“So,” Kierah began, her voice seeming loud after a while of driving with Ari in silence, “if you don’t mind my asking, how’d your dad die? Why does Danan blame you? I’m not trying to pry or anything,” she added quickly. “I was just wondering. It sounds like there’s a story there.”
Ari almost chuckled. “A story? I thought I was the reporter.”
“I learned how to ask the tough questions from you,” Kierah returned.
“You don’t have to tell me. It’s just — trying to picture you as brother and sister is kind of hard.”
“Are we that different?” Ari asked.
Kierah thought about it.
Ari actually laughed, but quickly turned stoic again. “I guess you might as well know,” she said finally. “I don’t talk about it much though, so please don’t tell anyone else.”
“I would never!” Kierah said.
Ari began again. “This was a long time ago. My dad, weirdly enough, was a lot like you. He would look out for other people. And it was ironic, when you came to me asking to get information about a kid at Kelmar. Because those were the kinds of kids my dad looked out for, too. Believe it or not, he was what my brother is now — he was guard in the mines.
“Except he wasn’t at Kelmar. He was at Kumaari.”
Ari shot her a glance, but kept going. “That’s why when I found out where Danan was, I was a little shocked, because he’s ended up exactly where our dad was. He started in the military and the city guard, and suddenly he’s down in the mines like our father.
“But from what it sounds like, he’s not acting like our father’s son. My dad was more like you. He knew the kids down there didn’t deserve to be there. He did exactly the stuff you do — he brought food down, he cut them slack when he could. He couldn’t get them out, but he did anything else that he could.
“That’s why, when he heard the order, that they were going to bring in explosives to squelch some slave uprising, he couldn’t just leave the kids there.”
Kierah listened, fascinated and nervous for where Ari’s story was going.
“He went back down for them. He wanted to protect them, try to get them out,” Ari continued. “They didn’t deserve to die down there. That’s what he said. But he — he never made it out.
“Oh Ari, I’m so sorry,” Kierah said, saddened by the distant look on Ari’s face.
“It’s okay,” she shrugged. “It’s been years.”
“How did you find out he did it?” Kierah asked. “Did the guards tell you?”
Ari shook her head. “Nope. Dad actually told me himself. He called home, when he got the order for all personnel to evacuate. He called to tell us what was happening, and that he was going to try to save the kids.
“I was the one who picked up the call. Danan wasn’t home, he was out playing with his friends after school. He was, what, 13, I was 15. As it turned out, I ended up being the last one to talk to Dad before he died. I tried to talk him out of going back, told him to save himself. But he didn’t listen, obviously. He said he’d be fine.
“And that’s why Danan blames me. He said if he’d been the one to take the call, he’d have been able to convince Dad not to go back in. He says I didn’t try hard enough. So … yeah.”
“Oh Ari, I had no idea,” Kierah said quietly.
“I never told you,” Ari shrugged. “I don’t tell anybody, really.”
“Well,” Kierah searched for words, “thanks for trusting me enough to tell me now?”
Ari almost smiled. “We’re kind of stuck in each other’s lives, I guess. You were bound to find out sooner or later.”
“Is it — is it weird for you, helping me with the Kelmar stuff?” Kierah asked. “If it hits too close to home —”
“Nah,” Ari brushed her off. “It’s kind of awesome, actually. I feel like it’s something my dad would have wanted, ya know? Feels like maybe I’m making him proud.”
They pulled up to an apartment building that Kierah thought looked more run-down than she’d expected it to look.
“This is where he lives?” she asked.
The reporter nodded absently, her eyes scanning the building, apparently looking for anything out of place that would hint at why her brother hadn’t shown up for his shift. Nothing seemed obvious.
They both hopped out of the speeder, and Kierah followed Ari up a set of stairs on the outside of the building. They stopped at a closed door. Ari tried to handle, and it was locked.
