By Alyxandra Harvey
Elysium City, 2086
The Taggers were onto her.
Saffron had finally found a decent clump of pineapple weed and, of course, the bloody taggers showed up. Scavenging for plants was technically illegal in the common areas, but surviving on the Directorate-issue protein paste was miserable. She didn’t know how they’d even figured out she was untagged, since she was crouched in the rain with her sleeves down to her wrists. Bad enough the Directorate opened up Tagging centres to test for numen, but it was just insulting when other scavengers from the Core turned traitor to become Taggers. She didn’t just want to escape, she wanted to break some bones at the same time.
She ducked between two rusted cars before they could get into range. One dart from the tranquilizer gun and she’d wake up in a Tagging centre, if she woke up at all. People from the Core went missing all the time. She didn’t run south toward the Core, even though she knew the streets and alleys there better than anyone. They would expect that, and they’d have backup waiting. And anyway she wouldn’t lead them to her Oona. She’d rather be tagged.
Actually, she’d rather feed them their own darts and electricity.
“Stop her!” one of the Taggers shouted. The other Elysians faded away into the crumbling buildings. They wouldn’t help the Taggers. Of course, they wouldn’t help her either, any more than she’d have helped them. That wasn’t the way you survived as a scavenger.
“It won’t hurt, sweetheart,” was the next shout. “It’s just a test and a tattoo.”
She would have snorted if she’d had the breath to spare. It wasn’t fear, it was the principle. Leaves slapped at her as she ran. She was piling up infractions: scavenging, untagged, and now breaking branches of the trees that grew at all angles in all parts of the City. They were protected, worth more than anything or anyone from the Core. They emerged from broken windows and through the skeletons of abandoned cars covered in moss and lichen and weeds. At this rate, she’d anger a Dryad and have her intestines wrapped around a tree like a yuletide banner. She had to wonder what the Directorate had told the girls who turned into Dryads when they’d first started the Green Jack experiments. Another version of “it’s just a test and a tattoo, sweetheart.”
A dart flew past her ear, nearly catching in the braid at the temple. She ducked behind a door, grabbing for one of her knives. It sliced between the sheets of rain, slamming into one of the Tagger’s shoulders. The tranquilizer gun clattered to the ground. It didn’t stop them though; mostly, it just pissed them off. Well, good. She was plenty pissed off herself.
She was near the Wall, and if she wasn’t careful she’d get stuck between the guards and the Taggers. But if she went up into one of the buildings she might be trapping herself. She didn’t know which had stairs, which had bridges to other buildings, which had tenants who would turn her in for the promise of a reward. The Taggers were now offering packets of seeds for those who helped them. It was hard to compete with that. Even if she had more than a handful of weeds to offer as a bribe. Which she didn’t.
The rain ran into her mouth; it was cold and tasted like metal. It had been raining for five weeks and three days. Before the Rains, there hadn’t been a cloud for over nine months. Everything was covered in dust, which was just as deadly. At least when the rains came, everyone had an equal chance.
That was how you could always tell the poor folk from the others; Elysians grew their hair into long braids to catch the rain, and the rich Enclave folk cut theirs short as rat fur. The rain was a liar, though. It slid down your face and you couldn’t help but hope. And after all these wet weeks, the hope got stronger, so strong you’d swear you were drinking whiskey instead. It muddled your brain. The Wall couldn’t handle the constant water; that was the hope lured people away from their cramped apartments hundreds of feet up in the air. The electricity shorted out and the Wall looked like any other wall, and someone always tried to climb over it.
Someone always died.
Tonight was no different.
Jane hoped there was still strawberry and avocado salad.
Her mother insisted on arriving to all social events three hours late. She claimed it showed that they were busy and important people but just once Jane wanted to arrive when the buffet table hadn’t already been decimated. People from the Enclave were meant to pick at their food in public; enough to show that there was always plenty to be had, but not enough to imply they might actually be hungry. Hunger was gauche. But strawberries were rare, and in Jane’s opinion worth any amount of disdain.
Somehow, despite the dainty nibbling, the strawberries were always gone by the time Jane arrived.
When the herald announced them, Jane’s mother strode forward as though the party was in her honour. “The Highgate family. Amaryllis with daughters Ivy, Jane and Portia.” Ivy was dutiful, and Portia was eager. Jane was just hungry. Her presence wasn`t required anyway; she wasn`t quite exceptional enough. It didn’t bother her, she usually preferred invisibility. It was the only way to enjoy what remained of the mint ices, since it looked as though the very elegant Enclave society folk had already licked the strawberry plate clean.
“I knew I’d find you here,” Kiri said. She wore a delicate beaded gown with a matching bandeau in her short hair. Her black eyes were lined in thick silver, the only hint of Kiri’s real personality.
“Why are you so floofy?” Jane asked, reaching for a spoon painted with tiny violets. “And pink. You look like cake.”
“I’d punch you for that if it wasn’t true.” She plucked at the diaphanous petals of her dress, glowing against her dark skin. “New designer. Mother has decided to be his patron.”
The dress was the exact colour of strawberry ice cream. “It’s making me hungry.”
Kiri grinned. “If you bite me, I’ll bite you back.”
“I’m aware,” Jane retorted. “I still have the scar on my thumb.”
“I was six years old,” Kiri scoffed.
“You were fourteen.”
“Well, whatever.” She claimed a glass of champagne off a waiter’s tray.
The lights flickered, but since outages were as common as rats in the Core, the dancing continued. When there was a faint and familiar pop and the lights went out entirely, the well-trained staff were already lighting the candles and solar lanterns. “Here comes Micah,” Jane murmured.
“He’ll want to dance,” Kiri sighed and drained her glass.
Micah was tall and lean, with coppery skin and enviable cheekbones. He was polite and patient, two qualities Kiri had never possessed. She might have liked him if she hadn’t been ordered to marry him. And it didn’t matter that Micah was in love with a young man who’d just been enlisted into the Protectorate. His lover was from the City, and that just wasn’t good enough. The Directorate mattered, and family. In that order.
The truth was, Kiri was lucky; there were as many unkind options as kind ones. The only reason Jane wasn’t betrothed was because her mother was determined that only the best and most powerful sons would do for her daughters. She’d managed to find a food engineer’s son for Ivy and Jane was next. Portia was still at school, but only so long as it served her mother’s purposes. Kiri joined the dance and Jane went back to ferreting out rose-petal creams and candied violets.
A familiar burn at the top of her spine made her drop a violet into the tureen of parsley soup. Spatters of green stained her dress. She smiled weakly at the gentleman beside her, forcing her feet to obey her, to bring her into the safety of the hallway. She pressed her temples hard, as if it would alleviate the pressure. It never did. Numen moved through her when she used it to read the omens, but during moments like this it felt trapped, burning painfully. Her head throbbed.
She’d been trying to find the reason behind her headaches for weeks now. She couldn’t ask the professors at the Collegium; someone might accuse her of numen poisoning. She’d be locked away, or carted to the laboratories. And worse, yet, they might be right.
A pink moon. Red dust on a rooftop. Blue eyes between green leaves.
She dug her fingers into the dirt of the potted plants flanking the staircase, pushing the excess numen into the earth, willing the magic to bloom out of her like a cactus rose. Instead, roots of fire crawled up into her brain. She had to remind herself that the pain would pass. There was no pink moon.
She hadn’t really thought too much about numen before the headaches; there were too many other things to worry about: if the Ferals were going to attack, if the Elysians were going to rebel, what her Mother was planning, why someone else was being carted away by the Protectorate in the middle of the night.
But lately, with some kind of numen burning in the back of her brain, it mattered.
She was finally able to push away from the plant, wiping blood from her nose. She had to get back to the ballroom before anyone noticed she was gone. And by anyone, she meant her mother.
She was still in the hall when the alarm pierced through the piano and cello. For a long frozen moment, she thought they had come for her. That someone had noticed her, despite the fact that no one ever noticed her. Someone had called the soldiers to take her away. There was no trial for numen-poisoning, no hasty explanations, only testing.
By the time the soldiers arrived, Jane was already pressing her forehead to the cold marble stones, exposing the back of her neck and the eye tattooed there. Anyone with a talent for manipulating numen was tattooed: an eye for the Oracles, a bee for the Bee Whisperers, a see growing a spiral for the Seedsingers who worked plant-numen, and lightning for the Weather Witches. Jane was studying to be an Oracle, to divine the future of rain, droughts, and crops through divination. She learned tarot cards and runes, how to read clouds and the movement of insects, and the songs to sing to the full moon for planting, and the dark skies for reaping.
The crystal chandeliers rattled as Protectorate soldiers marched through the ballroom. Jane’s heart raced in her chest. She could still see their previous next door neighbour’s daughter being shot in the front yard. Jane never did find out what her crime was, but the adults spoke in whispers for days. Her palms dampened with sweat when a boot clomped passed her head.
Up until she was thirteen years old, Jane had lived in a tiny house under the parapet that circled the Enclave. She made herself remember every room, every detail of the faded wallpaper, the stones in the garden, the sound of rain on the roof. Sometimes it was enough to stave off the panic. She’d loved that house. But while it was vastly better than living inside the City, it was nowhere near as prestigious as the neighbourhoods closer to the Temple. When a great aunt nobody knew about died and left her mother a house, as well as a recommendation for a job in the Directorate offices, everything changed.
“You are to proceed in a calm and orderly fashion back to the bridge. Your cooperation is appreciated.”
Clearly, the ball was over. There was no reason offered, but that wasn’t surprising. The Directorate didn’t owe anyone explanations, even at an Enclave event. But at least they weren’t here for her. Relief was so intense it made Jane nauseous.
They were escorted to the stone stairs leading to the train. Gunfire was a faint drumbeat in the distance. Unconcerned, women gathered up their hems as the rain misted around them. The enclosed bridge curved over the City, safely connecting the Enclave to the castle. The glass was bulletproof and shatterproof and the drop to the streets below high enough to kill on impact. The train was sleek and black, with upholstered benches and solar lanterns made from colourful glass swinging from the ceiling. The car was crowded, smelling of perfume and cologne. Jane wished she could hold her breath for the twenty minutes it took to get home.
The scents of stables, rain, and mint was a relief; a combination unique to the Enclave. No one else could afford to grow enough mint in back gardens to scent the air. It chased away the last of the anxiety nibbling at the back of her neck.
The family rickshaws waited for them, all swirls of frosted glass and gilt paint like a row of cupcakes. The solar lamps swung from the posts as the runners shifted. Jane’s mother looked past her with a sharp nod. Someone grabbed Jane’s arm. “Come with me, Miss Highgate.”
The torchlight glinted off the metal leaves of a soldier’s mask. “Where are you taking me?” Jane asked, her throat dry and papery. Some Oracle she was. She wasn’t supposed to be taken by surprise, not like this. The tea leaves from her morning cup should have warned her with images of horses, or swans for deceit, arrows, something.
“Don’t embarrass me, Jane,” her mother snapped. “Drive on.”
The rickshaws pulled away, leaving Jane behind.
Directorate before family.
As the darkness fell, Saffron didn’t reach for her flashlight. Batteries were too precious to waste watching desperate idiots fry. It was the same every time. The City went dark, and people hurled themselves at the Wall. There were always guards, and their rifles had lights. And they were always on the other side of the darkness, no matter where the darkness ended.
And Saffron and the other Elysians were always here.
It would take a few moments for the guards on the Wall to switch on the solar lamps and from the sound of the Taggers’ voices, they were across the street now. Saffron edged out, relief and adrenaline making her skin prickle.
Until the Protectorate soldiers came around the corner, sitting straight in their saddles, uniforms and weapons gleaming. There were four of them, with a man riding in the centre. Leaves wound through his hair and over his forehead.
A Green Jack.
Saffron stepped backwards into a splintered storefront window. Glass crunched loudly under her boots but the Taggers had forgotten her as every green thing around the Green Jack grew lush in his wake. Vines stretched out, dandelions flowered, lichen seemed to glow. The grass thickened so quickly the cement shifted apart like a series of miniature earthquakes. The trees grew tiny green buds.
Saffron grabbed at dandelions and stuffed them in her pockets. The smart thing to do was to run as far and as fast as she could. You couldn’t go three feet without running into a Green Jack shrine, all painted oak leaves and gilded tin; but while actual Green Jacks were paraded around on feast days, they were otherwise kept hidden away. They must be bringing him in to be tested in the laboratories. The Directorate was always trying to find more effective ways to harness a Jack’s power.
Back when the temperatures first rose and the crops first started to fail, a Green Jack walked out of a forest and everything he touched grew. For a few years, everything seemed hopeful. Until the Cataclysms and the Lake Wars, and the closing of the cities. The Directorate was formed, and now Jacks spent most of their time on the farms, walking the fields, and sleeping under the glass domes to helps the crops grow that fed the City.
But the Directorate still hadn’t figured out how their magic worked, not really. No one had, not even the Collegium, which was created for that very purpose. They might train the Numina to work plant numen and predict crops, but they couldn’t explain it either. It was just mysterious enough, and necessary enough, that a kind of religion had formed around the Green Jacks. And as long as the Directorate came first, they didn’t much care what the Elysians believed in, old gods or new ones. Still, the Order of the Green Gods had Woodwives praying in their leaf-cloaks in every cella and all over the City. If the Green Jacks had originally been prayed out of the forest as was believed, then even the Directorate couldn’t be too safe.
This Green Jack was still half-wild. He was the colour of rich earth and holly leaf. They got as much water to drink and food to eat—-real food, not the stuff the Core got. The tomatoes in the Core had more mouse DNA than actual tomato. All the new food sciences were tested in the Core first and usually they were so hungry, they didn’t care.
A beam of light swung wide and gunshot splintered the air. The beam swung again, harsh blue light falling relentlessly over the bodies. There were already half a dozen of them sprawled out with dead eyes and bloody holes in their chests. Some people spent their entire lives lurking by the Wall, just waiting for the rain to do its work.
The Green Jack leapt off his horse as if he could fly. The Protectorate flashlights tried to pin him down. Saffron already knew he wouldn’t make it.
The Wall was lined with an electric fence, but it wasn’t the only safeguard. Saffron heard snarling. There were flashes of acid-green eyes.
Genetic mutation and experimental science had combined the ferocity of wild boar, the strength of bull, and the viciousness of a cornered badger with wild dogs. They were only released when the power went out. They killed anything they found, whether or not they were even attempting to scale the Wall.
Protectorate guns shattered the air above the Wall. They didn’t know what to do. Green Jacks were too precious to kill. The Wall flung him away like a rag doll. He landed in the street and was almost immediately cradled in leaves, moss, and weeds. He was near close enough that Saffron could see his teeth when he made a sound of pain. She could sense the Otherness of him. It was disconcerting. There was a smell of cedar under the mud and blood. The beams of light stabbed at the darkness.
And then he was gone.
The leaves started to wilt. That kind of growth didn’t last long when there was no Jack to sustain it, especially this far into the flood season. The Cerberus growled. Someone screamed.
Saffron was wondering if she could reach the rusted yellow school bus and leap onto the nearest balcony when she saw the leaf mask. They said a Jack weakened without it, but this one was long gone anyway. And with a leaf mask she could finally pay back Argent. Never mind him—-Oona would never go hungry again. Saffron grabbed it as she swung herself up onto the metal carcass of the bus. It creaked under her weight.
A Cerberus spotted her and the growls turned to barks. She jumped, her fingers clamped around the rusty metal, slick with rain. She dangled precariously as the beast below spat out a mouthful of tulle torn off her hem.
Saffron couldn’t help but think stupid reckless thoughts about climbing the Wall, just there where the mortar was crumbling, and then under the barbed wire.
It wasn’t the blood running out of the people scattered below that stopped her. It was the thought of her Oona, alone in this world. Killian would look after her, but he was barely getting by as it is.
So she turned away from the stupid temptation, a mask of leaves wrapped around her wrist as she ran the bridges of rotting ropes that connected the Core.
It was a great honour to visit the cella temple, even at three o’clock in the morning, but Jane would have preferred to be almost anywhere else. Even on watch on the parapets in the cold rain. The guard took her past clusters of administrative builds, squat and brown as toadstools. He didn’t stop at the Collegium temple which glowed, candlelight and lamplight shining through jeweled glass. Jane had only ever visited for her Naming Day omens. The Enclave citizens went to the outdoor porticos for readings and temple duties, it was rare to be allowed inside the private cella if you weren’t a Numina. Mostly it was reserved for Woodwives at their prayers. She could hear them chanting, even this late into the night.
The soldier took her to the main garden dome, where condensation gleamed on the inside of the glass. The air was humid and thick between rows of scarlet peas, cucumber vines, and the leafy tops of beets. This dome grew most of the food grown for the citizens of the Enclave. It had an intricate watering system, and specialized glass that filtered the sun when it was too hot and regulated the temperature when it was too cold. It was impervious to hail, ice, and bullets.
There was no earthly reason why Jane should be here.
Paths radiated out from the centre, which was basically a cellar transformed into a prison. It had a four poster bed, a television, music system, even a bathroom with running hot water tucked into an alcove -- but it had no windows, no doors, and a ladder lowered down only when the Green Jack was needed elsewhere.
It was one thing to learn about it in school and another thing entirely to see it in person. The weak light from a dangling lantern showed the whites of his eyes behind his mask of entwined leaves. He lay on his back on a plush mattress, ankles crossed as though he was bored, but his every muscle radiated tension. He was the reason the plants in the dome thrived, the reason Jane and everyone she knew had food to eat.
And he was dying.
All captive Green Jacks died. No amount of science or numen or green prayers were able to prevent it. Certainly not an Oracle with crushing and unexplained headaches.
A door opened behind a cluster of orange trees, displacing the humid air. A woman joined them; her face was stern though tiny laugh lines bracketed her mouth. She wore a band embroidered with bright red flowers in her short black hair. “You must be Jane Highgate.” Something about the way she was smiling made Jane even more nervous. “I’m Tia,” she continued, oblivious or uncaring. Probably uncaring. Jane had never been particularly good at hiding her emotions.
The Green Jack bared his teeth. “I’m going to eat your liver one day, Tia.”
“Charming, Hudson.” Tia motioned to Jane. ‘This way.” She ducked under an arbour dipping with grapes and wide flat leaves like hands grasping at them as they passed by.
Jane followed because she didn’t know what else to do. And the nudge from the soldier’s rifle in her back was rather persuasive. “I didn’t know Green Jacks were cannibals.”
“Oh, they’re not. Hudson’s just Hudson. Keep up now, you’re late as it is.”
“Where are we going?”
“It’s not far,” Tia replied, which wasn’t an answer. She led them down a back stairwell stinking of antiseptic. Red security lights blinked in neat rows beside locked doors. There was a small auditorium at the end of the hall with ropes squaring off an area in the centre. Jane joined half a dozen other students waiting in an uncertain clump. She recognized a few; Blake and Lee looked as surprised as she felt. Well, Blake did. Lee didn’t look concerned, but then she never made any kind of expression, even the time she caught her thumb in the door and nearly broke her knuckle. “What’d you do?” Blake whispered. He was so tall he had to duck down slightly to talk to her. “You don’t seem the type to get into trouble. Despite the haircut.”
Lee had shaved her head entirely. Her parents owned an entire block of houses they’d connected with elaborate covered arched bridges, like a koi garden. Jane’s mother envied their houses almost as much as she hated Jane’s ‘common’ hair. Which was, of course, the main reason she’d grown it out.
