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She holds up two middle fingers.

Kenji chokes.

“Go ahead,” she says, her eyes flashing angrily as she picks up her fork again. “Tell my dad. Alert the armies. I don’t give a shit.”

“Nazeera—”

“Shut up, Haider.”

“Whoa—hey—I’m sorry,” Kenji says suddenly, looking panicked. “I didn’t mean—”

“Whatever,” she says, rolling her eyes. “I’m not hungry.” She stands up suddenly. Elegantly. There’s something interesting about her anger. Her unsubtle protest. And she’s more impressive standing up.

She has the same long legs and lean frame as her brother, and she carries herself with great pride, like someone who was born into position and privilege. She wears a gray tunic cut from fine, heavy fabric; skintight leather pants; heavy boots; and a set of glittering gold knuckles on both hands.

And I’m not the only one staring.

Juliette, who’s been watching quietly this whole time, is looking up, amazed. I can practically see her thought process as she suddenly stiffens, glances down at her own outfit, and crosses her arms over her chest as if to hide her pink sweater from view. She’s tugging at her sleeves as though she might tear them off.

It’s so adorable I almost kiss her right then.

A heavy, uncomfortable silence settles between us after Nazeera’s gone.

We’d all been expecting an in-depth interrogation from Haider tonight; instead, he pokes quietly at his food, looking tired and embarrassed. No amount of money or prestige can save any of us from the agony of awkward family dinners.

“Why’d you have to say anything?” Kenji elbows me, and I flinch, surprised.

“Excuse me?”

“This is your fault,” he hisses, low and anxious. “You shouldn’t have said anything about her scarf.”

“I asked one question,” I say stiffly. “You’re the one who kept pushing—”

“Yeah, but you started it! Why’d you even have to say anything?”

“She’s the daughter of a supreme commander,” I say, fighting to keep my voice down. “She knows better than anyone else that what she’s wearing is illegal under the laws of The Reestablishment—”

“Oh my God,” Kenji says, shaking his head. “Just—just stop, okay?”

“How dare you—”

“What are you two whispering about?” Juliette says, leaning in.

“Just that your boyfriend doesn’t know when to shut his mouth,” Kenji says, scooping up another spoonful of food.

“You’re the one who can’t keep his mouth shut.” I turn away. “You can’t even manage it while you’re eating a bite of food. Of all the disgusting things—”

“Shut up, man. I’m hungry.”

“I think I’ll retire for the evening also,” Haider says suddenly. He stands.

We all look up.

“Of course,” I say. I get to my feet to bid him a proper good night.

“Ani aasef,” Haider says, looking down at his half-eaten dinner. “I was hoping to have a more productive conversation with all of you this evening, but I’m afraid my sister is unhappy to be here; she didn’t want to leave home.” He sighs. “But you know Baba,” he says to me. “He gave her no choice.” Haider shrugs. Attempts a smile. “She doesn’t understand yet that what we do—the way we live now”—he hesitates—“it’s the life we are given. None of us has a choice.”

And for the first time tonight he surprises me; I see something in his eyes I recognize. A flicker of pain. The weight of responsibility. Expectation.

I know too well what it is to be the son of a supreme commander of the Reestablishment—and dare to disagree.

“Of course,” I say to him. “I understand.”

I really do.

JULIETTE

Warner escorts Haider back to his residence, and soon after they’re gone, the rest of our party breaks apart. It was a weird, too-short dinner with a lot of surprises, and my head hurts. I’m ready for bed. Kenji and I are making our way to Warner’s rooms in silence, both of us lost in thought.

It’s Kenji who speaks first.

“So—you were pretty quiet tonight,” he says.

“Yeah.” I laugh, but there’s no life in it. “I’m exhausted, Kenji. It was a weird day. An even weirder night.”

“Weird how?”

“Um, I don’t know, how about we start with the fact that Warner speaks seven languages?” I look up, meet his eyes. “I mean, what the hell? Sometimes I think I know him so well, and then something like this happens and it just”—I shake my head—“blows my mind. You were right,” I say. “I still know nothing about him. Plus, what am I even doing anymore? I didn’t say anything at dinner because I have no idea what to say.”

Kenji blows out a breath. “Yeah. Well. Seven languages is pretty crazy. But, I mean, you have to remember that he was born into this, you know? Warner’s had schooling you’ve never had.”

“That’s exactly my point.”

“Hey, you’ll be okay,” Kenji says, squeezing my shoulder. “It’s going to be okay.”

“I was just starting to feel like maybe I could do this,” I say to him. “I just had this whole talk with Warner today that actually made me feel better. And now I can’t even remember why.” I sigh. Close my eyes. “I feel so stupid, Kenji. Every day I feel stupider.”

“Maybe you’re just getting old. Senile.” He taps his head. “You know.”

“Shut up.”

“So, uh”—he laughs—“I know it was a weird night and everything, but—what’d you think? Overall?”

“Of what?” I glance at him.

“Of Haider and Nazeera,” he says. “Thoughts? Feelings? Sociopaths, yes or no?”

“Oh.” I frown. “I mean, they’re so different from each other. Haider is so loud. And Nazeera is . . . I don’t know. I’ve never met anyone like her before. I guess I respect that she’s standing up to her dad and The Reestablishment, but I have no idea what her real motivations are, so I’m not sure I should give her too much credit.” I sigh. “Anyway, she seems really . . . angry.”

And really beautiful. And really intimidating.

The painful truth is that I’d never felt so intimidated by another girl before, and I don’t know how to admit that out loud. All day—and for the last couple of weeks—I’ve felt like an imposter. A child. I hate how easily I fade in and out of confidence, how I waver between who I was and who I could be. My past still clings to me, skeleton hands holding me back even as I push forward into the light. And I can’t help but wonder how different I’d be today if I’d ever had someone to encourage me when I was growing up. I never had strong female role models. Meeting Nazeera tonight—seeing how tall and brave she was—made me wonder where she learned to be that way.

It made me wish I’d had a sister. Or a mother. Someone to learn from and lean on. A woman to teach me how to be brave in this body, among these men.

I’ve never had that.

Instead, I was raised on a steady diet of taunts and jeers, jabs at my heart, slaps in the face. Told repeatedly I was worthless. A monster.

Never loved. Never protected from the world.

Nazeera doesn’t seem to care at all what other people think, and I wish so much that I had her confidence. I know I’ve changed a lot—that I’ve come a long way from who I used to be—but I want more than anything to just be confident and unapologetic about who I am and how I feel, and not have to try so hard all the time. I’m still working on that part of myself.

“Right,” Kenji is saying. “Yeah. Pretty angry. But—”

“Excuse me?”

At the sound of her voice we both spin around.

“Speak of the devil,” Kenji says under his breath.

“I’m sorry—I think I’m lost,” Nazeera says. “I thought I knew this building pretty well, but there’s a bunch of construction going on and it’s . . . throwing me off. Can either of you tell me how to get outside?”

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