Chapter 13: “She’s an intruder”

Kierah heard him call her, and her heart skipped a beat. She turned around. Demarc had sat down on the cot, everything about him looking exhausted. But his eyes were sharp, and they were locked on her.

“Will you be coming back?” he asked bluntly.

“Would you let me?”

“Would it matter if I didn’t?”

She saw his point.

“You’ve already been back twice without looking for my permission,” he said. But he didn’t seem angry. Or at least, not too angry.

“I’d like to bring more food, yes.”

“Why?” he asked.

“It would help you all heal, for one thing,” she paused. “And, well, I’d like to see Rothan again, if that’s all right.”

“You have the answer to why he’s here, though,” he pointed out. “It’s not your fault. You heard him say it himself.”

“But he’s still here. He doesn’t belong here. And I told him — I told him I’m his friend. I wouldn’t be a very good friend if I just left him down here.”

Demarc didn’t answer.

You’re his friend,” she tried to change his perspective. “If he was in trouble, and you had the ability to help, even in the littlest way, wouldn’t you?”

The look he gave her was difficult to quantify. She wished she knew what he was thinking behind those dark, piercing eyes.

“You said you’re from the palace, right?”

The words felt almost like a stab in her side. That’s the category she was in, the girl from the palace. But she nodded.

“What do you think I am?” he asked. “You realize I’m a con, right? You’re standing in a prison barracks, I just want to make sure you remember that. Because you say I’m Rothan’s friend. You realize that’ll sound really weird to your high society friends back at the palace. You people don’t see us that way. We’re all here because we’re criminals, remember? We don’t do ‘friends.’ We don’t ‘help’ each other.”

“You do, though,” she said before he could continue. “You are his friend. You’ve said a few times that you’re not stupid, but neither am I. I’m not blind. I don’t know why you’re in Kelmar, but whatever it is, you’re taking care of him, of all these boys, and that’s all that matters. And that’s all I’m trying to help with — take care of a kid I know. And no,” she added, noticing he was about to protest again, “nobody sent me. None of my ‘high society friends’ even know I’m here.”

He still looked spent. She noticed, and felt a little bad for keeping him awake. But no, she reminded herself, this was his fault, he’d called her back.

“I should go,” she said. “You look like you need your rest. But if I can come back, that’d be awesome.”

His dark eyes held her. “Why would you care?” he asked, doubt thick in his voice.

“Well, I’m a human. You’re a human,” she shrugged. “We’re supposed to all be on the same side, here.”

She backed away towards the exit. “So I guess I’ll see you in a few days then.”

He nodded slowly, the movement appearing to hurt his head. “Just one more thing.”

She stopped backing up.

“Your medicine,” he said. “It’s working.”

She smiled a little.

“Thanks,” he said.

She blinked. He’d actually thanked her. Warmth rushed to her cheeks and she smiled a little more. “Anytime.” 

And she left.

Ethan had to admit, if she was a spy sent from somewhere, she was approaching this whole situation in a rather unorthodox way. For one thing, she was treating him almost like a human being. There was a very small number of people who made that list.

And for another thing, she was sticking to her story very thoroughly. She was there for Rothan. And Rothan corroborated her story. 

Besides, if she was a spy, why would that story actually include admitting she was from the palace? If anything, she would pose as someone more relatable, more like him. What she had told him, consistently, was something that should incriminate her. But maybe she’d known that, and said it to throw him off.

Either way, she was gone for now. He was exhausted. He’d deal with this in the morning.

Kierah knocked ever so gently on the inside of the barracks door to signal to Danan and Tate that she was ready to leave. The door cracked silently open, and she slipped out.

The pair of faces that greeted her each wore a very different expression. Below their visors, both had their lips pressed into a thin line, but Tate looked nervous and Danan looked angry, or at least suspicious. 

With her helmet on, Kierah merely nodded at them. “Thanks again, guys,” she said briskly.

“So exactly how long is this ‘test’ gonna go on for?” Danan cut right to the point. “Three times, you’ve been here. We haven’t crossed you, we’ve done as you’ve asked. But how do we know you’re not just playing us now?

