Laughing, he helps me stand a second time, and the book vanishes. Well, okay then. There’s an easy on-off switch.
“This,” he says, holding up the fancy remote before passing it to me, “is your new favorite thing. It controls the holograms.” This is made of metal and shaped in the Troikan symbol. The buttons are dispersed over the three outer leaves, while the center cutout allows a comfortable grip. “You can turn it on and off at will or watch a different hologram on every screen. You’ll probably want to leave it running day and night. Levi told me you have a special link to Jeremy’s nursery.”
“What?” I thrust the remote back into his hands. “Show me.”
With the press of a few buttons, the image on the nearest wall changes to reveal an empty room with a crib, rocking chair and a basket filled with toys.
“Dang, I’m good.” Clay grins. “You should probably leave another screen on, as well. You don’t want to miss the giveaways.”
The giveaways. Need a brand-new hand-carved table? So-and-so just finished one, and he can’t wait to gift it to you. Want a brand-new ceremonial robe sewed from authentic Victorian muslin? So-and-so just completed one, and she would love to gift it to you.
There has to be a catch, right? Or is this true kindness in action? Giving without expecting anything in return. The way Killian endangered his future to secure mine. The way Archer gave his life to save mine.
I rub my aching chest and say, “I don’t need anything.” Nothing materialistic, anyway.
As a distraction, I fiddle with the remote control and soon discover I can change the color of any wall or program an automatic change of sheets on the bed. Neat.
“You even have a treadmill.” Clay motions to a portion of wall with strategically placed silver bulbs to fit my exact height and weight. Those bulbs rotate and vibrate every time I come near. “After you’ve run or walked at least five miles, the machine becomes a massager.” He messes with the metal joints.
A small portion of the wall detaches from both the ceiling and floor, remaining hinged at the center while tilting to a steep incline. The rollers spin, creating the aforementioned treadmill. Up top are two handholds.
“Exercise is your friend,” he states.
“If you said extra fries, you’re right.”
He snorts and drags me into the bedroom. The bed is small, a twin, but the mattress is as soft as clouds and cools or heats automatically, according to my body temperature. A door in back leads to a private bathroom. Inside is a sink, toilet and shower with settings to program a “gentle summer rain” or a “torrential downpour.”
The bathroom opens to a closet already filled with clothes, everything from black leather catsuits to elaborate ceremonial robes, some white with green trim, some white with gold trim, some red with black trim, but all are in my size.
“These things...they’re luxuries,” I say. “Troikans are supposed to be dedicated taskmasters, all business and no pleasure. Myriad focuses on indulgence.” Wait. Am I complaining? I suck.
He gives my head another pat. “Keeping the citizens comfortable is an important part of business. Happy people are productive people. And there’s nothing wrong with pleasure.” He leads me to the smallest room in the apartment. “All right. Last stop. The kitchen.”
Seriously? “There’s no stove or refrigerator.”
“You’ll never need to cook again. The only food your spirit craves is manna.” He waves to a shelf where the manna is prepared in different ways: liquefied, cut into wafers, soft like ice cream, baked into little cakes. “We also have an abundance of honey, fruits and nuts to mix into your treat, better than anything you had as a human.”
He opens a jar, dips a spoon inside and offers me the dripping treat. “This is manna with pecans and honey.”
I accept, my eyes closing in rapture as the sweetness coats my tongue. My Lifeblood fizzes with electricity. I could run ten races. No, twenty. A hundred! I could—
“Uh-oh. You’re about to crash.” He wraps an arm around my waist. “Your spirit isn’t used to so much stimulation and demands a respite.”
“No, I—” Fatigue pours through my veins, my limbs suddenly as heavy as boulders. Black dots wink through my vision, and my legs wobble.
“See!” He helps me to the bedroom and tucks me under the covers. “Sleep well, Number Girl.”
I close my heavy eyelids, whispering, “One...two...threeee,” and drift off...
* * *
I dream about my brands, only then realizing the numbers line up. One glows, then another and another. There’s a clear sequence, I realize, and excitement sparks.
The number ten kicks off the first row, with seven numbers lined up after it, each bracketed by a period. Added up, those number equal 688. Eleven starts the second row, with seven numbers following it; when added, they equal 859. Twelve leads the final row, with seven numbers after it. When added, they equal 228.
And by adding the three totals, I get 1,775.
The year of the American Revolution. Any significance? I mean...am I supposed to start my own revolution? No, no. Why would I need to start one of those?
If my numbers are anything like Meredith’s words, they represent three specific ideals.
The dream shifts, those ideals remaining at bay. Suddenly I’m standing on a mountaintop, the world at my feet, the wind dancing through my hair. I’m alone.
Above me, a squawk rings out.
My gaze jerks up, my insides twisting around pins and needles. A flock of monstrous birds circles me. Spikes protrude from their beaks, and their wings look like a jumbled mess of razor blades, the rest of their bodies made from bone without muscle, flesh or feather. Metal claws glint in the sunlight.
Self-preservation screams, Run!
I take off in a mad sprint. I’ve encountered these birds before, in Many Ends, when they attempted to eat me alive. How did they find me here? I need to hide. Where? My wild gaze darts through the forest stretched out below me. There’s no place to hide, and I—
Crash into a wall of strength. Threat! I bow up, ready to fight for my life. I won’t go down easily.
Fist balled, I throw a punch. The wall—is a boy, I realize. A boy my age. A boy I know. He catches my hand in his and chuckles.
“Killian!” I throw my arms around him, stealing a hug. My skin heats rather than chills, and currents of pleasure ripple through me. The scent of peat smoke and heather envelopes me. “Come on. We can’t stay here. The birds. We have to—”
He presses a finger against my lips, quieting me. He smiles a devastating smile—a rare smile—his siren-song eyes glittering with undiluted joy. I go still. He’s never looked at me like this, as if all his cares have been washed away. As if he is Light. My Light.
“Forget the birds,” he says, his voice nothing but smoke and gravel. “Focus on me, lass.”
Shivers course through me. Looking away from him is impossible. He is my life raft. A promise of better.
Having died as an infant, he grew up in a Myriadian orphanage. Adopted as a toddler, returned a few years later. He’s endured rejection after rejection, trial after trial, hardship after hardship. Now scars mar his soul.
How did I manage to sneak past his defenses?
He cups my nape to draw me closer and presses his forehead to mine. “I’m lost without ye, Ten.”
“You’ll never be lost.” My fingers wrap around his wrists, my heart crying, Never let go. “I’ll always find you.”
Yelping, I look up, reminded of our audience. The birds are closer now, claws spread and ready to—
“Focus on me, lass.” Killian kisses me, his mouth covering mine.