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“How dare you defy me?” The Commander’s voice shakes as he reaches for his sword.
“Wait!” I say before Willow can loose her arrow. Before the Commander can charge her. Before the plan I scraped together falls apart and leaves me with absolutely no way to keep my promises.
“You need me alive,” I say to the Commander.
“Why?” The Commander hurls the word at me.
“Because I know how the Rowansmark tech works. Because I can not only use it, I can improve it. And because I know the full extent of what waits for us at Rowansmark and how to use their mistakes to our advantage. You and I are the only ones who can convince the rest of the northern city-states to give us troops so that we can defeat James Rowan and break his hold over this continent.”
“And how are you, an outcast traitor, supposed to help me gain troops from the other city-states?” he asks.
“I can disarm the beacons Rowansmark installed in every city-state. We offer them immediate protection and long-term results, provided we get the troops we need to mount an offensive on Rowansmark soil.”
The Commander waves at his men to lower their weapons. Willow slowly relaxes her grip on the bow. The Commander and I stare at each other in silence for a moment. Finally, he nods. “Take him.”
The Brute Squad guard on his left grabs a length of chain from the dungeon’s wall and approaches me.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Willow asks, her fingers tightening on her bow again.
“I’m locking up my investment before he can commit treason against me again.” The Commander’s scar pulls at his lip while his dark eyes bore into mine.
“It’s okay, Willow,” I say as I hold out my wrists.
“We really need to discuss your definition of okay.” She lowers her weapon. Neither of the Brute Squad guards looks reassured.
I don’t blame them. The metal chains are cold against my skin as the guard wraps my wrists tight. My left hand throbs, and my vision blurs when one of the chain links smacks against the stub that used to be my finger.
“Should we shackle the girl too?” a guard asks.
Willow whips her bow up and snarls, “Try it.”
“We don’t have time for this.” The Commander sounds impatient. “If she so much as touches her bow, kill the boy. Now, let’s go.”
I take a few steps forward and pause in front of him. Straightening my shoulders, I look him in the eye. Let him see that I don’t fear him. That I won’t pretend to honor a coward. His eyes narrow as I meet his gaze, but then his lips curve into a predatory smile.
“I’m going to enjoy killing you someday,” he says softly.
I swallow the words I want to spit at him, and give him a predatory smile of my own as Willow and I brush past my former leader and into the darkened hallway beyond.
“How long have you been a tracker?” My breath breaks up my words harshly, as if someone reached down my throat and scoured my lungs with sand. I sit on the ground, my back leaning against the log Samuel is using as his guard post, and hold my injured arm against my chest while my eyes continuously move over the dark expanse of the Wasteland, hoping to catch sight of Quinn.
Not that he’d let us see him until he was already on top of us. He’s too well trained to make that kind of mistake. Still, I look for him, my body tensed. Quinn won’t abandon me. I just hope he understands that I’m not going to return to Lankenshire until Ian is dead.
“Why do you care?” Samuel doesn’t sound irritated, but he doesn’t sound happy either.
“Just making conversation.” I cough.
He waits for me to find my breath again and then clips his words short. “Night shift guard duty isn’t the time for making conversation.”
I know that, but I also know that if Quinn catches up to us tonight, which is unlikely given his injuries and the fact that our wagon moved swiftly through the afternoon, the best help I can offer is to keep Samuel distracted.
I make my voice sound small as I say, “I’m sorry. It’s just that . . . I’m hurt, and I’m a long way from anyone who actually cares about me, and I feel very alone.” I have to blink my eyes against the sudden sting of tears as the truth of my words settles into me.
“I’m not your counselor,” Samuel says.
“Who else am I supposed to talk to? Ian?” My laugh is bitter. “I can see how well that would go. ‘Hey, Ian, let’s forget about all the innocent people you killed because you assumed Logan knew where he was from! Let’s forget about how you destroyed my city for a crime your own father committed against your leader!’” I cough again and then ask, “How fast do you think he’d stick his sword in my mouth just to shut me up?”
“I myself am wondering what it would take to shut you up.”
I shift my weight and the rough, splintery bark behind me scrapes loudly against my leather cloak. Samuel sighs.
“Why don’t you go lie near Heidi and get some sleep?”
“Not tired.” I lie with all the conviction of the miracle-cure salesman Oliver once threatened to whip if he didn’t stop giving the poverty-stricken people in South Edge false hope while he pocketed their hard-earned coins.
“You can barely keep your eyes open. Your lungs are damaged. You’re obviously in pain. Go get some rest.”