The Midnight Lie – Marie Rutkoski

THERE WERE WARNING SIGNS in the Ward that day that anyone could have seen. The children must have seen the danger in their own games, in the crescent moons, roughly cut from tin, that they strung from fishing line on sticks and dangled to cast shadows beneath the pale sun. They knew, as I knew, that the festival meant the militia would be out in force, seeking to fill their quotas for arrests. They would find infractions enough in the Ward, whether from drinking or improper dress or any of the many offenses you can commit when you’re Half Kith. Maybe I should have been more careful from the moment I saw the bird from my little window in my little room in the tavern attic, so cold I had been going to bed fully dressed. Ethin—a pretty name for a city, and this city was pretty for the right sort of people—is usually warm, so warm that tiny purple indi flowers grow out of the cracks of crumbling walls. Thin green fingers dig deep into stone. A heavy scent thickens the hot air. But every now and then a wind blows from the west that freezes everyone’s bones, Half Kith and High Kith and Middling alike. People say teardrops of hail spangle the pink-sand beaches outside the city. They say the trees beyond the wall become jeweled by clear pearls of ice, and that the High Kith drink bitter hot chocolate at outdoor parties where their laughter is white lace in the chilled air. I had never seen the shore. I didn’t know if chocolate was something I would like. I had never even seen a tree. I woke because of the way the bird sang.

The song was sparkling, limpid: a string of glass beads flung onto a polished floor. I thought, Not possible and Not here and That bird will soon die. Maybe I should have guessed then how my day would end. But how could I? When I came close to the window and palmed away the feathered frost, when I dug my nails into the window frame weathered from the times when the damp got in, eating the wood, softening it, I could not have known. When I saw the spot of red flickering amid the brown and white rooftops, I could not have known, because I thought I knew myself. I thought I knew the things I could do, and what I would not. Here is what I believed: I would do what was expected of me. I could trust myself now. Anyone I missed would not come back. I would die if my crimes were discovered.

So you tell me what would make a good, quiet girl get herself in trouble, especially when she had so much to lose. Tell me. 2 “ANYONE COULD CATCH IT.” “With the crush of people out there for the festival? It will never fly down.” “True. Someone will have to go up.” “To the rooftops, yes.” I wrapped the hem of my apron around the oven’s hot handle and opened it. Heat breathed over me. Morah’s and Annin’s voices rose.

You could hear the longing in their tones. It was the kind of impossible wish you treat as though it is precious. You make a home for it in your heart. You give it the downiest of beds for its rest. You feed it the choicest pieces, even when the meat it eats is your very soul. What they wanted was not the Elysium bird, but what the bird could bring them. “A child could do it,” Annin said. “I’ve seen them clamber up the sides of buildings along the gutter pipes.” I could guess what she was thinking: that she was light enough to try it. I hate heights.

They turn my stomach inside out like a glove. Even if I’m standing on something firm, being high up makes me feel like nothing is solid, like nothing in the world can be relied upon—except the fact that I will fall. I looked at her shrewd expression and thought that I could never do what she was thinking. And I didn’t like the thought of her scrambling over the rooftops, either. Morah shook her dark head. “Someone would be waiting at the bottom when the thief came down with the bird, and pounce, and take it.” The fire at the back of the oven, which had been burning all night, glowed dark red. It sucked on the fresh draft of air and blushed orange. I scraped the ash into the hod. Then, one by one, I used the long-handled wooden paddle to slide domes of bread dough into the oven.

They were each a creamcolored pillow, scored with a delicate pattern that would reveal itself as the loaf baked, no two the same. The loaves would show scenes of rainfall, fanciful castles, portraits of pretty faces, flowers, leaping animals. An artist, Annin sometimes called me. Little did she know. I shut the oven door and dusted my floured hands. “It will freeze before anyone catches it.” The Elysium bird had surely escaped from some High-Kith lady. It would not be ready for life outside a cage. “Even dead,” Morah said, “it would fetch a fine sum.” Annin looked stricken.

She had unusual skin for a Herrath—paler than most, even milky, with freckles that dusted her cheeks and eyelids. There was a fragility to her features (fair eyelashes, flower-blue eyes, a small mouth with dainty upturned corners) that made her look far younger than me, though we were close in age. “Pit the cherries,” I told her. “I need them for the pies.” The tavern was lucky for the bushel of ice cherries. Who knew how Raven had managed to get them. The black market, probably. She had connections with Middlings who were willing to trade such things for wares made in the Ward. It was not legal—just as Half Kith couldn’t wear certain kinds of clothes restricted to the upper kiths, we also couldn’t eat certain foods. Half-Kith foods were plain and filling and the City Council saw to it that no one starved.

