He shakes a fist at the ceiling. “One day I’m going to stump her.”
As we take our places at the table, Reed offers us a piece of manna from his plate. Clay accepts, but I shake my head. If I swallow a single bite, it will come right back up, guaranteed.
“So what is today’s special?” Clay asks.
“Strawberry and honey,” Kayla replies. “The best yet.”
Okay. We’re clearly in a manna restaurant. Curiosity gets the better of me. “Who farms the manna? And how, exactly, do we pay for it?”
“There’s an agricultural section here in the Capital of New.” Reed taps his palm, types into the Light glowing over his hand, and a map appears in the center of the table. He points to a long sweep of pastureland. “Agronomists, a subdivision of Laborer, plant and harvest the crops.”
His ease with Troikan technology gives me hope. He hasn’t been here long, but look at everything he’s mastered.
“As for money,” Kayla says, “trainees are given a weekly allowance for necessities.”
Reed snorts. “An allowance you hoard, afraid the money will stop coming. When are you gonna realize this place isn’t like the Land of the Harvest.”
Kayla hmphs and flattens her hand on the side of the table. A Light flashes through her brand, and three beeps ring out. “There. I just paid for a fresh round of manna. You’re welcome.”
Sure enough, a waitress—another subdivision of Laborer—soon arrives with a smile and a plate of strawberry and honey manna.
“May you be ever enlightened,” she says before moving off.
Kayla offers me a bite before polishing off two pieces. “If you’d arrived five minutes earlier, you could have met Victor Prince. He’s—”
“Archer’s brother. Yeah.” I shift, uncomfortable again. “I met him when I first arrived.”
“Oh.” She traces a fingertip along the rim of her plate. “He’s tutoring me. He—”
The restaurant is silent, her voice booming. Her cheeks darken. I glance to the entrance and do a double take. My stomach sinks.
Elizabeth is here, and there’s a tall dark-haired guy at her side.
She glares at me, and I lift my chin. If she wants to use me as a punching bag, fine. Go for it. Pain for pain. I’m willing, and I won’t fight back. I deserve it. But I also won’t be cowed.
Kayla trembles, as if she’s the one on the receiving end of Elizabeth’s vitriol. Confrontation of any kind is difficult for her. In Many Ends, she had recoiled from almost every fight.
“Either the Myriad supporter goes,” Elizabeth announces, “or I go. Take your pick. But I suggest you choose wisely. One of us will help you. The other will stab you in the back.”
Murmurs erupt. All eyes focus on me and narrow. Heat sears my cheeks, and I’m sure my color matches Kayla’s. Lobster red.
“I choose you,” Reed tells me. “I’ll always choose you. You saved my life.”
I’m overcome with gratitude. Problem is, I know Elizabeth will make life miserable for him. “No,” I say. “Choose her.” Nausea churns in my gut as I stand. “She’s—”
“No way.” Clay stands beside me, and Reed quickly follows suit. Kayla, too.
My sense of gratitude grows. “Sit down, you guys,” I mutter, but they remain in place.
Killian would have laughed in Elizabeth’s face, maybe flipped over a table after flipping her off and then he would have told her to go, because he would be staying.
Archer would have apologized with heartfelt regret and left without inciting an incident.
I miss my boys.
“I’ll go. This time,” I say with as much dignity as I can muster. “My actions led to Archer’s death, and I take full responsibility. I accept punishment.”
“Liar.” Elizabeth hisses, “You expect forgiveness.”
Her companion watches us with enigmatic eyes. I can’t read his thoughts.
“One day, yes. I hope for forgiveness.” Can I ever forgive myself? “Archer taught me the value Troika places on the act...and it is an act, a decision rather than a feeling.” I hold up my hand and shout, “A round of second chances, everyone. On me.”
Elizabeth glowers at me.
Having made my point, I stride past her. She balls her fists, clearly debating the merits of hitting me. In the end, she opts to stand down. Smart.
I don’t start my fights, but I always finish them.
I make it out of the building without incident, my friends on my heels.
“I wish you’d stayed,” I tell them.
“All for one, and one for all,” Clay replies.
Kayla snorts. “So we’re the Four Musketeers now?”
“Nah. I vote we call ourselves the Reed Raiders.” Reed wiggles his brows.
“No way.” Clay flexes his biceps. “We’re the Clayminators.”
“I’m on board for the Kayniacs,” Kayla says.
“If we’re called anything but a nerd herd, I’ll be surprised,” I say with a laugh. “Besides, when someone threatens us, we just have to say, Do not make us count to Ten. Bad guys will run away, crying for their mommies.”
My amusement doesn’t last long, however. As we head to my apartment, I throw a furtive glance over my shoulder. Nothing and no one is there, but I feel as if my troubles are following me.
And why wouldn’t they? They’re chained to my ankles, bricks I’ve been dragging behind me for years.
chapter five (#u4ec5c551-db0a-522b-9758-918687dc1c8b)
“There is power in consistency.”
At seven sharp the next evening, Meredith arrives at my doorstep. I’ve almost forgotten my encounter with Elizabeth.