The Half-Class by Kayvion Lewis
Don’t draw attention to yourself.
Always have your paperwork ready.
Remember your class.
Maybe during the day. Maybe most nights. But not this night.
I let the mantra chase me as we raced out from the mansion. Those words strangled me almost every hour of every day. But when I was out with the rebels, on nights like this one, they could never catch me. The pounding hooves underneath me beat the words back as furiously as they carried me forward. I wouldn’t let them catch me.
There was only a half-dozen of us tonight, bolting towards the city in cloaks darker than the forest around us. I liked to think we were invisible in the night. Once we hit the streets of Bexbury, we would be anything but. The wind ripped through my curls as we tore past the trees. I squeezed my reins, absorbing the rush of the moment. The danger. The thrill. The need.
Head of the formation, Jace’s beaded braids danced behind her—a style typical of the dark-class. If she weren’t so light-skinned, like I was, she might have been able to pass for a natural dark. But Jace would never even consider that. She was one of the only people I knew who wore her half-class status with pride, even when the sun was up and when we were headed out to spit on the face of a king.
Luke, riding at my side and the only dark-class with us tonight, shot me a smile. His grey eyes sparkled in the faint light of the lantern bouncing at the side of Jace’s saddle, glowing golden against his smooth, brown skin. I forced a quick, friendly smile, though even for that, I chastised myself. I was supposed to stop encouraging him so much. But it wasn’t the time to think about whether or not I wanted to return Luke’s smiles.
The watercolor blue of the bakery peeked through the branches first. Bexbury, even as big as it was, never showed itself until you were right upon it. They say they used to call the forest encircling us the Leafy Shield. No one could see through. I hoped it would live up to that reputation tonight.
With the sight of the city igniting my excitement, I pushed my horse even faster through the trees. Dirt gave way to cracked cobblestones. Hooves clattered like thunder. The stink of moist soil and decaying trees fell away under the waxy scent of oil streetlamps, which cast the teal and yellow storefronts of the city’s Eastside in an eerie burning glow.
The few pedestrians walking about late plastered themselves against buildings as we passed. A pair of women ran towards the safety of an alley. Pure terror clutched the face of an elderly light-class couple clinging to each other as we raced by. They knew who we were, and if they believed the reports King Dreux sent out about us, we were dangerous. We weren’t violent, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t like seeing things reversed. For a second, these light-class Eastside citizens, gripping satin skirts and rushing to move in finely polished boots, were the ones pushed to the edges of the street.
It’d been so long since I’d been to the east side of the city. During the day, while everything was open, most of the stores and restaurants around here only welcomed naturals. Good people who were fully light or fully dark. Pure, the way God intended. My gaze slashed to the side as we passed a ribbon shop with curling pink and red ribbons painted over its glass windows. But my attention homed into the sign perpetually pressed against the darkened shop window.
Natural Lights only, please. (Agreeable Natural Darks allowed after Mid-Day.)
I dragged my eyes back ahead. It wasn’t like I could afford to shop at these shops anyway, even if they did let me in.
We turned onto the central main street, and our destination came into view. The dead grey municipal building stood out from the watercolor streets. Amid bright Morran oranges and corals, the colorless brick was the only dead flower in a lively field. The building’s cement columns and monstrous brown doors reminded me of the ancient temples from times long past or the ageless castles described in my volumes of Taliver. Those were enchanting to read. This place made my stomach turn.
We flew past the gates into a courtyard preceding the building. Two streetlamps stationed before the curled iron bars illuminated the stone entranceway in a pale-yellow light, the only hint of color the area boasted. But soon, their lamplights wouldn’t be the only fires lighting up the night.
“Stop!” a pair of officers shouted. They raced down the stone steps. In their matching pale blue uniforms, they were like identical toy soldiers reaching for the swords at their sides. But there was no point.
Jace split away from us, and Luke tossed me the end of a thick braided rope. Clutching my reins with the other hand, I wrapped the rope around my gloved palm. It pressed into my skin, feeling like a noose in my grip. I cut away from Luke, and the rope tightened against my wrist as it stretched taut between us. We bolted past the men, leaving behind a thunderous echo of hooves.
The rope knocked right into their throats, and the officers slammed into the ground. They hacked and gagged, but they were still breathing. Surely, a few scrapes and bruises would be the extent of their injury. At least, that’s what I told myself.
