This Savage Song – Victoria Schwab

The night Kate Harker decided to burn down the school chapel, she wasn’t angry or drunk. She was desperate. Burning down the church was really a last resort; she’d already broken a girl’s nose, smoked in the dormitories, cheated on her first exam, and verbally harassed three of the nuns. But no matter what she did, St. Agnes Academy kept forgiving her. That was the problem with Catholic schools. They saw her as someone to be saved. But Kate didn’t need salvation; she simply needed out. It was almost midnight when her shoes hit the grass below the dorm window. The witching hour, people used to call it, that dark time when restless spirits reached for freedom. Restless spirits, and teenage girls trapped in boarding schools too far from home. She made her way down the manicured stone path that ran from the dormitories to the Chapel of the Cross, a bag slung over her shoulder, bottles inside clinking together like spurs in rhythm with her steps. The bottles had all fit, save for one, a vintage wine from Sister Merilee’s private store that hung from her fingertips. Bells began to chime the hour, soft and low, but they were coming from the larger Chapel of the Saints on the other side of campus. That one was never fully unattended—Mother Alice, the school’s head-mistress-nun-whatever, slept in a room off the chapel, and even if Kate had wanted to burn down that particular building, she wasn’t stupid enough to add murder to arson.

Not when the price for violence was so steep. The doors to the smaller chapel were kept locked at night, but Kate had pocketed a key earlier that day while enduring one of Sister Merilee’s lectures on finding grace. She let herself in and set the bag down just inside the door. The chapel was darker than she’d ever seen it, the blue stained glass registering black in the moonlight. A dozen pews separated her from the altar, and for a moment she almost felt bad about setting fire to the quaint little place. But it wasn’t the school’s only chapel—it wasn’t even the nicest—and if the nuns at St. Agnes had preached about anything, it was the importance of sacrifice. Kate had burned through two boarding schools (metaphorically speaking) in her first year of exile, another one in her second, hoping that would be it. But her father was determined (she had to get it from someone) and kept digging up more options. The fourth, a reform school for troubled teens, had stuck it out for almost a year before giving up the ghost.

The fifth, an all-boys academy willing to make an exception in exchange for a healthy endowment, lasted only a few short months, but her father must have had this hellish convent of a prep school on speed dial, a place already reserved, because she’d been packed off without so much as a detour back to V-City. Six schools in five years. But this was it. It had to be. Kate crouched on the wooden floor, unzipped the bag, and got to work. The night was too quiet in the wake of the bells, the chapel eerily still, and she started humming a hymn as she unpacked the duffel: two bottles of jack and almost a full fifth of vodka, both salvaged from a box of confiscated goods, along with three bottles of house red, a decades-old whiskey from Mother Alice’s cabinet, and Sister Merilee’s vintage. She lined the contents up on the back pew before crossing to the prayer candles. Beside the three tiers of shallow glass bowls sat a dish of matches, the old-fashioned kind with long wooden stems. Still humming, Kate returned to the liquor cabinet on the pew and unscrewed and uncorked the various bottles, anointing the seats, row after row, trying to make the contents last. She saved Mother Alice’s whiskey for the wooden podium at the front.

A Bible sat open on top, and in a moment of superstition, Kate spared the book, lobbing it out the open front door and onto the grass. When she stepped back inside, the damp, sweet smell of alcohol assaulted her senses. She coughed and spit the acrid taste from her mouth. At the far end of the chapel, a massive crucifix hung above the altar, and even in the darkened hall, she could feel the statue’s gaze on her as she lifted the match. Forgive me father for I have sinned, she thought, striking it against the doorframe. “Nothing personal,” she added aloud as the match flared to life, sudden and bright. For a long moment Kate watched it burn, fire creeping toward her fingers. And then, just before it got too close, she dropped the match onto the seat of the nearest pew. It caught instantly and spread with an audible whoosh, the fire consuming only the alcohol at first, then taking hold of the wood beneath. In moments, the pews were going up, and then the floor, and at last the altar.