But no food was tangy or sour or spiced or sweet. The ice cherries wouldn’t need sugar, they were so sweet on their own: pale golden globes with glossy skin that would melt away in the oven. I wanted to taste one. I would sneak just one in my mouth, let my teeth slide through the flesh to the unyielding pit, honeyed juice flooding over my tongue. The kitchen seemed full of wants. “The bird won’t die,” Annin said. “It is the gods’ bird.” Morah sniffed. “There are no gods.” “If it died it would be gone,” Annin said.

“You couldn’t do anything with it.” Morah and I exchanged a look as she wiped wet dishes dry. She was older than Annin and me, old enough already to have shoulder-high children. Her manner, too, suggested that some invisible child moved around her. Her gestures were always careful, her eyes sometimes darting warily to make certain everything around her was safe—that a fire did not burn too high, that knives lay out of a small person’s reach. Once, I had glanced at her as she sat at the worktable, picking one-handed through a bowl of lentils to remove any leftover hulls. In her other arm, she cradled a baby. But when I glanced again, the baby was gone. I knew better than to mention this. It had been my imagination.

I had to be careful. Sometimes an idea took root inside of me—for example, that Morah would be a good mother. Then the idea would become too real. I would see it clearly, as if it were real. It would displace the truth: Morah had no children. She had said she never would. She and I were similar in one way that Annin was different. Morah and I were good at managing expectations—I by not having any and she by imagining the prize to be more attainable than it really was. Morah had probably decided that a dead Elysium bird would not be such a miracle as a living one. Therefore, it would not be impossible that she would be the one to have its valuable corpse.

“There are its feathers,” she said. “Its meat.” And its hollow bones, which play a lilting melody when you blow through them. I cut butter into flour. “The bird is out there. We are in here.” Annin opened the one slender window. Cold came in like water. Morah muttered in annoyance, but I said nothing. It hurt to look at Annin, at her hope.

The shape of her stubborn chin reminded me of Helin. Annin swept crumbs from the worktable into her palm. I didn’t watch her go to the window. I couldn’t. There was an ache in my throat. I saw things that weren’t there. Things I wanted to forget. She sprinkled the crumbs on the open window’s sill. “Just in case,” she said. 3 THEY SAY THAT THE SONG of the Elysium bird makes you dream.

They say that these dreams remedy the past, take the sting out of memories, dust them up along the edges, blur them with soft pencils, the kind of pencils whose color you can smudge with a finger. The dreams make what’s missing in your life seem unimportant, because what is there suddenly entices. Imagine the stars hung closer: spikes of ice. Imagine the simple comfort of an ordinary blanket gone gorgeously soft. How could you ever slip the blanket off, when it feels like the fur of a mythical creature that can read your mind, and knew who you were before you were born? Its song holds the grace of a mother’s first smile. A kind stranger brushing rain from your shoulder. A kite flown on the Islim shore, sky peeking through its vented slits: little slices of blue so solid in color that you feel you could catch them and carry them home. Feeling someone’s arms around you grow heavy with sleep. They say the bird was blessed by a god, though we can’t remember which one. That the sight of its red feathers will charm people.

In the Ward, where we must live the whole of our lives, never leaving, never allowed to leave, the promise of anything different was enough to bring everyone out into the streets. Turn them into hunters. Demolish friendships. I wanted to tell Annin to shut the window. Don’t go outside. This is the sort of thing people will kill for. But I wanted that bird, too. 4 I FINISHED BAKING THE PRINTED breads. Raven would bring them up quarter, out of the Ward and into the city proper, which I had never seen. Raven had inherited the privilege to sell her wares in the outer Wards of the city, beyond the walled Ward that marked the city’s center like the stone of a fruit.

Raven was born a Middling and so was allowed to come and go beyond the wall. Many Middlings traded with us. Some of them even stayed at the tavern as paying guests, but Raven was the only one I knew of who had chosen to live in our Ward. That choice gave her a complex status among the Half Kith. Some people respected her more. Others thought her crazy. But—although this was a secret I could never share—I knew she had come to live here out of goodness. She had come to help us. I had asked Raven once what it was like to pass beyond the Ward, what the rest of the city looked like. She told me to brush her hair and keep my questions to myself.

“Why can’t I know? If only to see it in my mind.” “You don’t have the right to know.” “Why? Why must Half Kith stay in the Ward?” “It is as it is,” she said, which was what everyone said to such a question. The answer was like threadbare cloth worn so thin that you could see light and shadow through its fabric. “I took you in,” she said. The hairbrush was metal, bristles stiff. “Gave you a home.” Her hair was an early silver, thick and strong and easily knotted. I brushed gently. “When you first came, you had to name everything, even the hinges on a door.

” She had said this before. “It was as though, if you didn’t know something, if you couldn’t catalogue every bit of the world, it would vanish.” True, I thought, and was ashamed of how weak I had been, how confused. I used to look at her hair and see black instead of its true gray, hair as black as mine, black as a raven’s wing. When I was new to the tavern, I asked, Are you called Raven because of your hair? She had stared hard. What do you know of my name? Cowed, I said, Nothing. Yes, she told me. You know nothing. Then she gentled and said, Raven is a nickname. I asked, What is your real one? She lightly tapped the tip of my nose.