“No talking,” one of the administrators snapped. Lee stared straight ahead like she was training to be in the Protectorate.
Jane noticed a camera suspended from the ceiling, and rows of test tubes and vaguely scientific-looking equipment. None of which made the situation any clearer. Or less intimidating.
Neither did Asher, strutting through the door. He saw Jane and snickered. “What the hell are you doing here, mouse?”
Jane forced herself not to react. He only fed off of it.
“Silence, please,” Tia called out. Three Directorate administrators with an imposing collection of embroidered leaves on their sleeves stood behind her. Their rank was enough to make Jane’s mother drool on herself. It became a tiny bit clearer why Jane was here.
Especially when Cartimandua strode into the room, effectively holding every ounce of attention. Jane had only ever seen the Legata on feast days and in victory parades when a new Green Jack was brought into the City. She wore a leather tunic and the mark of the Protectorate tattooed at the base of her throat. Her eyes were very blue. She was in her early thirties but she’d already been Legata for the last seven years, trained by her father who had been one of the first Directors.
“As you know, The Directorate was formed to keep order during the Lake Wars and the Cataclysm. We work tirelessly to safeguard the Green Jacks, and grow the food that keeps you and your families alive. But even with our system, there are more people than plants. The weather, regrettably, resists any attempts at dependable regulation, even with the Numinas and the Order. The City is plagued with rebels and rats, with Elysians who would always rather take than give. But the Protectorates keeps us safe and the Directorate keeps us well. We owe them our loyalty and our allegiance.”
Jane had heard versions of this speech since before she could walk; in public announcements on the train, on the screens in the Rings before movies, and between shows on the televisions in the Enclave. From her mother before every meal. Pamphlets were handed out on feast days. Oaths were required when you entered the Collegium and again when you graduated. Jane shifted, her mind racing and skittering. There was a pressure in the room, the kind that builds and builds until it shatters into a storm that sweeps through streets and sewers.
“We must never be seen to be weak.” Cartimandua added, her voice reaching every corner of the auditorium, even though her tone was soft as water. Jane shivered, imagining monsoons, floods, tsunamis. “We must make the hard decisions, for if not us, then who?” She looked at the huddle of confused students, taking the time to meet each of their eyes. “And you will help us.”
A young man with a scar on his face entered the auditorium. He wore leather straps across his chest bristling with knives. The woman who followed had a shaved head tattooed with oak leaves, two short swords and small round shield painted with a Green Jack’s face, sharp leaves exploding out of his mouth. They stepped over the ropes and bowed to Cartimandua.
They erupted into violence. He was strong and flexible, she was fast and vicious. He got the first hit, slashing across her arm with his dagger. The leather of her bracer split but she was already moving. Instead of whirling away as Jane expected, she closed in, ducking under his arm. She smashed her palm into his sternum, then his throat. He punched her in the kidney and she fell to one knee, using her new vantage point to slice her sword across his Achilles’ tendon. His scream turned into a gurgle of blood when her second sword severed his trachea. He died coughing and twitching while the administrators watched him dispassionately and Jane tried not to throw up. Someone gasped. Jane wasn’t sure if the sound had come from her own mouth.
It happened so quickly she barely had time to wonder if she should do something, never mind try to figure out what that might be. An hour ago she’d been complaining about strawberries and now there was a boy dead on the floor. The students stood frozen together, except for Asher staring at the girl with a sick, interested smile.
She bowed to Cartimandua again before marching away without a backward glance at the audience or the dead boy. When the soldiers dragged the body away, smearing blood over the tiles, Jane had to clench her teeth against the bile burning in her throat.
“We all have different gifts,” Cartimandua said. “This man gave up his life to test his strength for the good of us all. What will you give up?” At her gesture, two students were pushed into the roped off area. “Only one of you walks away.”
They looked as confused as Jane felt. Cartimandua just looked impatient. A soldier tasered one of the students dropped, gasping. Cartimandua gave her a moment to recover. “I said, only one of you walks away. Fight.”
Jane’s heart was racing. What had her mother gotten her into to? Portia was the one who wanted intrigue and power. Jane just wanted to run. She didn’t know anything about fighting. She was good at running on the tracks, good enough with a crossbow but everyone was. It was mandatory training to help guard the parapet. She drank star anise tea for the omens, read books, tried to avoid her mother——
And she was next.
“But I’m not a—-.”
Asher had already punched her. She staggered back, tasting blood. Only the fact that she’d been fighting numen headaches for the last few weeks helped her stay on her feet. Asher smirked, enjoying himself. When she tried to punch him back he easily avoided her, stepping aside and then ramming his elbow into her spine. She landed hard, her knees cracking on the floor.
She concentrated on ducking and dodging. She slipped on someone else’s blood and that time, she didn’t get up again. Asher fisted his hand in her hair, lifting her head back. When Cartimandua snapped her fingers, he let go so fast Jane couldn’t catch herself. She had to crawl to the sidelines to get out of the way of the next match.
When it was over, they were battered and bloody but no better informed.
“Disappointing.” Cartimandua marched along the line of students, blood under her boots. “This is the problem,” she continued as someone behind Jane began to weep. “No matter what we do, it isn’t enough. Not with rebels taking out Taggers and Greencoats stealing Green Jacks and too many ungrateful people to feed.”
She stopped, pointing at a student. “Amphitheatre.” A clerk behind her began to take notes. “Garden, garden, second trials. Amphitheatre.” She flicked a glance over Jane’s bruised face. “Garden. Really, I expected more from the children of the Enclave. You’ll have to do better.”
“I’m sure it goes without saying that we demand your utmost discretion. Should you speak to anyone about this, anyone at all without clearance, the consequences will be swift and brutal.”
There was nothing left to say.
Jane knew exactly what a fly felt like, wrapped in invisible threads impossible to cut.
“You are dismissed.”
Saffron let herself into the apartment, tossing her jacket at a hook. When the sleeve fell over the camera set into the wall, the resulting alarm shrieked at her. The deadbolt on the door slammed shut in warning. Cursing, Saffron tugged the sleeve aside and the alarm died instantly. “Thank you for your cooperation.”
“Bite me,” she enunciated very clearly at the Directorate-issued camera. The deadbolt slid free. “I don’t know where they think we could even hide rebels or Greencoats,” she muttered at Killian who had burst into the hall from his room. “It’s not like there’s any space in here.”
He just shrugged. Saffron had known him for years but she’d never heard the sound of his voice. Despite that, they never had a problem communicating. But before she could tell him about the leaf mask, the front doors slammed open. “Hey, little brother!”
Killian’s expression went carefully blank. Haruki and Mason were full of swagger and cheap wine, as usual. Haruki was unfairly beautiful, all angular lines and dark eyes. He was one of the beautiful people handing out Gingerbread in the Rings. Gingerbread was just another shiny distraction to keep Elysians from crossing out of the Core: entertainment, food, bright lights were usually enough to convince a person it wasn’t so bad after all on this side of the Wall. And Haruki took as much as he sold. Even now, his pupils were dilated, his smile slightly strange. Gingerbread made you docile. It painted the city in pretty colours, fattening you up like Hansel and Gretel at the mouth of the oven.
“There’s a Jack loose in the City,” Mason said. “And we mean to run him to ground.”
“Good for you, don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out,” Saffron said as Haruki pulled weapons from their room.
“Saffron, how come you never spread—-“
Killian pushed past her. Before she could grab him, Mason had already dodged his punch and returned with his own. Mason struck him again, in the kidney this time, until he doubled in pain. They had no reason to hate him, they just did. Killian on the other hand had every reason to hate them, and he didn’t. At least not as much as Saffron did.
“Get off him!” she yelled, elbowing Mason in the ear as hard as she could. He grunted, letting go of Killian.
“You little bitch…” He lunged for her but Killian shoved his foot out, tripping him.
“Boys,” Papu coughed from his bed under the window. He’d moved in soon after the City had been closed. Oona was born in this building, back when it had working elevators and electricity. Now it was just one more high-rise lit by candles and chemical sunsticks. Solar generators were rare and expensive. She was just glad they lived on the third floor. Mrs. Fieldman lived on the thirty-second floor and hadn’t left her flat in years.
Mason grabbed Killian again, twisting his arm behind his back at a violent angle. If Mason pulled any harder, he’d break Killian’s arm. Again.
Saffron reached for the dagger in her boot. Haruki was faster, smashing her in the shoulder. Her arm went numb and the dagger clattered to the floor. She launched into a forward roll that brought her to the brothers’ packs. She pulled a lighter from her pocket.
“Hey! Morons!” She held the flame under one of the packs. The fire licked at the canvas, scorching it black. “Hard to get the bounty on the Jack if I burn all your pretty toys.” She probably couldn’t do much damage to any weapons inside, but food rations and hunter’s pardon notes were susceptible. And they were necessary.
Mason and Haruki froze. “Don’t you dare,” Mason ground out.
She smiled, holding the flame closer. “You let Killian go and then you get the hell out of here. I’ll toss your things out into the hall after you. That’s the deal.”
“Your girlfriend’s still fighting your battles, little brother.”
“Yeah, it’s called having someone to watch your back, jackass,” Saffron shot back. The fire was eating a hole through the canvas.
Mason shoved Killian away. “This isn’t over, Saffron. Live in fear.”
“Just as soon as you become scary, I might. Now run along, boys.”Black smoke lifted off the packs. “Or did you want to talk some more? I think I smell some protein bars cooking.”
Mason swore. He jerked his head in Haruki’s direction. “Let’s go before someone else claims the bounty.”
Saffron waited until they were out in the hall. “Good boy,” she said mockingly, before tossing the packs out and slamming the door shut. She locked both deadbolts. Killian pushed to his knees. He’d already cracked his nose back into place. His mother watched silently from the doorway to their room, wringing her hands. Sometimes, Saffron hated her as much as she hated his brothers.
She crawled out onto the fire escape, away from the Directorate monitors and alarms and Killian’s mother’s sad, pathetic eyes. Killian followed, moving gingerly. “I really hate your brothers,” she said. She massaged the back of her head where Haruki had yanked some of her hair out. Killian’s sister had joined the Protectorate, mostly to escape them. Saffron wished Killian had somewhere to go too.
She dropped her voice so that it was barely a whisper. “I found a leaf mask,” she mouthed.
Killian stared at her for a long startled moment. He waited, one eyebrow raised. Hour long speeches by government officials trained in rhetoric had said less.
“I found it,” she said defensively, even though he technically hadn’t accused her of anything. “By the Wall. That’s who your brothers are chasing.”
He touched his eye, then pointed at her.
“I hid it already.” She’d buried it in her secret balcony garden across the street, in a potato pot too heavy to move. It was nearly impossible to get to; she had to cross an old rope bridge no one bothered to use anymore. It was more difficult in the rain, but not impossible. And overall, it was just crazy enough that no one would think to look up here, even when chasing a fugitive Green Jack. Especially since the ropes only led to a building smudged with black smoke from a fire that had eaten through the centre. The stairs there were beyond repair and they used to dare each other to leap from the edges of what remained. Killian always went the highest, even when they played with the older kids. Oona said everyone had demons, except for Saffron because she was a one.
He stared at her intently.
“I’m always careful,” she said.
He didn’t need words to tell her what he thought of that.
They watched the clouds chase each other, reflecting the multi-coloured lights from the Rings. For a while, Saffron could almost forget what stretched around them, alleys and soldiers and guns. She thought about the leaf mask and what exactly she was supposed to do with it. Taking it had been an impulse; keeping it would require serious planning.
The sound of rain pattering on the metal fire escape was replaced with the sounds of a fight. She sighed, rolling to her feet. “Welcome to Elysium City.”
Killian joined her at the edge of the balcony, scanning the area. In the mouth of the alley, two Taggers surrounded a skinny boy with spiky blue hair. She recognized him from the sideshow. She’d busted him twice for trying to sneak in. She thought his name was Aaron.
“Are you tagged? Roll up your sleeve.”
“Got to hell,” Aaron sneered.
The tranquilizer dart hit him in the thigh. He plucked at it frantically, but it was too late. Apartment windows slammed shut all around them. He blinked, disoriented. The sedative was already seeping into his bloodstream. The second Tagger tied Aaron’s hands, annoyed that he hadn’t just cooperated. Killian shifted.
“Don’t,” Saffron said tightly, knowing exactly what he was thinking. “They’ll just tag you too.” Killian looked frustrated. “You know they will,” she insisted. “Anyway, do you think he’d help——.” She cut herself off when an arrow sliced between Aaron and the Taggers, leaving a burn of blood and torn leather on a Tagger’s shoulder.
“The rebels,” Saffron muttered, recognized the signature green fletching on the arrow. “Unbelievable. Where were they an hour ago?”
Killian just shot her a speaking glance and went back to watching an older man and a girl with enough resemblance to be his daughter shoot out of the alley. She carried a smirk and a sword. She cut through Aaron’s ropes even as her father knocked one of the Taggers into the mud with one blow. His companion clicked on his taser, blue lighting hissing.
“Son, don’t be any stupider than you have to be.” The rebel hit him in the throat so fast Saffron barely saw the blow. The Tagger jerked back and slumped unconscious at his feet.
“Get up,” the girl barked at Aaron. He pushed to his feet, bewildered “Now run, idiot.”
She vaulted off the roof of a car and onto a balcony. The thud of her boots on the metal reverberated. Aaron made a move in the same direction but an arrow prevented him from following her. The green fletching quivered an inch from his nose, embedded deep into a tree trunk. He was fighting to keep his balance and his eyes open at the same time.
“Other way,” the man suggested, using the rope to tie the Taggers together. Aaron stayed where he was, swaying. “Shit, boy,” the man said. “Don’t you have any sense?”
He grabbed Aaron under the arm and half-carried, half-dragged him deeper into the alley. Saffron and Killian followed along the roof border. They could just see the rebel pushing Aaron into a dumpster. “You’ll be safe enough there until you wake up.”
He was gone within seconds, leaving Aaron buried in garbage and Saffron with a strange feeling in her belly.
Killian was grinning. Saffron turned away from the rebels. “It must be nice to think this City is worth saving.”
Jane woke up at dawn to go for a run; even in foul weather she loved the steady beat of her shoes on the ground, and the burn of air in her lungs. Even this morning, with the blood throbbing in her bruises. She stopped for the usual Oracle ritual: a tea made from anise seeds and the mantra she’d been taught: I am the earth where seeds of wisdom grow.
Afterwards, she crossed the Collegium grounds, between the sacred star anise bushes, passed the classrooms, the white student Cella temple, and the Beekeepers tending to the hives. They wore white, their faces covered with veils. She circled the snake-crowned Pythia statue, the matron of oracles. She was over fifteen feet tall, a serpent coiled around her shoulders and her throat. Jane stopped to touch her fingertips to her brow in honour. She couldn’t help the feeling that someone watching her. She tried to act normal.
She continued past the lighting-struck ash tree the Weather Witches circled for their rites, and the Seedsinger statue of an entwined Green Jack and Jill wearing mostly leaves. Jane was never sure if she should blush, it was such a private moment at which to pray. She preferred the Pythia and her steady gaze. She went through the front gates, following her usual route. The Enclave was pale and perfect, like the inside of a pearl. The light was misty, softening the edges of the houses she loved, and the tidy streets, the red front doors, the trees standing guard, branches bare and bright as swords. She passed Lee’s mansion-of-many-houses, rickshaws painted to look like candy, and solar lanterns strung like stars. She kept running, trying to make sense of the night before and of the headaches that she needed to control, now more than ever. She ran until her breath was fire in her throat but she was no closer to a solution.
She found herself back at the old house. No one else had moved in and she liked the feel of the empty quiet rooms. The parapet loomed over it, casting constant shadows that had frustrated her mother’s attempts at growing flowers. Nothing showed prosperity like flowers you couldn’t eat, beautiful orchids and oleander bushes with no discernable value beyond their beauty. The garden was weedy now—dandelions always found a way to thrive.
The paint was peeling off the walls inside and dust had rolled into the corners like tumbleweeds. Some of her childhood books were still piled against the mildewing curtains of her old bedroom. The pages were damp and tattered, at odds with the delicate and fussy artwork. Detailed renditions of the Cataclysms and the Lake Wars unfolded under her fingertips. Even bedtime stories couldn’t escape the Directorate.
There was the first Green Jack walking out of the forest in a mask of oak leaves, awakening green numen in unsuspecting people sleeping in their beds or drinking their morning tea. None of them looked as though they thought their heads might explode. He was always named Jack and she never could decide if he looked happy. She imagined it was a lot of work cleaning up after decades and centuries of rampant neglect, from burning oil fields to garbage heaps that never decomposed, to wars.
The Cataclysms were painted in reds and browns and gold, more streaks of colours than intricate details. Smoke and fire burst from giant cracks in the earth. The seas heaved and boiled. Crops withered, people starved, the Ferals in the Badlands turned cannibal. Or so the stories always said. The Ferals weren’t a single people so much as a cautionary tale of what would happen to you if you disobeyed the Directorate or left the safety of the Cities: hunger, madness, savagery. Jane kept turning the weathered pages, finding the maps, with Elysian City with its glowing Rings full of light and joy, to the farm domes and the dark Spirit Forest and the suggestions of other cities in the distance.
When the droughts followed and desperate thirst set in, the Lake Wars began. The faded pages showed bodies pressing against the newly built wall, frantic to reach the lake. The maps lines changed. When the cities closed, everything changed. There was a very old man who lived near the cella who still called Elysian City ‘Toronto’. That was long before the Protectorate was formed, protecting the Green Jacks and hiding them away. The experiments created feral dryads who lived in trees and used human body parts as decorations, but no more Green Jacks.
Lots of answers, even in these pages, for questions everyone knew better than to ask. But no answers about the numen growing thorns in her body. And she wouldn’t find any hiding here with her old storybooks. Red dust, a church steeple and a pink moon.
Especially when the morning bells rang, making her jump. She’d spent too long here as it was. The bells announced the gates opening for the Elysians who were vetted to drive the rickshaws and clean houses. It also meant she was already late for her Oracle duties.
She left the house, running on the sidewalks. None of her old neighbours spoke to her. The house with the girl who’d been taken away was still dark, all these years later. She made her way to the wayfarer cella in the parapet. The novices gathered there on Blessing Days to be taken into the City where the Collegium allowed novices to predict more personal omens for the Elysians. Mostly they asked about food or love, like everyone else.
“You’ve been running again,” Kiri wrinkled her nose. Candlelight glinted off her gold sunflower necklace. There was no electricity in the Cellas, it interfered too much with numen. It was too ancient, too primal. Always more questions than answers. “I just don’t think sweating like that is good for you.”
She changed into her blue chiton with the silver snake necklace around her throat. Kiri wore dark brown and the tattoo of the black tree on her nape reached its roots under the neckline. As a Seedsinger, she would be surrounded by Elysians today, all begging for fertility spells for their bellies or their gardens. Usually she sang to the seeds; learned how to collect them, store them, and plant them. Her dorm room was like a witch’s cave, full of strange seeds and dried vegetables.
Jane secured the leather straps of her sandals around her ankles even though it was still too wet and cold to be wearing sandals. The Numina were expected to float gracefully above the mud, both metaphoric and literal, to dispense the benevolence of the Collegium. There could be nothing that made them relatable to the others, only the chitons, the tattoos of their talent, and the numen. They were the Collegium’s personal Greek chorus, moving and speaking as one.
