This time, she’d smuggled in food.
Ari had suggested Kierah test the limits of how far she could take this, and Terula had no problem finding extra “snacks” to bring to Kierah’s room. Both were supportive of the idea.
“What’s the worst that can happen?” Ari had asked.
Ari had shrugged it off. “You didn’t get caught with the meds.”
“Meds were a bit more inconspicuous in this bag than legit food for a two dozen kids.”
But Ari had convinced her to try, so she did. As Ari had said, what was the worst that could happen? If she got caught, she’d be sent back to the palace and face whatever consequences there would be; at least she’d made it last time, with the medicine, to make sure Rothan stayed alive, for whatever it was worth. At least she felt like she’d made some sort of difference. It was better than sitting around at the palace, guilty.
It had been several days since the last trip, and she’d been anxious the entire time, afraid to go back and find that the medicine for some reason hadn’t worked. Then she heard from Zera that Hudsen was returning, and the epidemic had passed. Whoever had lived through it, was now safe. Relatively speaking.
She had to go back. She had to find out for herself if they’d made it.
Even though that Terrell kid had made himself quite clear on not wanting to see her face again, Jonah had been less combative when he’d shown her out. He’d even thanked her for the medicine. She’d asked if she could come back, and he hadn’t said no. “If this medicine works,” he’d said, “you’ll have saved a lot of us. I hope that’s really why you came.”
So she was back. She’d made it inside again, no questions asked, no nothing. Dannan and Tate were accommodating as usual, and she headed into the barracks.
She didn’t understand it. This was a stroke of good luck. A continuing stroke of good luck.
It felt … off.
She was being sneaky as best she could, and it helped that Tate and Dannan were still afraid of her. But even still, it was strange.
She walked around to the back of the room and the makeshift wall that blockaded off Demarc’s section.
Now that she’d made it past the nervousness of getting here, she realized how nervous she was to actually be back.
She was operating under the assumption that all the boys were okay. The medicine was supposed to work, and she trusted that it had.
If it hadn’t —
She couldn’t think like that.
But that wasn’t her only concern. Assuming Demarc had pulled through, she’d have to face him again. She’d seen his scars. And she had a feeling that wasn’t something many people had seen. The way Terrell had reacted, it was a secret he kept guarded.
If Terell had reacted that strongly, she didn’t really want to imagine what Demarc would do.
She was about to round the corner of the wall, and was immediately confronted by a teenager, the one on watch, she assumed. But before he could say or do anything other than drop his jaw in surprise, a voice called from a few cots away.
It was Demarc. He must have heard her approaching, because he seemed to be expecting her to come into view. He was lying down on a cot, watching the entrance.
And very much alive.
That made her more glad than she thought it would. Had she really been that concerned about him in particular? Or was she just relieved that it was one mark in her favor, that it had to count for something in their opinion of her?
The teen stepped aside, warily letting her pass.
She walked past him and looked around, avoiding Demarc’s gaze. What she was feeling was merely relief that he hadn’t died, she told herself, not necessarily joy that he had lived. There was a difference.
All the cots were full. And as far as she could tell, as she glanced around, each little blanket-covered chest was still breathing.
She tried to see which one was Rothan, but she couldn’t distinguish faces without getting closer, and now didn’t seem to be the time for that.
She slowly headed toward Demarc, almost feeling like a puppy with her tail between her legs. Yes, everyone appeared to be okay, and she knew it was because of her. But from his perspective, she was still an intruder. Even though she tried to remind herself she’d done nothing wrong — even though she’d clearly saved his life, not to mention all the rest — it was hard to shake the nerves settling in the pit of her stomach. Her fingers gripped harder onto the strap of the bag to stop them from shaking.
He was still lying on the cot where she’d left him. And she was standing at his bedside. Again. The last time she’d been here, he’d been unconscious.
He was fully conscious now.
“You’re alive,” she commented, before he had a chance to say anything.
He looked down at his hands, then back at her. “I am.”
“And Rothan?” she asked.
The young man looked at her suspiciously. “He is.”
The nerves in her stomach settled down a little. Not completely, but a little.
