Excerpt from Ninth City Burning

1

Jax

We’re only a few minutes into our quiz when the sirens start, and the first thing I feel is relief even though I know that’s totally wrong, totally not how I should feel. I can still remember the panic, the terror that used to come over me when I heard the atmospheric-incursion siren, the signal that our city is under attack. And I know that’s how all the kids around me must be feeling this very second. But it’s different for me now. Once the first shock of the wailing siren passes, it’s true I’m afraid too, but it isn’t the same kind of fear I used to feel. It’s more like fear of letting everyone down, and even that’s not so bad yet though I know it’s going to get worse. But for a moment, just a moment, there was that relief because I’m totally not prepared for this quiz, which I know is crazy because what kind of person is like, Oh great, I won’t have to take a quiz because everybody is going to die.

I’m not a bad student, really. Even in biology, which is the subject of this quiz, which is about photosynthesis, which is how plants turn sunlight into energy. The trouble is, whenever I sit down to study, I end up picking up the Academy Handbook. It isn’t a long book, but each time I finish I just flip back to the beginning, like maybe if I read it one more time, I’ll find the answer I need. Like maybe I just missed it the other hundred million times. But even though the Handbook has all the rules for life at the Academy, it doesn’t tell me the one thing I really need to know. Oh, and there’s nothing about photosynthesis, either.

“Pencils down, cadets.” That’s Danyee, our rhetor. Everyone in Sixth Class Section E has her for biology, physics, and irrational mechanics. She had been pacing the rows of desks, looking over our shoulders one by one, but at the sound of the siren, she walked to the front of the room. “In line by the door, please,” she says, her voice calm, almost cheerful, like this is just another lesson.

All around, there is the sound of chairs creaking from beneath desks. Near the back of the room, a girl gives a little squeal of panic: Her pencil is still scribbling away. She smacks it down like someone swatting a fly, then glances up to see if anyone’s noticed. We all have, including Rhetor Danyee, who takes the girl by the hand and leads her to the line of cadets forming by the door. Using an artificed pencil during any kind of test is totally against the rules, as anyone who’d even picked up the Academy Handbook would know. On a normal day, this girl would be in for some big-time trouble, but not today. Rhetor Danyee, who is usually pretty tough, gives the girl’s hand a reassuring squeeze before ushering her into line. If they’re still alive tomorrow, they can talk about punishment then.

I’m cadet 6-E-12, meaning Sixth Class Section E Seat Twelve, so I take my place twelfth from the door. As I walk down the line, I can feel the other cadets watching me—not staring because you’re supposed to be face forward when you’re in formation, but from the corners of their eyes. My uniform is the same gray as any other cadet’s, and on my collar I have the same six black pips as everyone in Sixth Class, but there isn’t a person in this city who would mistake me for a normal kid. The symbol I wear at my neck, a golden circle with a second circle inside, is just a reminder. During school hours, everyone is expected to pretend like I’m just another student at the Academy, but that’s all they can really do: pretend.

Over the past few months, I’ve gotten used to everyone’s looking at me differently, gotten used to setting off whispers everywhere I go. It isn’t like people are mean to me. If anything, they’re extra, extra nice. Actual officers will stop and salute me, or congratulate me, or ask to shake my hand. I’ve made a lot of friends since starting at the School of Rhetoric, and my friends from before are still my friends. The kids in Section E seem proud to have me, usually. But not today. Today, things are different. Today, everyone’s nervous. They know that in a little while, their lives could depend on me.

Of all the eleven- and twelve-year-olds who came back from Sequester, I’m the only one who turned out to be fontani, and as the youngest fontanus in the city, it’s my job to stand for all of us during an attack. The last line of defense. In ten minutes, all of Ninth City could be gone, and I will have to fight, to protect whoever is left. And that’s the look the other cadets are giving me now: They’re wondering if they can trust me with their lives, this kid with his long nose and curly dirt-brown hair, who’s somehow skinny and a little pudgy at the same time, who’s in the bottom half of his class in chin-ups and push-ups, and don’t even ask about the five-kilometer run. Who’s never been really, really good at anything. They’re seeing the same Jax they’ve known for twelve years, only now I’m somehow supposed to protect them from complete destruction. Even Rhetor Danyee seems tense. I don’t blame them: I wish they didn’t have to depend on me, either.

When all the cadets of Section E are in line, Danyee opens the door, and we file out of the classroom, forming two columns of ten, everyone moving smoothly in time. Each of us has been doing atmospheric-incursion drills practically since we learned to walk. As a section, our best time is classroom to shelter in three minutes and forty-two seconds. It’s all so familiar, I almost forget this is the real thing. But only almost.