But in the Cella antechambers, they were still very much themselves. Asher shoved her hard, bruising her already-bruised shoulder as he passed by. Kiri caught her before the stumble turned into an undignified sprawl. Again. She also shoved Asher back because she liked shoving people and hated him in equal measure. “You really need to punch him right in the face, just once. He’ll leave you alone then.”
Jane smiled uncomfortably. Never mind that she’d been trained not to make a fuss or embarrass the family name, after last night and her near-encounter with the Investigator, she needed to keep her head down even more. “I can’t hit him,” she said for Kiri’s benefit. “He might like it.”
“Ew. I never thought of that.” She smiled, showing a lot of teeth. “But I’m sure you can fix that by hitting him harder.”
When the silver bell rang, the novices took their positions. The Oracles lined up on the left, approaching the small shrine. There was a candle, a bowl of water, and a basket of star anise seeds which they gave out along with their omens. The Collegium thought it a nice gesture, something symbolic for the Elysians to hold on to, but they just used the seeds for stomach tea. Kiri went to the right, digging her hands in a large wide bowl of earth to awaken her numen. They found each other again on the train.
Elysium City was grey and blue today, the light glinting off black water flooding between some of the buildings. Bridges connected windows high up above the submerged streets. It made Jane dizzy just to think about crossing them, swaying in the wind with nothing but rope to hold you up. She turned back to Kiri who was pouring mint tea into china cups. There were candied violets and the maple cakes usually reserved for Festival days. Jane ate three cakes.
The mood inside the City was dark. Jane felt it like a stain on the skin. She pulled the veil of her chiton up over her head like a hood. Faces were never covered outside the cella, there were too many security restrictions. Still, it helped a little. She held onto the bench of the wagon as they began the last part of their journey. The Blessing wagons were different than the ones used for transport in the Enclave; these were painted azure-blue with elaborate scrollwork and bells along the edges. They were festive and cheerful, calling the Elysians to follow them into the bright and beautiful Rings.
Line-ups had already formed at the crossroads outside the Cella. A tree grew around a column and Elysians left behind votive tokens like tin cans shaped into leaves and torn fabric strips knotted for good luck. It had its own kind of roughshod beauty. Jane remembered reading about Clootie trees in Ireland that served a similar purpose.
Each novice was assigned a soldier in a metal leaf mask and hers was young enough to still have pimples. She sat on the stool he set out for her, and took out the gold slotted spoons shaped like leaves from her pouch, along with the bone straw. The blue silk smelled like star anise, that licorice sweetness that clung to all Oracles. She had a glass jar filled with water and crushed cranberries but inside the cellas they used real blood or the ashes of dead Oracles.
When the Elysians approached her for a reading, she stepped out of her sandals and stood on a mound of earth to awake her numen. She tried not wonder if the tingle at the back of her neck would build into a crushing pressure, into burning and pain.
Jane concentrated on the miniature stories unfolding in her hands. The spoons were a tool, like tarot cards and tea leaves—simply a way to find the pattern in the chaos. She fit them together, and used the straw to blow a spray of liquid through a small hole. When she pulled the leaves apart again, she deciphered the stain of red left behind. Otters were for joy, swans for deceit, horses for destiny, though the Directorate frowned on destiny. True omens were reserved for the Diretcorate and the farms. This was simple fortune-telling, a little truth to make a larger truth more palatable.
As long as she concentrated on the omens, the pain in her head was a low burn, barely noticeable.
Again and again the questions came, how will I feed my children if the rains don’t stop, how will I feed them if the hot months follow, will I find love, will I ever see my son again? Where was my daughter taken? Jane swallowed misery and nausea, and answered as she was ordered: No one is truly lost. The Directorate knows best.
She felt Cartimandua’s pale eyes on her, felt Asher’s fist in her face.
The last Elysian hesitated in front of her. He had black hair and a katana he’d been forced to surrender in order to approach her. He looked uncomfortable but determined. She smiled encouragingly. “What do you want to know?”
He just half-smiled and waited. He didn’t speak. “Whatever I see then?” She asked after a long moment. He nodded.
Droplets splattered inside the gold curve of the pressed leaves. Teeth for hunger, and knives for violence, both fairly common omens for a City boy. She should have said something about the hunger he was feeling: how he could find a meal in the Rings, how hunger made you stronger. But there was also a swan in a circle. “Your secret is safe,” Jane said.
He jerked as if she’d slapped him. When backed up, she caught his wrist, holding on tightly. There was more to see, more he needed to know. “Wait.”
Sometimes there were messages within the messages, and sometimes she had her own language to decipher.
An oak leaf.
Jane sucked in a breath. Oak leaves were always for her; a warning to pay attention.
He looked alarmed, staring more intently at the red drops, random as bullet spatter. It wouldn’t tell him anything. The oak leaf was speaking to her. It meant she could trust him. But the swan meant something different for him. “Don’t trust anyone,” she warned him, glancing over to make sure the soldier hadn’t heard her. “Your secret—-.”
“Killian, what the hell?” A girl with black braids darted up the Cella steps and shoved Jane away. Jane staggered and everything went white, just for a moment. She saw the fat pink moon, a church spire, rooftops covered in red dust, the road leading away from the City. She saw a red fox in a field of crocus flowers, she saw guns, she saw fire, she saw leaves.
The soldier tasered the girl before she could make sense of the images. Numen shot white fire up the back of Jane’s head like lightning. She was surprised she didn’t smell her own singed hair. She held onto the column beside her, knuckles popping under her skin. She couldn’t fall over, couldn’t faint or react. They’d know something had happened with her numen. She couldn’t explain it, not now, not ever.
The girl sprawled on the ground, simmering with fury. Even forced to lay on the wet pavement, she showed more bravery than Jane had ever felt. This wasn’t someone who hid, though judging by the images Jane had seen, she ought to consider it. She was a like one of those tiny puffball mushrooms in the woods, ready to explode with poison. It was innocuous until someone fed it to you.
Killian’s hands were up in surrender but he was standing over her, trying to shield her. The soldier traded the Taser for a gun, the black merciless eye swinging between them both. His hand trembled slightly. “Please, don’t,” Jane said to him quietly. “She didn’t hurt me.”
“She could have, Numina. The next one might. There are rules. We have orders.”
“I know,” she agreed. “And I’m grateful you were so quick. But she’s nothing.”
The girl’s black eyes flashed. Jane might have winced at her choice of words, but they were effective. The soldier lowered his gun. “You’re both banned from the Blessings for six months,” he said. He aimed a recorder at their copper bracelets. It looked like a tiny metal pencil with a blue tip that lit up. The microchip in their bracelets flashed once in response. “Now get out of here before I change my mind.”
Killian hauled the girl away, even as she spat curses under her breath. He didn’t look back. Jane smiled weakly at the soldier. “Shall I read your omens?” she asked. Nothing distracted people like a glimpse into their own future.
He looked pleased, excited. “I’ve never been read by a proper Oracle.”
She didn’t correct him by reminding him she was still a novice, just drew more blood-red liquid into the straw. He watched her so reverently it made her feel slightly ill.
“Long day,” Kiri said a half an hour later, pushing the earth-brown veil off her head. “I heard more details about strangers’ sex lives than I ever want to know. And no matter how many times I tell them I don’t need the information for the blessing, they just won’t stop.” She leaned back on the bench. “I prefer the ones who want more eggplants instead of babies. Who the hell would want to have babies in this pit, anyway?”
Jane massaged the back of her aching neck and tried to look as if she was paying attention. The others were mostly quiet and tired; Kiri was the only one who could talk through a coma. Rain pattered lightly on their heads. It was soothing, the coolness a balm to the fire still burning at her nape.
Until the wagon pulled past a man sleeping on a rusted metal gate. The contrast of the gilded wagon with the brittle pavement, the grey buildings, the man’s rusty gate, were deliberate and calculated. So were the Protectorate soldiers who descended on the sleeping man from across the street.
They moved between the wagons, guard dogs growling and straining at their chains. It was over in minutes. There was screaming and blood and red teeth.
The captain nudged the man with the toe of his boot. Another soldier picked up the burlap sack he’d used as a pillow and upended it. Wet leaves tumbled out, no doubt gathered from the saplings growing out of window panes all around them. Forbidden but surely not worth such a mauling. “Not him,” the captain said, looking at the clumps of leaves, disgusted. They walked away, leaving him pressed against the wall, clothes and flesh torn off his legs.
“We have to bring the Green Jack home,” one of the soldiers explained to Jane when he caught her expression. “The streets aren’t safe.”
Saffron hated Ritual days with a passion generally reserved for wet boots and protein paste rations.
Soldiers wearing masks of copper and tin leaves stood at attention. Saffron had her knives, but they had rifles. Not to mention everything else.
And now she had Argent to deal with.
He had the pale, faintly waxy complexion of someone who spent too much time underground, and a silver tooth he liked to flash like it was worth something.
He’d also lent her money she hadn’t paid back yet.
She tried not to react. Killian would notice. He was standing next to her, waiting patiently for the stupid ceremony to be over. He was always patient. And quiet. But he knew damn well, even before she’d tried to punch him, how she felt about him visiting an Oracle. They never bent a knee to the Numinas. It was their one small rebellion.
He leaned against a hydro pole, decorated with cheerful green and gold ribbons. More ribbons festooned the bronze statue of Cartimandua, Legata of the Protectorate. It was considerably newer than the figure of the Green Jack behind it, the stubs of burned out candles at his feet. One of the toes of the Green Jack statue was polished to a sheen, touched by countless hands for good luck. Saffron had never understood how a giant bronze toe would help her feed her Oona and so she never bothered. She’d caught Killian touching it once, and she’d teased him until he tried to dunk her in a rain barrel.
None of it mattered anyway, especially not with Argent moving towards her with that silver grin. He was behind her too quickly, knife tip pressing into her kidney. Various elbows and torsos blocked them from the soldier’s view.
“Saffron, I’ve missed you.” His voice was gravely and interesting, it was how he managed to talk himself into moderate power in the underground. At least for a Core rat. “Ah, ah. I wouldn’t.”
Killian’s hand froze on the pommel of the katana poking up behind his shoulder.
Saffron shifted, her boots cold and wet. “Argent, I don’t have your money,” she said tightly. She couldn’t look at Killian. It was stupid to have been tempted by real paper and watercolour paints and pencils. She should have stuck to the nubs of coal from the fire barrels lining the streets and the plaster of the apartment walls.
“That’s bad news, love,” Argent said. “Real bad news.”
“Yet,” Saffron amended. She couldn’t afford Argent drawing attention to her, not with her stolen leaf mask. “I have a lead.” If Jedekiah at the sideshow where she worked could pay her wages this month. Argent’s dagger poked an uncomfortable hole through the back of her jacket. “If you kill me, you’ll never get your money,” she reminded him.
“But I’ll get a bit of sport and send a warning to the others who owe me a debt.”
“In the square on a Ritual day?” She asked. “Not likely. Give me two days,” she added. “I’ll give you interest.”
“Damn right you will. Double.”
She clenched her jaw over a stream of insults mostly involving his mother and a goat. “Fine.”
“Two days and twice the credits. I prefer seeds or batteries.” Argent yanked her sleeve up, slashing down on her forearm in three long slices before she could jerk out of his grasp. Pain throbbed and burned as blood oozed out of the cuts. Even if she managed to clean them, the cuts would leave scars, as intended.
“Three credits, Saffron. This way you won’t forget.” Argent shoved her into Killian. “Cross me again, and your ass is mine to sell.”
Killian fussed over the cuts as the drums sounded. Soldiers marched down the empty street, led by the standard bearer with his gold-fringed flag. The Directorate symbol was in Ogham, an old language from across the sea based on trees: a straight line bisected with two short parallel lines on the right, like winter branches. Back in school, a teacher had once told Saffron that some of the European cities still existed but since it was unlikely Saffron would ever see a boat, never mind sail on one, she’d stopped paying attention.
Cartimandua followed on a huge horse. It was fatter than any person Saffron was ever likely to meet. Cartimandua herself was slender and strong, like a sword blade. She wore a leather tunic with a bright red sash better suited to a Roman empress. As the Legata, she was tasked with securing the City and protecting the Green Jacks. Tattooed Numinas from the Cella waited in their ceremonial chitons to read omens or pray, or whatever it was they did up on the dais. Cartimandua faced the crowd with a smile.
“Great, another speech,” Saffron muttered. A nearby soldier cuffed her on the back of the head. The soldier eyed them both until Killian dropped his gaze to his boots. Saffron simmered.
“Today we bring justice to three outlaws.” Saffron snorted at the word. There was a reason that the Elysians called the processional way to the square ‘the Corpse Road’ and it had nothing to do with justice. The three prisoners who were brought out in chains would have agreed. The first looked to be about fourteen, scared and sullen. The Directorate were probably thrilled; younger criminals had a better chance at being strong enough survive the process.
“This boy stands accused of climbing into a tree and breaking some of its branches,” Cartimandua explained, managing to sound both disappointed and deadly. Trees were protected throughout the City, taking so much as an acorn could get you arrested. “But the Directorate is merciful. Instead of execution, we offer him a chance to become sanctified, to wear the leaf mask of a Green Jack. To redress the debt he owes our society.”
It sounded merciful in theory but Core rats didn’t suddenly become saints. And no one was likely to cast a statue of him in bonze to touch for good luck. A leaf mask was brought out on an embroidered pillow by a Seedsinger, wearing a chiton the dark brown of fertile earth. The mask was a knotwork of leaves in every shade of green. Already, the birch tree in the left corner of the square was suddenly growing yellow catkins, even though it had been raining for weeks now, without a ray of real sunshine.
The Seedsinger pressed the mask to the boy’s face, fastening it tightly around his head. He stood stiff and silent for a long breathless moment. The crowd fell quiet, waiting.
The leaf mask wilted, draping uselessly from his eyebrows. The boy made a strange animal sound. A little girl near Saffron began to sing a lullaby to herself, even though Elysian lullabies were not known to be gentle or comforting.
The boy hung uselessly from the post, an offering rejected.
The next two outlaws were scavengers like Saffron, caught with illegally collected herbs. The leaf mask refused them both. Cartimandua was furious. A leaf mask without a host would die within hours. There would be one less Green Jack in the world.
Elysians were seized from the crowd and dragged up to the dais. Soldiers made a barricade of themselves along the alleys and sidewalks as canisters filled with sedatives were loaded into riot guns. If the crowd resisted, they’d be dropped like stones into a lake. Saffron thought the only thing worse than being forced to wear a leaf mask, was being dragged unconscious to the same end.
But an old woman suddenly stepped towards the pile of bodies, and the mask accepted her. Her rheumy eyes were cold and unafraid. She spat at Cartimandua’s feet. “I hope you starve.”
Cartimandua’s expression was so bland and unruffled it sent shivers up Saffron’s back. The old woman couldn’t be touched now that she was Green Jill, not even after insulting the Legata. But her rebellion would be short-lived. It didn’t take a Numina to know she wouldn’t be able to sustain the mask for long
“There’ll be another Ritual day by the end of the week,” someone muttered.
Saffron pushed through the crowds the very second the soldiers removed the street barriers. “I’ll see you later,” she told Killian. “I have to find Jedekiah.” She didn’t wait for a reply, only jogged away, shoving other Elysians out of her way when they were too slow.
The Lucky Cat Traveling Sideshow hadn’t traveled in years. When the Wall went up, Jedekiah had already traveled for nearly a decade before setting up in Elysium City and getting trapped there. He remembered a time when you could walk down to the lake and watch the litter float against the piers. That was before fresh water became scarce and the guards shot anyone within a mile of the shore. Just ask Saffron’s father who’d died trying when she was only two. There were no tokens or passes to be bought to reach the lake, they didn’t exist. Even Society were forbidden access. Jedekiah didn’t much care, as long as he had his sideshow.
Saffron practically knew what he’d been eating the first time the power flickered and folk hurled themselves at the outer Walls. She knew every detail because Jedekiah had been telling her the story once a week for the last two years. Part of the reason he’d hired her, she was sure, was because she listened to him prattle on. His own daughter Dahlia ignored him. If Saffron stayed because of Jedekiah, she thought about quitting nearly as often because Dahlia.
She was thinking about it now.
“Give me the cash box,” Dahlia demanded, the moment Saffron ducked into the ticket booth. She let the light glint off her brass knuckles. Saffron had never seen her without them and she knew the rose and thorn pattern intimately.
“Bite me.” Even if she didn’t need to get paid to buy off Argent, she wouldn’t give Dahlia the mud off her boots.
“Before I break your fingers, you little gutter rat.” Dahlia knew how much Saffron liked to draw; she’d watched her paint the little ticket booth with red and white stripes and leaping black cats. She’d also painted the signs for the Tattooed Lady, the Snake House, Iago the Strongman, as well as the few windows that remained in the strip mall behind them.
“My girls,” Jedekiah said, coming up to the booth, wearing his usual faded top hat. There was a small ceramic frog tucked into the red ribbon tonight. “What’s the trouble?”
“She wants the cash box,” Saffron said. It was always ‘she’. Just saying Dahlia’s name set her teeth on edge.
“Well now,” Jedekiah smiled so that the beads in his beard flashed. “What’s the harm, eh?”
She narrowed her eyes. “Jed, you need that money. You work hard for it.”
“Sideshow’s not work, love, it’s a lifestyle.”
“You heard him,” Dahlia said, right before she punched Saffron in the face, brass knuckles clipping her jaw. She fell back against the wall, rapping her head to add insult to injury. She lunged dizzily at Dahlia but Jedekiah intercepted her, grabbing her around the waist. Dahlia grabbed a fistful of coins, which was the most they ever had, and strode away, whistling.
Saffron spat blood on the ground. The inside of her cheek was raw and throbbed where her teeth had slammed together. She poked at her teeth to make sure none were loose, while revenge boiled inside her veins.
“Don’t quit. She doesn’t mean anything by it.”
Saffron stared at him. “Jedekiah.”
He flushed, looking away. He handed her the flask of whiskey he kept in his pocket. She swished a mouthful and spat it out, cheek burning clean. “Jed, I needed to get paid tonight.”
He winced. “You’re a good girl, Saffron.” No one else ever called her that, nor were they likely to. “We’ll make more money. There’ll be a line-up tonight, you’ll see.”
There had never once been a line-up.
And there never would be. They were an antique novelty. They couldn’t come close to competing with the glittering assortment of entertainment in the Rings. All they had were rats trained to re-enact the Lake Wars, a ferret dressed as Johnnie with apple leaves in his collar, a woman covered in tattoos, a short man, a boy who ate snakes, a topless tarot card reader, and a collection of Green Jack marionettes. Still she’d take the cheap faded plywood signs and tricks over the glossy beauty and bright lights of the Rings any day. Even for the pennies Jedekiah paid her, when he could afford to pay her at all.
And now she had nothing to pay Argent back with; she couldn’t even head down to the black market, it wouldn’t open again until long past midnight. If it opened at all, some weeks you just never knew, especially with curfew.
She stayed to work her shift, on the off chance the patrons would tip her. She wiped away the doodle she’d drawn with a nub of charcoal on the table: bare winter trees, and a man with leaves for hair and hunger-sharp ribs reaching out to her. Something about it made her stomach clench.