“What he’s saying is,” Tate jumped in, “we want to be in compliance with the prince’s demands, but how many more times will it take for us to prove we’re doing our job?”

Kierah had partially been expecting this kind of questioning at some point. She couldn’t expect her luck to hold out forever, with these two afraid they’d get demoted again if they interfered with her. At some point, they’d catch on. 

Unfortunately, she hadn’t yet worked out exactly what she’d say when they did eventually ask.

“Look, you guys have been great,” she said, stalling. “I appreciate it, and by association the prince does too. But it — it isn’t a test anymore. The first time was the test, and you passed. You’re in the clear.” She hoped that was true. If security caught her, if the prince got word, they might not be quite so in the clear. A small part of her felt bad for putting them at risk, but the rest of her genuinely didn’t care. She had to remember that for as cooperative as they’d been lately, they’d been noticeably less so with Rothan and Demarc not that long ago.

“So why do you keep coming back?” Danan asked, somewhat agitated.

“If the test was finished weeks ago…” Tate didn’t finish.

Kierah wracked her brain as fast as she could. She thought back to that first day she’d seen Rothan in the mines, that stupid hat that had blown off and made her run to catch it. That dumb hat. Terula had said something about it when she first handed it to her, something about Kierah needing to find the thing that fit her. Something that fit her.

“Well, I keep coming back because of the experiment, of course,” she said, trying to bolster the confidence in her voice. “All the lessons we learn there, are supposed to teach us something. We’re supposed to find what speaks to us, the thing that fits us. I guess some like reading, some like dancing, others like combat training —”

“And you like sneaking into prisons in the dead of night,” Danan cut in.

Kierah glared at him, glad he couldn’t see her eyes through the visor. 

“I like helping people,” she said evenly. “I wanted to help some of the kids in there —”

“Demarc’s crew,” Tate supplied.

“Them. Yes. That first time I came, was just a test. I wasn’t gonna come back after that. But then the sickness happened. They didn’t just need a visit, they needed medicine. Now they need food. Maybe eventually, they’ll just need a friend. I don’t know. So that’s why I’m here, and I’ll be back. I found something that fits me, I guess.” That part wasn’t a lie. “But all of the Enders have to focus on our ‘special thing’ after our regular classes and stuff, so it has to be after hours. Besides, I can’t come during the day because that would interrupt these guys’ work. So I come at night.”

She crossed her fingers mentally. 

Then she noticed Danan chuckle, and her heart sank a bit.

“You all have a ‘special thing,’ huh?” he asked. “This whole experiment is so weird. If the prince really wanted to help the Ends, he could just help them. He takes enough in taxes, might as well put it to use instead of funding a never-ending war with Etrusia. But no, he brings you all to the palace, teaches you to dance, and wants you to find your ‘special thing.’ Wow.”

“Danan,” Tate cautioned. “The prince doesn’t take lightly to criticism…”

Danan shrugged him off. “The security cameras don’t have audio.”

Kierah felt simultaneously better and worse. At least Danan seemed to believe her. But there was no way the cameras hadn’t caught her yet. Three visits. Two of them involving long conversations with this pair, right in the cameras’ line of sight.

There was nothing she could do though. 

“Do you come other times, with other guards?” Tate asked, distracting her. “Or is it just us?”

“So far, just you guys. You work the most convenient night shifts for me to come by. And please,” she had a thought, “please don’t mention this to the other guards. I’m just afraid of — of what they might do to the boys if they knew they were getting special attention or something.”

Danan chuckled again. “You don’t think very highly of guards, do you?” 

But Tate seemed to disapprove of his partner. “You know you’re probably the reason for that, Danan. You didn’t make a great first impression.”

Listening to these two was almost like watching an older version of those teenagers, Terrell Morellin and, what was that other kid’s name, Jonah, she thought. The stubborn one, and the smarter one.

But maybe that was an unfair categorization. Really, Tate and Jonah were just more trusting. The stubborn ones were smart, too. 