Thomas and Maxine reined in behind us, sliding off their horses to take hold of the injured officers with ropes pulled from the saddles. Nothing more. Even if some members of Gilow’s movement wished otherwise, we did not kill people.
Hopping down from my horse, I felt a rush of wind. I followed Jace and Luke up the municipal building’s steps.
Luke grabbed the brass door handles and shook. Deep shudders radiated through the air.
“It’s locked. Guess we’ll have to go home,” Luke said.
“Very funny.” I yanked him out of the way.
Jace knelt at the door. She retrieved two long pins from under her cloak and slipped them into the door’s lock. The hooks and cogs inside the door clattered softly until a little click sounded. The door moaned as she pushed it open. I couldn’t see her smile, but the lift of her cheeks under her cloth mask was just as reassuring.
The crunch of my boots over the white tile echoed through the empty lobby. Thomas and Maxine dragged the struggling officers in behind them. Once inside, Luke shut the massive door.
I stood frozen, breathing in the feel of the building. It was grey and dull, yes, but there was something magnificent about it too. The high ceilings and branching corridors were so different from the typical style of Morra. King Dreux had this building built in the traditional Ryland style, and though I’d never been to Ryland, the architecture gave me an idea of what their cities must be like—grand but colorless.
“What are you waiting for?” Jace asked.
I suppose I wasn’t the only one who’d gotten caught up in the awe.
“Let’s get busy. Find all that disgusting paperwork.”
Joining with Luke, I sprinted down the municipal halls, searching for that precious collection of papers. The corridors themselves were devoid of, well, almost everything, so we went straight for the rooms branching off from the hall.
I kicked open the first door. Darkness drenched the room, but enough moonlight snuck between the curtains framing the little window for me to make out a polished desk and chairs. An office—not what we were looking for.
I shoved over a beige tufted chair and thrust a stone paperweight, piles of folders, and a bronze nameplate to the tile. Papers flittered to the floor.
A similar scene unfolded in the other rooms I passed. The stir of paper and crash of furniture sang like music in my ears. But maybe the symphony was a bit too loud. My heart quivered. Could the neighbors hear us? Or people out for a late-night stroll?
I shook the thought away. Jace would have told us if we needed to be stealthy.
“It’s down here!” Thomas shouted.
I bolted around the corner. Maxine dropped a pile of files and ran after me.
Luke and I skidded into the municipal lobby. Thomas and Jace flew in, too, hauling in armfuls of parchment. I froze as they dropped the papers, some slapping the floor and others fluttering down. This couldn’t be real. What we sought were just sheets of paper. Nothing special about them. Pieces of paper that had so much power over us.
Jace nodded back to one of the corridors. “Left hallway, last two rooms.”
“Why are we bringing here?” Luke asked.
“The other rooms are too close to the shops next door,” Jace said. “We’re not going to risk burning down the whole Eastside.”
“Maybe we should,” Maxine said behind me. She squeezed her fingers under her chin, looking like she wanted to bounce out of her own skin. I imagined that excitable smile of hers twisting under the tight orange curls that her mask must have been pressing into her cheeks. Thomas—the fluff of his hair gently lifting his mask—snickered.
He opened his mouth to agree with Maxine, but Jace shot a glare towards them. He shut up instantly.
“Just go,” Jace said.
Following her order, I ran with Luke, Thomas, and Maxine down the next corridor. It was identical to the last one I was in, except there weren’t nearly as many lining this hallway. Only two tall doors marked each side of the hallway, but that just made the ones we were headed for easier to distinguish.
Maxine ran with Thomas into the set of doors at the far end, and Luke and I darted into the first room on the left. The room was massive. Rows and rows of narrow shelves cluttered the floor from wall to wall, each stuffed with countless collections of parchment.
This was Bexbury—where each and every person was classified. All its people boiled down to nothing more than sheets of paper. I reached out and touched a pile. Was my classification somewhere in this room? Would I be able to feel it if I touched my own paper?
I peeled the first sheet. Light-class, Natural. The words lined the top edge. Like all parchment, it was feather-light between my fingers, but its weight sank into my soul.
No, I was right before. These were more than just simple pieces of paper. And that was why they had to go up in flames.