She said, Raven is real enough. “Isn’t it better now, without the nightmares?” Raven said. “You had them even while awake. Your trances. You said the strangest things. You’ve grown out of it, thank the gods.” She didn’t believe in the gods any more than the rest of us did, but we referred to them out of empty habit. If you had asked a Half Kith why, she’d shrug and say, It is as it is. If you wondered why we had a festival for the god of the moon when we didn’t believe in the gods, we’d get a little tight around the eyes. We’d think, Will this be taken from us, too, our one holiday of the year? I pinned Raven’s hair into a spiral—too elegant for the Ward, a hairstyle no Half Kith could wear.

“You don’t need to know what the city is like,” she told me. “It will do you no good to know.” She was a warm-hearted woman. She had opened her home to three orphans. Morah and Annin and I had spent our tender years in the Ward’s orphanage, though separated enough by age that we had not known one another there. “Lost ones,” Raven called us—kindly, for there were other, fitter words for what we were, like unwanted, or bastard, words that name a person who brings you shame. Morah had the coloring and features of what we called Old Herrath: black hair, gray eyes upturned at the corners, curled lashes, low-bridged nose, light brown skin. She looked High Kith, which meant she was born out of wedlock. Some noble-born woman must have brought her to the orphanage and left her in the ventilated, lidded bin outside its doors. I looked High Kith, too.

I came to Raven when I was twelve. “Difficult,” she called me then, though I followed all her rules. When I cried out at night, she came to my bed, stroked my brow, and told me that it was all right. She cut my hair and said, Isn’t this neat and clean, isn’t it better? I said yes, though my long black hair had been my pride. Helin had envied it. It shines like paint, she had said. Raven told me to sweep the shorn hair and said, Now you’ll be sure to stay out of trouble. Girls in the Ward usually kept their hair long. Hair was the easiest thing to give up when the militia arrested you. They could choose any tithe they like.

Blood was the most common tithe, drawn with a needle and syringe. People released from prison spoke of the blood tithe with relief. Blood loss made you feel like a phantom, but not forever. It was not so bad. Giving up your hair was even better. They took your hair if they were feeling nice, and it was sewn into the natural hair of HighKith ladies to make what they had seem fuller. Men inside the wall kept their hair short out of pride. They wanted to show that they were not afraid of paying a higher price. This was a pride they could afford. The militia could take things from women they didn’t usually take from men.

By cutting my hair, Raven took away my easiest tithe. I want to keep you safe, she said. Don’t trust they will take something easy. Follow my advice, my lamb. Act as though you obey every law. Make the militia never doubt you, for now you know the truth: you can afford to lose nothing. Raven was good to me in other ways, too. When she saw my first printed bread she did not scold me for being fanciful. She grew quiet and said, There’s money in this … and more. She gave me a set of pencils and asked to see what I could do.

I sketched her face. This is better than good, she said. This is me. This is my very face in a mirror. Can you imitate this? She signed her name. I could. Perfect, she said. She taught me how to remove oil from her greased apron. When my blood first came and spotted the sheets and she caught me trying to launder them with hot water, she said, Cold water, my girl, not hot, and gave me a block of soap that made my sheets smell like indi flowers. That day she let me keep one soft, sugared biscuit that I had made.

She cut and buttered it. As I ate this treat, so unexpected, given to me when I had been ready for punishment, she said, Would you like to learn how to remove stains from paper? Ink stains? I asked. Yes, she said. The headmistress at the orphanage had taught me how to read and write. It was not a common skill for any of us to learn, but the headmistress saw something in me that made her set aside time, curl my fingers around a pencil, and be patient. I could copy each letter perfectly the first time after being shown. I never forgot a spelling. Sometimes, however, I might write a phrase that I regretted. She taught me to cross a line through it, or to blot it very darkly with ink, if I wanted to make sure that no one could read what I had written. I hadn’t known there was a way to make ink vanish.

Vinegar, Raven said. Lemon juice. It was magic, to see the ink disintegrate. I thought: I wish. How easy. Everything done became undone. If I didn’t want to see something, I had the power to make it go away. Show me more, I told Raven, and when she showed me all she knew, I asked for different kinds of paper, different kinds of ink. It took her a while to procure them. Such things are a luxury in the Ward.

A Half Kith possessed paper and ink only to produce something worth selling beyond the wall, such as a printed book. Paper and ink were not for our own use. But Raven smiled when she gave them to me, and nodded with approval when I experimented with them in my room. I became very good at making ink vanish. Nirrim, she said one day. What you are doing is a secret. You cannot tell anyone. Who would I tell? I said. Raven had made clear to the Ward that I was under her protection, which meant that no one troubled me when I walked in the streets, but it also meant that few were friendly with me.

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