Olivia slid onto the dining chair and sat facing the most despised man in the city. She’d seen his face on the large screens each weekly broadcast, but knowing what he looked like, knowing who he was, did not prepare her for this first meeting.
The dark man with the perfect suit raised a glass in a toast. “We meet at last.”
She forced a smile for one night only. “Mr Maxson.”
From the corner of her eye, she surveyed the dining hall. It was drowning in the decadence famous of the upper city, though its guests in their glittering finery didn’t show an understanding of what wealth they possessed, or whose blood had spilled to pay for it. Guards stood by each shadowed corner watching her every movement. She’d been frisked quite thoroughly on her way into the restaurant, and their hands had groped far enough up her tight red dress to find the knife strapped to her thigh. This table was tucked nearer the wall for privacy, and in the center of it was a single black rose as an invitation. An invitation meant only for her.
The man responsible for the darkness in her city gestured to a glass full of sparkling gold liquid. “It isn’t poisoned.” He took a gulp of his own as proof. “If I were to kill you, I’d take my time.”
She picked up the glass and took a deep whiff. Most poisons held their own unique scent, though some were completely undetectable. She dared a sip. Strong and sweet.
He smiled approval. “Are you going to tell me your name?”
“So you can identify and murder more of my friends?”
“Murder is a strong word for policing the law.”
“Is that what you call it? The law butchers its own starving people.”
“Well isn’t this a lovely conversation for our first date.”
She flashed a grin. “Are you expecting a second?”
He snapped his fingers and summoned a waiter carrying food on ceramic plates; fish steamed atop fresh green leaves. It took all her self-control not to stare at it. The rivers of the lower city died long ago and fish was a rare commodity afforded to the privileged. Their empty beds and canals had been repurposed by her people as runways between the safe houses. Did Maxson know? Was this his way of hinting he knew her secrets? She took another sip from her glass to hide her surprise. Any hint, any tell, would spell doom for her people.
Maxson watched as she picked up the cutlery and balanced it. The knife was too dull to use as a weapon and was made of a material that would feed her entire family for a week. They ate, each following the other’s careful mouthfuls. The fish tasted so fresh, she just knew she’d be heaving it back up in an hour or two.
A buzz vibrated on the table. Maxson scanned his device with a sigh.
“Good news?” she asked with a saccharine smile.
He raised his glass to his lips and smirked over the rim. “It seems I underestimated you again. How did you know my target?”
“I couldn’t reveal all my secrets on our first date.”
“Not a hint? I find it interesting that you and your friends have such knowledge of my plans.”
“Perhaps you should hire better staff.”
“Perhaps. Your little group are surprisingly versatile for city born.”
“Now you’re being rude.”
“Forgive me. You are… not what I expected.”
Whereas you are exactly what I expected. The leader of the free cities, but there was nothing free about them or her people. His perfect suit matched his perfect smile, his perfectly slick oiled black hair, his perfectly clean-shaven jaw. To these aristocrats, he was the perfect man. Educated. Cunning. Ambitious. Unmarried. He climbed the ranks of his father’s empire and become the city’s ruler at a young age. But all that charm and expensive clothes hid a body count. He’d crushed the city and its people to reach the top.
And the people wanted an end.
Maxson rose from the table and offered his hand. She took it without hesitation and he led her outside to a balcony overlooking the upper city. Too high to escape, though high enough to push a body to its death. The colorful lights hid the dirt and smog of the lower city beneath.
Maxson waved a hand over the shining skyline. “This is my city.”
The balcony left little room to move as she slid beside him and felt the cool breeze raise goose bumps on her arms. “The city belongs to the people.”
He turned to face her. “You don’t seem to approve of how I govern it.”
“What gave you that impression?”
She reached up and brushed her lips against his. Warm hands gripped her shoulders and he leaned into the kiss, only stopping when she broke free.
“It is customary to kiss on a first date,” she said.
He smiled though there was no warmth in it. “I’m afraid there won’t be a second. I lied about the wine. I’d say you have, oh, twenty minutes until you start bleeding from your eyes. Intense pain is the first symptom.”
Olivia rubbed a thumb over her lower lip. “I don’t usually wear this sort of lipstick, but I’d say you have, oh, ten minutes until the convulsions begin. Itching is the first symptom.”
Maxson scratched his neck and grinned. “You bitch.”