I pulled as much paper as I could from the nearest shelf, stuffing them between my arms. I felt like a hungry monster, greedily wanting to rip away more and more. When my arms were so full, I couldn’t carry anymore, I tottered out into the hall. Dozens of sheets slipped from my grasp as I ran, dancing to the floor behind me.
In the lobby, I dropped the pile on top of the growing mountain, scanning them as they fell.
None of these people were half-classes. How were we distinguished on our paperwork from the naturals? Artificial light? Artificial dark? Half-class wasn’t an official term, just slang for those of us who didn’t really belong in the light or dark class. Having parents from two different classes, we were “artificially” assigned one. But it wouldn’t surprise me if the term made its way onto any of our papers.
I pushed down a twist in my stomach. You’re just as natural as anyone else, Evie.
We went back and forth through the corridors, hauling more and more papers into the stone lobby. As I pulled a particularly tall stack of documents from a shelf under the back window of the filing room, the shudders of the clover green shop next door scraped the glass. Jace was right. Had we started the fires in here, we might just have sent them up in flames too. And likely the rest of the block as well.
I don’t know how long it took us to clear out the file rooms. We bolted like lightning through the rooms, and in what felt like no time at all, the lobby floor was piled high with parchment. But what felt like no time could quickly become too much time, and if any of the residents saw us and decided to call the officers, each minute was one closer to them arriving.
“That’s good enough,” Jace said.
I dropped the final stack of papers down with the rest.
“Thomas, Love, will you help Maxine escort these dear officers outside? Wouldn’t want them to get hurt.”
Maxine’s mask shifted, and I imagined she was smiling underneath. She and Thomas dragged the gagged officers out, likely to be left tied against one of the stone columns near the steps.
“Alright, let’s go,” Jace ordered.
I circled behind her toward the lobby doorway. Luke slid down one of the mounds as if he were skidding down a snowy hill, then finally joined us. With one last glance back, Jace threw her lantern onto the floor. Glass shattered, and the flames devoured the papers. A flood of heat washed over me, wrapping around me as the orange fires climbed up the sheets and trekked across the sea of papers, turning the entire lobby into a burning inferno. The blaze burned my eyes, but I didn’t let myself close them for one second. I wanted to witness them smoldering, these heavy, powerful papers. A warmer than the fire smile lifted my lips. We could burn this to ash. What else could we burn down?
“Guess that’s the end of that,” Thomas said.
I nodded. These may not have been the only records the king had of Bexbury, and it may not have changed everything, but it had to change something. I had to change something.
“That’s enough gawking,” Jace said. “Let’s ride before the real officers get here.”
My heart longed to stay and watch the fire until it died, but I knew she was right. Bouncing down the municipal’s steps, lamp light’s glow faded over an apartment across the street. It wouldn’t be long before the whole block was awake.
I pounced onto the nearest horse, thankfully mine, and wrapped the reins around my palms. More lights lit up the windows lining the street, and I felt as if the entire world was watching me. I twisted my reins in my fists anxiously—it was time to go.
But I forced myself to wait. There was one last embellishment to be made.
I turned back to Luke, the only one of us not on his horse. With his jar of crimson paint in one hand and oversized brush in the other, he drew our symbol across one of the thick pillars atop the municipal steps: a circle crossed with a diagonal line, with half colored in—half dark, just like us. The symbol graced the very same pillar the unfortunate officers sat tied against. Whoever came up with it must have thought they were so clever.
I breathed a sigh of relief when he threw the jar and brush into the burning lobby and raced back down to the rest of us.
“Took you long enough,” I said as he mounted the last free horse.
“What can I say?” He settled himself into the saddle. “I’m an artist.”
With all of us ready, Jace led the charge. She bolted into the street, and we followed in a parade of succession. Luke and I remained at the very end of the convoy, but unlike me, he didn’t seem to mind the dozens of people wrapped in robes and night-dressings who crept cautiously outside to see the spectacle. They gawked at us as we raced back into the night. Was gawking the right word? Some of them turned up their noses in disgust. Others shook with shock.
Someone had to be happy with our accomplishment.
As we tore down the street, a light flickered into a small window above. An elderly woman peered between lace curtains. Even at a distance, I could make out the faint brown tint to her skin and the delicate coarseness of her hair. She was one of us, a half-class hidden away in someone’s top room. She smiled.
And that made it all worth it.