“Well,” Kierah said, “at least it doesn’t look like anybody broke in? Is that what you’re thinking?”
“I guess it’s a good start,” Ari said.
“So what now?” Kierah asked. “Do we knock or something?”
Ari nodded. She rapped on the door briskly, then took a step back.
They waited a second. Five seconds. Ten seconds. It probably felt to Ari like fifteen minutes.
But then there was a rustle on the other side of the door, and Kierah guessed that the person on the other side was looking through the peephole to see who was knocking.
“What do you want now?” a man’s voice asked.
For just a second, Kierah thought that Ari might actually melt with relief. It was Danan’s voice.
“You’re — you’re okay!” Ari stuttered.
There was no response right away, and Kierah figured Danan was trying to figure out what she meant by that.
“Am I not supposed to be?” he asked through the door.
“Well, after you didn’t show up for your shift last night…” Ari said.
The door opened.
“How do you know I didn’t show up for my shift?” Danan asked, looking out through the crack.
“She told me,” Ari nodded to where Kierah stood off to the side.
Danan opened the door a little wider to see, and blinked. She must have been outside the range of vision through the peephole, apparently, because he looked a bit taken aback to see her there. And not exactly thrilled.
“She’s the one who told me you were missing, and then I got worried. Why weren’t you there?”
Instead of answering, he stepped back and opened the door. The girls took it as a cue to come inside.
“Well?” Ari asked once he’d closed it behind them.
“I took a sick day,” Danan replied. “That’s all.”
“And? That’s it?” Ari asked. “Are you feeling ill?”
“Yeah. Kind of. Because of you.”
“Because of me?”
“Don’t sound so surprised,” he said gruffly. “I haven’t decided what I want to do about what you told me. What I’m going to do about her,” he nodded his head in Kierah’s direction, without actually looking at her.
“I’m right here, ya know,” Kierah pointed out.
“That’s the problem.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Kierah asked, realizing again how little she liked this guy.
“It means I wish you weren’t here,” Danan said. “It means I wish I never crossed paths with you. You do nothing but cause me trouble, and you’re going to do it again.
“You made up your mind then,” Ari said. “You don’t get the real reason she’s doing this, you don’t get the bigger picture here. You’re only thinking about yourself.”
Danan nodded. “Pretty much, yep, that sums it up.”
“You’re going to turn her in, just like that,” Ari said. “And it won’t mean anything to you.”
“It’s my career,” Danan pointed out. “She’s already destroyed it. I have no desire to get arrested on top of it all. She’s broken the law and there’s nothing else I can do. She’s used me long enough.”
“Used you?” Ari exclaimed. “That’s really all you get out of this? That’s all you can see? You don’t see Dad in this picture at all?”
“Dad’s not in this picture,” Danan replied with abrupt force. “He’s gone. You made sure of that. I’ve got nothing more to say to you.”
Then there was silence.
Kierah watched as Ari glared at her brother. Danan glared right back, with eyes that Kierah was seeing for the first time, uncovered by his helmet. When he had his helmet on, he looked cold and distant. Now, seeing his full face for the first time, she could see how much he and Ari did look alike. They both had the same eyes, bright and fiery and, presently, fed up with each other.
Not that it mattered. Related or not, he’d made his decision. He was going to turn her in, that was it.
She tried to process that, but failed. One look at Danan told her it was a waste of effort to try to change his mind. Appealing to his better nature was a lost cause; she doubted he had a better nature. So she said the only thing she could think of.
“Can I ask one thing?” she broke the silence, her voice feeling small. Danan and Ari stopped staring at each other to look at her. “Please let me go back one more time. After that, turn me in, arrest me, do what you have to. You can get me on my way out and catch me in the act or whatever. It’s fine. But please let me go back.”
“Why?” Danan asked.
“I just want to say goodbye. I want to tell them why I — why I won’t see them again.”