She’d only sold eleven tickets by the time she had step into the ring. So much for Jedekiah’s line-up.
The main tent was painted with more stripes and the circular amphitheatre was piled with sand. Well, lightly sprinkled. Bathsheba had already swallowed two swords and breathed fire and Allegra and Marcus Aurelius walked the tightropes strung overhead.
Saffron was meant to bow or curtsy or something equally stupid, but she refused. Just as she’d refused to be the apprentice, standing against a board painted with the Wheel of the Fortune tarot card to let Iago throw knives at her. As the Strongman, he was used to lifting people, trailers, trucks, whatever was on hand; he’d once lifted a lion cage, much to the lion’s dismay. Standing still while a girl in a frilly skirt threw knives at his head irked him. But Saffron was better at being irked and she’d threatened to quit, leaving her half-completed painted signs and banners behind.
The tent smelled like stale popcorn and wet dog. Jedekiah’s pride and joy was his herd of Yorkie terriers. There were seventeen at last count and he dressed them up and let them loose in the ring. Last week he’d made them all gladiator costumes. Saffron skirted a discarded and well-chewed miniature Roman-style leather breastplate as Iago bulged his muscles. A painted lion chased a bull and a winged woman around the spokes of a faded wheel around him.
Saffron lifted her fist dagger, letting the torchlight dance over the blade. She tossed an apple into the air, spearing it into the open mouth of the lion painted next to Iago’s left eye. The apple wasn’t even real, mostly protein paste and gluten, but it was satisfyingly red. There was a smattering of applause. The next three knives bristled out of the board like a deadly halo around Iago’s head.
There were worst jobs in the City, even if you counted having to deal with Dahlia. She could be stuck riding the buses out to the Enclave to clean houses or pull rickshaws, or sent down into the sewers to make sure the pipes were sealed shut. Instead, she got to throw knives at people without being carted off by the Protectorate.
The audience began to whisper. Saffron turned her head just in time to see Protectorate soldiers push into the tent. She glanced to the side but there was nowhere to run. The dagger in her hand was all too tempting but there were too many of them. If they were here about the leaf mask, she was already dead.
“You!” A soldier barked at Saffron. “Who’s in charge around here?”
“I just sell the tickets.” She only barely stopped herself from asking him snidely if he’d like to buy one. She wasn’t sure where Jedekiah was but she wouldn’t have told them even if she knew.
“We’re here about the Green Jack.”
Her mouth was suddenly so dry she could barely speak. She hoped her swollen jaw from Dahlia’s punch would excuse it. “We have sword-swallowers and bearded ladies,” she said. “And knife-girls. That’s it.”
“We’ll see. Put that dagger down.” He motioned to the others. “Search everything.”
They weren’t here for her. Her knees wobbled faintly with relief. When Saffron shifted, his gaze snapped back to her. “No one moves.”
She could hear Allegra protesting the search and her curse when she was tossed into a puddle. Jasper begged them to be careful with the reptile house. Every barked order and scuff of steel-toed boot felt like a slap. After what felt like hours, the guards gathered to report their findings. “It’s clear.”
“Sorenson got bit.”
Sorenson wrapped a bandana around his bleeding hand. “No, the dammed tarot reader.”
The leader handed Saffron a stack of printed notices. There was a sketch of a Green Jack and bold underline font: Reward for capture. Do your duty to Elysium City!
“There’s a bounty set on the Jack,” he said. If only she could turn the mask in herself and collect the reward. But she knew better. The Directorate would never let her go. She’d be hanged on a Festival day, just like the others. “Make sure to tell your customers tomorrow,” he grimaced at the parking lot. “If you even get any.”
Saffron didn’t fully breathe until the Protectorate unit was down the street and harassing the tavern. “Are they gone?” Jasper poked his head into the tent.
Saffron tossed the bounty posters aside. “For now.”
Jane wished she could tell Kiri almost as desperately as she wanted to avoid her. She wasn’t used to having a secret that had the power to kill. She rubbed the back of her neck, the ache the only warning before her head filled with images: the same pink moon, the field of crocuses, blue eyes and green leaves. She gripped the edge of the parapet to stop her knees from buckling. She wiped blood from her nose, hoping none of the security cameras had caught her.
Beneath her, the streets were clean, the horses were fat, and solar lanterns were strung through trees that were old enough to have seen the times before the Cataclysms. To stand guard on the parapet was a small price to pay, even when the rain turned to sleet or the sun turned the lawns crispy. Jane had her sleek crossbow and enough training to shoot someone in the eye, if she had to. The alarms hadn’t rung in the Enclave since before she was born. A shift on the parapet was mostly boredom and bad food. She pushed back at the omens simmering in her head.
Hours later, Kiri waited for her outside the guard towers. She was dressed for the next shift. She handed Jane a mug. “I hate the Rains.”
“How’d you get more hot chocolate rations?” Jane asked. “You drank all of yours in one sitting last week. I was there. It was impressive. And kind of gross.”
Kiri shrugged. “I got more.”
She grinned. “I stole them from Asher so it doesn’t count. It’s okay to steal from jackasses, everyone knows that.” She stiffened. “Damn it.” Jane followed her gaze to Asher, coming around the corner. “I hate it when we’re on the same shift.”
Asher sneered at Jane in her uniform. “How they think you can protect anyone is beyond me.”
Kiri drank her hot chocolate pointedly. “Bullies are boring, Asher. Get a hobby or something.”
Jane’s stomach started to burn, as it always did when Asher was around. Kiri would have eviscerated him by now and read the omens in his entrails. She talked about it in great detail, and would no doubt bring it up in the next ten seconds. Sometimes Jane wished she was anyone but herself. Asher smiled slowly. “Should I tell her a little secret, Jane?”
The burning coal in her belly tuned to a shard of jagged ice. The Directorate had handed Asher a new weapon. All he had to do was tell Kiri a single detail about the Program and she would disappear in the middle of the night. Her mother would offer a reward, she would post bulletins with Kiri’s photo, and none of it would make any difference whatsoever.
Asher loomed over Jane, until she bowed her back to inch away. Fear turned her into a rabbit, frozen and quivering and hating herself. Blissfully unaware, Kiri lost the few ounces of patience she had. She bared her teeth. “Go away now, Asher. You’re pissing me off.”
The last time Kiri had gotten into an argument with another student, they’d both walked away with stitches. Asher didn’t look particularly concerned. The fact that he was a foot taller probably had something to do with it. Seeing as most people were taller than Kiri, she didn’t look particularly concerned either.
She dumped her hot chocolate on his head. He gave a shout that sounded more like a shriek. “Oops, better dry off.” Smiling sweetly, Kiri grabbed his wet, sugary collar and propelled him into the guard house changeroom. She wedged a chair under the doorknob, locking him inside. “I guess Asher will be late for his shift. He might even get a demerit for that kind of disrespectful behaviour.”
Jane winced. “Maybe we should—-.”
Kiri eyed her hotly. “Don’t you even dare. I know where you got those bruises on your arm last week. He deserves worse than this. Now, I’m going to go stand in the rain and pretend I’m doing anything else anywhere else ever.”
Jane was stopped at the gates by Protectorate soldiers. She hoped Kiri didn’t see them, she’d be relentless with her questions. “Jane Highgate.”
“Yes,” she replied, even though it wasn’t a question.
They motioned her onto a waiting bus that smelled like exhaust, and some kind of cleaner. There were seven students already on board. Jane sat next to Lee since she as the only person she knew. Lee looked serene but her hands were twisted together so tightly her knuckle bones strained against her skin.
They picked up three more passengers before heading out of the Enclave. Jane glanced up through the windows but she couldn’t see Kiri on parapet duty. The sky was a hard shell of pink, the clouds lined in gold. It was sharp and angular, like a broken jug.
The road behind them stretched out through the ruins of abandoned suburbs to the Badlands beyond. If you followed it long enough, it would take you the farms and the Spirit Forest where the Greencoats helped hide Green Jacks from the Directorate. The bus turned right, heading towards the City.
The screen set into the back of the seat in front of her showed serious and concerned Directorate scientists and clerks, pink-cheeked children eating protein paste cupcakes; Ferals, Greencoats. The Greencoats always had the same tagline: Treason and Terrorism. And always the same message—protection in exchange for obedience. Order. The advertisements looped over and again as they passed through the gates and soldiers with rifles peered into the bus windows.
There was only one street cleared for vehicles in the City and they followed it past rubble strewn sidewalks and burned out buildings. It took them closer to the Kill Zone than any of them had ever been. The Kill Zone circled the lake and in the very rare instance a person actually managed to break through, they were met with miles of landmines and traps. The only access to the freshwater lake was through a narrow bridge from the Directorate district. The fence was decorated with bonechimes, mostly made from the dead of the Lake Wars. Skulls leered at them, nailed to posts. One of them was recent enough that rotted flesh dangled from its cheekbone.
The bus didn’t take them towards the cluster of skyscrapers and the old university buildings that made up the Directorate district, instead it took them into the Core. Jane’s palms began to sweat. No one ever went into the Core voluntarily. The bus pulled through three sets of gates and into a lot shadowed by barbed wire and soldiers standing at attention.
The curved walls of a stone amphitheatre were not exactly what Jane expected. She rubbed the back of her neck, willing the shards of light not to pierce her brain. She silently repeated the Numina mantra to herself; I am the earth, I am the earth where the seeds of wisdom grow.
A woman met them in the dusty archway, the sounds of construction throbbing behind her. The contrast of the woman’s relentlessly cheerful smile was unsettling. “Welcome,” she said. “My name is Grace, and I’ll be giving you the official tour. You must all be very excited as very few people have this opportunity.”
Asher sauntered toward them, rain beading his hair. A man Jane took to be his father was beside him. He was tall, thin, and sharp; like an arrow. There was a full ring of leaves embroidered on his tunic sleeve, trailing up to his collar. Grace half-bowed with dazzled respect. Asher smirked at her obvious deference. The smirk turned deadly when he met Jane’s gaze. She’d pay for Kiri’s trick with the door before long.
“Follow me, please,” Grace called out, still fussing with her hair. She led them down a dark hall to a set of stone steps. “You’ve been chosen to serve the Directorate and the entire City.” Her voice was somber but she was still smiling. Something about it made Jaen’s eye tattoo tighten uncomfortably.
They descended past small cells dug into the stone, each with a bed and desk and plush woven rugs and metal bars. The next level down was a research facility of some sort. Bleach fumes stung Jane’s nostrils. Underneath the antiseptic, the smell of rot and green water lingered.
Windows overlooked bays of equipment and scientific looking devices.
“The labs alone aren’t enough, nor are the green prayers of the Woodwives. As always we must all work together.”
Medical chairs were bolted to the wall, people strapped in the seats, their right arms locked to the armrest. One of the subjects couldn’t have been more than eleven years old. He didn’t fight the restraints, or the needle sliding into his vein, only stared straight ahead.
“A pity,” Grace said. “But everyone must do their part, even those who would go against the Directorate. This way, they get to prove that they are worth something, after all.” Jane couldn’t imagine what a little boy could have done to merit this kind of punishment. Grace’s smile returned, though it was softer. “But none of you need to worry about this room. We know you’ll be loyal.”
Jane tensed so completely that something in her shoulder popped uncomfortably. Even Asher was quiet. A unit of soldiers waited for them in the muddy corridor that ringed the amphitheatre. Jane had the crazy urge to run. Her calves quivered. She had good stamina and she was relatively fast—-but a bullet was always faster.
When she heard the shout, she half thought her own legs had moved without her. Another girl, sixteen at most, knocked three soldiers into each other. She was leaping behind the protective cover of the bus when the bullet caught her. Blood sprayed from her shoulder as she hit the ground. She struggled to stand up but the soldiers descended. She kicked and spat and scratched at them until a solider backhanded her but even that wasn’t enough to stop her frenzy. She bit and screeched, right until Grace approached with a syringe, stabbing it into the back of her neck. Her eyes rolled back in her head mid-yell. She went terrifyingly limp.
“Where are they…” one of the students cut himself off as they carted the girl away. Questions never had an answer that helped.
“One warning,” Grace replied dispassionately. “The Program is everything. You cannot defeat what is necessary.”
Jane’s legs, so keen to run just moments ago, were weak as boiled leaves. Grace took them into the amphitheatre, ringed with benches and arches held up by columns carved like Green Jacks. The lowest level was screened by black iron fencework painstakingly decorated with individually forged leaves. It would separate the spectators from those fighting in the sand, and from the strange glass-walled houses built on platforms all around the ring. It was beautiful in its own way.
“Welcome to the Garden,” Grace said with palpable pride. The clouds thinned slightly, as if they knew presentation was everything. The small houses were identical; windows eating up the ground floor like television screens that allowed you to see what was happening inside. Jane thought of the episodes her sisters watched on their tablets; Ivy preferred scientific programs and Portia dramarealities about people visiting the Rings. Jane was secretly addicted to lurid stories about the Spirit Forest and the Greencoats.
All of which were better than this.
The houses’ second floors had much smaller windows, but they were bare and uncurtained. Each door was painted a different colour. Jane was more confused than ever.
“Isn’t it lovely?” Grace asked. “There is no finer neighbourhood even in the Enclave! Nothing but the best here in the Garden. And now some of you will get to live here,” Grace continued. “Assuming there is a compatible mate available. We cannot have babies too weak to wear the mask. That would just be cruel.”
“Babies?” someone echoed.
“Of course. The program needs volunteers of all kinds. If you cannot be the blade, you can be the furrow. That’s what the Garden is all about.”
A hundred thoughts collided in Jane’s brain, each worse than the last. The pain at the top of her spine was so sharp she stumbled. The Garden was a breeding program and a prison. Who would pair them together? Would they have a choice of mates? Which was worse, fighting in the amphitheatre or being a prisoner in a village built to grow Green Jack volunteers? How many would they be forced to have? And when had this even become a viable option? Green Jacks didn’t breed like regular people.
“Jane, breathe,” Lee nudged her. “Your lips are turning blue.” Jane coughed, lightheaded. “We’re supposed to look around,” Lee continued. “Come on.”
“This is ghoulish,” Jane croaked. “They want us to….”
“I know. Just come on. They’re watching.”
The houses were small and pretty, furnished right down to the nurseries. The elaborate fences were wound with razor wire and electricity. Guards stood every hundred feet even though the village was empty. Jane shivered, so cold suddenly that she moved like a creaky marionette.
‘This way,” Grace called out. “The geneticists must test your DNA to properly pair you and ensure your strong health.” A man waited at the gate. He smiled casually, as though they were all friends. He jabbed a lancet into Jane’s finger. Blood welled instantly, and was sucked into a narrow tube.
Jane thought of the blood on the linoleum, of babies born in sterile white Directorate rooms, or right here in the bloodstained sand of the amphitheatre.
“And this is supposed to be better?” she murmured, feeling nauseated.
Saffron looked at the protein paste ration she’d just been handed. “Where’s the rest of it?”
“That’s all you get,” the clerk replied, aiming a blue light at her copper bracelet. He didn’t look concerned with the fact that she was snarling. Weapons were banned on ration days, ever since the Wellwater Riots when desperate people cut each other down for something to drink. Saffron remembered seeing the images on the outdoor screens when she was six years old, and the bones in the gutter a few years later when she started to fetch the water for Oona. The bones were left as a reminder and a warning. Saffron sometimes wondered if some of them belonged to her mother. She’d always fought against the Directorate, the Protectorate, Oona. She fancied herself a resistance fighter. Mostly she was just desperate. Now she was dead.
She refused to move. “It’s not enough.”
The clerk sighed, looking up from his charts. “New rations.” He raised an eyebrow. “Besides, you don’t look that hungry to me. Next.”
She wanted to bite him, just to show him how hungry people could get.
A soldier shoved her into the next line leading to the electrified fenced area around the pump. When they were younger, Saffron and Killian used to play tic-tac-toe on the sidewalk or cat’s-cradle with red string, but now they just waited; though both still wore a length of that string knotted around their left wrist. It was their version of a blood pact, since Killian tended to go cross-eyed when he saw actual blood.
The grinding of machinery echoed from somewhere on the other side of the block. The damage to the buildings on this block were older than the Wellwater riots, mostly rubble left by the bullets and bombs of the Lake Wars. Through the gaps between the buildings, Saffron caught a glimpse of a crane swinging a long piece of metal and clouds of stone dust. They never bothered building much outside of the Rings. Curiosity prickled at her and she glanced at Killian but he just shrugged.
She moved forward, pausing between the scanners. Blue lights flashed, searching for forbidden weapons or extra containers. Her hands and boots were swiped to test for chemicals before we she was waved through to the Wellkeeper. Posters proclaiming how grateful Saffron must feel for the gift of her rations were tacked to every available surface. Water hit the bottom of the container, filling slowly. She hated his part. She was exposed, nowhere to hide, nowhere to run to, no knives, not even Killian at her back.
When she felt a frisson of awareness she put it down to her usual irritation with her life. Until she saw it moving through the crowd, barely noticeable at first, a mere rumble. It could have been anything; a lover’s quarrel, a cross child, the average bored and belligerent Elysian.
Someone shouted. Saffron couldn’t make out what they were saying, only the angry derisive tone. The crowd shifted as one and there was a violent surge towards the enclosure. The gates slammed shut.
“Down!” A solider clipped Saffron on the back of the neck. She dropped to her knees, pain ringing up her ear, as protocol demanded. Guns readied with various clicks and snaps all around her, like the clacking of Cerebus jaws. Her pulse leapt in her throat, thrashing wildly.
They knew about the leaf mask. Somehow they knew. She hadn’t hidden it as well as she’d thought.
“Can’t find your Green Jack without us, can you?”
“You’ll have to eat the shite we eat now!”
The missing Green Jack and tightened rations had triggered the unrest, not her leaf mask.
Saffron wilted slightly as the adrenaline faded, trembling embarrassingly. It wasn’t long before two men and a woman were hauled toward the prison cart always waiting nearby. The girl’s nose dripped blood onto her collar. Disquiet was invisible but powerful, like ocean water reaching a faraway jungle through the veins of a river. Even diluted, a single drop of poison was enough to taint the entire network.
The Wellkeeper went back to working the pump. He handed Saffron a packet of water purification tablets. The others continued to wait in line, but they were still on their knees. At the end of the street, Saffron and Killian reclaimed their weapons. She’d once asked him if it was a katana handed down from his Japanese ancestors. He just rolled his eyes and pointed to the army surplus store down the street.
Fair enough, she’d have reacted the same way if someone had made assumptions over her Anishnabee heritage. Oona had told her things like race and gender and sexual orientation used to matter too much. Her great-great grandparents had lived on a reservation; her grandfather had once lived in France. Her Oona had slept in a van and driven across Canada with her parents, when there was a Canada to drive across. She’d been eleven years old. Sometimes she talked about New York and Prince Edward Island and Quebec City. Quebec City was now a closed pioneer community called Le Quartier that allowed no electricity or tablets. The Directorate ignored them because what could they do with candles and blueberry fields and snow? New York had fallen into the ocean and anyway they were too far south to be in the Directorate’s reach, however much they liked to pretend that reach could extend anywhere. Papu threatened to walk to New Orleans several times a week, especially when it was cold outside. Saffron didn’t even know if New Orleans still existed or what it might be called now if it did. They weren’t exactly forthcoming with useful information at the Directorate school she’d been forced to attend until she was fifteen. A crowded room in the Rings, a bored teacher and a dusty chalkboard and flickering television. Paper was too precious to waste and the weakening signals from dying satellites orbiting the earth were reserved for the Directorate. As far as education went, it was decidedly spotty.
