the outline of the barge. She just had to get across the street and down the beach to the ramp. That’s all.

One foot. Follow. One foot. Follow.

Across the deserted street.

But as her boots touched sand, the boat engine rumbled into life and the drawbridge began to close.

Wait … please wait …

Ignoring the crippling pain, she ran the last few steps and flung herself at the closing gate. If she fell short of the barge she would die: the chill, dark water would suck her clothes-laden body down.

If she fell short, maybe it would be best to die.

Her arms slapped the lip of the drawbridge, her fingers missing their grip, and she began to slide.

No!

Then strong, cold hands dragged her up and into the safety of the boat. But her moment of relief ebbed as she stared up at her rescuer. Pale as a dead person alive, eyes cold, hair flowing long and blacker than the night she’d run through to get here, skin tight and gaunt across the bones of his face like a skeleton clinging to its flesh. ‘Welcome aboard the way to Ixion: island of ever-night, ever-youth and never-sleep. Burn bright!’ He gave her a mock salute and disappeared along the long, shadowy deck towards the bridge, leaving her shivering over what she had done.

At least the pain from her strip had ebbed, as if his icy hands had robbed it of heat. She could breathe again.

‘Do you think they’re all like that?’

Jerked from her thoughts, Retra searched for the owner of the voice. It belonged to a girl huddled into the side of the hull against the damp dark and the strangeness. Straight blonde hair spilled past the girl’s shoulders. Retra had never seen hair quite so white. She wanted

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