My time at the Notch has made me blunt and easy to read. I don’t doubt Cal sees the confusion I feel, or the low currents of jealousy. “He speaks to you? He won’t talk to me because of you, so why on earth would he—”
Suddenly his fingers are under my chin, tilting my head so I can’t look away. “It’s not me he’s mad at. He’s not angry because we . . .” And then it’s his turn to trail off. “He respects you enough to make your own choices.”
“He told me as much.”
“But you don’t believe him.” My silence is answer enough. “I know why you think you can’t trust anyone—by my colors, I know. But you can’t go through this alone. And don’t say you have me, because we both know you don’t believe that either.” The pain in his voice nearly flattens me. His fingers shake, shivering against me.
Slowly, I pull my face out of his grasp. “I wasn’t going to.” A half lie. I feel no claim over Cal, and won’t let myself trust him, but I can’t distance myself from him either. Every time I try, I find myself wandering back.
“He isn’t a child, Mare. You don’t have to protect him anymore.”
To think, all this time, Kilorn has been angry because I want to keep him alive. I almost laugh at the idea. How dare I do such a thing? How dare I want to keep him safe? “Then bring him along next time. Let him stumble into a grave.” I know he hears the tremor in my voice, but politely pretends to ignore it. “And since when do you care about him?”
I barely hear his answer as I walk away. “I’m not saying this for his sake.”
Down on the runway, the others are waiting. Farley busies herself strapping Nanny to Gareth’s chest, using a jerry-rigged harness from one of the jet seats, but Shade is staring at his feet. He heard every word, judging by the stern set of his features. He glares at me as we pass, but says nothing. I’ll be in for another scolding later, but for now, our focus turns toward Pitarus and hopefully another successful recruitment.
“Arms in, head down,” Gareth says, instructing Nanny. Before our eyes, she morphs from the bulky Lord General into her much smaller, thinner self. She tightens the straps accordingly.
“Lighter this way,” she explains with a tiny giggle. After long days of serious talk and restless nights, the sight makes me laugh outright. I can’t help it, and have to cover my mouth with my hand.
Gareth awkwardly pats the top of her head. “You never cease to amaze, Nan. Feel free to shut your eyes.”
She shakes her head. “Had shut eyes my whole life,” she says. “Never again.”
When I was a child, dreaming of flying like a bird, I never imagined anything like this. Gareth’s legs don’t bend, his muscles don’t tense. He doesn’t push off the ground. Instead, his palms flatten, parallel to the runway, and he simply starts to lift. I know the gravity around him is loosening, a thread being untied. He rises with Nanny strapped close, faster and faster, until he’s merely a speck in the sky. And then the thread tightens, pulling the little dot along the earth, up and down in smooth, rolling arcs. Loose, then tight, until they disappear over the nearest ridge. From down here, it almost looks peaceful, but I doubt I’ll ever find out firsthand. The jet is flight enough for me.
Farley is the first to look away from the horizon and return to the task at hand. She gestures to the rising hill above us, crested with red-and-gold trees. “Shall we?”
I march ahead in reply, setting a good pace to get us up and over the ridge. According to our now vast collection of maps, the mining village of Rosen should be on the other side. Or at least, what once was Rosen. A coal fire destroyed the place years ago, forcing Reds and Silvers alike to abandon the valuable, if volatile, mines. According to Ada’s readings, it was abandoned overnight, and most likely has a wealth of supplies for us. For now, I intend to pass through, if only to see what we can raid on the way back.
The ashen smell hits me first. It clings to the west side of the slope, strengthening with every step we take down the ridge. Farley, Shade, and I are quick to cover our noses with our scarves, but Cal isn’t bothered by the heavy perfume of smoke. Well, he wouldn’t be. Instead, he sniffs at it, tentative.
“Still burning,” he whispers, eyeing the trees. Unlike the other side of the ridge, the oaks and elms here look dead. Their leaves are few, their trunks gray, and not even weeds grow between their gnarled roots. “Somewhere deep.”
If Cal wasn’t with us, I would be afraid of the lingering coal fire. But even the red heat of the mines is no match for him. The prince could wave off an explosion if he wanted, and so we continue on, pleasantly silent in the dying wood.
Mine shafts dot the hillside, each one hastily boarded up. One breathes smoke, a dull trail of gray clouds lifting into the hazy sky. Farley fights the urge to investigate, but is quick to climb low branches or rocks. She scouts the area with quiet intensity, always on guard. And always within a few feet of Shade, who never takes his eyes off her. I’m quietly reminded of Julian and Sara, two dancers moving to music no one else can hear.
Rosen is the grayest place I’ve ever seen. Ash coats the entire village like snow, floating on the air in flurries, hugging the buildings in waist-high drifts. It even blots out the sun, surrounding the village in a permanent cloud of haze. I’m reminded of the techie slums of Gray Town, but that foul place still pulsed like a sluggish, blackened heart. This village is long dead, killed by an accident, a spark deep in the mines. Only the main street, a shoddy cross of a few brick storefronts and plank homes, is still standing. The rest has collapsed or burned. I wonder if there’s bone dust swirling in the ash we breathe.
“No electricity.” I can’t feel anything, not even a lightbulb. A cord of tension releases in my chest. Rosen is long gone, and offers us no harm. “Check the windows.”
They follow my example, wiping the glass storefronts with already dirty sleeves. I squint into the smallest of the still-standing buildings, barely a closet squashed between a smashed Security outpost and the half-collapsed schoolhouse. When my eyes adjust to the dim light, I realize I’m looking at rows and rows of books. Cluttered onto shelves, thrown into haphazard piles, spilled across the grimy floor. I grin against the glass, dreaming of how many treasures I can bring back for Ada.
A smash splinters through my nerves. I whirl to the sound, only to see Farley standing by a storefront window. She holds a piece of wood, and there’s glass at her feet. “They were trapped,” she explains, gesturing into the shop.
After a moment, a flock of crows explodes from the broken window. They disappear into the ashen sky, but their cries echo long after they’re gone. They sound like children in pain.
“My colors,” Cal swears under his breath, shaking his head in her direction.
She only shrugs, smirking. “Did I scare you, Your Highness?”
He opens his mouth to answer, the corners of his mouth pulled in a smile, but someone cuts him off. A voice I don’t recognize, coming from a person I’ve never seen.
“Not yet, Diana Farley.” The man seems to materialize out of the ash. His skin, hair, and clothes are just as gray as the dead village. But his eyes are a luminous, horrifying blood red. “Though you will. You all will.”
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