Kierah’s stomach plummeted. “When they get arrested? For what? This has nothing to do with them! It was me, I went —”
“You brought them food, didn’t you?” Danan interrupted.
Kierah raised an eyebrow, wondering what he meant by that.
“Where’d you get it?” he continued.
“My room,” she generalized.
“In the palace. And the palace kitchens. You took it from the palace. You didn’t pay for it.”
“You gave it to them, and they took it, correct?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “They’re guilty of receiving stolen goods. They knowingly accepted something you took that didn’t belong to you. They’ll be arrested for that.”
Kierah’s sinking stomach turned in a knot. “You can’t — they’re already in the mines, they can’t go any lower. If you turn them in, you’ll be signing their death warrant.”
Danan didn’t seem the least bit concerned. “When I turn you in, I’ll be signing yours,” he shrugged.
He said it so easily. It meant nothing to him. Nothing at all.
Under different circumstances, Kierah might have punched him, right in the middle of his indifferent face. But at the same time, she felt oddly indifferent, too.
“Yeah,” Kierah said slowly. “I know. That’s different. That’s — that’s okay.”
“Kierah!” Ari exclaimed.
“No, really,” Kierah said, and to her own surprise, she meant it. She didn’t expect to feel so calm about it, actually. But she did. If Danan had her arrested, that would probably be the end of her. They wouldn’t just kick her out of the experiment, out of the palace; they’d probably toss her into prison. And then, tried as an Ender, impersonating an officer, breaking into prison — she couldn’t picture any scenario in which it ended well. But somehow, she wasn’t upset about it.
_ _ _ _ __________ _ _ _ _
She moved through her room like she was underwater. Everything felt slow, deliberate, required extra effort. It was likely the last time she’d ever go through this routine again.
Swigging her coffee.
Prepping her clothes for the first part of her nighttime trip to the guard uniform laundry.
Swigging her coffee.
Checking and rechecking the stroop transport schedule on the notescreen system Ari had hacked into for her, to make sure the routes were running on time.
Swigging her coffee.
Making sure her forged guiard ID badge was still ready and waiting in its hiding spot inside her closet, tucked into the lining of the hat she’d been wearing that first day in Kelmar. It was quite helpful that she didn’t have to worry about anyone finding it, because the only person other than herself that ever poked around in her closet was Terula. And, conveniently enough, Terula was already on her side.
Not that that mattered, not anymore. No one would have the chance to find that ID tag hidden in her hat, because she was about to be caught with it pinned to her chest.
She was more nervous than she thought she’d be, actually. On the drive back from visiting Danan, Ari had begged her not to go back, to just stay in her own life, minding her own business. To not give Danan the chance to arrest her.
But Kierah couldn’t do it. She couldn’t quit like that.
The boys at Kelmar made her heart beat, made her feel more alive than she could ever remember feeling. She’d been slowly dying for years, stuck in a life she didn’t want but didn’t know how to change. Then the experiment dragged her into a new life, but one she didn’t want any more than the Ends.
Rothan, the boys, Ethan, made all that dying stop.
She couldn’t abandon the one thing that made her want to face the sun each morning. Even if it meant her mornings were now numbered. It was worth it.
She smiled, thinking of that. It didn’t make her much less nervous, but it did remind her why she was going through with this.
There was a knock on the door. She jumped a little.
“It’s open, Terula!” she called out. Then she remembered what she was doing and realized — “Oh wait! No, it’s not! I’m coming!” She scrambled to get to the front of her room, where the door was locked to keep just anyone from walking in while she was getting ready for the night’s trip.
Reaching the door, she flicked the latch and opened it.
“Sorry, Terula,” she said as she pulled it open. “I was just —”
But it wasn’t Terula.
He was in uniform, helmet in his hands, standing right outside her door. Here, at her room.
Her mind raced. He’d come to arrest her. Here, at her room. He hadn’t even given her the chance to say goodbye —
She cleared her throat. “I, um, I thought I had more time,” she said.