“That’s — I’m glad. I’m really glad to hear that.” She opened her eyes, realizing she’d closed them in relief. “Thank you.”
“You’re thanking me.” He seemed a little surprised.
“Well, yeah. You didn’t have to let me in. This is your place. You coulda said no.”
She shrugged. He had a point. “I would have tried to get to you to see that I was just trying to help. But I mean, I wouldn’t have barged in if you straight-out told me to leave.”
“I told you to leave the first time. You didn’t listen that well.”
“I left that day,” she argued.
“I told you not to come back. You didn’t listen to that.”
“Because I found out about the sickness.”
“Because someone told you about the sickness,” he corrected.
“Yes,” she answered slowly, wondering what his point was.
“Who sent you?”
Ah. That was it. He still thought she was a spy of some kind, like in the rumors of Kumaari.
“No one. No one sent me. I was here for Rothan, like I told you. That’s it.”
He seemed to consider that for a moment. She wondered if he’d talked to Rothan, like she’d asked. And if he had, if Rothan had actually remembered her. Or more specifically, if he’d remembered her as someone beyond just the person who may have been the reason for his imprisonment.
“You got in here, three times now, ‘for Rothan.’ Nobody sent you and let you in.”
“No one sent me,” she repeated. “Honestly, if I could come up with a good reason for how I’ve gotten in, I’d tell you. I know the guards at the door think they’ve gotten demoted, twice, because of me, so they’re cooperative. Other than that, I don’t know.”
“And the sickness. Your guard friends told you about that, too?”
“No. My friend knows a soldier who was being sent here. To help clear out bodies. That’s what she told me. So that’s how I found out.”
“One of your palace friends,” he scoffed.
“She’s an Ender like me,” Kierah corrected.
“Was an Ender.”
“Still is. We’re not Middles. We’re not Nobles. We’re still Enders –”
“Living in the palace.”
“Living in a weird situation,” she countered. “We didn’t ask for this.”
“And I didn’t ask for your help here.”
“I know you didn’t. Nobody else did either,” she added, underscoring the point that no one had sent her. “But I couldn’t stay in my room and ignore it, do nothing.
He didn’t answer right away. She hoped that was because what she’d been saying was sinking in. When he did answer, his tone was a bit less combative.
“He does remember you.”
That wasn’t what she’d been expecting. She coughed, halfway through a swallow when she inhaled with surprise. She had to clear her throat before answering. “He does? So you asked him.”
“He also said he’s here because of something else.”
She couldn’t believe it. The words were real.
“Really?” She almost felt giddy.
“That’s what he told me,” he replied.
It wasn’t her fault. It was like a load was lifted off her shoulders. She’d barely dared to hope that could ever be the answer. And even when she had, she hadn’t imagined how much the realization would physically make her feel lighter.
Demarc was watching her.
“So you don’t have to come back anymore,” he said. “Not your fault, not your problem, right?”
She blinked. The lightness she’d just felt, dimmed. “Wait. So did he actually tell you this, or are you just saying this to get me to stay away?”
“I’m telling you the truth. That’s what you did to me, right? Told me the truth?”
That was sarcasm.
“I did tell you the truth,” she answered. “I haven’t lied to you.”
“I think,” she tried to keep her voice even, “that you have every reason not to trust me. Every reason. I know. But I’m just — I’m trying to find out what happened to a kid I knew. A kid who doesn’t deserve to be here — whether or not it’s my fault. Did you actually talk to him? Did he say he knew me or not?”
Demarc paused, maybe thinking, but not answering.
She sighed. “Look, I don’t know who you are either. I don’t know how you got here or what you did. All I know is you’ve protected Rothan.” She thought about the scars she saw. “And you’ve been through quite a bit. I don’t know how much, and I don’t know who did this to you. But I do know that not everybody is as bad as the ones who put you through all this. Some people actually give a damn. Some of us actually aren’t complete jerks. I get that might be difficult for you to wrap your head around, but I hope someday you see it.
“I’m here for Rothan. That was the only reason I ever came down here. And as long as you’ll let me, I’d like to keep being here. I’m not here for me.”
She slid the bag off her shoulder and opened it near his bedside so he could see it.
