“That’s impossible,” I stammer, imagining all the ways we could crash and die attempting to touch down on the old road.
Cal nods in agreement, quickly taking the map from my hands. He spreads it wide, his fingers dancing along the different cities and rivers as he searches. “With Mare, we don’t need to touch down here. We can take our time, refuel the batteries whenever we need, and fly as long as we want, as far as we want.” Then, with a shrug, “Or until the batteries stop holding a charge.”
Another bolt of panic streaks through me. “And how long might that be?”
He responds with a crooked grin. “Blackruns went into use two years ago. At worst, this girl’s got another two on her cells.”
“Don’t scare me like that,” I grumble.
Two years, I think. We could circle the world in that time. See Prairie, Tiraxes, Montfort, Ciron, lands that are only names on a map. We could see them all.
But that is a dream. I have a mission of my own, newbloods to protect, and a kingly score to settle.
“So then, where do we start?” Farley asks.
“We let the list decide. You have it, don’t you?” I try my best not to sound afraid. If Julian’s book of names was left back in Tuck, then this little jaunt will be over before it’s even begun. Because I’m not going one inch farther without it.
Kilorn responds instead, pulling the familiar notebook from inside his shirt. He tosses it my way, and I catch it deftly. It feels warm in my hands, still holding on to his heat. “Lifted it from the Colonel,” he says, trying his best to sound casual. But pride bleeds through, small as it may be.
“His quarters?” I wonder, remembering the austere bunker beneath the ocean.
But Kilorn shakes his head. “He’s smarter than that. Kept it locked up in the barracks armory, with the key on his necklace.”
“And you . . . ?”
With a satisfied smirk, he pulls on his collar, revealing the gold chain at his neck. “I might not be as good a pickpocket as you, but—”
Farley nods along. “We were planning on stealing it eventually, but when they locked you up, we had to improvise. And quickly.”
“Oh.” So this is what my few hours in a cell paid for. You can trust me, Kilorn said before he tricked me into a cage. Now I realize he did it for the list, for the newbloods, and for me. “Well done,” I whisper.
Kilorn pretends to shrug it off, but his grin gives away how pleased he truly is.
“Yes, well, I’ll take that now if you don’t mind,” Farley says, her voice gentler than I’ve ever heard it. She doesn’t wait for Kilorn’s response and reaches out to grab the chain in a quick, even motion. The gold glints in her hand but quickly disappears, tucked in a pocket. Her mouth twitches a little, the only indication of how affected she is by her father’s necklace. No, it’s not his. Not truly. The photograph in the Colonel’s quarters is proof of that. Her mother or her sister wore that chain, and for whatever reason, she isn’t wearing it now.
When she raises her head again, the twitch is gone, her gruff manner returned. “Well, lightning girl, who’s closest to Nine-Five?” she asks, jutting her chin at the book.
“We’re not landing at Nine-Five,” Cal says, firm but commanding. On this, I have to agree with him.
Quiet until now, Shade groans in his seat. He’s no longer pale, but vaguely green. It’s almost comical—he can handle teleporting just fine, but it seems flying does him in. “Nine-Five isn’t a ruin,” he says, trying his very best not to be sick. “Have you forgotten Naercey already?”
Cal exhales slowly, rubbing his chin with a hand. There’s the beginning of a beard, a dark shadow across his jaw and cheeks. “You repaved it.”
Farley nods slowly and smiles.
“And you couldn’t just say that outright?” I curse at her, wiping the self-important grin right off her face. “You know there’s no extra points for being dramatic, Diana. Every second you waste feeling smug could mean another dead newblood.”
“And every second you waste questioning me, Kilorn, and Shade on everything down to the air you breathe does the same thing, lightning girl,” she says, closing the distance between us. She towers over me, but I don’t feel small. With the cold confidence forged by Lady Blonos and the Silver court, I meet her gaze without a hint of a shiver. “Give me reason to trust you and I will.”
After a moment, she shakes her head and backs away, giving me enough space to breathe. “Nine-Five was a ruin,” she explains. “And to anyone curious enough to visit, it just looks like a stretch of abandoned road. One mile of asphalt that hasn’t broken apart yet.”
She starts pointing to other ruined roads on the map. “It’s not the only one.”
A varied network webs the map, always hidden in the ancient ruins, but close to the smaller towns and villages. Protection, she calls them, because Security is minimal, and the Reds of the countryside are more inclined to look the other way. Perhaps less so now, with the Measures in place, but certainly before the king decided to take away even more of their children. “The Blackrun and the Snapdragon are the first jets we’ve stolen, but more will come,” she adds with a quiet pride.
“I wouldn’t be sure of that,” Cal replies. He’s not being hostile, just pragmatic. “After they were taken from Delphie, it’ll be even harder to get into a base, let alone a cockpit.”
Again, Farley smiles, completely convinced of her own hard-won secrets. “In Norta, yes. But the airfields of Piedmont are woefully underguarded.”
“Piedmont?” Cal and I breathe in surprised unison. The allied nation to the south is far away, farther even than the Lakelands. It should be well beyond the reach of Scarlet Guard operatives. Smuggling from that region is easy to believe, I’ve seen the crates with my own eyes, but outright infiltration? It seems . . . impossible.
Farley doesn’t seem to think so. “The Piedmont princes are utterly convinced that the Scarlet Guard is a Nortan problem. Fortunately for us, they’re incorrect. This snake has many heads.”
I bite my lip to keep back a gasp, and maintain what little remains of my mask. The Lakelands, Norta, and now Piedmont? I’m torn between wonder and fear of an organization large enough and patient enough to infiltrate, not one, but three sovereign nations ruled by Silver kings and princes.
This is not the simple, ragtag bunch of true believers I imagined.
This is a machine, large and well oiled, in motion for longer than anyone thought possible.
What have I fallen into?
To keep my thoughts from welling up in my eyes, I flip open the book of names. Julian’s study of artifacts, peppered with the name and location of every newblood in Norta, calms me. If I can recruit them, train them, and show the Colonel that we are not Silver, we are not to be feared, then we might have a chance at changing the world.
And Maven won’t have the chance to kill anyone else in my name. I won’t carry the weight of any more gravestones.
Cal leans in next to me, but his eyes are not on the pages. Instead, he watches my hands, my fingers, as they sweep through the list. His knee brushes my own, hot even through his ragged pants. And though he says nothing, I understand his meaning. Like me, he knows there’s always more than meets the eye, more than we can even begin to comprehend.
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