She took a step backwards into her room, bracing for the arrest.
“You do,” he said without preamble. “You have as much time as you want.”
Kierah paused. That wasn’t what she was expecting him to say.
“I do?” she asked.
“You do. You can, um, ride your speeder whenever you want. It seems to be running fine.”
Now she had completely lost him.
“My speeder?” she repeated.
“Yeah, you’d, uh, asked me to take a look at it — see if you could still, um, ride it?”
She’d done no such thing. There was nothing wrong with — then she got it. This had nothing to do with her speeder.
He was trying to tell her something. He was trying to give her a message.
“Oh right, I did,” she smiled, feigning understanding. “But it’s okay now? It’s working?”
He nodded once, stiffly. “I took it for a spin, and it’s fine. Whatever was giving you trouble before — I took care of it.”
She met his eyes deliberately. He didn’t flinch. He meant it, she realized. He was telling her he’d made up his mind about turning her in — and he wasn’t going to.
She could return to Kelmar any time. She had as much time as she wanted.
She couldn’t believe it. He was serious.
“Um, well, thank you,” she said. “I didn’t expect that, honestly.”
“I didn’t expect it either,” he replied, but he was starting to shift his stance, looking nervous. He’d been here long enough.
“Well, thanks for coming to tell me,” Kierah said.
He nodded again, brusquely, then moved to leave.
“Hey, wait,” she called thinking of something.
“Just was wondering,” she asked quietly, “if you don’t mind, why, um, how did you figure out it’s okay to drive? How did you tell?”
He stopped shifting. His eyes grew serious, and he looked straight at her. “I’ve seen this kind of speeder before. My dad drove a similar one, actually. And my dad knew what he was doing when it came to things like that.
With that, he turned and walked down the hall, helmet in hand, head held up.
Kierah watched him, only for a moment.
Danan had just given her permission to keep doing things her way, as far as she understood his message.
And Ari had been right. Drawing a comparison to what their dad had done, it had caught Danan’s attention. It had been enough to make him think.
And it had changed his mind.
She was amazed. Closing the door, she leaned back against it, facing her room. She had to finish getting her things together.
Except now, it wouldn’t be for the last time.
_ _ _ _ __________ _ _ _ _
Ethan looked up at the ceiling. He couldn’t fall asleep.
He hated the darkness. Even after all this time, he hated it.
When he slept there was darkness, and darkness was where the danger was, where he couldn’t see it, couldn’t brace for it, couldn’t fight it.
Darkness was where he was weak.
He couldn’t afford to be weak.
A sound near the entrance caught his attention. Whispering voices, one of whom was the teenager on guard.
Ethan sat up. And he stopped himself. Always, always in his life, his gut response toward a disturbance like that was dread. Fear. Adrenaline.
Disturbances, like darkness, meant danger, a threat that needed fighting.
But this time, those thoughts weren’t first. They still came, but they followed on the heels of something else.
The first feeling that flashed through his mind wasn’t alarm. It was anticipation.
He hoped it was the girl.
As soon as the thought connected with his consciousness, he scrubbed it out, glad no one else could see inside his head. What was wrong with him? It could be Garn, or a guard — something he’d need all his attention to deal with. But here he was, and his first thought was of the girl.
Kierah, that was her name. He never called her that, at least out loud, because it sounded too soft, too familiar, too comfortable.
Maybe too weak.
And outwardly, he hesitated to focus too clearly on that. It meant lowering his guard, releasing his self-restraint, lessening his defense.
He couldn’t do that.
He hadn’t forgotten her name, though. He knew it. And though he wouldn’t say it out loud, he thought of it. Of her.
And secretly, as much as he wished he didn’t, he wanted her to come back.
He wasn’t sure why. Maybe because, as much as logic and his head told him not to trust her story, his heart couldn’t ignore the way she treated him. She was … kind. That wasn’t a word used often in his vocabulary.