The only thing that mattered now was which side of the Wall you lived on.
And how well you could feed yourself on nothing.
“We can’t survive on this,” Saffron said, once they’d made their way back to the apartment. She’d tried to convince her grandmother to join the Woodwives—praying all day and night might be boring but at least they’d feed her. She always refused, even now that Saffron could take care of herself. She shoved her rations at Killian. “I’ll be back in a bit.”
There were secret gardens all over the City, on rooftops, in alleyways and bedroom windows, but she liked to think hers was the safest, despite her earlier panic. It was out of reach from rats, raccoons, and Killian’s idiot brothers. As she crossed the rope bridge, the wind plucked at her skirt, her braids, her hands. She kept her chin high, just like the tightrope walker at the sideshow. She’d asked Allegra for a few tips last year.
The balcony was crowded with plants growing in pots, garbage cans, and broken water jugs. She’d painted everything so that it became an art garden. She had thyme, oregano, lettuce, carrots, and a single precious mound of potatoes. When she pulled the leaf mask from the pot, the delicate grape vines curled around her fingers with surprising strength and speed. The garden responded just as quickly, oregano scenting the humid air. Oona apparently used to eat olives rolled in oregano leaves. An impossible luxury now, especially with every leaf saved for medicine.
What had happened to the Green Jack? He had to have died when he abandoned the leaf mask. The Directorate weren’t really searching for him after all, he was dispensable. It always came back to the leaf masks. Saffron wasn’t even sure how to care for it. It probably needed more water and sunlight than anyone in Elysium City was likely to get. No one could accurately predict when the Hot months were going to hit, or how long they’d stay; though the Oracles did their best. Oona used to tell Saffron stories about four seasons, always in the same order. That was long gone. So was Los Angeles, and Vancouver, thanks to the melting ice caps. Now it was just savage unpredictable weather and Green Jacks. And too little food rations.
But already this one single mask had grown enough vegetables that Saffron wasn’t even sure how to smuggle them safely into the apartment. She’d have to move it regularly so no one noticed a pattern to her comings and goings, or to her baskets of greens brought to the black market. She bit into a pea pod, the tart green juice tingling on her tongue. The mask tightened green ivy tendrils, cutting into her skin like ropes. It needed a host but Saffron had no intention of become one of the Directorate’s dancing green skeletons. She’d have to find a way to make it work. Somehow.
For now, it was enough that her Oona wouldn’t go hungry tonight.
“What is wrong with you?” Kiri asked, exasperated. “You’ve been staring at your food for half an hour. You’re not turning Feral, about to read chewed up old chicken bones for omens, are you?”
Jane tore her gaze away from her plate. Most of the other students in the Common Room around them were trying desperately to use their magic to find the missing Green Jack. There were rumours of instant graduation into the Order, rewards from the Directorate, a job at the main Cella. Blake was inhaling the smoke of burning sage and other questionable substances. All it seemed to be doing was creating a foul odour.
“You’re not, are you?” Kiri pressed. “Because I don’t think you’d get extra credit for that. You know how they feel about the Ferals.”
“It’s not that. I’m just thinking.”
Kiri rolled her eyes. “Your grades are better than almost anyone else’s. You don’t need to think outside class. Or chase a Green Jack.”
“I guess.” It was easier to let her believe that. The truth was, all Jane could see was the Garden, the baby nurseries with their leaf-green walls, her blood being analyzed even now deep inside the Directorate laboratories. “I’m going to go for a run,” she told Kiri, standing up suddenly. She caught her cup before it toppled off the table. “This place is crazy and I need to relax.”
“Running is not relaxing,” Kiri grimaced. “Just one of the many reasons you’re not normal, Highgate.”
She had to smile. “Coming from you, Solomon?”
“Takes one to know one.” She gathered her books and her embroidered bag. “I’m going to go study in my room. Smells like feet in here.” She let her bag swing from her shoulder and hit Asher in the face. He cursed and made a grab for her but she’d already danced out of the door, laughing. The red bird someone had released to read patterns in its flight made a panicked lunge for the window, knocking itself out. One of the Oracles complained about her reading: the constant and confusing taste of a spice she couldn’t place. Someone else was painting crocuses but she didn’t know why.
Jane went to her dorm room to change into running clothes. The top of her spine throbbed with warning. She rolled her shoulders, trying to ignore the pain. There were books on numen poisoning and ancient magic on her desk, for all the good it did her. But numen had to be about something more than growing seeds and divining crop rotations. Before the Green Jacks came, very few people had believed in magic and they’d mostly been dismissed as being religious, crazy, or both. It was still such a new science. No one knew where the next breakthrough might come from: laboratory, Collegium, or Woodwife. There were museums of course, and stories told on Festival days, but so much information was lost after the Cataclysms. The books that had survived from earlier days treated Green Jacks and numen as fiction.
She pushed her desk chair under the vent, unscrewed the cover and slipped the books inside. Her research material wasn’t illegal exactly, but it would attract more attention.
And she had all the attention she could handle.
The door slammed open. Her essay on the symbolism of black doves in ancient Greek divination floated off the desk to the ground. “You have to come down to the Common Room,” Kiri demanded, dragging Jane down the hall. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Tell you what?” Everyone in the Common Room was excited, talking too fast, placing bets.
“I should have guessed,” Kiri shook her head. “Your mother must have done it.”
“Done what?”Anxiety fluttered in her chest.
“Let me through,” Kiri shoved through the crowd, tugging Jane behind her. Students parted, some smiling, some sneering. They stopped in front of the wide screen set into the wall. The usual Directorate-approved shows played. All other feeds were blocked and taken down with extreme prejudice. Sometimes a Greencoat video snuck through, but never for very long. Most Oracles agreed that by the end of the year there might not be any satellite signals at all, even for the Directorate. Already, the signals were weaker.
“Kiri, what are we watching?” Jane asked.
“Just wait,” Kiri said. “It will play again in a minute.”
The trailer was only a few minutes long, glossy as an advertisement for protein paste cakes. The light was hazy and romantic. There was green grass, gardens, rows of perfect houses, soft music. Jane recognized them with a start, dread uncurling in her stomach like a sleeping snake woken by the sound of mice. A man spoke in a resonant voice that oozed confidence and charm.“The Garden… where every winner has the glory and honour of serving you. Vote for your favourite!”
The recruits pre-marked for the Garden flashed one after the other. Personal data followed: ages, proud family names, inoffensive hobbies. Jane didn’t recognize most of them, until her own face stared back at her.
A pink moon.
“Jane Highgate is studying at the Collegium to be an Oracle. She is proud and excited to serve the Directorate and hopes to find true love.”
She didn’t know where they had gotten the footage, when they’d even filmed her. She was jogging through the Enclave, offering omens on the steps of the Cella in the Rings, dancing in a beaded dress. Shots of the candy-coloured tulip beds and gleaming windows of The Garden followed. Numen burned the back of her neck. Pink moon, church steeple.
Asher was next, much to his surprise and fury. She heard him yelling in the hall, but it seemed very far away. Her vision narrowed to the flash of lights and colours in front of her. She couldn’t tell anyone about the Amphitheatre, the lack of Green Jacks, Cartimandua’s cold and calculating presence. Somehow she had to pretend this was just one of her mother’s plots. And convince Kiri there was no slipping out of this particular noose.
The video looped, playing again and again.
Pink moon, red dust, green blood.
When Saffron got back to the apartment, the chairs were overturned and there was a new hole in the wall. Ragged plaster slashed by a knife blistered the fox she’d painted with a tail made of fire. She’d liked that drawing, damn it.
“Killian’s brothers must still be in a mood,” she said, pushing into her bedroom. Killian was sitting next to Oona who was propped against her bed, blood on her face and matted in her thin braided hair. Saffron skidded to a stop, feeing exactly the same way she’d felt the time she’d mouthed off to a Protectorate soldier and he’d punched her in the throat. Her breath stuttered and froze.
“I’m all right,” Oona croaked, dabbing at her split lip with the hem of her skirt. “I just need the comfrey ointment.”
“Why would Killian’s brothers do this to you?” Saffron asked, her voice strange and cold.
Oona patted Killian’s hand, as though he didn’t know exactly what kind of brothers he had. “Wasn’t them.”
Saffron’s hands were shaking as she struggled to open the tube of ointment. “Tell me who I need to kill, Oona.”
Oona clicked her tongue. “Looks worse than it is, I reckon.”
“I’ll be the judge of that,” Saffron said. To her, it looked worse than the bodies that gathered in the ditch around the Wall.
“Won’t need stitches.”
“You still haven’t told me who did this to you.” She crouched by the side of the bed, suspicion like prickly thorns in her mouth. “Let me see your arm.”
“Then let me see it, old woman.”
Under the sleeve of her knitted sweater, Oona’s arm was already wrapped in a length of flowered material she’d torn from her hem. Blood seeped through it as Saffron tugged the knot loose. Three slashes cut her forearm and they were deep enough to show the parted flesh underneath the hastily applied butterfly sutures. It was the same cuts Saffron had, the same number. A warning. “Argent.”
She suddenly felt as though she was holding the entire Kill Zone inside her body, she was landmines and razor wire, bonechimes and warning signs.
“This is my fault.” She yanked a pack out from behind the water barrels under her cot, stuffing more daggers into her boots, belt, and the wrist holster that sat over her own burning cuts.
“You didn’t cut me, little girl.”
“I’m the reason Argent even knows who you are. I did this. And it ends now.” She finally had vegetables now, enough to sell get Argent’s money. Killian touched her arm. She glared at him. “I’m not waiting another second.”
He turned her towards the window, flashing red with the curfew lights. She wanted to argue but the black market wouldn’t run during the new curfew anyway, they’d wait until morning. She couldn’t do anything but wait. Frustration made her feel rabid. She punched the wall, cracking the plaster.
“I need some of the whirligigs,” she said suddenly, pulling a jar of maple seedpods from the cabinet in the corner. The doors were painted with grotesque gargoyle faces, leering to discourage the casual observer.
Oona lifted her head slightly. “What do you need those for? We have protein paste left. No need to resort to maple pods.”
“I might not be able to get close enough to stab Argent in the spine like he deserves,” she said grimly, pouring a handful of the dried pods into a mortar and pestle and crushed them into a fine powder. “But I can make damn sure he leaves my witch-grandmother alone.”
Saffron waited at the window until the curfew lights finally switched off and dawn glittered on the glass. When she left in search of the underground markets with her pockets full of radishes and potatoes, Killian was at her side. There were too many patrols, too many soldiers. Finding the new entrance to the markets wasted precious time. It was always deep in the Core, at the very heart of the worst the City had to offer. There were no solar panels, no generators, no batteries or sunsticks; only the stubs of old candles. Everything around her was the colour of Oona’s bruises: the sky, wet stone, dark stains on the pavement. Her boots were thick with mud and substances she’d rather not examine too closely by the time they found the mark over a broken door.
The stairs had long since crumbled, or been hacked at with a sledgehammer. The entrance was basically a hole in the wall to a board of old rotten wood crossing over the runoff inside an old subway tunnel. Creaking alarmingly, it led her to another platform of slick tiles and then down a flight of steps into the lower tunnel.
Torches and a few cracked lanterns dangled from the curved ceiling. Scavengers and vendors sold everything from Green Jack charms to the candied violets the Enclave families ate, to reclaimed iron weapons and anarchist flyers. It had a dark, cheerful unruliness; a dangerous secret just this side of suicide. If the Protectorate ever found them, they’d burn it all to the ground with everyone trapped inside. Luckily if the markets gave them no reason to be found, they didn’t bother searching too hard.
She skirted the booths of the fortune tellers, the repurposed clothing, and piles of old gas masks left over from the Lake Wars. She usually came down here to sell Oona’s ointments. Her usual contacts wouldn’t be able to afford what she had to sell today. Alaia might, she had the kind of presence that let her get away with anything. She was dark and tall and elegant, with a shaved skull and long slinky dresses totally unfit for life underground. How she managed to keep the hem clean of dirt and water was a spell she could have made a fortune on, if she could find some Enclave kids to sell it to.
“Saffron,” she said with a welcoming smile. There was a red glitter star on her Adam’s apple. “And Killian. Mmm, handsome, you just get yummier.” She blew him a kiss. “What have you got for me?”
Saffron went around to the side of the table scattered with a strange collection of miniature tarot cards painted with all the known seasons, even the Toad Rain which had only happened once; cat teeth, painted rat bones, pigeon feathers made into earrings. Saffron showed her the potato, still hairy with dirt clinging to the roots.
Alaia’s mouth dropped open for barely a second, and she murmured something in French, something half-awed, half-terrified. She glanced around, as though soldiers might be lurking in the shadows. Worse than soldiers, something as simple as a potato could cause a riot down here. One potato could grow a dozen more. She reached out to touch it, stopped herself. The white tattoo of leaves curled around her wrist and up her arm glowed in the uncertain light.
“So, do you want it?”Saffron asked impatiently.
“Of course, I want it.”
“Can you afford it?”
“That’s the real question, isn’t it?” She crossed her arms, drumming her fingers on her elbows. “Take a turn, petite. I’ll have something when you come back this way.”
“Four credits worth.” Usually, Killian did the bartering. It unnerved people, the way he wouldn’t speak, would only hold up two fingers, or three. But it wouldn’t work on Alaia; she’d been trying to get him to go home with her for a year now. She might ask him to be part of the bargain.
“There and a quarter.”
It was more than she’d ever seen at one time, never mind held in her own hand. They got an assortment of things for the rest of the produce (honey, cricket meal, oregano oil) and then circled back to Alaia. She now wore a leather pouch strapped cross wise between her breasts and next to two curved daggers. Enough to be safe, not enough to give it away that she was protecting something valuable. “Take the feathers, petite,” Alaia said. “It will look as though you bought something instead of sold something.”
Saffron reached over to pick up a pair of blue jay feather earrings. The potato rolled from her hand under a swath of beaded material that hadn’t been there before. Killian blocked them by leaning on the table and looking bored.
“Let me help,” Alaia smiled, pushing Saffon’s braids off her shoulder and inserting the first earring in her left earlobe. As she attached the second into the pierced hole above the first, a packet of seeds and one small battery slipped down the back of Saffron’s collar. They lodged against the spot where the knife strap cut across her jacket.
The walk across the rickety bridge back out into the moldy basement was considerably more cheerful.
If just as vengeful.
When Jane left to fetch a book from the library, a guard was posted outside to make she sure didn’t leave the Collegium grounds. The Garden video played endlessly, augmented with polls and percentages to encourage citizens to vote on their favourite couples. Jane knew the pairings would come down to science and genetics but that hardly made for interested viewers. Now they were invested, curious, desperate to be entertained when the reality outside the door was curfew, riots, and bonebirds.
The next test, more terrifying than the threat of the Amphitheatre, was a publicized, filmed date with another candidate.
Asher, to be precise.
“The ‘date’ is in three days, Jane,” Kiri said. “I say “date” loosely because even though I don’t know exactly what’s going on, something clearly is not right. I mean, Asher?” Disgust boiled off her like waves of heat off concrete. She was a smoldering coal, Jane was grey ash.
“We could give him stomach cramps,” Kiri suggested suddenly. “Hydrangea petals or philodendron leaves ought to do it. It should buy you a few days at least.”
“If they don’t kill him.”
She made a rude sound. “I’m a Seedsinger, remember? I know what I’m doing.”
Jane nodded, different plans forming slowly in her head, closing over, choking her like weeds.
“I’ll get extra for you to keep in your Oracle pouch, just in case,” Kiri said. “And then I’m going to find Micah and hug him. Because, damn. He’s looking better every day.” She rushed out, muttering to herself.
Jane followed at a much slower pace. She wished she could talk to her mother, but she couldn’t talk to anyone. And her mother would just tell her to do her duty. She barely saw her sisters, but she wouldn’t risk them either. She’d never felt so alone.
She took the back stairwell because the last time she’d passed by the Common Room, Belinda tried to read her palm to help place her bet for the Garden. But apparently, Jane had something in common with Asher after all. He was keeping to the back steps as well, punching the wall by the door. There were holes in the plaster and blood on his knuckles. Jane froze, but he’d already noticed her. His face changed: vulnerable anger to jagged fury. “Well, if it isn’t my new wife,” he said silkily, staring her down.
“I’m not any happier about it than you are,” Jane pointed out. It was too much to hope he’d be reasonable. She felt the usual frisson of fear, the hot-cold sweat prickling her spine. She was going to feel it anyway, she realized, so she may as well make it worth something.
“Get out of my way, Asher.” It wasn’t much, but her voice didn’t tremble. She sounded strong, even if she didn’t feel it. It was something.
It wasn’t enough, of course.
Asher yanked her off the last step, pressing her cheek against the jagged plaster before she could think of fighting back, never mind convince her body to obey her. His hand was a fist in her hair, burning her scalp. She realized there was another reason Enclave girls never grew their hair: it was too easily used as a weapon against them. “You’re the reason I’m trapped in the jackshit Garden. You and your damn genes.”
“Not strong enough to fight in the Amphitheatre, are you?” Jane said softly, plaster dust dry and gritty in her mouth.
His breath hissed out between his teeth. “Oh, you’re dead now, Highgate.” He twisted her arm behind her back, her wrist bending inexorably to the breaking point. Pain snarled and but up to her elbow, like dogs attacking. Finally, just before her tendons popped, the soldier set to watch her came through the stairwell door.
Asher didn’t let go right away.
“I said, enough,” the soldier barked, reaching for his Taser. “She belongs to Cartimandua now.”
The other soldier set to watch Asher came up the steps at a dead run. “Settle it in the Amphitheatre, son.” But he couldn’t. He was sorted to the Garden. To her.
The smile Asher shot at her may as well have been a poisoned arrow. The violence it promised made her feel pale down to her bones. When he stalked away, Jane smoothed back her hair with shaking, bruised fingers.
Class wasn’t much better. Hieromancy was bad enough, but reading omens through the entrails of a bird was even more disgusting directly after dinner. Asher’s nails were red with the blood of the white dove. He loved hieromancy; he always found a way to touch the glistening insides, even though it wasn’t required. When the professor scrambled to his feet, bowing his head respectfully, everyone turned to follow his gaze.
Cartimandua marched inside and suddenly everyone was standing. Jane tried to make herself small and invisible as Cartimandua walked the aisles in her in her leather tunic and tall boots. She admired numen tattoos, glanced at homework. She was friendly, interested. She paused beside Jane. “You’re Amaryllis’s daughter.”
Jane nodded, her mouth too dry to form actual words. The throbbing inside her skull intensified. She rolled her neck slightly, trying to soothe the scalding licks of pain. “Headache?” Cartimandua asked, sympathetically.
Jane nodded again. Having her mother’s full attention was bad—-having Cartimandua’s full attention was so much worse. Cartimandua smiled and Jane wondered why it made her knees knock together. It was a normal enough smile. Except that it hid people in basements being experimented on, leaf masks being grafted onto human skin, blood on a linoleum floor. Jane fought against a flare of light behind her eyelids, showing her more images. Dryads with savage teeth, babies with oak leaves for hair, acorns for eyes. She swayed slightly.
“Too much studying, no doubt.”