The fire grew, and grew, and grew, from a flame the size of her nail to a blaze with a life of its own, and Kate stood, mesmerized, watching it dance and climb and consume inch after inch until the heat and the smoke finally forced her out into the cool night. Run, said a voice in her head—soft, urgent, instinctual—as the chapel burned. She resisted the urge and instead sank onto a bench a safe distance from the fire, trailing her shoes back and forth through the late summer grass. If she squinted, she could see the light of the nearest subcity on the horizon: Des Moines. An oldfashioned name, a relic from the time before the reconstruction. There were half a dozen of them, scattered around Verity’s periphery—but none had more than a million people, their populations locked in, locked down, and none of them held a candle to the capital. That was the idea. No one wanted to attract the monsters. Or Callum Harker. She drew out her lighter—a beautiful silver thing Mother Alice had confiscated the first week— and turned it over and over in her hands to keep them steady.

When that failed, she drew a cigarette from her shirt pocket—another bounty from the confiscation box—and lit it, watching the small blue flame dance before the massive orange blaze. She took a drag and closed her eyes. Where are you, Kate? she asked herself. It was a game she sometimes played, ever since she learned about the theory of infinite parallels, the idea that a person’s path through life wasn’t really a line, but a tree, every decision a divergent branch, resulting in a divergent you. She liked the idea that there were a hundred different Kates, living a hundred different lives. Maybe in one of them, there were no monsters. Maybe her family was still whole. Maybe she and her mother had never left home. Maybe they’d never come back. Maybe, maybe, maybe—and if there were a hundred lives, a hundred Kates, then she was only one of them, and that one was exactly who she was supposed to be.

And in the end, it was easier to do what she had to if she could believe that somewhere else, another version of her got to make another choice. Got to live a better—or at least simpler—life. Maybe she was even sparing them. Allowing another Kate to stay sane and safe. Where are you? she wondered. Lying in a field. Staring up at stars. The night is warm. The air is clean. The grass is cool beneath my back.

There are no monsters in the dark. How nice, thought Kate as, in front of her, the chapel caved in, sending up a wave of embers. Sirens wailed in the distance, and she straightened up on the bench. Here we go. Within minutes girls came pouring out of the dormitories, and Mother Alice appeared in a robe, pale face painted red by the light of the still-burning church. Kate had the pleasure of hearing the prestigious old nun let out a string of colorful words before the fire trucks pulled up and the sirens drowned out everything. * * * Even Catholic schools had their limits. An hour later, Kate was sitting in the rear seat of a local patrol car, courtesy of Des Moines, hands cuffed in her lap. The vehicle barreled through the night, across the dark expanse of land that formed the northeast corner of Verity, away from the safety of the periphery, and toward the capital. Kate shifted in the seat, trying to get more comfortable as the cruiser sped on.

Verity was three days across by car, and she figured they were still a good four hours outside the capital, an hour from the edge of the Waste—but there was no way this local officer was taking a vehicle like this through a place like that. The car didn’t have much in the way of reinforcement, only its iron trim and the UVR —ultraviolet-reinforced—high beams tearing crisp lines through the darkness. The man’s knuckles were white on the wheel. She thought of telling him not to worry, not yet—they were far enough out; the edges of Verity were still relatively safe, because none of the things that went bump in the capital wanted to cross the Waste to get to them, not when there were still plenty of people to eat closer to V-City. But then he shot her a nasty look and she decided to let him stew. She rolled her head, good ear against the leather seat as she stared out into the dark. The road ahead looked empty, the night thick, and she studied her reflection in the window. It was strange, how only the obvious parts showed up against the darkened glass—light hair, sharp jaw, dark eyes—not the scar like a drying tear in the corner of her eye, or the one that traced her hairline from temple to jaw. Back at St. Agnes, the Chapel of the Cross was probably a charred husk by now.