He remembered the first time he’d even heard the word used in a sentence.
He been 7 or 8 maybe. The old lady had said it, and it had confused him. He smiled now, thinking back to that other life, that other place. He learned a lot back then, mostly about evil and fear and weakness. But he also learned there could be light amid the dark. Mama Mahrya had taught him that. It had been a hard lesson to learn, but the old lady hadn’t given up on him.
He thought of that, when he thought of Kierah. He thought of the things Mahrya used to tell him, how she always insisted there was good in the world if he’d open his eyes and look for it. She’d taught him what to look for.
And despite his logical objections, he saw it when he looked at Kierah. Kindness. The good in the world.
With everything she’d done, it was hard to believe that someone like that could be anything but the kind, honest, good, beautiful soul he imagined her to be —
He stopped himself. Shaking it off, he got out of bed to investigate the whispering. He couldn’t think about the girl.
The girl. Not “Kierah.”
But his intentions to clear his head were futile, he realized a few steps later, because there, standing next to the boy on watch, was the girl.
He walked closer, all traces of tiredness vanishing. If he couldn’t fall asleep before, he really couldn’t now.
“Hi,” she smiled at him, her voice sounding like a wind chime in a gentle breeze. It twinkled and sparkled like her eyes did, and he couldn’t fight the urge to smile back.
“Wasn’t sure you were coming back,” he replied, pretending to sound like he didn’t care.
“I … wasn’t sure either, to be honest,” she said.
He sent her a questioning look. That seemed a strange thing to say.
He acknowledged the teen on watch, then led the girl over to a spot beyond the entrance where they’d talked before.
“What do you mean, you weren’t sure you’d be able to come back?” he asked. “I mean, all this is kind of in your control, isn’t it?”
They sat down next to each other, leaning against the wall behind them. The girl looked off into the darkness she’d just walked through to get there.
“Well, yeah,” she said. “I mean, it’s more in my control than yours, I guess. But something happened that wasn’t up to me. And I thought it might be the end of me getting down here.”
“What kind of ‘something’?”
“One of the guards at the door, who lets me down here, found out I’m not sent by the prince. And … that didn’t go over too well. I mean, I’m breaking into a prison. That’s all kinds of illegal. That meant he was also doing something illegal letting me in. So he couldn’t let that keep happening.”
Ethan let that sink in. At first, he wondered if she was just saying this to underscore her story that she was acting alone. If she was manipulating the truth to earn his trust.
But the way she said it seemed sincere. Like everything else she said, actually. It all always seemed to add up, no matter what suspicions he built up against her.
“But wouldn’t he arrest you then?” he said out loud.
The girl nodded. “He was going to, that’s what had me figuring I couldn’t come back.”
“But he isn’t now?”
“Nope. I guess his dad used to — try to help slaves too. Believe it or not. Anyway, he remembered that, and it made him soften up a little. He just took a while to get to that conclusion, so in the meantime, I was freaking out.”
“Who’s the guard?” he asked. “Just curious if I know him.”
“You do.” She ducked her head. “The day Rothan spilled the parodesium, and the guard attacked you? He’s the one.”
“Oh, him. Nice guy.”
“I know. That’s why I was nervous he’d turn me in.” She paused. “But the thing that scared me the most, was that he’d threatened you guys, too.”
The girl shook her head. “No, this wasn’t your standard kick-start to your morning. He said since what I was doing was illegal, you guys would be caught for that, too. The food I bring, he said I stole it, since I brought it from the palace. That meant you’re guilty of ‘receiving stolen goods’ or something stupid like that. And since you’re in Kelmar, which is already as low as you can go, the punishment would be — well, you know how they do things. It wouldn’t surprise you.”
It didn’t surprise him. None of it did.
“He said he changed his mind, and now he won’t turn any of us in,” she continued. “But I don’t know how long that’ll last.”
“Yeah, he isn’t exactly the most upstanding guy,” Ethan agreed.
