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Having the two trackers for an audience will make my plan to kill Ian harder to pull off. Still, if Samuel feels protective of me instead of allied with Ian, it will be worth the extra risk.
Samuel doesn’t reply. The incessant chirrup of crickets joins the soft, mournful hooting of an owl and surrounds us with the quiet nighttime noises of the Wasteland. The loneliness in my chest spreads through my veins until I want to shove the emotion into the bleak silence that still lurks in the dark corners within me. The last time I traveled the Wasteland with a virtual stranger, my best friend, Sylph, had just married the boy she loved, Logan was depending on me to rescue him from the Commander’s dungeon, and the belief that my father was alive and could make everything right again was a brilliant flame of hope within me.
Now my father is gone. Sylph is dead. And if Ian is to be believed, Logan can’t track me down until he finds a way around the Commander and his borrowed army.
I don’t realize I’m crying until hot tears spill down my cheeks. Wrapping my arms around myself, I hunch over my knees and struggle to stop. To breathe. To believe that I can see this through, even if I have to see it through alone.
“Twenty-three years,” Samuel says quietly.
I sniff and wipe my palms across my cheeks, trying hard not to look humiliated. It’s one thing to act like a damsel in distress. It’s another thing to feel like one.
“What?” My voice sounds thick and unsteady. I clear my throat.
“I’ve been a tracker for twenty-three years. Joined the military for my mandatory three years of service straight out of school and was recruited for the tracker squad from there.”
“Oh.” I sit up, pulling my wounded arm close. My fingers press lightly against the burned flesh, even though I no longer need the pain as distraction. “So you’re old enough to know Ian’s father.”
Samuel’s jaw clenches, and he turns to examine the trees. I scramble to fill the silence with something that will grab his attention again.
“I thought you might be as old as my father. Maybe you knew him too? He visited Rowansmark at least twice a year as Baalboden’s courier—”
“Jared Adams, the man who abused his diplomatic privileges and stole proprietary tech from Rowansmark.”
“He didn’t steal it. It was given to him.”
“Through an illegal transaction that Jared, with his years of experience, would’ve immediately recognized as something that ought to be reported under the Diplomatic Trade Agreement. But he didn’t report it. He kept it. So yes, I know who Jared Adams is. Every tracker knows who he is.” Samuel’s voice is flat.
He turns toward me. “Was?”
“He’s dead.” The words are too easy to say. They roll off my tongue as if they don’t carry the weight of all I’ve lost wrapped inside their syllables.
“How? A tracker?”
“Dad was too good to be caught by a tracker.” I lift my chin and glare at him before I remember that I’m supposed to be gaining his sympathy. Dropping my eyes, I say, “He was trying to hide the device—the controller that Marcus had given him. The Cursed One attacked my dad and two Tree People who were helping him. He led the beast away from them and died saving their lives.”
The silence between us stretches out, long and fraught with tension. Finally, Samuel says, “I’m sorry for your loss.”
“You aren’t sorry he’s dead.” The words are out before I can think better of them, but I don’t want to take them back. I can accept sympathy from Logan. From Quinn. Maybe even from Willow. But I can’t sit here next to a man who would’ve killed my father the moment he laid eyes on him and pretend his condolences mean anything.
“He committed treason against Rowansmark.”
“It only counts as treason if he was actually a citizen,” I snap, and then close my lips before I can say anything else. If I’m not careful, I’m going to alienate the only person who might be useful to me. “But yes, he ended up with stolen tech. However, he didn’t know what Marcus had given him until we were already a day’s journey away from Rowansmark.”
“We?” Samuel’s voice is sharp.
“I was with him.”
“He was training you to be his apprentice?”
I choose my words carefully. “I’m a girl. From Baalboden. We weren’t allowed to learn how to read or how to handle a weapon. We weren’t even allowed to walk our city streets without a male Protector in case we got the crazy idea that we could somehow be independent. So no, I wasn’t his apprentice. I was simply his daughter.”
My words are both true and utterly false. A Baalboden girl wasn’t allowed to read, use a sword, or leave her house unattended, but my father never thought education was something to be feared. The fact that I’ve been trained to fight isn’t something Samuel needs to know, though. The more he thinks I’m a typical Baalboden girl, the faster he’ll drop his guard.
Unless Ian has already convinced him that I’m dangerous—a scenario that makes sense. Which means it’s even more important for me to play up my injuries, my weakness, and be alert for Quinn’s arrival.
“Dad got packages to deliver to the Commander all the time, but something about this one made him uneasy. Usually, he received his deliveries from James Rowan or from the state department. But that time, we were stopped in an alley just before we left the city, and a man gave him the package. So once we made camp for the night and Dad thought I was sleeping, he opened it.”