The hall of East Wing is filled with sections just like ours, kids walking calmly two by two with a rhetor at the front. The rhetors stand out by their black legionary’s uniforms and because they’re older, most around twenty years old, like Danyee. Some of the rhetors for the upper classes are even older than that, but not for the Dodos, which is the general Academy term for sixth-classers. The rumor is that rhetors aren’t allowed to teach the younger kids anymore once they’ve been on their first tour.

No one speaks or looks anywhere but straight ahead; the only sound is the rhythmic clacking of our Academy dress shoes and the wail of the attack siren. The siren is an artifice, designed so that it’s nearly impossible to ignore, a sound that seems to come right out of the air, like water gathering on the side of a glass. I wonder sometimes whether it could be an actual wail—like someone really screaming. That’s how artifices are: No matter how precisely they’re designed, you can never really be sure what they’ll do.

We follow the flow of cadets down the wide, stone stairway of East Wing as far as the ground floor, but where everyone else continues on to the lower levels, Danyee leads us to the main foyer. She brings us to a halt in front of the tall, stone arch, like the threshold of a huge door but blocked with a massive slab of white stone, its translucent surface faintly glowing with the light outside. “Section E adjutant,” she says, turning to face us. “Report.”

Elessa leaves her place in the column to stand up front. “Cadet Adjutant Elessa reporting, ma’am,” she says. “Sixth Class Section E all present and in good condition.” On our first day at the School of Rhetoric, when Danyee told us to elect a section adjutant, everyone was sure it would be Bomar. On the School’s entrance evaluations, Bomar scored higher than anyone in our section in leadership. “Ninety-seventh percentile,” he would say about ten times a day, just in case anyone forgot. Bomar decided his high score meant anything he wanted to do was automatically good leadership; at lunch, he liked to order people to give him their dessert rations “for the good of the section.” Elessa was the first one to say what we all already knew: that school would be miserable with Bomar as adjutant. After that, the choice was obvious. Elessa is smart and organized, and she can do an insane number of chin-ups. When the vote came in, she won 19–1. Elessa always seems to know what to do—she would have made a good fontana I bet. Instead, Ninth City got me.

“Section E is yours,” Danyee tells Elessa. “Take your cadets to East Wing Shelter and report to your Centurio Aspirant.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Elessa turns on her heel to face us. “Cadets, with me,” she says, and sets off. The other cadets of Section E follow, until only I am left.

Danyee gives me a small nod and an even smaller smile, then approaches the arch with its huge wall of stone. As she does, a dark shape appears in the white surface: the outline of a man, like the shadow of someone standing on the other side. It holds up one arm, waving at us to stop, and a voice comes out of the wall. “An atmospheric-incursion alert is in effect,” it says, deep and booming and sort of echoing in the same way as the siren still wailing through the air. “The Academy of Ninth City is closed until further notice. All personnel are to report to their designated shelters. This is not a drill.”

The voice pauses a moment, then begins its message again, but stops when Danyee places her palm against the white stone. “Rhetor Danyee of the Academy,” she says, “escorting Fontanus Jaxten to the Forum.”

The voice stops, then, after a moment, it says, “Pass.”

All at once, the wall of white vanishes like clearing mist, and we’re looking out onto a courtyard of stone paths and wide lawns, empty and bright beneath a cloudy sky. The door reappears behind us as soon as we’re outside; I don’t hear it happen, but when I look back, it’s there.

Danyee has taken a small metal disk from her pocket. It’s a storage device, I know, made to hold artifices, and given to her for the sole purpose of bringing me to the Forum during an attack. I could get there just as fast by myself, but the Academy can be very strict—and sometimes kind of unreasonable—when it comes to what cadets are and aren’t allowed to do on their own. I actually kind of like it better this way.

“Ready, cadet?” Danyee asks.

I think she might actually be nervous, but I can’t tell for sure. “Ready, ma’am,” I say.

Danyee passes two fingers over the surface of the disk, and suddenly everything is a blur, the ground rushing beneath us like wind, walkways and stairways and hallways whirling around us with the speed of a cyclone.

When the world settles back again, Danyee and I are standing in front of another stone archway, easily twice as tall as the last one, opening onto a wide, stone plaza. I feel Danyee’s hand settle onto my shoulder. We pass beneath the arch, and she steps back and salutes. “This is as far as I go, sir,” she says. This whole procedure is in my Handbook, part of a special appendix added just for me. It always feels weird when adults address me as “sir,” but now that we’re off Academy grounds, I outrank Danyee by quite a bit.

“Yes, ma’am,” I say, returning her salute. “I’ll take it from here.”

But instead of leaving, Danyee kneels and hugs me hard. “Good luck, sir,” she whispers. “We’re all rooting for you.”

The hug takes me completely by surprise. Nowhere in the Handbook—not even in the special appendix—does it mention hugging, let alone hugging a superior officer. As far as I know, hugging is completely nonregulation. I mumble something that sounds like, “Thanks,” and Danyee let me go, smiling sadly. She salutes once more, then she’s gone in a gust of wind.