She lowered her head and seemed to melt into the wall. “I’m sorry,” she said quietly. “Causing you trouble was the last thing I wanted to do. And now it looks like I’ve done it again. First with Garn, now with this.
“I swear I just wanted to help, but I just keep screwing up and throwing you in front of these people who’ll jump at the chance to —”
Something in her voice choked up, and he shot a glance at her. She actually looked like she might cry.
“Sorry,” she whispered, scrubbing a sleeve across her eyes. “I don’t wanna give you another reason to hate me.”
“For crying?” he asked. “You think I’d hate you for that?”
Somehow, that made him smile. “Well, for a wimp, you do some brave things.”
He’d said something nice to her. When she realized that he had, her eyes widened a little. Or maybe it was just his imagination. “You think so?”
“You come down here. Here. In your free time. If I believe the stuff you tell me, nobody’s putting you up to this but yourself. I doubt a wimp would go to so much trouble.”
Her eyes cleared and even brightened a little “Well, thanks. I didn’t think you’d see it that way. I just — I feel bad. All I wanted to do was help, and I haven’t been doing much of that lately.”
He should have agreed with her. He should have resented that she’d put him in a bad place with Garn, and given this guard a reason to come for him someday if he changed his mind.
Because she was right. Those things had happened because she’d brought herself into his life.
But he’d also let her. He’d let her into his life.
And his wasn’t even that much of a life to begin with, he suddenly thought. Every day was the same, every glimpse he dared take into his future was the same. Bleak, black, hopeless. Aside from the boys, there was nothing to break the monotony of forever stretching out in front of him.
He tried to never look that far ahead. It was as bottomless as the Black Room had been, way back when. His past would always rear up and strike at him from the emptiness. But back then, Mama Mahrya had helped him get through it. The old lady’s wisdom and kindness had given him strength to keep going.
He didn’t have her anymore.
But now, he did have Kierah.
Not “the girl.”
Somehow, even though she’d added to the danger of his world, she’d also added something else. Light. Hope. If nothing else, even just a change from the endless routine of the mines.
Maybe it was foolish to think that was worth any risk she might pose. No, it definitely was foolish.
But the truth was, he couldn’t see her as Terrell saw her. He’d tried, but he couldn’t anymore.
“You have helped,” he said quietly. “This other stuff — it isn’t your fault.”
“What?” she said. “You’re … not blaming me?”
She sounded so incredulous that he smiled again.
She shook her head. “You’re full of surprises, Ethan.”
But she stopped herself, looking suddenly self-conscious. “Is it — can I — is it weird if I call you that?” she blurted out.
“Call me what?”
She hesitated. “Ethan.”
“It’s my name,” he said, confused. Then it hit him. Maybe she’d been having the same struggle that he had, over what to call her. Had she? Maybe it wasn’t just him. “What else would you call me?”
“I’ve heard people call you Demarc. Is that more — I don’t know what the word is — appropriate, maybe?”
He weighed his next words. How much was he willing to give away?
The people who called him Demarc generally didn’t like him very much. Maybe she’d picked up on that. Mabe that was why she’d never called him by his actual name before, because “Demarc” sounded more distant, more aloof. More safe?
But hiding was never his strength. Rothan could hide like a shadow. Ethan preferred to fight out in the open.
Did this call for a fight? Or just being in the open?
“People do call me Demarc,” he said. “But … they’re generally not my favorite people. The boys call me Ethan.”
She didn’t respond for a second, trying to interpret what he wanted her to say next.
“Okay, so since I’m not one of the boys,” she said slowly, “you’d rather me call you Demarc.”
He smiled again. He was doing that a lot tonight, especially given the news she’d brought with her. It felt weird.
She thought he’d asked her to sit with the group of “generally not his favorite people.”
Honestly, he was glad she’d taken it that way. She wasn’t assuming she fit in with the people he did like.