A bell sounded, explaining her presence. Everyone knew the sound of that bell. It was clear and musical and terrible. “You know what to do,” the professor snapped. “Calmly proceed to the gates.”
The bell called them form the Collegium grounds, down the streets to a cobblestoned courtyard by the parapet. Soldiers flanked the gate and stood on the ramparts. Cartimandua climbed a small set of stairs with a group of Enclave elders. Jane’s mother stood at the bottom of the steps, not close to Cartimandua’s inner circle, but not as far as she used to be. Kiri’s hand slipped into Jane’s, holding tightly as a woman was led through the crowd, weeping. The closer she came to the gate, the more pathetic her weeping became.
“Lettice Warwick’s demerits tells us that she no longer wants to live here in the Enclave,” Cartimandua announced.
“No, I’m sorry,” Lettice sobbed. “Please, I’m sorry.”
Banishments were rare. The Enclaves offered relative luxury; hothouse gardens, mint tea, a parapet to protect them. But rules were rules, even here. And if you broke them, you were banished. Even if you were the sister of one of the elders.
“We only value what is most important when it is taken away.” Cartimandua’s voice was gentle and all the more horrible for it. “This place is a privilege, not a right.”
Lettice was forced through the gates of the parapet. She wore a lacy, beaded dress suited to a garden party. They gave her no supplies, no survival gear, no weapons. She would have to make it to the City before the Red Dust found her, or the wild dogs. No one moved to help her or to appeal for her reversal. She’d earned too many demerits and there was nothing else to be said.
Jane knew she was looking at her own future if she tried to fight the Program.
When Lettice tried to claw her way back inside, she was shot.
There was a price to pay for living in the Enclave.
Being in the Rings was like eating cake for breakfast. You knew it would make you sick but you did it anyway, and it seemed worth it. And sometimes Saffron just couldn’t help herself.
Today wasn’t one of those times. She was only here to be seen. Argent spent a lot of time here and she needed to found. Quickly.
Fire breathers and dancers spinning devil-sticks poured into the street. If the cheerful carnival atmosphere was strained, it was better than the cold wet streets of the Core and protein paste bars. Vid screens clamped to the sides of buildings espoused Directorate values and gossipy dramas without any kind of resemblance to real life. Commercials for the Garden reality matchmaking show played endlessly. Announcements interrupted, encouraging people to get tested and tagged so they could join the Numina if they qualified, followed by fearsome warnings about Numen poisoning and the harm it could do if left unchecked. The same Elysians were who encouraged to get tagged were encouraged to turn in their neighbours, friends and families, for their safety. Numen poisoning caused physical illness as well as aggression and only Tagging and study at the Collegium could prevent it. Saffron had thrown a can at the screens once and a soldier had broken three of her fingers. That was months ago, she wouldn’t risk it now.
She passed the Art Lofts across from the Libraries. She always knew where she was in the Rings in relation to the Art Lofts, like a sunflower tracking the sun across the sky. The warehouse was made of red brick with acres of glass to let in the sunlight, when there was any to be had. She had a favourite easel on the third floor, tucked into the corner where she could pretend she was alone. The pottery wheels and kiln were on the ground floor, the printing screens on the second. It almost seemed worth it when she was surrounded by paintbrushes and art.
Argent finally strolled out of a bar, blocking her way. He smiled, showing off his silver tooth. “Evening, Saffron. How’s your granny?”
“Bite me, Argent,” she returned, throwing the pouch at his head. He caught it reflexively. “Consider my debt paid.”
He opened the drawstring and glanced inside before tossing it to his current tag-along Emmett. “Count that.” Saffron’s smile was a snake unfurling in the sun. Argent tilted his head. “How’d you manage it?”
“What do you care?” Saffron asked. “You got your money.” She took a step forward, a dagger in her hand. “You’ll leave Oona alone now.”
“Will I?” He caught the pouch of coins when Emmet tossed them back with a nod.
“Lettuce seeds, one battery.”
Argent tucked them safely in his pocket. She smiled. “It’s not smart to anger a witch, Argent.”
Emmett shifted nervously. “What? No one said nothing about a witch.”
“If she’s a witch, shouldn’t I do my duty and alert the Protectorate?” Argent asked. He also shifted from foot to foot, but it wasn’t nervous. His hooked his fingers in his pocket. “Numen poisoning is serious business.”
“You can try,” Saffron sounded unruffled, even though the thought made her throat burn. Emmett scraped his palms on his pants. Argent scowled, scratching through his pocket. Saffron nodded at him. “That itch?” She said. “The one crawling through your balls? That’s courtesy of Oona’s cursed payment.”
Emmett made a small sound, scratching his palms more furiously. Argent hissed. “Come at her again and they’ll drop right off.” She raised an eyebrow at Emmett. “Your hands too.”
“You little bitch,” Argent lunged for her. He smashed at Saffron like she was the whack-a-mole game at the sideshow. One of his blows caught her on the shoulder, nearly jarring it from its socket. The edge of her blade scraped his elbow. Someone leaned out of the bar widow, shouting encouragement. Someone else threw Mardi Gras beads.
Argent grabbed Saffron by one of her braids, yanking her off her feet. She fell, nearly stabbing herself with her own dagger. Argent’s boot slammed onto her sleeve, pinning her to the ground. He was still scratching at himself, sweating into his collar. She fumbled for another dagger but his other boot was on her shin, pressing down savagely. A bruise exploded along the bone, claiming her breath. Something cracked in warning. He was going to break her leg. Pain was a lion’s jaw, snapping together over her shinbone.
Two Protectorate soldiers on horseback came around the corner, four more soldiers marching behind them. Metal leaf masks glinted like knives. People leapt out of their way. “Enough.” Rifles pointed toward them, the black metal glinting. Argent didn’t move his boot away, but he stopped pressing down. Saffron wasn’t sure which was worse: Protectorate soldier or broken leg.
The captain raked a condescending gaze over them. Saffron felt as if the leaf mask was painted on her face, as if she could smell the radishes and beets and potatoes on her hands. The captain’s dark eyes bored into her. She knew. She knew.
“Him,” she finally barked, as sweat trickled between Saffron’s shoulder blades. She jerked her chin at Argent. “Bring him.”
Argent cursed, stepping off Saffron’s leg. “Man, I didn’t do anything.” He turned, blades flashing in his hand. The soldiers closed in.
The captain glanced at Emmet. “That one looks like he wet himself. Leave him” She nodded at Saffron. “And she’s scrawny.”
“And untagged,” one of the soldiers said.
“Call it in,” the captain said. “And catch up.”
They rode away with Argent swearing and struggling. Saffron waited until the soldier reached for the radio at his belt before leaping to her feet. She darted into the crowd, knocking over three girls in glitter lipstick clearly stoned on Gingerbread. They tumbled into each other, blocking the soldier, now shouting behind her. Fire breathers and stilt walkers scrambled out of her way. The cobblestones were slippery and her leg hurt from Argent’s boot. Adrenaline pushed her on.
It wasn’t enough.
She crashed into cart selling onion pasties and lemonade. She hit the ground hard.
“There’s always one,” the Tagger said, right before the dart slammed into Saffron’s neck.
“You’re coming with us,” Kiri said again. And again. “You’re starting to act weird. You clearly need a break.”
Kiri wasn’t wrong. And the fact was, Jane couldn’t afford to be thought of as weird. Not with the Program and definitely not with her headaches. And if her own best friend was pointing it out, it wasn’t a good sign. “And you’re not wearing that,” Kiri added firmly.
Jane glanced at the dress she was wearing. “What’s wrong with it?”
“You’re famous now. You need to be noticed.”
“I don’t actually like being noticed,” Jane pointed out.
“I know.” Kiri shrugged. “Adapt or die, Highgate.”
“You’re so warm and fuzzy,” she said drily.
“You don’t need warm and fuzzy, you need fun.” She shoved a beaded dress at Jane. “Try this one.”
Jane blinked. “I can tell you right now that I don’t have the boobs for that.”
“I’ll be the judge. Put it on.”
Grumbling, Jane did as she was told. Kiri just tapped her foot unsympathetically. “Jane, if you fade into the background, no one will root for you in this disgusting Garden thing. You’ll end up with Asher. Be a rose, not a weed.”
“Now you sound like the adverts.”
Jane couldn’t tell her that viewer votes wouldn’t make a difference. Blood tests and Directorate genetic plotting for Green Jacks were the only thing that mattered. Still, if she didn’t let Kiri believe what everyone else believed she’d be putting her in danger. Kiri was never one to back down. It might get her killed this time. Because of Jane.
Jane smoothed the dress down. It wasn’t the neckline that had her concerned suddenly, it was the length. “Where’s the skirt?”
“Stop being such an old lady. You look hot.”
Jane finally took a closer look at Kiri’s skintight silver leather leggings. Her matching tank top glowed against her brown skin. “Where are we going?”
“The Rings,” Kiri said.
Jane sighed. “Kiri, the last time you went into the Rings you nearly got arrested.”
“’Nearly’ doesn’t count.” She waggled her eyebrows. “Let’s see if I can do better.” She linked arms with Jane. “Now shut up and let’s go have some fun. Blake and Lee are waiting outside.”
So was her armed guard but he didn’t say anything. She didn’t recognize this one; he must be new. He didn’t speak at all, not on the way to the gates, and not on the train over champagne and candy-coloured madeleine cakes. They took a private transport to the Rings which were on fire with lights and music. Kiri dragged them to the entertainment district, bypassing the shops and restaurants for the clubs. Line ups snaked down the street and customers were offered drinks and Gingerbread, entertained by dancers in giant birdcages hanging over their heads. The Elysians were obvious with their copper microchipped bracelets and lean faces. The Enclave society folk were just as obvious, and not just because they had to pay for their entertainment
Kiri bounded up to the man at the door. He barely glanced at her. She pushed Jane at him, along with a handful of Enclave credits. “She’s famous, you have to let us in.” He glanced at Jane and then, surprisingly, did just that.
The screens behind the bar played Garden episodes, the first dates, statistics, interviews with excited viewers. Jane groaned. Kiri shoved a glass full of sparkling green liquid at her. “Drink this.”
She sniffed it. It smelled like limes. “What is it?”
“Medicine. Bottoms up.” Kiri was on her third. Her next glass was shaped like a lily and filled with something pink. Jane sipped her drink cautiously. It was tart and light and made her want to giggle. She knew she was as trapped as ever, but it seemed to matter less.
Three girls came to the bar and squeaked at her. “You’re Jane Highgate!”
Jane took another fortifying sip. Kiri grinned. “Want her autograph?”
Jane shot her a glare but it was too late, pens and various body parts were being shoved at her. “I’m not signing that.”
Kiri just laughed and pulled her onto the dance floor. Jane was full of music and the taste of sugared limes and for a long perfect moment, she was just a girl out with her friends. The lights changed colours, flashing off glass beads and silver embroidery and the faded torn clothes of Elysians. She recognized the boy from the Blessing Day, the one with the violent friend with the three black braids. Killian. His coat was creased and tattered at the cuffs. Jane felt a brief twinge of guilt but then there was another drink and this one tasted like sunshine. She kept dancing until she was out of breath and sweaty and the top of her spine burned.
Reality pinched her. The top of her spine prickled again, burning into her head. She stumbled, waving off Kiri’s look of concern. She eased through the crowd, pressing herself against the wall to steady herself. Too many people looked her way. Not now. Not here.
Her head throbbed and tingled and there was nothing she could do to stop it. A pink moon, a field of crocuses.
The boy form the Blessing Day was walking in her direction, heading for the bar. The lights flashed off his copper bracelet. The pink moon, red dust on broken roof shingles. A building on fire.
The dancers moved around her, further disorienting her. She focused on Killian again. A building on fire, the girl with the three braids.
The omens were for him. The building on fire flashed again until her eyes teared up, feeling the heat. She pushed through the dancers, grabbing his elbow. He tensed, turning sharply. Caution turned to surprise. “Do you remember me?” She asked.
When he nodded, she pulled him down closer so no one would hear them, even as she yelled over the music. “Your friend with the braids,” she said. “She’s in a building on fire, something to do with a tattoo. The fire’s good though.”
When Killian grabbed her shoulders, Jane’s guard knocked him back. “It’s okay, I know him,” Jane said.
“You know this Core rat?” he asked dubiously.
“He was thanking me for the Blessing Day omens,” she replied smoothly. Killian inclined his head and darted away.
“He’s cute,” Kiri said, draping her arm over Jane’s shoulder. “Too bad he’s not in the Wheel.”
“We should head back,” Lee joined them. “Blake is outside throwing up.”
Kiri wrinkled her nose. “Ew.”
Jane was surprised at how late it was when they found him clinging to a lamppost and grinning idiotically. The Rings pulsed with artificial daylight but it was the middle of the night and Jane felt a little bit like she was floating. “Admit it,” Kiri said as they piled onto their transport parked at the edge of the main entrance to the Rings. “I’m a genius.”
The explosion sent Jane flying out of the transport before she could answer.
Saffron woke up in a medical chair with her right arm strapped down. For a long horrible moment, everything was white. And then, more horrible still, she could see everything: the tagging centre with its rows of chairs with leather restraints, the banks of tubes filled with blood in the refrigerator unit, Taggers standing under posters about “Doing your duty to the Directorate!”. Music played, some kind of recording of Woodwives chanting.
She kept her eyes half-closed as she tried to assess the situation around the pounding of her head. There were flashes of light outside, like fire. It was dark though, so she’d been out for a couple of hours at least. By the sounds of the voices, something serious was happening. She could only hope it had nothing to do with her. She needed to create some kind of misdirection.
The buzz of a tattoo needle wasn’t exactly what she had in mind.
She jerked, yanking at the straps until she wrenched the muscles in her back. Her other arm was free but her fingers worked slowly, as if they belonged to someone else. “Easy,” the Tagger said, sounding as clinical as she looked.
She wore a white lab coat instead of the usual Tagger military-hunter gear. She was stern and old enough that her hair was more white than brown. Even so, in her current condition, Saffron didn’t think she could take her. It was lowering and infuriating. “I’m just prepping the needles. And if you don’t stop squirming you’ll be stuck with an ugly tattoo. Is that what you want?”
Saffron barked out an involuntary and incredulous laugh. “Are you kidding?”
“She’s ready to be tagged, Peter,” the woman called out to a man inputting data into a tablet. He wore the usual uniform, the right arm bracer with a cut-away opening over his Directorate mark.
“We’re waiting on the blood analysis. Saffron Foxfire, age 20, Core resident.”
“I’m not sick, I’m pissed right the hell off.” She did feel queasy, no doubt from the sedative. “I don’t have numen poisoning, for Jack’s sake. Don’t you think if I did, I’d have blasted all your asses to the Badlands by now?”
“That’s not precisely how it works,” Peter sighed. “And why are you Core people always so rude? This is a simple process. If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear. There’s no need to make it unpleasant.”
Saffron had never wanted to stab someone in the face more in her entire life. And that was saying something.
Her daggers were in a pile on top of her satchel on the floor. She couldn’t even reach them with her foot. Peter thrust a small clay pot no bigger than a teacup in her palm. There was good dark soil inside. She stared at it blankly.
“Make it grow.”
Saffron blew the hair that had escaped one of her braids out of her face. Sweat stuck it immediately to the side of her neck. People disappeared from Tagging centres. She had to get out of here. “I. am. not. a. Numina,” she said, enunciated very clearly.
“There are many ways numen presents itself.”
“How about violence?” she asked. “Because that’s the only magic I’m feeling right now.”
“Try,” he motioned to the miniature pot. She had no idea what kind of seed was buried inside. It was a shame to waste it. All the same, she threw it at his head.
He ducked and it sailed over his shoulder. The explosion that rocked the building and sent the lights flickering was clearly due to something else. The sound of gunfire crept closer, like a snarling dog making eye contact. “Full blown riot,” of the Taggers shouted. “Follow procedure.”
Procedure, apparently, was to leave her behind when something crashed through the window. A bottle of liquor stuffed with a lit rag landed on the floor. Smoke billowed, acrid and eye-searing.
As a distraction, you couldn’t ask for much better than a riot.
Saffron was finally able to undo her restraints and grab her pack and her knives. Taggers stood shoulder to shoulder at the broken window, Tasers and tranquilizer guns at the ready. Getting by them would be tricky, if not impossible. Others fussed around the commscreens and the refrigerator. At the end of the row of chairs was a dark stairwell. She had no idea where it led but it was still her best option.
She took the steps two at a time while the riot pressed at the wall, triumph, discordant, and feral. The second floor was one long room full of more equipment, researchers in lab coats, and people restrained to beds. One had part of a leaf mask sewed to his face. His skin was a sickly green, like mould on a tree. Someone moaned under a framed poster of Cartimandua promising to protect the City.
The bank of plants in the centre of the room partially shielded Saffron as she stood momentarily frozen, bile burning in her throat. This would be her, if they ever found the leaf mask. She’d be another test subject, a specimen to be examined and experimented on. A woman with leaves growing out of her mouth choked on a cry, noticing Saffron.
There was nothing she could do to help them. If she didn’t get out of here, she’d be strapped in a chair again. She dove out onto the fire escape and she was on the ground of the alley within moments. A shadow lurched out of the way, bottles clinking. Saffron caught the glint of a familiar katana. “Killian!” She nodded to the bottles at his feet, the rags in his hand. “You threw the cocktail.”
He hadn’t barged in on some suicide mission to save her. He was too smart for that. Instead he’d given her exactly what she needed: a distraction.
“You are brilliant,” she said. “Now hand me one of those because I owe those tagging bastards.” She lit the ends and tossed two more into the side window, aiming for the chairs and the wall of blood. If the people trapped upstairs were lucky, the fire would burn them up like kindling.
Jane came to so quickly she leapt to her feet before she realized she was too dizzy to stand. Searchlights blazed and curfew emergency lights flashed red, adding to the disorienting chaos. She couldn’t see the transport, or her friends, or even her guard. Chaos boiled in the street.
Her mind went black, trapping her there until someone slammed into her. She fell, a boot slamming down on her hand. Pain stabbed into her fingers as someone else kicked the side of her knee. When she finally got to her feet again, she tripped over a sprawled body. There were raw bite marks on the back of his neck.
The crowd surged forward, carrying her along. Fires burned above, dropping embers onto their heads. She didn’t know the geography of the Core, only knew one direction: out. The sky tower of the Directorate headquarters stabbed at the stars, but it was too far away. Mounted soldiers plunged between the protesters gathered in the centre of a crossroads, heedless of skulls and spines. A wall of tear gas drew inexorably closer. She had to find a place to hide until the riot was contained, someplace better than behind a maple tree.
And then all she could see were brittle leaves, slapping at her face and scratching at her arms as she was pulled between the branches. Her head bumped against the trunk, vines curling around her throat.
Jane had managed to get herself taken by the only ones worse than the Protectorate and the rioting Elysians: a Dryad.
She hung from her ankles, using some kind of braided rope and vine as a lasso. Her irises were a strange acidic moss-green and her hair was mostly tangled leaves and branches, woven with what looked like finger bones. The branches were strewn with more bones, the remains of anyone who had dared stray too close to her tree nest. Jane wasn’t entirely convinced that the red glistening rope further up wasn’t made of human intestines.She tried to speak through the pressure of the vine across her windpipe. “I meant no disrespect.”