“I brought food,” she held it toward him. “I don’t know what they feed you down here, but I figured it’s not anything great for recovering from being sick.”
He lifted himself enough to look into the pack. Inside were rolls of bread, fruit, cheese and some chicken.
“You already brought us medicine,” he said. “Isn’t that enough?”
“Are you hungry or aren’t you?”
He glanced at the bag again.
“I live in a freaking palace,” she shrugged. “I don’t belong there. I have so much, and I don’t deserve any of it. Rothan is here, but the stuff I have, he’s the one that deserves it, so I wanted to bring him some. And since he’s not alone, I brought extra.”
He still didn’t answer. He didn’t look at her, though, and she wondered if he was softening. Even just a little bit, she’d be happy with. And he still hadn’t mentioned anything about the scars.
“You should meet him,” he said, suddenly sounding exhausted.
“You should meet him,” he met her gaze. “I don’t trust you. You know I don’t. And sure, you say you know Rothan, and he says he remembers you. He does. I asked him. But just because you know about this girl he met, doesn’t mean you are that girl.”
She nodded. “That’s fair,” she agreed.
He eyed her, then swung his legs over to the edge of the cot. The motion took a lot out of him, it seemed. Her instinct was to reach out and offer some support, but she knew he wouldn’t accept the help.
Standing to his feet, he took a breath, then started walking slowly over toward another section of the cots. Kierah followed.
When he stopped, they were standing in front of a little boy’s bed.
Kierah felt nervous all over again. She had been glad to hear Rothan remembered her, but whether he would recognize her or not was a different story.
Ethan leaned over the cot, gently rocked Rothan’s non-broken shoulder.
Standing up still made him feel lightheaded, and walking was a bit rough. Having food of substance, like the kind this girl brought, would probably help him — help all of them — heal faster. But accepting it was difficult.
Nothing about this girl made sense. Especially the parts about her being there of her own accord.
The little boy mumbled in his sleep and rolled over, subconsciously favoring the broken arm. But with some prodding, he finally opened his eyes and looked up.
“You have a visitor,” Ethan told him.
He looked around, and his bleary eyes locked on the girl.
“Hey Rothan,” she said softly.
The kid blinked. “Kierah?” he asked, the sleepiness fading from his voice.
Ethan looked over at her, and she was smiling.
“Hey,” she said. “You remember me?”
A grin slid across Rothan’s face. “They sent you here too?” he asked, almost excitedly.
She smiled. “No, no I’m just here to see you.”
“But I saw them,” he said, with more energy in his voice than Ethan had heard in weeks. “I saw the soldiers catch you. That was mean of them.”
“They did catch me,” she agreed. “But they realized it was mean, and they let me go. I’ve been trying to find you since.”
“I’m glad you did.” Rothan sounded sincere.
She hadn’t lied. At least about this.
He expected her to give him a smug glance any moment now. But she didn’t. She was talking to Rothan, and that’s all she gave attention to.
He wasn’t sure how to take this. If she was who she said she was, that might also mean she’d been telling the truth when she said she hadn’t been sent by someone.
Then again, it might not.
The girl kneeled down next to Rothan’s cot as they were talking. “Did you catch the bread that day?”
He nodded eagerly. “It was good. I wished you could have had some.”
“Well, thank you. But I’m just glad you could have it.”
“I don’t like the food they have here,” his little face scrunched up. “It’s not as good as bread. But Ethan says we have to eat it.”
“Well, Ethan is right,” she said. “You’ve got to keep up your strength and grow big and strong, right?”
“I’d like to be strong,” he agreed. “Ethan is strong. I’d like to be like him.”
Ethan was a little surprised at the complement. Even more surprised that the girl smiled at the words, and there wasn’t a hint of irony in it.
She hadn’t hesitated over the words. She hadn’t forced them through her teeth. She hadn’t even smiled like it was a joke only she found funny. Ethan didn’t understand why not.
“I do eat the food, like Ethan says,” Rothan shrugged a little. “But I wouldn’t be mad if they let us have bread sometimes, though.”
