“Sure. But I’m going to creep myself out every time I do it,” I admit. “You aren’t supposed to be so...”
“Hot?” She fluffs her glossy waves. “Just wait till you meet my mother—your great-grandmother—Hazel.”
Curious, I scan the sea of faces. “Is she here?”
“No, she’s out on an assignment. The job never sleeps.”
To my knowledge, only two positions ever really leave the realm. “She’s a Laborer, then? Or a Messenger?”
“Laborer. And a very good one.”
So she works with human souls while I’ll be working with Light. I’m supposed to absorb sunlight—which is more than just heat and illumination, I’ve been told—and direct the beams to Troika.
“And you are...what?” I ask.
“A Leader. I serve directly under Levi as one of his many assistants.”
Meaning she’s a step above a Laborer, and her official title is Madame. “Cool. But I kind of outrank you, right?” I say with a smile.
Another snort. “Honey, you outrank us all. Or rather, you will. You’ve got a lot to learn first. Here’s proof.” Moving too swiftly for me to track, she secures her leg behind my knee and gives me a push.
I topple to my butt, air leaving my lungs in a single heave. Before I can catch my breath, I’m lumbering to my feet. Never stay down!
Her eyes gleam with pride. She motions to my right arm with a tilt of her chin. “Have you decoded your Key yet?”
Only then do I realize I’m rubbing the numbers branded into my flesh. “Uh—no. I haven’t. How am I supposed to decode my... Key? What Key?”
She ignores my questions. “You will. Until then, the Grid will provide an invisible link between you and every other Troikan. We’re all tied together, an army of millions with one true heart. Draw on our strength and peace.”
I imagine the heart of Troika beating inside my chest, keeping me alive while my own weeps over losing Killian and Archer. “Why do I need to decode my Key?”
She shows me her right arm, where the words Faith, Hope and Love are etched. “When you do, you’ll be able to open locked doors within the Grid.”
Uh... “Why are the doors locked?”
“The information stored behind them is more than your puny brain can currently comprehend.”
Puny brain? “How kind you are, Grandmother.” I bat my lashes at her. “Your Key is three common words. Mine is a sequence of numbers with no rhyme or reason.”
“Oh, there’s a rhyme and reason all right. I had to do three things I’d never done before. Believe in myself, expect good things to happen to me and love the people around me, whether I felt like loving them or not. Easier said than done.”
“I don’t understand. You used to take my mother to homeless shelters.”
“Appearances can be deceiving. I did what I did under duress. It was my husband, your grandfather, who so faithfully served others.”
My grandfather Steven. A man I’ve never met. “Where is he?”
“Out on assignment with Hazel. He’s eager to meet you.” She blows me a kiss before strolling away.
A woman I’ve never met takes her place at my side, clutching my hands and gazing at me with pleading eyes. My heart knows something my mind doesn’t: she’s a blood relation from my father’s side.
“My daughter,” she says. The hem of her robe sways at her feet. “Please. You have to help her.”
My stomach churns as if I’ve swallowed a mix of batteries and broken glass. “Help your daughter with what?”
“She is Unsigned. You will understand her better than most. You can convince her to choose Troika. She needs you—”
Deacon to the rescue! He wraps an arm around the woman’s shoulders and whispers what I assume are words of comfort. She pales but nods, and he ushers her away. I watch them with wide eyes, wishing I knew more about this realm, my abilities, my responsibilities—or anything useful, really. Wishing I could help her, even though I can’t seem to help myself.
I look to Levi and say, “How can I help her daughter choose Troika? I’m not a Laborer.”
“You must crawl before you can walk.”
Someone save me. “Thank you, Confucius.” I really hate cryptic-speak.
“You’ll be trained for every job here,” he continues. “Through trials of your own, you’ll better understand the people only you are to aid.”
Great. Wonderful. But no pressure, right?
Levi waves Clay over. “Escort Ten to her new apartment. She’s had a long day and could use a bit of rest.”
My own apartment...an actual home. I’ve been without a home for over a year. The asylum was simply a building where I received a cot and three hots.
I say goodbye to the others, and Clay leads me outside. The crowd has thinned considerably. I’m so busy marveling at new sights, I have no idea how he gets me inside another tube.
The sides blaze and blur, and once again I experience the sensation of being sucked into a vacuum, only to step out a few seconds later into a maze of wildflowers. Fruit and nut trees are in full bloom, heavy with their bounty. Wisteria trees arch overhead, creating a ceiling of lavender petals.
“Where are we?” I ask.
“The Capital of New.”
I nod, pretending I know what that means.
We clear the garden and come to a street peppered with homes from every era, from Egyptian pyramids to futuristic spaceships. When Clay stops in front of a Gothic cathedral, a chill sweeps over me.
Trepidation? Awe? I’m not sure!
“This,” he says, “is where the most elite trainees live, no matter their field of study. You’re on the top floor and, because you’re so precious—” he snickers as he air-quotes the word “—you get me as a next-door neighbor. There are eight others on our floor. A mix of Messengers, Laborers and Healers.”
I try to speak, I do, but all I manage are unintelligible sounds. The beauty astounds me. Up top are two towers with pointed pergolas, between them a crocket and a gable. A massive oval window consumes the center. Glistening in the sunlight are stained-glass windows interspersed with wrought iron twisted in the shape of a tree of life.
Clay presses two fingers under my jaw to help me close my mouth.
I noticed the brand on his wrist—three interlocking circles—and finally find my voice. “Have you decoded your Key?”
“Not yet,” he grumbles.
I bump him with my shoulder. “Is it wrong how happy I am that we’re in the same boat?”