Still my heart cries, Killian.
There are seven letters in his name. The numerical equivalent is 11 + 9 + 12 + 12 +9 + 1 + 14 = 68
68 is a code meaning “put it back,” while 86 is a code meaning “remove it.”
Kayla waves a hand in front of my face and says, “If your plan is to discourage Elizabeth from seeking revenge by making yourself look miserable, mission accomplished.”
“I miss Killian,” I confess softly. She’s never met him, and I’m glad. Before me, he slept with his assignments. His method of choice. The quickest and easiest way to convince a girl to make covenant with Myriad, desperate to stay with him.
What can I say? The boy gives good romance.
At first, I feared I was just another number to him (har har). Just another conquest to be won. But he willingly entered the Kennels for me in order to buy me more time, so I could make a decision about my future in peace. He disobeyed his Leader’s orders to hurt me, protecting me instead. Finally, he urged me to make covenant with Troika, despite the war.
How can I ever doubt his affections for me?
“You won’t be allowed to leave the realm for a year,” Kayla tells me. “You have to complete your training first.”
I open my mouth to respond, but the girl who arrived with Elizabeth approaches our circle—sans Elizabeth—and zeros in on Clay.
If she thinks to strike at me by hurting my friend...
He’s a good guy with a good heart, and I will play Ten Ways To Die if her intentions are anything but honorable.
After a few minutes of back and forth teasing, the two wander off. I’m tempted to follow, but Clay looks so happy. I let him go without comment, and the conversation behind me snags my attention.
“—so excited to make my first kill.” I recognize Clementine’s voice.
“I know!” Hoshi replies. “Those Myriadians are going dooown.”
They talk about ending a life as if it’s easy, as if there are no consequences. I know better. I’ve killed before. A guard at the asylum sneaked into my cell, expecting a good time. I choked him with his own belt. Another guard beat inmates for attempting to escape. I stabbed him in the gut.
Both were acts of self-defense, and yet I haven’t been able to wash the dark stains from my soul.
Soon I’ll be expected to slaughter entire armies.
Sweat beads over my nape, even as my insides chill.
Victor moves to my side, handsome in a white robe with black embroidery. He shakes hands with everyone in our group. Kayla brightens when he kisses her knuckles.
He winks at me. “You want to dance, New Girl?”
Overjoyed by his ease with me, I nod. Only as he draws me away do I notice no one else is dancing. “Wait,” I begin.
“Nope. No take-backs.” He swings me around and tugs me against him, catching me and laughing. “This is happening.”
He looks so much like his brother I can’t help but soften against him.
“How do you like Troika so far?” he asks.
I scan the sea of faces for Elizabeth, but she’s nowhere to be found. Kayla is frowning at me. When she notices my gaze, she spins away.
Odd. “The land or the people?” I ask Victor.
“I’ll take that to mean you love the land but want to throat-punch some of the people.” He flattens a hand on my shoulder and the other at my lower back, careful not to delve anywhere he shouldn’t. “Here’s what you don’t know. One of the soldiers Killian killed—Elizabeth was dating him.”
Oh...zero. My shoulders roll in. “How do I earn her forgiveness?”
“If forgiveness has to be earned, it isn’t forgiveness.”
A high-pitched scream assaults my ears, and panic sweeps through the crowd.
“Help,” a girl shouts. Young Fatima? “Help them! Please!”
Another newbie rushes past me, a look of terror on her face.
“It’s all right.” A guy chases after her. “It’s not what it seems.”
I wrench from Victor’s arms and dart in the opposite direction, closing in on the still-screaming Fatima. She’s on the floor, curled into a ball, staring ahead as if she’s just come face-to-face with her worst fear. Multiple people attempt to comfort her.
“What—” I spot the reason for her upset and cry out.
Killian. Killian is here. He’s chained to a column, his feet engulfed in flames, his features contorted in agony. He screams. Clay is chained to the column next to him, his feet also engulfed by flames. He jerks at his bonds to no avail.
As I sprint over, three facts occur to me. 1) Not a single General, Leader or Laborer is concerned for the boys. 2) The flames emit zero heat. 3) The air is fresh, no hint of burning leather or flesh.
However, there’s no time to ponder the reasons. No time to waste with a debate about whom to save first. Clay is Troikan. Any soldier here will happily rush to his aid. No one but me will free Killian.
I unsheathe the knife discreetly hidden under my skirt and slide the rest of the way across the marble pathway to stop behind Killian. I reach for the lock on his chains and—
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