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“I know that leading people is difficult. That sometimes the choices you have to make are almost too hard to live with.”
A shadow crosses his face, and he lifts the sword as if he might aim it at me.
“Listen to me,” I say quietly, so that only the two of us can hear. “I know what it’s like to hold the weight of lives in your hands and to know that your decisions will determine their fates. I know how it feels to have to quell dissension because you know unity is the only thing that will keep everyone alive.”
He looks at me, his dark eyes glittering, his fingers white around the hilt of his sword.
“And I know the terrible shame that fills you when you fail—”
“I never failed.”
“When you fail to save the ones depending on you.”
His glare pierces me. “A world in shambles. That’s what we came back to, my team and I. Cities, infrastructure, entire governments wiped off the planet like they were never there. We rounded up the survivors. We found the resources. We kept them safe. We did not fail.”
“If you’d killed the tanniyn like you were supposed to, the world wouldn’t have needed you to save it.”
His face drains of color, and he presses his lips together.
“I’m saying I understand how it feels to try so hard to do the right thing only to have everything blow up in your face. You didn’t kill the beast—”
“Because they couldn’t be killed!” His whole body vibrates as if I’ve struck him. “Don’t you think we tried? I lost half of my team in the bowels of the earth. Good people! All for a suicide mission, because there wasn’t just one creature. There were scores of them. Scores.”
I stare at him while my stomach plummets. Ian was telling the truth about there being multiple tanniyn. The device I have calls and controls one. What if Rowansmark has tech that calls and controls a host of the creatures? Swallowing hard, I say, “Why did you let us believe there was only one beast left?”
“People must be dependent on their leader for him to maintain order and control. A manageable threat creates dependence. Anything more breeds terror, and terror gives way to anarchy. You know nothing of that. You understand nothing.” Pain settles onto his face in furrows and creases.
“I understand that shame can either poison us slowly, turning us into angry, bitter men, or it can sharpen us into better leaders. You chose anger and because of that, you’ve ruled through brutality and fear. I’m asking you to make a different choice now. Please.” The word cuts me as it leaves my lips.
“I killed your mother,” he says softly. “And you cost me everything I’d been working for.”
“Yes. But this is bigger than our personal vendettas. This is about the survivors of Baalboden. And your allies in the east. And every other city-state in Rowansmark’s crosshairs. If we stand together, we can beat James Rowan. And when we beat him, you’ll finally have what you’ve worked for all these years—absolute control.”
At least until I take it from you.
His gaze locks on to mine. Gone is the harsh, predatory gleam in his eye. He looks withered, beaten, old for the first time since I’ve known him. Slowly, he straightens his shoulders.
“You can alter the beacons installed in each city-state and strengthen the device?”
He looks as if he’s just chewed a piece of rancid meat. “You speak to me of leadership, choices, and shame as if we’re equals, but we aren’t.” The pain in his eyes sinks slowly beneath a wall of cold disdain. “You aren’t good enough to lead anyone. You never were. You’re the outcast whose family’s dishonor brought death and destruction right to Baalboden’s door. One day soon, those who follow you will realize the truth, and they’ll turn on you like South Edge dogs.”
A sharp whistle echoes from the trees twenty yards east of us. The Commander jerks his head up, but I’m already moving.
“That’s a warning from Willow,” I say. “Get to the horses. Now!”
I race toward Drake, who is sitting on the ground, his hands pressed against the wound in his leg. Nola and Smithson get there first. Smithson wraps an arm around the older man and lifts him to his feet while Nola rapidly uncoils the chains from my hands. Frankie and Adam disappear into the trees and return seconds later with travel packs, including mine, and a piece of tech I didn’t expect to see again—Melkin’s staff.
I frown at the staff, and Frankie says in a voice only I can hear, “Willow told me this walking stick can call the Cursed One. Figured we might need it.”
“We’ve got a crowd of trackers approaching,” Willow calls as she grabs the device from its hiding place in the oak and then leaps from a branch to land lightly beside Adam.
“Give me the tech.” The Commander holds out his hand. Willow glances at me, and when I nod, she carefully places the cloth-wrapped device on the Commander’s palm.
“If you’re done worrying about things that don’t matter, maybe we could focus on the trackers who are coming for us,” Willow snaps. “Get on a horse or die.”
No one argues. In less than a minute, we sling our packs and ourselves onto the nearest horses and spur our mounts deep into the northern Wasteland.
The wagon lurches to a stop, and footsteps crunch across the remains of the road. I barely have time to sit up before Heidi opens the canvas flap and pokes her head inside.