Children of Ash: A Meridian Six Novella (5 page)

BOOK: Children of Ash: A Meridian Six Novella
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Eleven

M
eridian Six

T
he next morning
, I felt as if I’d been flattened by a boulder. Despite my exhaustion, I’d been unable to settle my mind enough to get any significant rest—especially after that moment in the dark with Zed.

Scraping at the crust in my eyes, I cursed and tried to wake up. Today would not be a fun day.

The sound of a child’s laughter echoed down the hall. A sharp emotion curled in my gut—envy. Those children had never known safety or the freedom we’d all taken for granted before the war, yet they still managed to find joy in this dark world. I longed for their ignorance.

“Six!” Rabbit called from the doorway.

I jumped and put a hand to my chest to still my skittish heart. “Damn it, kid!”

He cringed. “Oops, sorry. Saga wants everyone in the book room, like now.”

I scratched at my head and yawned. “I’ll be there in a sec.”

“Hey, did you know Zed could juggle?”

I frowned. “Of course not.”

“Cool, right?”

I shrugged. “I guess so.” That certainly explained the laughter coming from the other room. “Hopefully he’s got other, more useful skills up his sleeve.”

“Sheesh,” Rabbit said, crossing his too-thin arms. “What crawled up your ass?”

I glared.

“Oh, I get it,” he said. “You haven’t eaten anything yet, right?”

“What makes you say that?”

He shrugged. “You’re always kind of bitchy when you’re hungry.”

“Then why don’t you make yourself useful and get me some food?”

He grinned. “I love you too, Six.” With that he darted down the hall, calling out greetings to those he passed along the way.

I groaned and pulled myself off the bed. At that point, I’d have traded my left arm for that kid’s energy. Unfortunately, I’d need my left arm and all the rest of me to face the coming battle with Icarus and Saga. Because I was about to show them that their favorite puppet had some moves of her own.

I
carus pulled
me aside the instant I walked into the room. “Let me do the talking.”

I laughed. “I’m more than capable of speaking for myself.” I pulled my hand out of his grasp and walked away before he could recover from his shock.

“Six,” he hissed. I kept walking.

Dare stood on the far side of the room. She glowered at me, not bothering to hide her anger. Since we’d arrived at Saga’s, her attitude had shifted from ambivalence toward me to outright antagonism. I’d thought we’d reached a stalemate of sorts, but I guess she’d found a reason to blame me for the fact she couldn’t take part in the mission—if one happened. I turned my back on her, not because I trusted her not to attack, but because I needed her to believe that I wasn’t threatened by her.

Zed was standing near the table, spinning a dusty old globe and running his calloused fingers over the outlines of the old countries. That map might as well have appeared in one of Saga’s beloved fantasy novels. There were no more borders. The vampires controlled everything. They’d redrawn borders to delineate territories, but the entire world—and every human and vampire therein—was controlled by the Prime.

When he caught me looking at him, Zed nodded. His eyes didn’t quite meet mine, and I felt something in my chest thaw. His embarrassment over crying in front of me the night before was endearing, as was his obvious love for the children he protected. He was a sort of anti-Icarus. They both protected those under their care, but appeared to have completely opposite approaches. Having lived under Icarus’s glower for so long, I had to wonder if I might enjoy Zed’s approach better.

I shook myself mentally. If things went as I’d planned, I wouldn’t be under anyone’s power or protection anymore. Needing protecting meant you were never truly able to be free, even if the protector was benevolent.

The shuffle of Saga’s halting steps came from the corridor. I turned to watch him enter in Polonius’s wake. The massive dog made a circuit of the room, sniffing all present to ensure we were all supposed to be there, before he went to lie down across the doorway. Saga took his spot at the table. Before he addressed us, he closed his eyes and breathed in deep, as if the musty scent of paper and old glue filled him with strength.

“Six?” he said, opening his eyes. “Have you made your decision?”

All eyes turned toward me. The weight of those four gazes pressed down on me. Each of the people watching me wanted something different. Icarus wanted me to refuse. Zed wanted me to accept. Saga wanted me to accept under false pretenses. Dare watched me, too, but she just wanted me to get my answer over with so she could be mad at me regardless of which path I chose.

