I can always tell when my mother changes clothes. Her mark lights up in a fluorescent blue and glows through the cracks in the walls.
I run my hands over my skirt and wait for her to finish getting ready.
Today is my first day at the Capital Academy. My mother has to drive me because the academy doesn’t have buses, and we both decided that it would be safest if I didn’t walk. I don’t want to go. I never did. I wish we could run like the Jalas and the Solomons, but I was given a scholarship that pays everything. I thought it was a trap, but my mother reasoned that the world empire would never even risk involving a Gatekeeper with its prestigious Capital Academy nor would they ever think to look for us in plain sight. And she was apparently proud of me, which is strange.
When she emerges, she smiles. She’s had to put on an extra sweater just to cover her mark so it won’t be seen through her clothes. There’s not a trace of fear in her crystal blue eyes or wide smile that nearly takes up her freckled face. I wish I looked more like my mother. She’s the most beautiful woman I’ve ever met. Men still try to pursue her, but she knows better than to let any of them near her. What if they saw her mark? Most can’t tell I’m her daughter. I have her eyes, but that’s it. My hair is dark – raven black – like my father’s had been, and I’m pretty petite as opposed to long and lean. And my skin looks pale and sallow instead of milky and glowing. Annalise Solomon, my best friend, told me that if it weren’t for the three tiny wrinkles in the outer corners of my mother’s eyes, she could probably pass for my older sister.
Mom always chats excitedly when she drives, but all I can think of is how much I hate the Capital. I hate the people living here, and I hate the academy. I don’t want to go. I’d almost rather die than go.
I pull my sweater and glance down at the mark on my arm, just below my shoulder and almost reaching my collar. It’s a pale white like a faded scar, and I can’t remember if it’s ever glowed. I tell myself that I’m glad it doesn’t, though my mother tells me that it used to when I was really young. It must’ve been before my father died.
She touches my knee.
“Don’t do that.”
Isn’t our job as Gatekeepers to show others our light? I roll my eyes.
“Thalia Knight! I saw that.”
“Sorry,” I mutter.
She sighs. “We’re not alone here, you know?”
I look at her. We’re at a red light, and she pulls her golden hair back into a ponytail. I wish I had been born with golden hair.
“Mom, the Solomons, Jalas, and Shepherds all left for the Outlands. They say –”
“I know, honey. I’m talking about at the academy. They say that there are others here. Hiding. But you can’t go around flashing your mark to everyone, okay?”
I moan. “I’m not an idiot!”
“I know, but I know how you can be sometimes.” She glances at me. “Thoughtless.”
I roll my eyes again.
“Thalia!” She snaps her fingers at me.
“I don’t want to do this,” I mutter. “I could die, mom!”
The way she looks at me makes me wish I’d never said anything.
“Thalia, we talked about this, remember?” The worry in her voice makes me nauseous.
“Yeah, I’ll be careful. But what if I have to take a gym class or something? Or a swim class?”
“Well… your mark doesn’t glow, does it? And if it ever does, we’ll figure something out. Besides, showing marks are forbidden. Even here. Hunters and everyone else have to keep theirs covered up.”
“This place is probably crawling with Hunters,” I mutter. Mom doesn’t say anything. “Do you want me to keep an eye out for them? Or something? Mr. Solomon said –”
“I know what Mr. Solomon said, honey, but I want you to go in, make friends, learn a lot, and have a fun time, okay? Don’t worry about Hunters unless you suspect one’s getting too close to you. You’ve earned this, remember? You’re smart and talented, and you’ll fit right in. No one will suspect you.”
It still didn’t take away the fact that I felt like an undercover spy or something.
We’ve arrived at the courtyard. Mom’s red car looks ragged and old compared to the sleek black and silver vehicles. A girl emerges from the car in front of us. She’s wearing the same gray skirt, long black socks, and navy blazer as me.
“Have a good day, sweetie.” Mom’s eyes are shiny. She leans towards me, and I instinctively lean towards her. She kisses my forehead. I step out of the car and look over the fountain, the gardens, the statues, and the massive white building made purely from marble stones. I’m gripping my notebook so tightly that my knuckles are white. I glance over my shoulder in time to see my mom’s red hatchback following the line of cars out of here.
I look back at the building, and my heart starts pounding because I’m realizing for the first time what I’m doing. I’m a Gatekeeper. I’m not allowed to exist in the World Empire, and yet I’m in the Capital, attending the Capital Academy, the head training grounds of the Hunters – the same Hunters who worked for the empire and hunt down Gatekeepers for a living.
I scowl and start walking up the steps.
Oh, the things that I do for my mother!
Well… it’s still pretty small in comparison to the things she’s done for me. After my invitation to the academy, she moved us to the Capital to live a tiny, junky apartment. She could be living rich. She could have started a whole other family. Lots of wealthy men – Gatekeeper men! – tried to woo my mother, even with me. Her baggage. She’s given up everything for me, and she just wants me to have a good education. She thinks that I can make a difference for our people, and she’s willing to risk everything.
My fear is replaced by anger when I think of how some of our only friends believed that she was glad that I was mundane, that I could fit in with all the other empire kids, that I could not only live a normal life but also end up successful. Those idiots have no idea…
I glance around. At least I’m not the only freshman completely awestruck by this place. Several others stand near the sidewalk or sit on the fountain gawking in disbelief. How hard exactly was it to get into the academy? I’d never even applied. My old principal did – though she never would have even considered it if she’d known. I sort of love and hate her for it.
A couple of girls pass me whispering excitedly. Besides the ribbons in their braids, we look exactly the same. At least there’ll be no looking down on me here. No one can look down on someone else here. We all blend in – all elite, the best that the empire has to offer. All part of the same gray area. That’s capital policy, after all. Everyone is the same.