But Secretary was useful. And perhaps, deep down, Aaron was a tiny bit fond of her. She’d helped him out of a jam more than once. He furrowed his brow and sighed. He could always stop at the Ancients Sector tonight and spring her out of there. They likely wouldn’t put her to sleep until tomorrow at the earliest. Maybe having her spend a few hours there would be enough to scare her into behaving better.
That’s it, he decided. That’s what I’ll do. I’ll just scare her. “But it’ll be her last chance,” he grumbled, glad to have that issue resolved. “If she does anything else to defy me, it’s over. And that’s final.” He continued on the path. Panther occasionally bounded ahead. As soon as they were out of sight of the rock, Aaron left the path and picked his way over fallen trees and vines until he reached the real path he wanted to be on—the path to Artimé.
“Come on, Panther,” Aaron called, moving faster now.
The panther hissed, saliva dripping from her jaws.
Aaron began to imagine the scene: Alex, lounging on the shore with that pretty orange-eyed girl. Aaron and the panther entering the lawn from the jungle—no one would ever expect them. And if Alex wasn’t out there, it didn’t matter. He’d send Panther into whatever crowd there was—and there was always a crowd on Artimé’s lawn. “We’ll just scare them,” Aaron said to the panther. “Show them that they aren’t the only ones who can command a living statue.”
Aaron picked up the pace when he saw the stream. The path ended there. Aaron called out to the panther to follow, and Panther did. They crossed the stream and continued on. Aaron began to look for brighter areas so he’d know where the forest ended.
With no path now, it was slow going, but Aaron could tell that the trees were thinning. Eventually he could hear birds and voices in the distance. He crashed through the brush to the edge of the jungle, where he could see Artimé.
“Come here, Panther,” Aaron said, peering at Artimé’s lawn from behind a tree.
The panther hissed and sat down near Aaron. He stroked the panther’s head as he watched the people move about the property, still quite a distance away.
Aaron’s heart raced. The Unwanteds would soon see how powerful he was. Yet, in the back of his mind, doubt crept in. Eva Fathom’s words invaded his brain. “Don’t move too quickly. Get everything in order first.” But Aaron shoved the thoughts aside.
“We’re just scaring them a little, okay Panther? Don’t . . . don’t kill anyone. Not just yet.”
“Scare them good, though, I mean. Then turn around and come back to me.”
Panther looked at Aaron, and the two seemed to have an understanding. At least, Aaron thought so.
“Go!” Aaron cried.
The panther bounded from the jungle toward Artimé at top speed, jaws open wide.
Eva Fathom got out of the Quillitary vehicle at the gate to Artimé. “Thank you,” she said to the driver. “I’ll be very quick.”
He nodded and looked down. Both of them knew he could be sent to the Ancients Sector for this if anybody found out.
Secretary hurried into Artimé, greeting the girrinos by name. They narrowed their eyes at her but let her in. She walked down one of the paths to the mansion, but then she caught sight of Claire Morning on the lawn with a group of orange-eyed children, all with strange scars around their necks. The instructor had been teaching the children how to sing.
Claire did a double take at the sight of Eva Fathom. She rose. “Excuse me for a moment, dear children,” she said. “Talk about your favorite songs quietly. I’ll be right back.”
She stepped away. Eva met her in the grass.
“What do you want?” Claire asked. She folded her arms over her chest.
“Claire, I know Carina isn’t around right now. But I need you to tell her something for me.”
“How would you know she’s not around?”
“It doesn’t matter—it’ll all come out one day, I’m sure.” She hesitated. Her chin began to quiver, and she frowned, trying to stop it. She turned her face and gazed out at the sea, realizing it would be the last time she’d take in its beauty. “I’m being sent to the Ancients Sector,” she said, her voice soft. “I was arguing with Aaron, and he got mad, and now I’m . . . about to go.”
Claire’s mouth twitched. “If you want me to say I’m sorry about your circumstances, I’m afraid I can’t. Not after what you did to me.”
“I don’t blame you, Claire. Though when I spoke loudly in Haluki’s home about you and Gunnar, it was on purpose. I wanted you both to know the other was there. It’s not much, I’m afraid, but it’s all I can tell you right now.” She pressed her lips together. “I’m on your side, though I don’t expect you to believe me. I’ve been staying with Aaron so I could keep an eye on things.”
Claire frowned. She glanced at the children, who were talking animatedly about their favorite songs. “What is it you want me to tell Carina?”
Eva focused on Claire. “Please, will you tell her I love her and little Seth? And that I’m so sorry . . .” Her hand flew to her mouth, fingers trembling. She took a deep breath and continued, stronger. “Tell her I’m sorry I didn’t get a chance to say good-bye. And to explain.”