August motioned to the boy who hadn’t made a sound the whole time. He pulled his lips into his mouth like he might be biting them and gave us a small nod. Something about his stance suggested he was both shy and eager at once.
“Very good. I’ll use it with discretion.” Maxon placed the paper in his pocket. “I’ll be in touch soon.” He stood and I followed suit, looking over at Georgia as I did so.
She came around the table to me. “Be safe getting back. And that number is for you, too, you know.”
“Thank you.” I gave her a quick hug and headed out with Maxon, Aspen, and Officer Avery. I took one last glance at our strange friends before the door closed and was bolted behind us.
“Get away from the truck,” Aspen said. I turned to see what he meant, as we weren’t even close yet.
Then I saw that Aspen wasn’t talking to me. A handful of men were circling the vehicle. One had a wrench in his hands, looking as if he was about to try and steal the tires. Another two were at the back, trying to open the metal doors.
“Just give us the food, and we’ll go,” one said. He looked younger than most of the others, maybe Aspen’s age. His voice was cold and desperate.
I hadn’t noticed back at the palace that the truck we were jumping into had a massive Illéa emblem on the side. As I stood there looking at the small crowd of haggard men, this seemed like an incredibly stupid oversight. And while Maxon and I weren’t dressed like ourselves, that wouldn’t help very much if anyone got too close. Even though I wouldn’t have known the first thing to do with one, I wished I had a weapon.
“There is no food,” Aspen said calmly. “And if there was, it wouldn’t be yours to take.”
“How well they train their puppets,” another man remarked. As he gave us an amused smile, I could see that a few of his teeth were missing. “What were you before they turned you into this?”
“Step away from the truck,” Aspen ordered.
“You couldn’t have been a Two or a Three; you’d have bought your way out. So come on, little man, what were you?” the toothless man taunted, stepping closer.
“Back. Away.” Aspen put one hand in front of himself, reaching down toward his hip with the other.
The man stopped, shaking his head. “You don’t know who you’re messing with, boy.”
“Wait!” someone said. “That’s her. That’s one of the girls.”
I turned my head to the voice, giving myself away.
“Get her!” the young one said.
Before I could even think, Maxon jerked me back. I saw a blur of Aspen and Officer Avery pulling out their guns as my head got whipped around by the force of Maxon’s strong arms. I was moving sideways, stumbling to keep up while Aspen and Avery held the men at bay. Quickly, Maxon and I were against the brick wall, trapped.
“I don’t want to kill you,” Aspen said. “Leave. Now!”
The toothless man chuckled darkly, his hands raised in front of him as if he meant no harm. In a move so fast I nearly missed it, he reached down and drew a gun of his own. Aspen fired, and shots came in return.
“Come on, America,” Maxon said urgently.
Come where? I thought, my heart pounding in terror.
I looked at him and saw that he had laced his fingers together, making a cradle for my foot. Suddenly understanding, I put my shoe in his hands, and he pushed me up as I grappled at the wall for some stability. I reached the top, and I felt something funny in my arm as I crawled over.
I ignored it as I pulled my body across the ledge, lowering myself as much as I could before dropping to the concrete. I fell to the side, positive I’d messed up my hip or leg; but Maxon had instructed me to run if I was in danger, so I did.
I didn’t know why I assumed he would be right behind me, but when I reached the end of the street and he wasn’t there, I realized no one would be free to give him a boost. In that moment, I noticed that funny feeling in my arm was starting to burn. I looked down, and in the faint glow of a streetlight, I saw something wet coming from a rip in my sleeve.
I’d been shot.
I’d been shot?
There were guns and I was there, but it didn’t seem real. Still, there was no denying the searing pain that was growing bigger every second. I cupped my hand over the wound, but that made it worse.
I looked around. The city was still.
Of course it was. We were out well after curfew. I’d gotten so used to the palace that I’d forgotten that the world outside stopped after eleven.
If an officer came by, I’d be thrown in jail. How was I supposed to explain that to the king? How are you going to talk away a bullet wound, America?
I started moving, staying to the shadows. I had no idea where to go. I didn’t know if trying to get back to the palace was a good idea. Even if it was, I didn’t know how to get there.
God, the burning. It was hard to think. I made my way past a narrow backstreet between two apartment buildings. That alone told me I wasn’t in the best part of town. Generally, only Sixes and Sevens had to squeeze into apartments.
There was nowhere for me to go, so I walked down the poorly lit alley, tucking myself behind a tight pack of trash cans. The night was cool, but it had been a typical hot Angeles day, and the stink was rising from the metal bins. Between the smell and the pain, I felt myself on the edge of vomiting.
I peeled off my right sleeve, trying not to irritate the wound any more than necessary. My hands were trembling, either from fear or adrenaline, and just bending my arm made me want to scream. I bit my lips together to keep the sound in, but even with that my muffled whimpers escaped into the night.
“What happened?” a tiny voice asked.
I jerked my head up, looking for the source. There were two glittering eyes in the darker depths of the alley.
“Who’s there?” I asked, voice trembling.
“I won’t hurt you,” she said, crawling out. “I’m having a bad night, too.”
The girl, maybe fifteen if I had to guess, crept out of the shadows and came to look at my arm. She sucked in a breath at the sight.
“That looks really painful,” she said sympathetically.
“I got shot,” I blurted, ready to cry. It burned so badly.
She looked at me hesitantly, like maybe she should run away. “I don’t know what you did or who you are, but you don’t mess with rebels, okay?”
“I haven’t been out here long, but I know that the only people who can get guns are rebels. Whatever you did to them, don’t do it again.”
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