The growing crowd of girls in their pajamas had crossed themselves at the sight of it (Nicole Teak, whose nose Kate had recently broken, flashed a smug grin, as if Kate was getting what she deserved, as if she hadn’t wanted to get caught), and Mother Alice had said a prayer for her soul as she was escorted off the premises. Good riddance, St. Agnes. The cop said something, but the words broke down before they reached her, leaving nothing but muffled sounds. “What?” she asked, feigning disinterest as she turned her head. “Almost there,” he muttered, still obviously bitter that someone had forced him to drive her this far instead of dropping her in a cell for the night. They passed a sign—235 miles to V-City. They were getting closer to the Waste, the buffer that ran between the capital and the rest of Verity. A moat, thought Kate, one with its own monsters. There was no clear border, but you could feel the shift, like a shoreline, the ground sloping away, even though it stayed flat.

The last towns gave way to barren fields, and the world went from quiet to empty. A few more painfully silent miles—the cop refused to turn on the radio—and then a side road broke the monotony of the main stretch, and the patrol car veered onto it, wheels slipping from asphalt to gravel before grumbling to a stop. Anticipation flickered dully in Kate’s chest as the cop switched on his surrounds, UVR brights that cast an arc of light around the car. They weren’t alone; a black transport vehicle idled on the side of the narrow road, the only signs of life its UVR undercarriage, the red of its brake lights, and the low rumble of its engine. The cop’s circle of light glanced off the transport’s tinted windows and landed on the metal tracery capable of running one hundred thousand volts into anything that got too close. This was a vehicle designed to cross the Waste—and whatever waited in it. Kate smiled, the same smile Nicole had flashed her outside the church—smug, no teeth. Not a happy smile, but a victorious one. The cop got out, opened her door, and hauled her up off the backseat by her elbow. He unlocked the cuffs, grumbling to himself about politics and privilege while Kate rubbed her wrists.

“Free to go?” He crossed his arms. She took that as a yes, and started toward the transport, then turned back, and held out her hand. “You have something of mine,” she said. He didn’t move. Kate’s eyes narrowed. She snapped her fingers and the man shot a look at the rumbling tank of a car behind her before digging the silver lighter from his pocket. Her fingers curled around the smooth metal and she turned away, but not before she caught the word bitch in her good ear. She didn’t bother looking back. She climbed into the transport, sank against the leather seat, and listened to the sound of the cop car retreating. Her driver was on the phone.

He met her eyes in the rearview mirror. “Yeah, I’ve got her. Yeah, okay. Here.” He passed the cell back through the partition, and Kate’s pulse quickened as she took it and brought it to her left ear. “Katherine. Olivia. Harker.” The voice on the line was low thunder, rumbling earth. Not loud, but forceful, the kind of voice that demanded respect, if not outright fear, the kind of voice Kate had been practicing for years, but it still sent an involuntary shiver through her.

“Hello, Father,” she said, careful to keep her own voice steady. “Are you proud of yourself, Katherine?” She studied her nails. “Quite.” “St. Agnes makes six.” “Hmm?” she murmured, feigning distraction. “Six schools. In five years.” “Well, the nuns said I could do anything if I put my mind to it. Or was that the teachers back at Wild Prior? I’m starting to lose track—” “Enough.

” The word was like a punch to the chest. “You can’t keep doing this.” “I know,” she said, fighting to be the right Kate, the one she wanted to be around him, the one who deserved to be around him. Not the girl lying in the field or the one crying in a car right before it crashed. The one who wasn’t afraid of anything. Anyone. Not even him. She couldn’t manage that smug smile, but she pictured it, held the image in her head. “I know,” she said again. “And I have to imagine these kinds of stunts are getting hard to cover up.

And expensive.” “Then why—” “You know why, Dad,” she said, cutting him off. “You know what I want.” She listened to him exhale on the other side of the line, and tipped her head back against the leather. The transport’s sky roof was open, and she could see the stars dotting the heavy dark. “I want to come home.” August It began with a bang. August read the words for the fifth time without taking them in. He was sitting at the kitchen counter, rolling an apple in circles with one hand and pinning open a book about the universe with the other. Night had swept in beyond the steel-shuttered windows of the compound, and he could feel the city pulling at him through the walls.