“Can I call you Kierah?” he asked, without answering her.
“Well, yeah, what else would you call me?”
Again, he didn’t answer. At least her alternative for him was his last name. His alternative for her was less respectful.
“You can call me Ethan,” he nodded, as if agreeing to something.
“I can?” Kierah didn’t mask the shock in her voice.
“It’s my name.”
She fought the smile threatening her face, glad Ari couldn’t see inside her head at this moment. Ari had gotten a kick out of her using Ethan’s first name. And now they’d actually addressed it out loud.
Anyone overhearing their conversation would have thought it highly mundane. “Hi, I’m so-and-so, what’s your name?”
But he’d said so much more. He’d already called her “one of them” when he’d rescued her from Garn, but that was stiff, forced, a life-and-death decision he’d had to face. It had been the only way to save her.
This was just the two of them. But by saying his name, he’d named her, too. He’d named her — not to the group of his enemies, which he very easily could have done.
He named her to the same level as the boys. The ones he trusted. His friends.
He’d just called her his friend.
She couldn’t quite tamp down the winged feeling that was trying to take flight in her chest.
“Well, Ethan,” she said as matter-of-factly as she could, “nice to meet you.”
He played along. “Nice to meet you too, Kierah.”
The winged feeling broke free of her reins and soared through her. He’d said her name. Her name in his voice, on his lips —
She fought to regain control of her heart, but couldn’t.
She needed to change the subject.
“So, do you think you’ll be okay?” she asked lamely. “If Danan changes his mind and — comes for you —”
“We’ll be fine,” he answered almost too quickly, as if he was hoping for a redirection of the conversation, too. “We’ve survived him before.”
“The thing that makes me worried, though, is that I don’t know if Tate will be able to step in next time,” she said, shuddering without meaning to. “If Danan decides to come after you, I don’t think Tate will be able to talk any sense into him.”
“Danan’s partner. The guy who called Terrell and Jonah up to help you and Rothan.”
Ethan paused. “So that’s who that was. How do you know?”
It felt weird saying it to him out loud.
“Yeah. They were just gonna leave you out there, otherwise.”
“Why would they listen to you?” he asked, as if stumbling over the logic of it. His defense was up again. She sighed. He still didn’t trust her. That flying feeling of only a few seconds ago felt like it crashed into a tree and broke its wing.
“Because Danan was trying to get in … less trouble.” And she explained how Danan had threatened her, and how Tate tried to make up for it. How she’d almost run out there herself, foolish as that may have been, and how Tate had prevented that by sending up the teenagers.
Ethan just listened, but she could see his mind was clearly running.
“Quota that day,” he said when she was done. “This Tate guy also had our quotas canceled for two days. Did you know anything about that?”
“Yeah, I’d asked him that, too. I thought — I thought you guys could use a break.”
“Why didn’t you mention this before?” he asked. “I mean, if it’s true, it would do nothing but make you look good, right?”
He was testing her. “It never came up before,” she shrugged honestly. “And I didn’t know if it would ‘make me look good’ or — just shove in your face again that I live in the palace and that the guards, well some of them, will cooperate with me because of that.”
“That’s the privilege you have,” he said. “So what?”
“I feel bad about it,” she admitted. “When I’m here, I don’t want to think about that. I don’t want to remind you that I have it better than you. Because I didn’t earn it, just like you didn’t earn this life down here. I’m no better than you, so why did I end up there? It just feels weird thinking about. And I hate it.”
He seemed surprised that she’d said that.
They sat in silence for a little while, neither sure of what to say next.
“Well, maybe look at it this way,” he suggested eventually. “If if wasn’t for your privilege, you couldn’t come down here. Right? You couldn’t help us.”
“I guess that’s one way to look at it,” she said, again not expecting him to take a glass-half-full approach. This seemed very unlike the suspicious young man she’d learned to live with.