“I thought long and hard last night about our options,” I said. “It’s clear there are no easy answers here, and no matter which option we choose someone is going to get hurt.”

Saga clasped his hands in front of him, the model of patience. But in his eyes, I saw the shadows—the opposite side to his warm protector role. It was the side of him that manipulated all of us into doing his bidding. It was the side that was fully prepared to withdraw any and all aid were we to balk at his demands.

“Compromises must be made,” I continued. Saga flicked a brow, and behind me, Dare sighed audibly. “I am prepared to proceed with a plan to infiltrate the camp.”

“Six!” Icarus’s voice lashed out like a whip. “We talked—”

I slashed a hand through the air. “No,
you
talked. I know you have misgivings and I believe they are justified. However, what kind of humans are we if we don’t do everything in our power to save those children? How are we any better than vampires?”

“Not all vampires are monsters,” Dare said.

I turned to her. “Don’t try to derail this conversation because your ego is bruised.” Her eyes flared like she was ready to attack, but I held up my palm and softened my tone. “I’m sorry you aren’t able to help inside the camp, but we need you on the outside. You and Icarus will make sure we get out alive.”

She looked so confused at my tone and my words that it would have been comical under different circumstances. Her gaze dropped to the floor, but Icarus wasn’t done.

“This is asinine! You’re going to get yourself killed and then we’ll all be dead in the water.”

I turned back to him. “Then I will die either way because you will have to kill me to keep me from doing this.”

“You’ve lost your mind,” he said. “Tell her, Saga.”

“I’m not done,” I said. My voice was surprisingly strong sounding, though my hands were trembling.

“Saga,” Icarus said again.

The old man looked from Icarus to me and back again. From the corner of my eye, I spied Zed clenching and unclenching his fists, as if he was preparing to fight us all to get his way. Finally, Saga said, “Let her finish.”

Icarus opened his mouth, but Saga’s death glare shut him down.

“While inside, I will have three goals—to save Zed’s people, kill Pontius Morordes, and blow up his lab.”

Saga’s eyes narrowed with anger. He hadn’t wanted this information shared with Zed.

“Who’s Pontius Morordes and what lab?” Zed said, as if on cue.

I quickly gave him a run-down of Dr. Death’s sins. “If we are going to take the risk of breaking out your friends then we must ensure that our goals are also met. In this case, destroying the Troika’s ability to produce synthetic blood.”

When I finished speaking, his eyes, which were so recently bashful, turned hard. “And if it comes down to a choice between the goals?”

“I will do everything in my power to avoid having to make that choice.”

He watched me for a moment. I met his glare levelly, but inside I was praying to every divine entity I’d ever heard of to help me never have to make that choice.

“Wait,” Icarus said, “there’s no way in hell we can send you in.”

I put my hands on my hips, prepared for him to tell me I wasn’t a strong enough leader or that I couldn’t hack the mission because I was too weak.

“They’ll recognize you.”

My hands dropped. “Shit.”

“What? Why?” Zed asked.

“Carmina has been the poster child the Troika has used for years to keep the humans in the camps in line. When I was in my camp, there was a massive poster of her hanging over the entrance.” He refused to look at me, as if my face suddenly brought back really horrible memories.

My stomach cramped. Icarus never talked about his time in the camps, but that alone meant it was probably worse than I could ever imagine. Back when I was still the Troika’s poster girl for obedient humans, they’d taken publicity photos of me in a worker’s uniform looking perky for the camera. It sickened me to think that my image now hung over the heads of downtrodden humans to inspire them to work harder.

“Then Icarus will have to lead us.” This was from Zed, who didn’t know any better.

His words ignited instant responses from the others. Icarus’s skin paled and his eyes hardened as he glared at the kid. Dare stepped forward and slightly in front of Icarus, as if to close ranks and protect him. Rabbit rose from the floor and got out of the way, as if he expected Icarus to beat the kid up for the mere suggestion.

“Out of the question.” Saga’s voice was like a gavel’s strike.

“Why?” Zed asked.

“First, Icarus escaped the camps in a particularly memorable way, so they’re just as likely to recognize him as they would Carmina.”

“And second?” Icarus raised his chin high.