He checked his watch, the cuff of his shirt inching up to reveal the lowest of the black tally marks. His sister’s voice drifted in from the other room, though the words weren’t meant for him, and from the nineteen floors below he could hear the layered noise of voices, the rhythm of boots, the metallic snap of a gun being loaded, and the thousand other fragmented sounds that formed the music of the Flynn compound. He dragged his attention back to the book. It began with a bang. The words reminded him of a T. S. Eliot poem, “The Hollow Men.” Not with a bang but a whimper. Of course, one was talking about the beginning of life and the other about the end, but it still got August thinking: about the universe, about time, about himself. The thoughts fell like dominoes inside his head, one knocking into the next into the next into the— August’s head flicked up an instant before the steel kitchen door slid open, and Henry came in.

Henry Flynn, tall and slim, with a surgeon’s hands. He was dressed in the task force’s standard dark camo, a silver star pinned to his shirt, a star that had been his brother’s once and before that his father’s and before that his great-uncle’s, and on, rolling back fifty years, before the collapse and the reconstruction and the founding of Verity, and probably even before, because a Flynn had always been at the beating heart of this city. “Hi, Dad,” said August, trying not to sound like he’d been waiting all night for this. “August,” said Henry, setting an HUV—high-density UV beacon—on the counter. “How’s it going?” August stopped rolling the apple, closed the book, forced himself to sit still, even though a still body was a busy mind—something to do with the potential and kinetic energy, if he had to guess; all he knew was that he was a body in search of motion. “You okay?” asked Henry when he didn’t answer. August swallowed. He couldn’t lie, so why was it so hard to tell the truth? “I can’t keep doing this,” he said. Henry eyed the book. “Astronomy?” he said asked with false lightness.

“So take a break.” August looked his father in the eyes. Henry Flynn had kind eyes and a sad mouth, or sad eyes and a kind mouth; he could never keep them straight. Faces had so many features, infinitely divisible, and yet they all added up to single, identifiable expressions like pride, disgust, frustration, fatigue—he was losing his train of thought again. He fought to catch it before it rolled out of reach. “I’m not talking about the book.” “August …,” started Henry, because he already knew where this was going. “We’re not having this discussion.” “But if you’d just—” “The task force is of the table.” The steel door slid open again and Emily Flynn walked in with a box of supplies and set them on the counter.

She was a fraction taller than her husband, her shoulders broader, with dark skin, a halo of short hair, and a holster on her hip. Emily had a soldier’s gait, but she shared Henry’s tired eyes and set jaw. “Not this again,” she said. “I’m surrounded by the FTF all the time,” protested August. “Whenever I go anywhere, I dress like them. Is it such a step for me to be one of them?” “Yes,” said Henry. “It isn’t safe,” added Emily as she started unpacking the food. “Is Ilsa in her room? I thought we could—” But August wouldn’t let it go. “Nowhere is safe,” he cut in. “That’s the whole point.

Your people are out there risking their lives every day against those things, and I’m in here reading about stars, pretending like everything is fine.” Emily shook her head and drew a knife from a slot on the counter. She started chopping vegetables, creating order of chaos, one slice at a time. “The compound is safe, August. At least safer than the streets right now.” “Which is why I should be out there helping in the red.” “You do your part,” said Henry. “That’s—” “What are you so afraid of?” snapped August. Emily set the knife down with a click. “Do you even have to ask?” “You think I’ll get hurt?” And then, before she could answer, August was on his feet.

In a single, fluid move he took up the knife and drove it down into his hand. Henry flinched, and Emily sucked in a breath, but the blade glanced off August’s skin as if it were stone, the tip burying in the chopping block beneath. The kitchen went very quiet. “You act as though I’m made of glass,” he said, letting go of the knife. “But I’m not.” He took her hands, the way he’d seen Henry do so many times. “Em,” he said, softly. “Mom. I’m not fragile. I’m the opposite of fragile.

” “You’re not invincible, either,” she said. “Not—” “I’m not putting you out there,” Henry cut in. “If Harker’s men catch you—” “You let Leo lead the entire task force,” countered August. “His face is plastered everywhere, and he is still alive.” “That’s different,” said Henry and Emily at the same time.

.

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