The dryad hissed. She was beautiful the way nightshade, henbane and mistletoe berries were beautiful; dangerous and deadly. Jane could only think of the Garden, of being forced to breed little Green Jacks, with no guarantee that they wouldn’t turn Dryad. She could almost imagine she was right now being hanged by her own daughter. She was dimly aware that she was gasping for air, that the lack of oxygen must be meddling with her thinking.
Either way, this was the City— where everything and everyone was food.
And everyone, Directorate included, was always hungry.
The riot continued to roar below them. Protestors dropped in their own blood, rare bullets flying like the plates her mother used to throw at her father. That was before he’d died of a fever, before they’d moved deeper into the Enclave, before they’d climbed the shining and slippery social ladder. Before Jane died in a maple tree, her skin used as streamers. Dryads might not eat their victims, but they definitely used them as cautionary decorations.
She was losing the thread of coherent thought again. Her throat was on fire, her lungs so empty she was deflating. Choking was a remarkably slow process. Time turned to honey, sticky and stiff.
Focus. There were the usual prayers for rain, for good crops, trancework for omens, the symbols in tarot cards, colours, plants. She had to sift, dig deeper. Her professors taught that numen came from the earth, that it traveled though her, up her spine, to send images into her brain. Her neck ached and burned, cramping under her tattoo. The pink moon, blue eyes between branches, a wooden floor with light shining between the slats.
“Numina,” the dryad said, suddenly curious and interested. Not a great deal of an improvement, actually. Usually dryads spoke their own language, sounding like twigs clacking together. Slow as sap, she leaned closer, smelling of mud and moss. Her teeth were too sharp and a she wore a necklace of beetles. Everything about her was suddenly hungry.
She licked the side of Jane’s throat. Jane should have been scared but she didn’t have the energy. She slumped, breathless, vision greying. When the dryad bit down, Jane jerked violently into consciousness. Pain stabbed at her, flesh tearing. The dryad reared back, teeth bloody. “No!” she shrieked. She rubbed Jane’s blood off her tongue so aggressively, the vines loosened abruptly.
Jane dropped out of the tree, hitting the branches as she fell. She hit the ground as the riot broke open like rotten fruit.
She didn’t know how long she crouched there until she managed to drag herself into a doorway, until Protectorate soldiers found her covered in soot and scratches. They escorted her to the train, the streets echoing with the night’s work. Bodies lay where they had fallen, drawing flies and coy dogs, and bonebirds overhead. Anything of value had already been scavenged, leaving some corpses entirely naked. A raccoon chewed on a bloody foot and Jane looked away, gagging.
Her mother was waiting for her in the wayfarer’s cella inside the parapet. “Kiri?” Jane asked. “And the others?”
“They’re fine.” There were bags under her eyes, dark enough that she’d tucked an orchid from the hothouse in her hair to distract from them. She hadn’t even done that for her own wedding day. “They were starting to suggest you’d run away, Jane.”
“Sorry the riot interfered with your political aspirations,” Jane said tiredly.
“Don’t be smart. And you survived, didn’t you?” Amaryllis stated, eyeing her clinically. Her rose and lilac perfume overpowered the smell of smoke from Jane’s burned dress. “Good. You’ll do the family proud.”
“Wonderful. How obliging of me.” She was too tired to care.
“There’s no need for that attitude. If you do well, I will be promoted. Portia might train with Cartimandua herself.”
“I nearly died. Dozens did die.”
“But you didn’t.” And that, as far as her mother was concerned, was that.
Jane was trapped between a useless scream and a woman who wouldn’t hear it anyway.“Shall I drop you at the Collegium or would you rather clean up at home?”
“The Collegium.” The riot hadn’t been doused after all, it had only been transplanted. It reverberated inside of Jane, battling against her bones, burning in her brain. Her thoughts whirled, desperate and impossible to catch.
“Yes, that’s no doubt best,” her mother wrinkled her nose at the dried mud clumping off Jane and onto the rickshaw cushions. “You will do what is required of you,” Amaryllis said curtly. “And you will make this family proud.”
Jane was abruptly exhausted. “I’ve heard this speech before, Mother. And I’m really not in the mood.”
“This is serious.” She reached out, digging her fingers in her arm. “For once, you have the power to be a true help to the family. Don’t ruin it.”
Jane scrubbed her hand over her face, trying to erase the vision of identical houses on platforms and identical cribs behind identical windows. Of the dryad’s too-sharp teeth and the bones in her hair. “You don’t even know.”
“This isn’t the first Program,” her mother added coldly. “And you ought to be grateful. We were given cots in a locked room in the basement of the compound. You get a house, a village. Luxury.”
Jane stared. “You were in the Program?”
“How do you think you were conceived?” she asked. “And why do you think you were chosen for this? Honestly, think, Jane. Why else would it be you?”
“I… but….my father wore the mask?”
“Don’t be silly. It wasn’t him. As if he’d have been strong enough. I married him for other reasons.”
“But Green Jacks aren’t born, not like that.” And the glaringly obvious: she wasn’t a Green Jill. Though it might explain the dryad’s violent reaction to her blood.
“No, but there’s still so much we have to learn. And there is some progress. Numen for one, has many secrets. The more we study and experiment, the better we can understand.”
Jane might have laughed that she and her mother finally agreed on something. Numen. This had to be the reason numen stabbed at her, like an Elysian pushing against the Wall. She wanted to ask about her headaches, but she didn’t dare.
Her father had worn a leaf mask. They must have been watching her all this time. Her mother would have filed reports, growth charts, observations. She was nothing if not thorough. Their move had nothing to do with inheriting a house, Jane realised. When she thought about it, it had come too soon after she had first shown an aptitude for being an Oracle.
“Is he still alive?” She asked. “My… biological father?”
“Of course not,” Amaryllis waved that away. “The leaf mask was too much for him. It always is. There are no miracles, Jane. But he did his duty. We’d hoped for something more when you were born.” She shrugged. “But progress is slow. It’s enough that we don’t give up. And that I now work for Cartimandua.”
Of course. She was stupid not to have realized it before. “You sold me.”
She should be shocked. Startled, at least. But she felt nothing but mild curiousity and a kind of recognition of a truth she should have guessed before now.
“There’s no need to get dramatic,” Amaryllis sighed. She looked briefly animated, as if she had regular emotions like regular people. “It was her idea, you know, the first breeding program. She was only sixteen at the time. She’s brilliant.”
Jane wanted to be anywhere else. “I have parapet duty in a few hours. I need to rest.”
Amaryllis nodded, annoyed. “Don’t disappoint me.”
Fires burned everywhere. Angry Elysians had swarmed down the street, tossing anything they could find through shop windows, smashing the abandoned cars littering the streets, knocking Protectorate soldiers off their horses. Soldiers responded with tear gas and bullets. Search lights pierced through windows.
Saffron knew they’d find her leaf mask before long. She couldn’t let them have it, not now that the heat was coming, anyone with half a brain could tell that much. The rain had stopped but the air was humid and thick, and when the hot months cooked the City it made everything so much worse.
Soldiers streamed out of their apartment building. “They’ve already been in so it’s safe now,” she whispered to Killian. “Check on Oona. I’ll be there soon.”
She darted behind the soldiers, praying they wouldn’t turn around. Smoke lingered between the buildings. The red light continued to track through the alleys and the windows as dawn flirted with the horizon. She was halfway across the rope bridge when more lights snapped on, pouring painfully bright from the rooftops of the buildings. She was starkly outlined, a target. The dying riot was a dull roar, as if lions circled the Core, refusing to give up entirely.
She made it across to the balcony and dug out the mask. The ivy tendrils wrapped around her fingers. She stuffed her pockets with radishes and beet tops and tried not to notice how tightly the mask held onto her. She made it back down to the street before someone grabbed her. She whirled, dagger in each hand. The man collapsed, making a strange sound, like a branch cracking. No, not a man.
The Green Jack.
His hair was the colour of soil, the kind that grows the best food. His skin was nut-brown, bisected with scrapes and a raw hole where one of the guard’s bullets struck him. His blood was such a dark green it looked black. Oona might have been able to heal him a few days ago but Saffron knew it was too late now. “I need your help,” he wheezed.
She stared at him. He didn’t know her. She could call the Protectorate. They’d offer a reward for returning him and they’d never have to know her part in it.
“You’re an idiot,” she finally said. “I could be anybody.” She wasn’t of course. She was the girl who’d stolen his mask. That was probably worse.
“I followed the mask,” the Jack replied. It was responding to his presence, growing tendrils that reached out from under her jacket zipper towards him. They were the same green as monarch butterfly cocoons. “It’s part of me. I could find it anywhere.” He reached for it and she stepped back, frowning. “I need it to heal,” he said simply.
“Shit,” Saffron said, but she handed it to him.
The braided leaves looked too simple to be so powerful. He held it up to his face but nothing happened. He didn’t have the usual Green Jack glow. He was a candle gutting out.
“I thought you said the mask would heal you!” She burst out. Her throat cramped, as if she was trying not to cry, which was ridiculous. Beet leaves trembled in her pocket.
He sat back weakly against a recycling dumpster. “It might have healed me if I’d found it right away. But I had to track it for days, riddled with buckshot. Now it will only buy me a few minutes.”
Saffron squashed a small flare of guilt. How was she supposed to know he’d be back for the leaf mask? Was she supposed to just leave it there for the Directorate?
Still, the guilt had her listening to the rest of his story. Until it was clear he was insane, anyway.
“They found me before I could get to the rendezvous point,” he explained, though she hadn’t asked. She didn’t want him to be a real person. It was easier if he was a symbol. She wasn’t sure what to think of herself otherwise, or her part in his death. Tiny ivy leaves wound through his button holes. “I let myself get caught so they wouldn’t find the Greencoats.”
Saffron wasn’t sure what to be more surprised about: a Green Jack, or the Greencoats. The Spirit Forest was thousands of acres of trees days away from Elysium City. The Directorate couldn’t control it and they needed it too much to burn it down. The glass farm domes they’d built on the edges produced the most food. It was full of Green Jacks, and the Greencoat rebels who liberated them from domes and laboratories and the constant battle between them.
“This is all fascinating,” she bit out. “But in case you hadn’t noticed, there’s kind of a riot going on. The streets are lousy with Protectorate soldiers.” He just stroked the leaves of the mask, looking bewildered and tired. “Hell, just come on,” she grabbed his shoulder, forcing him up. “We can’t stay here.”
“It doesn’t matter. I’m dying.”
“Not yet, you’re not. Let’s go.”
“You need to wear the leaf mask now. It has to be you.” He tried to grab her hand but he was pathetically easy to elude, even as she held him up.
“What? Hell, no.”
“You found the mask,” he replied, as if that explained everything.
“So you don’t have a choice anymore. It’s already linked to you. You’re a Green Jill now.”
“You talk too much,” she grunted, dragging him to the fire escape. She had to hook her arm around his waist and tip him half-against her, dragging him like a backpack.
“The mask already chose you. You have to have noticed that it winds around you like ivy growing on a tree.” She refused to admit to it. “It knows I’m dying. Certain plants require certain types of soil and shade and sunlight. This mask just happens to need you now.” He looked at Saffron, the leaves twined in his hair wilting. “If you ignore the calling, it will die. As will its power.”
“And if I answer, I die,” she pointed out.
Green Jacks couldn’t have babies, not through science or witchcraft. They reproduced like strawberry plants sending off runners. Saffron didn’t need to be told that the world needed all the Green Jack help it could get.
She couldn’t help but remember the very first Jack she ever saw. He was barely twelve years old and his collarbones jut out like knives. He was so skinny; she could see them even from the rooftop she’d hidden on. It took a lot of energy to help plants grow and that energy had to come from somewhere. The Directorate used them up until they were sad, dancing skeletons. She wouldn’t be a slave to the Directorate.
But the mask had already sent another curling tendril to wrap around her arm. The Jack sighed once, his head falling limply back. “Go to the Spirit Forest, you’ll be safe there.”
“Sure,” she replied. “Right after I get invited to an Enclave Society ball.”
He didn’t respond.
“Don’t you dare,” she snapped, propping him up against the wall. “Hey,” she slapped his cheek. “Wake up. I don’t want your damn mask, so wake up!”
His body cracked; it broke apart, turning into rich, dark earth. It smelled like spring and rain, as it crumbled between the metal slats. The leaf mask toppled out of his empty coat, tightening around her. He could have been lying. It was absurd to think otherwise. She was just a scavenger, a Core rat.
It was too much too think about crouching on a fire escape. She climbed up the ladder and slipped through her bedroom window, careful not to knock Oona’s plants over. The mint responded immediately, scenting the air as it stretched its leggy stalks up.
“Thank the Green Gods,” Oona sighed from her rocking chair. The bruises on her face were still dark as soot. Killian stood beside her. “You made it back.”
Saffron tore the vine off of her arm and tossed the leaf mask onto Oona’s bed. The creaking of Oona’s chair snapped into silence. She reached out, stroking it the way she’d stroked a dying wren she’d once found on the balcony. The mint was already halfway up the window. Saffron leaned against the wall, as far from it as possible and told them everything.
“This is a little piece of the Wild,” Oona said quietly. The green started to look dusty. “It’s precious, Saffron. We can’t let it die.”
“I’m not handing myself to the Directorate.” She clasped her hands behind her back.
“Who said anything about that?” Oona snapped. “As if I’d send my only granddaughter into that nest of vipers. Now take the mask before it crumbles away completely.”
Oona’s gaze didn’t falter and she didn’t lower her arm. The leaf mask looked so simple in her hand, made of leaves and braided vines. But she was right. It was wilting too fast. Killian snatched it. It continued to wilt. Saffron brushed her fingers over it. For a moment nothing happened. She met Killian’s eyes and laughed out loud. The Jack was wrong.
And then tingles and sparks shot up her arm. Her laugh strangled. For a brief moment, she could taste mint and sage. She could have sworn she could actually hear plants growing, leaves unfurling. Tendrils wrapped around her, leaves turning green again, though the edges burned like fire. Tiny red berries glistened. Oona’s miniature garden shot up, growing so thick so fast it blocked the fires still burning from the riots.
Saffron sighed, disgusted. “I guess he was telling the truth.”
Oona smiled. “I always knew you were special, my girl.”
She stepped back. She didn’t want to touch the leaf mask anymore, not until she absolutely had to. “You always said I had demon blood.”
“And so you do, with a temper like that,” she answered easily. “Being special’s not easy.”
“Oh, Oona, I’m not special. I just stole the wrong thing from the wrong person.”
Oona and Killian exchanged one of their secret speaking glances, the kind that made Saffron want to scream. They had a way of making her feel all of five years old sometimes.
“We can’t let the Directorate turn us into small petty creatures who don’t fight for what’s proper and good. Ain’t enough Green Jacks in the world that we can be wasting those we have. He didn’t deserve to die alone. None of us do.”
Neither Killian nor Saffron looked convinced. They’d met lots of people who deserved to die alone. Though to be fair, the Jack wasn’t one them. “You get to the Spirit Forest,” Oona continued. “You find the Greencoats and you make them protect you. And you remember to offer tobacco to the spirits when you get there. Could be they’ll remember your ancestors used to do the same.”
Killian looked like his head might actually explode. Saffron knew exactly what he was thinking. People died trying to reach the Spirit Forest. People died just trying to cross out of the Ring sometimes. Not to mention that according to the Directorate, the Greencoats were cannibals. “I’d happier on my own,” Saffron muttered. She didn’t see how trusting a bunch of strangers was a good choice.
“You promise me,” Oona demanded fiercely. “You can’t do everything alone. Certainly not this.”
The only person Saffron would trust in this was Killian.
“Promise me, Saffron.” Her lips were pale. That only happened when she was agitated and straining her heart.
“Fine,” Saffron said, before Oona made herself ill. Bad enough the cuts and the bruising and the bloody gash scabbing in her hairline were Saffron’s fault. “I promise. But it doesn’t matter anyway. I can’t pay the Ferryman,” She reminded her. “How am I supposed to get across the Wall? Even without the damn riots, they’d shoot me on sight if I even get near it. And I clearly can’t wait.” She pointed to the mint plant which now touched the ceiling.
Killian pulled a tin coin from his pocket. It was stamped with the Directorate’s symbol on one side, and the roman numeral for one on the other. Saffron gaped at him. She’d had no idea he had a coin, never mind where he got it from. They were the only way through the Wall. They were incredibly rare in the Core, even if you had money to buy one, which no one ever did. “You had a chance to leave this place all along,” she accused. “To get out of Elysium City and away from your brothers. Why the hell did you stay?”
He raised his left eyebrow at her as though she was an idiot. He held up two fingers. He’d been waiting for another coin, so they could leave together. And now he was offering her his only chance out of Elysium City.
She started to hate the Green Jack, just a little, even though it wasn’t his fault.
Killian fetched his sister’s extra Protectorate uniform from his room. Even with the coin for passage, she would have to be careful. The uniform was a little short but not by much. Her boots were tall enough to cover the gap. She tucked her braids up into the black cap. “Don’t let the idiot brothers take any of your rations,” she said severely.
“As if they’d dare.” Oona kissed her cheek, her lips dry and wrinkly. “Be careful.”
“You too, Oona.” Saffron hadn’t cried since her mother died. She had to remind herself of that. Curfew and lockdown bells rang out from the Core again, reverberating through the Rings.
“Go,” Oona gave her a little shove.
She’d have climbed up to the roof but people always went to the roof when the alarms sounded and there were too many gardens growing in clay pots and discarded oil drums up there. The mask would leave a trail of thriving carrots, cucumbers, and lettuce. The Protectorate would be able to eat their way to her location. Killian ran at her side, crossing rope bridges until they finally reached the Wall. There were still bodies on the ground from the last time the electricity shorted. “Look after my Oona,” she told Killian. “And use my bed from now on, away from the idiots. I’ll try and send word if I can. And if——.”
He cut off her rambling with a fierce hug that made her eyes sting. He smelled like leather and rain and metal. She smelled like leaves and mint. Already, she wasn’t the same person. She was the first to pull away.
She walked towards the Wall, and the mask in her rucksack felt like a ball of sun. The guard lights glinted off barbed wire. She forced herself not to look back. She already felt the loss of Killian, as if one of her arms had been lopped off. “I can pay the Ferryman,” she called out, hands lifted to prove she was carrying nothing but a passage coin.
The light from a guard’s rifle pierced her. She squinted, trying to look confident and bored, and not like someone smuggling magic. She tossed him the passage coin. Her pack grew heavier, filling with leaves and flowers and berries. The grass at her feet was suspiciously thick. “Now?” He asked. “During a riot?”
“Why do you think I’m here?”
“Aren’t you a little young?”
“Are you arguing with the Directorate’s orders?” she returned, heart thumping like rain on a metal rooftop. “Or with Cartimandua?”
Under any other circumstances she would have snickered at being called ma’am.
“Pass,” he finally barked.
The gates clanged shut behind her.
Bombs and riots didn’t excuse you from parapet duties, it only made you feel as though you hadn’t slept in a month. They sent a doctor to her but he proclaimed her bruised but well enough for duty. She put on her uniform, aching all over.
But the pain suddenly meant nothing when she saw the moon rising pink over the rooftops. She’d seen that pink moon too many times inside her own head: at the cella when she read for Killian, in the club.
And now, finally, when she was due to be on watch at the parapet.