“We can’t risk that you’d get in the camps and have some sort of breakdown.”

I flinched because it was the truth. Icarus’s mouth pressed into a thin line and his gaze sought the floor. Seeing him cowed like that made me wish he would fight. But it was no use. We all knew that going back to the camps would be too much for him. Icarus was stronger than his ruined hand and burn scars might indicate, but emotional trauma was a handicap that even the most physically capable person couldn’t escape.

The room fell silent in the wake of Saga’s declaration. At first it seemed everyone was waiting for Icarus to argue, but then the mood shifted and it became clear we were all digesting a reality where he didn’t.

“I can do it,” Dare said finally.

Saga shook his head. “They wouldn’t put you in the work camps, dear. Vampires who act out against the Troika are killed on sight.” He sighed.

Zed raised his chin. “I’ll go alone, then.”

“Hey, what about me?” Rabbit said.

Everyone started talking at once, either arguing against Zed leading or Rabbit going—or both. It continued until a loud, sharp whistle cut through the noise. We all looked at Icarus. “Saga is right on all counts. I can’t go, Dare isn’t the right species, Rabbit is too young, and Zed can’t go in alone. That means we must figure out a way to get Six in.”

Dare walked over and circled me a couple of times. Her yellow eyes with their vertical pupils moved up and down as she surveyed me like she’d never met me before. Her hand shot out and lifted a section of my hair. “We could dye and cut it.”

Saga’s brows rose and his lips pursed. “Shaving it off would be better. They’d believe she was a servant or a rebel more that way.” He tapped his foot on the ground, ignoring my outraged look. “She’ll need a blood tattoo on her neck too.”

Cutting off my hair was one thing, but permanently marking my skin was a level of commitment I hadn’t been prepared for. When this idea had come up, I figured we’d just steal in, maybe kick a little ass, and get the kids out after setting off an explosion or something. “That’s crazy,” I said.

Saga ignored me. “We’ll mark her with a low-level blood type. It’ll help with the disguise. The minute most Troika guards see A neg or B pos, they lose interest.” Which was how most humans in the work camps ended up there. Having a less desirable blood type was considered both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because you would never end up the plaything of a vampire with expensive tastes. A curse because not having valuable blood meant you had no worth beyond being a worker drone—an expendable beast of burden.

“But—”

Dare spoke over me. “But what about this face?” She cupped my chin with her fingers. I jerked my face away from her. “We’ll have to do something to make her less delicate.”

“Hey!”

A dangerous smirk lifted the corners of her mouth, and when she spoke, the empty sockets where her fangs used to sit flashed ominously.

Saga stepped closer. “How do you change a face, though? We can’t rely on makeup once she’s inside.”

“Swelling.”

I froze and turned slowly to face Dare. Her yellow eyes glittered with excitement.

“What does that mean?”

“Do it,” Saga said. He turned away.

“Wait—” Before I could say the second word, knuckles slammed into my jaw and pain radiated through my face like fire. I stumbled back and fell to my ass.

Dare advanced. Behind her and through the haze of pain blurring my vision, I saw Saga turn away and Icarus smile. “Don’t worry,” she said in a taunting tone. “I won’t leave any permanent damage.”

The last thing I remember before the chaos of fists and the barrage of painful blows and the blood, was Dare whispering, “I’m gonna enjoy this,” so low the others couldn’t hear.

W
hen I woke up
, my face felt like a slab of tenderized meat. I tried to smack my heavy lips, but the movement made my jaw pulse like an exposed nerve. My eyes were heavy and swollen, but I managed to get them open enough to blink a few times. Once my vision cleared, I finally saw the ring of heads looking down at me. The light was behind them, so shadows obscured the expressions on their faces, but I imagined there was a mix of pity, impatience, and, in the case of Dare, amusement.

“How long was I out?” My voice cracked. I cleared it so I wouldn’t sound as weak as I felt.

“About two minutes.” This from Dare, who held out a hand to help me up. She didn’t sound as entertained as I’d expected her to, but when I rose and saw her face, it was hard to miss the sparkle in her yellow irises.

“And then I gave you a sedative to keep you under for the tattooing,” Saga added.

BOOK: Children of Ash: A Meridian Six Novella
5.55Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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