The girl glanced at Ethan, and he knew what she was asking. He nodded. And he was surprised by how much her face lit up.
She reached toward her bag. “Well, actually, I may have brought some with me.”
Ethan could have scooped up half a day’s worth of parodesium dust if he had bowls the size that Rothan’s eyes grew to when he heard that.
“You what?” the kid asked.
The girl pulled out a roll of bread from the bag. Rothan stared. She held it out to him.
“For me?” He could have grabbed it like a greedy dog snagging a bone. But instead he took it gently, almost cradling it in his hand.
“Go ahead,” she nodded. “Eat it.” The back of her head was to Ethan now, so he couldn’t see her expression, but he could imagine the smile on it. Given the lack of smug superiority he’d seen on her face so far, it was probably a very pretty smile, actually — he stopped himself. A pretty smile? Did he really just think that?
“Ethan,” Rothan was calling to him, pure joy on his face. “Look!”
Ethan allowed himself a grin. “I see.”
“Can I eat it?” the kid asked.
Ethan nodded, but gently so as not to send his head swimming. He was feeling worlds better than he had been several days ago, but everything still hurt.
The kid took a small bite, then chewed it slowly, almost thoughtfully. Ethan wondered at his self-control, and apparently the girl had noticed the same thing.
“That was a very small bite,” she commented.
“I want to make it last,” Rothan explained, and Ethan’s heart sank a little. Food was usually one of the least of his worries, but this reminded him of yet something else he couldn’t provide for the kids. Protecting them from the sickness, giving them food — these were things he couldn’t do. Things that, as it seemed, this girl could.
He didn’t like that. He didn’t like a stranger coming into his world and making herself at home when she didn’t belong there.
He also didn’t like knowing she’d seen his scars. Because he knew she’d seen his scars.
He kept them hidden because they were reminders of his weakness. They reminded him he could fail. He had failed, that was why he’d gotten them.
The girl knew this. She knew everything. He hated that. And yet he’d allowed her back into the Wall, back into a conversation, and straight back to Rothan. Why had he done that?
He adjusted his stance, taking a few steps toward the foot of the bed so he could see her face. He looked at her, watching Rothan. A gentle smile on her face. But was “gentle” really how it was, or was he just adding adjectives that didn’t belong there?
The longer he looked at her, though, the less he could convince himself that she was insincere.
“You brought a lot,” Rothan’s voice broke through his thoughts, and he realized the kid was peeking into the girl’s backpack.
“Well, you have some friends here,” she explained. “I figured if they were hungry too, I’d bring enough to share.”
Rothan looked at Ethan hopefully. “Can we, Ethan? Can we give some to everyone?”
The kid’s eyes looked brighter than they had in days. That was what Ethan noticed. Even in the dimness of the barracks, his little eyes were shining. And there was only one reason for that.
The girl had been telling the truth about the medicine. It was working.
She’d been telling the truth about knowing the kid in the first place. It had been confirmed again just now.
Was it possible that was all there was to her story?
Next to Rothan, she was watching him too, waiting for his answer. He realized he hadn’t given one yet.
“Sure,” he finally answered. “That’d be fine.”
Both Rothan and the girl broke into huge smiles.
“Can I go get them?” Rothan asked.
“No.” That wouldn’t be a good idea, he decided. Waking them all at this hour, to find a stranger in their midst, might not go over well. Especially with Terrell. He needed time to address this latest twist on the situation one-on-one. “Let them sleep. We’ll wake them up a little earlier tomorrow. They can eat an early breakfast.”
Both deflated just a little, but the girl kept on a happy face. Ethan figured she was just glad he’d agreed to keep the food at all.
He was surprised when she held out a piece of bread to him.
“You can have this now though,” she offered. “If you want, I mean.”
When he didn’t move to take it, Rothan did. And without missing a beat, he leaned forward and handed it up to him.
He looked from the kid to the bread, purposefully avoiding the girl.
“You’re hungry, aren’t you?” Rothan asked him.
He accepted the bread. They didn’t move, waiting for him to actually eat it. So he took a bite.