“Because if this is true, you’re saying you’ve helped us more than just with the medicine and the food, saving us from the sickness,” he pointed out. “If you hadn’t gotten that Tate guy to send the boys up, Rothan and I would have been sitting ducks. I wasn’t exactly in any shape to defend us from anything else that might’ve happened. I know just how badly that could have ended if we’d been left alone.”
She hadn’t thought about it like that before. “That isn’t what this is about,” she said quietly. “I’m not trying to keep score.”
“But it’s true, isn’t it?” he asked. “The sickness, and now that day. I only saved you from Garn the one time.”
“Not keeping score,” she repeated. “And even if we were, I’d argue that you’ve saved my life plenty of times since then. You give me a reason to keep waking up in the morning, for what it’s worth. Knowing I get to come down here means I have to get through the rest of my day first, all the pointless lessons and boring protocols and smiling for the camera. It’s all stupid, all of it. And like I said, I don’t deserve any of it. But I get to come down here and see you and the boys, and that’s — that’s what gets me going every day. So in that respect, you’ve saved my life dozens of times.”
She stopped herself, her throat catching. “I’m sorry,” she mumbled, staring at the ground. “That was stupid. Ignore that I said any of that.”
She didn’t want to look at him. Everything else she’d said, had been factual and undeniable. But this was delving too deep into feelings, and he didn’t need to know that. He probably didn’t want to know that.
“It wasn’t stupid,” he said, and there was more sincerity in his voice than she could have expected.
For a split second, it made her wonder if maybe he understood more of what she was saying than she’d given him credit for. If maybe, she was part of his reason for waking up in the morning, too.
If maybe, she’d saved his life as many times as he’d saved hers.
_ _ _ _ __________ _ _ _ _
By the time Kierah left, she couldn’t say how she felt. The guilt over the entire situation with Danan and Ari still lingered, a firm grip on the back of her mind.
But she couldn’t deny the little bounce in her core, the feeling that bubbled up when she thought of how Ethan had responded to some of the things she’d said.
Ethan. She could call him that now without wondering what he thought of it. The bubble of happiness bounced to the surface a little.
She wished she knew what he was thinking about everything else though. He’d said a lot, more than she’d expected him to, but sometimes he was still a tough one to read.
She knew what she was thinking, that he had more strength than she ever could. That he lived in these mines day and, day out, and never cracked. That his weakest day was still stronger than her best day. And that if their positions were reversed, and he’d been given a fraction of the opportunity she had, he be second in command of the palace in no time. He know exactly what to do, and wouldn’t get in such tight scrapes with the guards by trying to help someone, like she had with Danan.
Or maybe he would, she thought. After all, here he got in plenty of scrapes with the guards, for the same reason she did — trying to help.
She walked up to the closed door, on the other side of which stood Danan and Tate. Danan had said he leave her alone. She wanted to believe that, as she knocked the code that they’d established, that they’d know it was her and not a slave trying to get out.
The door opened.
She more than half expected there to be a contingent of guards standing there to arrest her. After everything Danan had said, she didn’t believe him. He might be Ari’s brother, but he was nothing like her.
She stepped out.
Aside from the pair guarding the door, the hallway was empty. She looked around, not sure she believed her eyes.
But no, it was empty. No one was waiting to catch her. Shockingly, it looked like Danan had been telling the truth. For tonight, at least.
Through her visor, she turned toward him. He stood next to Tate, emotionless.
“I guess you meant what you said,” she commented quietly. “Thanks. I know it wasn’t an easy call.”
And she left. She could hear Tate behind her whispering, “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Maybe I’ll explain it sometime,” she heard Danan’s reply, as calm as a midnight breeze.
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Flying training was done for the day. Kierah left the speeder hangar, energized and mostly happy. Like combat class, and unlike ballroom dancing or tea etiquette, she could imagine finding a practical use for the knowledge back in her normal … Continue reading Chapter 18: “I don’t think you should go back”