This Shattered World Page 60

Merendsen lets out a soft, slow breath. “Lee, I left what precious little time I have alone with Lilac and volunteered to get myself dropped on this ball of mud—no offense, Cormac—and here I am. Remember me?”

“Sorry, sir.” But she doesn’t sound sorry. I hear grief in her voice instead. “I’ve missed you.”

“I get that a lot,” he replies easily. “Now, my girl’s exactly who we need if we’re going to do a little digging. Where’s the most private comscreen we can access?”

“My quarters.” She pushes to her feet and seems to remember me, tilting her head to beckon me along behind them. “I’ll show you.”

Her former captain simply nods, and we both follow her out the door, me trailing behind the two of them. I can hear the sound of distant gunfire as we walk—the sound of my people fighting for their lives, without me.

The girl and the green-eyed boy are racing each other, sprinting through the alleys and byways of November. The girl slows just enough that the green-eyed boy will think he’s catching up, and then she darts up a side street. He slips while trying to follow her and goes crashing to the ground.

The girl hears him cry out and runs back to his side as fast as she can. He’s skinned both his knees, and blood is dripping onto the cracked pavement below. She tries to bandage the scrapes, but they won’t stop bleeding, no matter what she does; when she looks up, the boy’s face is draining of color.

“You did this to me,” he whispers, reaching toward her face. But before he can touch her, his fingertips crumble away into dust.

“No,” cries the girl. “I’m sorry. Please, don’t go.”

But the green-eyed boy has turned to ash, and she can’t touch him for fear he’ll shatter, and even the shape of who he was will be lost.

“Flynn—come back to me.”

MERENDSEN PRODUCES A HANDHELD DEVICE from his pocket and presses a couple of switches, moving slowly around the confines of my room to check for bugs. He never had tech like that when I knew him. It’s only once we’re certain we won’t be overheard that he gestures for me to start up my computer. I’m acutely aware of both guys watching me as I type away at the console sunk into my desk.

I know Merendsen’s monitoring my efforts to secure this end of the channel—making sure there aren’t any keytrackers or recorders running and that the military call log software gets bypassed properly—but I can’t figure out why Flynn’s so intent. Though I can’t see him standing behind me, I feel his stare like a red-hot laser, burning into the back of my neck. Flynn won’t know anything about computers. He’s probably never used one; there certainly aren’t any comscreens with hypernet connections handed out to the rebels in the swamps. But his eyes stay on me anyway.

I shift uncomfortably, fingers fumbling and forcing me to backspace before I can summon Merendsen with a jerk of my chin. He inspects the screen, then bends down over my shoulder to key in Lilac LaRoux’s address. We’ve got the lights low in the hopes anyone passing by will think I’m grabbing some much-needed rest. Merendsen straightens and I get to my feet as the call starts connecting, letting him take the chair instead. Lilac LaRoux has no reason to talk to me—best let her fiancé handle this. I drift backward, clasping my hands behind me.

“Let’s hope she’s awake,” Merendsen murmurs, voice quickening. Anticipation, I think. He’s eager to see her, his whole body angling toward the screen. I glance over at Flynn, but his eyes are fixed on the monitor, his jaw clenched and his shoulders tense.

I sigh. “I just hope she’s not at one of her famous parties with a dozen of her chattiest friends.”

Merendsen exhales a laugh, speaking with a smile in his voice. “I don’t think that’s going to be a problem.”

Before I can ask him to elaborate, the call connects and the picture pops up. There’s a woman in the image—a girl my age, maybe younger. For a moment I don’t recognize her without the hair, the makeup, the glitzy dresses and jewelry. I find myself staring, trying to connect this sleepy-eyed, fuzzy-haired girl with the heiress to the LaRoux fortune. She’s pretty—beautiful, even—but nothing like the creature I think of when I think “Lilac LaRoux.”

“Tarver,” she mumbles, stifling a yawn and rubbing a bit of sleep out of the corner of her eye. She’s clearly been woken up; she’s wearing a silk robe over whatever she was sleeping in.

“Hi, beautiful.” His voice is soft in a way I’ve never heard from him before. “Am I off the hook for running out yet?”

She wakes up a little more, a smile lighting her features as she leans a little closer to the screen’s camera. “Tarver!” she repeats, more alert now. Her smile grows wry, amusement coloring her face. “Have any of the nasty swamp people shot at you yet?”

I have to stifle a protest, swallowing it down. It’s clear Lilac LaRoux can’t see me or Flynn standing in the background.

But Merendsen just snickers, as if she was joking. “No, but it’s still early days. How are things at home?”

“Good. I haven’t had a chance to try the bathtub yet.” Lilac’s leaning closer still, one hand appearing as she lifts it to trace the neckline of her robe. Coy, flirtatious, her movements graceful enough to make me strangely envious of that skill. I look at Flynn again, but this time he’s staring at the floor, keeping his eyes averted from the girl on the screen.

“Someone’s got to test out the new plumbing, make sure it all works.” Merendsen’s amused, his voice low and private.

“Do you have a little time? I could bring the comscreen with me. Show you how much I wish you were here.” Her finger pulls the neckline of her robe open a little.

I see just enough skin to realize she’s not wearing anything under it before I jerk my eyes away and stare intently at the ceiling. Too late, I get why Flynn’s watching the floor with such dedication.

“Oh, come on.” Tarver groans. “I said I was sorry for leaving, do you have to torture me? And, uh”—his voice turns a bit sheepish—“Lee’s here, so you might want to…” He trails off and glances over his shoulder at me.

Dammit, Merendsen. I clear my throat and step forward, into the light cast by the screen.

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