It was crisp on the outside. He’d figured that much. The last time he’d had bread, a lifetime ago, it had been hard, and sometimes stale. But this time, just under the crust, the soft dough almost melted in his mouth. He blinked back surprise.
And for just a second, he let himself savor it. He understood why Rothan wanted to make his own roll last. Whatever it was, it was amazing. He didn’t remember ever eating something like this.
So this was what Royals and Nobles ate all the time. He couldn’t even imagine that. They wouldn’t last a week on the food fed to the slaves, he thought.
He wanted nothing more in that moment than to shove the rest of the roll into his mouth. But he restrained himself.
“Do you like it?” Rothan asked.
“I do,” he replied. “Very much.”
Rothan grinned broadly, and Ethan knew without looking that the girl was too.
“Now you gotta go back to sleep,” he told the kid. “You need rest.”
Rothan started to protest, but yawned in the middle of it. Without meaning to, Ethan chuckled. So too, he realized, did the girl. They looked at each other, and both immediately stopped.
“Back to sleep,” Ethan told him.
The kid consented, but not without first gently placing what was left of the roll underneath his pillow. “I’ll finish this tomorrow,” he announced, then said shyly to Kierah, “Thank you.”
“I’ll leave the rest with Ethan,” she was saying, hoisting the bag to her shoulder as she stood up. “Good night.”
“Good night,” came the reply, and Rothan closed his eyes.
The girl didn’t walk away quite yet. The way she looked at that kid, it was like she’d found a brand new strain of parodesium just as she’d run out of fuel to go any further. She couldn’t be faking that relief, that happiness. Could she?
Not that that meant anything. He didn’t know what it meant, except he found himself staring at her a little longer than he should have allowed himself to.
And now she was looking at Ethan, and he had to force himself to break away and glance toward the floor. “Good night, Rothan,” he said, but it came out as a mumble. He felt so tired. Standing was too much.
“Do you need to sit down?” the girl asked quietly, coming up beside him as they walked away from Rothan’s cot.
“No,” he answered too quickly.
The girl didn’t buy it. “I think you might,” she contradicted, though with obvious hesitation. She seemed much more reserved around him than around Rothan. “They’re not making all of you work while you’re sick, are they?”
Ethan wondered if that was the kind of question someone who sent her would want her to ask. Maybe she was trying to find out if they were working hard enough, or just milking their time off.
But it didn’t really matter at this point. Any superior of hers would likely already know the answer. “Only the ones who didn’t get sick. Teenagers, mostly,” he said, shrugging. “Everyone else gets rest. For now.”
“Really?” she said, actually sounding relieved. “I’m so glad to hear that. I wasn’t sure. I mean, they didn’t cut you any slack when you got that broken arm.”
“I guess mass deathly illness is in a different category to them.”
They reached his cot, and Kierah placed her backpack on the floor next to it. “Can I leave this with you?” she asked.
“Just the food. Take the bag back with you.”
“All right.” She emptied the bag where he indicated, gently piling the food in a corner by the barracks wall.
Then shouldering the bag, she turned to him. “I guess I’ll be on my way, let you get some rest.” There seemed like there was something else she wanted to say, but couldn’t bring herself to say it.
He waited, not having anything to say himself.
Finally — “Thank you,” she said. “For bringing me to Rothan. You — you didn’t have to do that. But thank you.”
“Well,” she glanced toward the end of the Wall. “Goodbye, then.”
And she started to walk away.
She didn’t say anything else, didn’t try to start a conversation, to get him to talk, or to persuade him to let her stay. She didn’t even beg him to let her come back.
Not that she’d needed his permission to come back before. She would do whatever she wanted to, it seemed.
But watching her leave, he knew he was glad she’d come. He hated that she’d had to, hated that he couldn’t have taken care of the boys on his own. But the fact was, he couldn’t have. When he’d passed out, that might have been the end for him. Whether or not he wanted it, she’d showed up when they needed her.
She saved Rothan’s life. The other boys’ lives.
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They watched the shadowy figure sneak across the screen, the nightvision view illuminating the nearby area with an artificial green glow. But it wasn’t long before the phantom disappeared off one side of the monitor, only to reappear on another … Continue reading Chapter 11: My Ender, your convict