For as obstinate as Terrell was, he was just protecting the kids in there. And Danan had been the one to notice she was a girl under that helmet on her first visit almost a month ago. He questioned her actions, wanted to know more.

Both he and Terrell were more difficult to deal with than Tate and Jonah. But they were also just doing their job. Unfortunately, Kierah’s visits to Kelmar wasn’t included in either of their job descriptions. She just hoped that neither of them would pose too much trouble. Because she had a job to do, too.

A tap on Ethan’s shoulder woke him up the next morning. He still felt exhausted, but pried his eyes open to see who was there.

It was Terrell.

Terrell. He’d needed to talk to him, explain that the girl had come back last night.

“Is everyone else up yet?” Ethan asked, sitting up and trying to force the grogginess out of his head. He hoped the answer was no.

“Not yet,” Terrell said.

“Good.” Ethan noticed there was a strange expression on his face. He knew why.

Terrell sat on the edge of the cot, glancing toward the wall nearby. “What’s with the food?”

Ethan hesitated, trying to form his still-foggy thoughts, but he knew Terrell knew the answer.

“She came back,” he said simply. “Last night, the girl came back.”

Terrell’s eyes narrowed.

“She brought food, said she thought it would help everyone recover faster, build up strength.”

“And you took it?”

“Terrell, I think,” he chose his words carefully, “I think not taking it would have been pointless. The boys deserve some real food, and it was being handed to us. Why would I have said no?”

“Oh, I don’t know, only a million reasons,” Terrell shot back. “She could have poisoned it, she could have put some weird drug in it that makes you feel worse, she could just be trying to get close to us like that spy did in Kumaari.”

Ethan had considered all those points before, especially the last one. “I doubt the poison thing,” he said first. “She just gave us all medicine. And you gotta admit, it’s working. Slowly, for some of us, but we’re all still alive. We’re better. It’s working. If she was gonna poison us — I just don’t see the point. Same with any kind of drug, trying to slow us down or weaken us or whatever. It wouldn’t make sense.”

“Spies don’t have to make sense.”

“See, I’m not so sure she’s a spy, either,” Ethan admitted.

“She’s an intruder, Ethan. Listen to yourself, what’s gotten into you?”

“We’ve managed just fine on our own til now,” Terrell continued. “The only strangers we take in are new boys when they’re brought here. We don’t beg for handouts from guards, we don’t do favors for Garn. It’s us, Ethan. Us. We take care of us. It’s safer that way. You’re the one who’s told me that all these years — but now this intruder shows up and all of a sudden it’s okay to break the rules?”

Ethan couldn’t deny Terrell’s frustration. Knowing Terrell’s past made it even harder for him to explain. The kid was scared. Ethan knew that. He just wished he could explain why he thought the girl might not be as bad-intentioned as common sense would dictate.

“You know the story she’s told, right? About Rothan?” he asked.

“Yeah. So?”

“The kid — the kid says it’s true. He said it again last night when he saw her.”

“He saw her?”

“I wanted to see what he’d do with her in person. Make sure it really was the same girl. And it was. You shoulda seen Rothan’s face light up.” 

“So, what’s this supposed to mean?” Terrell frowned. “You trust her now?”

“I don’t know. I know you don’t. And I don’t blame you. I mean, every person that’s ever come into our lives has tried to get something out of us. So that’s what we expect from everyone.” He thought about what the girl had said last night, the way she had treated him. “But maybe some people are different. Maybe they actually give a damn. Maybe. I don’t — I don’t know.”

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Chapter 12: Still alive

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.  “I get caught,” Kierah had relied flatly. … Continue reading Chapter 12: Still alive

Chapter 14: “He was going to kill her.” “He would have been doing us a favor, then.”

She held up the backpack, once again full of food. Demarc didn’t say anything as Kierah stood there, waiting for him to allow her in again. But the way he looked at her was strange. Less brutally cold than it had been the first time he’d found her. And maybe, was it even less suspicious … Continue reading Chapter 14: “He was going to kill her.” “He would have been doing us a favor, then.”

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