She knew there was no doubt some scientific explanation for the colour, pollution or light particles. But to her Oracle trained sense, it was an omen hanging in the sky, the pink eye of an invisible creature watching her. She could taste the ritual anise seed tea on her tongue, even though she hadn’t had a cup since her dawn meditation.
The pink light touched everything: the parapet stones, the birch trees, the white cella marble dome.
She wore her usual leather tunic, her short hair like sleek feathers. “Jane,” Cartimandua smiled.
Jane forced a smile she hoped didn’t make her look as nauseous as she suddenly felt. “Hello.”
Something about Cartimandua’s pale eyes made Jane think the woman could see right through her, could peel her open like a pomegranate and pluck her secrets like seeds the colour of blood. It was more than the fact that she had the entire Protectorate army at her beck and call, and the backing of the Directorate councils. She was their saviour, and she could do no wrong.
“How are the headaches?”
“Better, thank you.” Where was her usual trick of fading unnoticed into the background when she really needed it?
Cartimandua circled around her, touching callused fingertips to Jane’s eye tattoo. “A new mark, isn’t it?”
“I’ve had it for a year now,” Jane replied haltingly. The soldiers watched her curiously. She doubted people like her often held Cartimandua’s attention. She clenched her hands so they wouldn’t tremble.
“Hmm. You’ve tested very well with the viewers in the Core. I’m interested to see what you can do, Jane.”
If nothing else, Cartimandua was proving, under the pink moon, that Jane was right. Her fear of being alone outside the Enclave was rightly outweighed by her fear of being not alone inside the Program.
There was also an unexpected benefit; if Jane could stop her heart from pounding so hard she felt faint. Cartimandua was distracting the soldiers and the others working their shifts. They jostled to impress her. All eyes followed her, even Jane’s guard. An idea tickled at her. It was madness, suicide.
The pink moon urged her on.
She’d been trained to follow the omens. Why stop now, when she needed them most? She was wearing her parapet uniform which doubled as a survival suit, in case of attack. Cartimandua was pulling attention. All she had to do was find a way to get rid of her guard. Kiri’s hydrangea petals ought to do the trick. If she could just get the guard to drink it.
She ducked into the parapet kitchen when Cartimandua finally moved away. It was tiny and sparse, but it had drinking water and canisters. Jane filled one up, dropping bruise-blue petals into it. She added anise seeds to cover the taste.
“I’m going to go for a run before my shift starts,” Jane told her guard, who was craning her neck, trying to catch another glimpse of the Legata. “Just to loosen up.”
Jane ran hard, looping twice around the hilly blocks, until her Protectorate guard was wheezing and grateful for a long drink from Jane’s canister
She didn’t have to wait long for it to take effect. Just long enough for sense to start returning. Who did she think she was? She couldn’t survive out there on her own. They’d charge her with desertion, treason.
Run, the pink moon urged. Run now.
“Are you all right?” Jane asked her guard, making sure to sound concerned. In truth, she was a little worried she’d used too many petals. She wasn’t a Seedsinger after all.
The guard groaned something unintelligible.
“I’m taking my watch now,” Jane added. “At my usual station, so take your time.”
Instead, she followed the track for foot patrols around the perimeter. She was usually stationed up top, better with a crossbow than actual combat, but no one noticed. Her guard was still retching in the bushes. Hopefully it would be awhile before anyone realized she was gone. Jane walked with away with calm, purposeful steps, as she’d seen countless others do on patrol. If sweat soaked her spine under her uniform, no one had to know.
The suburbs outside the Enclave were vast and dark and dangerous. She broke into a run, twitching at every sound, avoiding the bones piled on the road. Part of her, too much of her actually, wanted to turn right around and go back to where it was safe. She couldn’t even stand up to Asher’s bullying with any degree of success. She was going to get eaten by wild dogs before she even made it down the street. Was the Garden so bad? She’d be taken care of, fed, protected. Trapped.
The pink moon was still watching her, urging her on.
Saffron had never been beyond the Wall.
They said there were stars over the rest of the world, millions of them. She’d only ever seen the North star, it was the only one bright enough to struggle through the layers of pollution, weather controlling chemicals, and replacement ozone.
She already missed Oona and Killian. It was a physical ache under the breastbone, like an infection. Only comfrey and honey tea wouldn’t cure the hollow empty grinding. She had nothing but her own stubbornness to comfort her. She’d see this through because Oona wanted her to. And because spiting the Directorate was as good a destiny as any she’d find in the Core.
The artificial glow of the Rings was surprisingly pretty from a distance. She couldn’t see Killian, of course. But she knew that he was running home. They were both running, only this time in opposite directions. It felt wrong. They always did stupid things together. She didn’t know what to think, here on the other side without him.
The Enclave was several hours walk from the City borders. To the west were the most affluent homes, and therefore more soldiers. The northern and eastern border gave way to the Badlands. It would take her at least three days to reach them, if she was lucky. And longer to reach the Spirit Forest. A week, maybe two. Assuming she didn’t get lost. Or tracked. Or killed.
A lot of assumptions, actually.
Never mind the long arm of the Directorate, she’d have to deal with the Ferals and folk more desperate than her. Still, she was Elysian. She could handle it. Probably better than she could handle the lingering taste of green on her tongue, courtesy of the leaf mask. It was alien, and only served to remind her that she was alien now too. She wasn’t even sure if she was still human. She was a Green Jill. She wasn’t Saffron anymore, not really.
No. If nothing else, she would still be Saffron. She’d see to it. She’d given up everything else, given up Oona and Killian. Damned if she’d sacrifice that too. A tough promise from a girl with nothing but a pack on her back, a stolen Green Jack mask, and the rubble of the suburbs to the horizon.
There was just enough moonlight to make out the hulking shadows of houses, identical even in their disrepair. Lawns had long since turned weedy. The suburbs might be abandoned but they were investigated on a regular basis by the Protectorate. The yard was a tangle of overgrown leggy rosebushes with silver thorns like daggers. There was an algae-thick pool sunk into the ground, left over from the last century. People used to paint them blue, and fill them with chemicals in order to float in them. The idea of wasting that much water was shocking, not to mention illegal.
A shadow swooped down, interrupting her tangled thoughts. Her neck prickled, the tiny hairs like frozen needles. She reached for a knife but kept walking.
Another shadow, circling.
Never mind the Protectorate, she was going to be torn apart by bonebirds before she’d even walked an hour outside the City. Perfect. They’d been genetically manipulated out of vultures during the Lake Wars, to eat the dead. Fire was too dangerous to burn all of the bodies since water was too precious to put out the flames if they spread. So the bodies were dumped in the suburbs for the bonebirds. There were bones all around her, pushed against the curbs, crumbled to dust in the middle of the road.
The bonebirds were huge, with a wingspan as tall as her, talons thick as branches and sharp curved beaks. Their bald heads gleamed, pink as raw flesh. Oona talked about thunderbirds sometimes, how they blinked lightning, brought thunder on their wings, and made sure humans kept their promises. Bonebirds might be as big, but otherwise they were nothing like that. They only new hunger. An appropriate totem for Elysians, come to think it. One of them shrieked at her. Her daggers wouldn’t do much good. She might stop one, but the others would tear her scalp from her skull before she had a chance to wipe the blood off her blade.
The closest house only had half a front door swinging uselessly on rusted hinges, and it was the wrong half. She’d have to try for the crumbling church with the stained glass windows. As she launched into a run, there was a powerful slash of wings above her. A talon scraped her shoulder, slicing through the thick uniform to her skin. The smell of wet feathers, rotting meat and rancid breath filled her nostrils when she gasped for air.
She hit the door hard, kicking it until it finally gave way. She slipped inside but a bonebird was already trying to force his way through one of the broken windows. Black downy feathers filled the air. Blood smeared on the brightly coloured glass.
She lodged a broken chair against the window frame, the bonebird pecking at her fingers. Blood pooled between her knuckles. She backed into the main nave, the benches thick with dust. Mould furred the faded statues.
She wedged a kerchief under the torn shoulder of her jacket, pressing down on the gash. She’d pack it with cobwebs later; she wasn’t likely to run out in this dusty place. She pulled the leaf mask from her pack, handling it as gingerly as a ferret that might turn on her without warning. It had been flat grape leaves and knobbly oak when she’d first found it but they were changing. Vines unfurled, clinging around her wrist. They were so thin and delicate she’d have had to use a fine-point marker to draw them. Paint was too wild, brushes too coarse.
She knew nothing about Green Jacks, beyond the basics from countless public service announcement. Nothing reliable to say the least. Green Jacks were a mystery, and carefully kept that way.
Only they were no longer “they”.
That comforting distance was gone. She was one of them now.
It took a long moment for Jane to figure out why this particular suburb street she’d never seen before was so familiar.
The moon hung like a glass lantern flickering out as the sun rose steadily behind her. The tall steeple of a crumbling church grasped at it but fell short. She knew the shadow of that steeple. One omen leading to another. Something nameless and primal skittered up her spine as she slipped inside the church. The silence had a certain quality, like it was holding its breath. She didn’t have time to investigate.
A girl with black braids tangled with leaves flung herself at Jane, pinning her to the stained glass. She pressed a knife to Jane’s collarbone. Feeling the bite of the blade, Jane froze.
“I know you.” Jane recognized the braids, the fierce anger. “I read the omens for your friend Killian on the steps of the cella.” She turned her head slightly to alleviate the pressure of the knife inching up to her throat. Cartimandua might not need to send soldiers after her at all, she was about to have her throat sliced open by a half-dead scavenger from the Core.
It probably served her right for trusting a pink moon.
And then suddenly, that wasn’t the only danger anymore.
Clouds were gathering like a rust-coloured puffball mushrooms sending out deadly spores on the other side of the cracked glass. It smelled like raspberries and vinegar, and something sharper. “Red Dust,” Jane croaked. “It will kill us, puncture—-“
“I know what it does,” the girl said flatly.
Fear was acidic, searing her stomach, her throat, the space between her ribs. They fogged the suburbs on a weekly basis to eradicate any squatters, runaways or otherwise desperate folk who thought they could hide from the Directorate. The cloud left a red film like desert dust. It was harmless after a few hours, but a fresh cloud like the one stalking towards them was deadly. Jane didn’t know exactly how it worked, only that it left behind bodies with red eyes and thousands of bleeding pinpricks.
“We have to run,” she said. “They Dust all the buildings, inside and out, through the broken windows.”
The machines blowing the Dust whirred and purred. Birds flew overhead in such numbers that the sky darkened as they passed, trying to escape the poison.Jane was grateful she’d been running for fun for so long. It made running for her life so much easier.
“You’re from the bloody Enclave,” the girl said staring at her survival suit. “Figures.”
Jane was well aware that the Elysians hated the Enclave. They got the best education, the best food, the best of everything.
The best of everything.
“That could work,” she muttered out loud. A bonebird dropped screeching from the sky, wing tips dusted red. “Come on.”
The girl started running, but in the wrong direction. “That road will take you to the Enclaves,” Jane said. “If you survive. Now come on!”
She paused but when the red cloud came closer she cursed and ran after Jane. Her foot caught in a bit of buckled pavement and she sprawled forward. When she pushed up into a crouch, her arms, side and cheek were scratched bloody. Something green poked out of her pack. When Jane reached to help her lift it, the girl snapped at her. “Don’t.”
But she’d seen the green leaves, she knew what it meant. And why the pink moon had brought her here.
The cloud licked at them with a monstrous mouth full of deadly red tongues. More birds fell. A horse and three dogs galloped out of the weedy space between two houses and nearly trampled them in their panic. “Go, go, go!” The girl shouted, even as Jane slipped an arm under the shoulder to support her weight.
“We need high ground,” Jane shouted back. “I have an idea.”
The machines closed in, a wall of steel and motors and death. They ran until even Jane was gasping, her lungs fire, her legs water. The machines multiplied, coming in from both sides to meet at the edges of the suburbs. Jane felt a prickle on the back of her hand, just before pain burst like soft fruit falling from the top branch of a tree. It stole her breath, very nearly stole her eyesight too as everything went white for a long terrible moment. She cradled her hand to her chest, adrenaline pushing her a few more feet.
“High ground,” Jane choked a reminder. The air tasted like metal and pepper.
“That one,” the girl said suddenly. “Trellis.”
Jane saw it, relief pumping more power through her legs as she climbed. She crawled across the peeling shingles, dust making the air look rusty. Her hand hurt, blisters already forming from her brief contact. “Dying up here or down there,” the girl added. “I don’t see the difference.”
“The Dust is focused on the streets and inside homes. It will blow up here, but not as concentrated,” Jane explained, fumbling for the large pouch attached to her utility belt. She unwrapped a length of silver plastic, like an emergency blanket. The girl looked unimpressed. “It’s a survival bag,” Jane said. “Like a sleeping bag, but it protects against acid rain, ice, heat.”
“I hope so,” Jane replied. She had to believe the omens wouldn’t just lead her to a slow agonizing death on a suburb rooftop. “Because it here comes.” She tossed a mask at Saffron. There were always two, just in case. “Put this on. It’s good against mustard gases and chemicals.”
She slipped hers on until it suctioned to her face. She wrapped the survival tent around them. They had to wedge against each other, elbows and knees digging into soft places. She pulled the zipper then the string that activated the compound along the seam, sealing them inside. Jane’s breath was loud and hot inside the mask.
There was no way of knowing if the tent was working, or if the Dust had found them yet. They weren’t on fire with pain, but there were no guarantees for the next second and the one after that. The silver material crinkled. “If we’re going to die here wrapped in plastic, I should probably know your name.” The girl’s voice was muffled and tinny through the mask.
Jane remembered fields of purple crocuses along with the pink moon. Saffron was a pollen gathered from the stamens of crocus flowers and used as a spice. She half-smiled, both bolstered and slightly terrified. Whatever was happening was laced with numen, pushing them and prodding them. But why? And where? She wanted to ask her about the leaf mask but she looked so fierce.
“Where are you going?” she asked instead.
“The Spirit Forest. You?”
“So how do you like it so far?” Saffron asked wryly. She shifted, the material crinkling loudly. “Since I’m not bleeding from the eyeballs, I’m guessing your survival bag is working. So thanks.”
“We have mandatory survival training. Just in case.” Jane said. “The Directorate wants the Enclave to survive because—.” She cut herself off.
“Makes sense,” Saffron said. “You have the education. What does the world need with another Core rat?”
“I don’t think that way,” Jane said quietly.
“Saffron snorted. “I do.”
They stayed cramped together for at least an hour, though it felt like much longer. When they finally emerged from the cocoon, it was to red streets littered with the carcasses of slow-moving animals. Saffron could see the gleam of the Directorate farm domes circling the edge of the Spirit Forest and the crackled hills of the Badlands beyond. She’d never guessed there’d be so many. The Wall cut down towards the lake, extending the Kill Zone. “I told them this was a bad idea,” Saffron muttered.
“Do you have a way in?” Jane asked.
“Maybe I can help you.”
“Why?” Saffron demanded. She knew half a dozen people who’d have already killed Jane for her suit alone and yet she was oblivious or trusting. Two qualities Saffron didn’t understand.
“Because that’s what people do. Help each other.”
“No,” she pointed out drily. “It really isn’t.”
“Well, maybe they should start.” Jane made a face. “Anyway, the moon led me to you.”
“The moon.” She turned her head. “I appreciate the help with the Dust, but I can’t take care of a crazy Enclave girl right now. Even if you did save my life.”
“I’m not crazy,” Jane said, “I’m an Oracle.”
Saffron wasn’t convinced there was a difference. Still, she remembered Killian had gone to this tiny bruised girl. “You read omens for my friend.”
Jane nodded. “The one with the katana. I read for him twice actually.”
“And what did you see?”
“That’s not for me to say,” she replied primly. It made Saffron want to shake her. Still, Jane clearly hadn’t said anything about the leaf mask, or else she’d be raising an alarm.
Unless that’s what this was.
Saffron blamed the hot stifling air inside the silver survival bag for not realizing it instantly. She’d saved Saffron from the Dust, knowing she had a leaf mask, knowing she was a Green Jill.
She’d been sent by the Directorate, not the moon.
Saffron spun sharply, punching Jane in her already bruised face. She flew backwards onto the shingles, landing hard. Saffron crouched beside her. “You can tell the Directorate to go to hell.”
“I thought I was,” she mumbled around her split lip. She tried to sit up, blinking dizzily.
“You saved my life,” Saffron said, unclipping the paracord from Jane’s belt and tying her wrist to the chimney pot. “So consider the debt paid.”
“By tying me up?” Blood stained her teeth.
“By not killing you.” She rummaged through Jane’s pack, claiming the water canteen, and several protein bars. She took the knife from Jane’s boot as well. She’d have taken her survival suit too but it was too much like leaving a kitten out to die. Even though the gear wasn’t even repurposed, everything about it was new and perfect. Saffron had never actually seen anything made from whole cloth like that. Mostly they all made do with leftover clothing from the department stores abandoned during the wars. There were a great deal fewer people left to clothe, after all.
Jane fought against the paracord, leaving raw marks on her wrist. “You can’t just leave me here!”
“I’m sure the Directorate will find you in no time. They always come for their own.”
“I’m not working for the Directorate!”
“Sure, you found me in the middle of nowhere just in time to save me from the Dust,” She got to her feet, sneering. “All because of the moon.”
“I’m a Core rat,” she added, before climbing down the trellis. “Not an idiot.”
Jane hadn’t been out of the Enclave for more than a day and she was already tied to a chimney pot.
Not exactly encouraging.
Luckily, the chimney was not very sturdy and after a few hard kicks with her heels, it broke off. The moon was still pink, though it was fading. She knew why she’d been led to save Saffron. She’d seen the leaf mask in her pack when they were running from the Dust. What she hadn’t seen coming was the right hook. Her jaw ached. She shimmied down the trellis, following Saffron’s footsteps in the eerie red dust. It wasn’t as if she had anywhere else to go.
And Directorate or not, she was a Numina, sworn to the Green Gods. Saffron was a Jill. It was Jane’s duty to help her.
Even if she could already feel the side of her face swelling up.
The red powder clung to the houses, the abandoned cars, to dead birds and cats and raccoons. Jane considered putting the mask back on, even though she knew it was harmless in this form. Saffron’s tracks took her out of the suburbs, as expected. The red pavement gave way to fields littered with broken rubble and fallen telephone poles. Heat pressed down on her, humid and sticky. Sweat ran down her side under her survival suit. She unzipped the top, her tank top already damp. Her throat cramped with thirst but Saffron had taken her water. She chewed on an anise star, hoping it would help.
Saffron’s footsteps began to drag until they stuttered elliptically. She found Saffron slumped against a wall. “Jacking hell, Jane,” Saffron muttered. “What are you even doing here? If you say the moon made you do it, I will stab you.”
She thought of Asher, of the Garden, of dryads in the trees. Of her father sacrificed to a leaf mask. Of what Cartimandua would have in store for her if she didn’t produce babies strong enough to wear the mask. Of what she would do to those babies. There would be tests, laboratories. She didn’t say any of it though, not with Saffron wilting, a leaf mask in her hair and her arm tag raw and infected. “I have cream for that,” she said instead.
Saffron pushed weakly to her feet. “I’m not sure I can believe you’re not Directorate.”
“Well, I did save your life. And I’m about to do it again.” She didn’t know how else to convince her they needed to travel together. Saffron had a Green Jack mask, Jane had Green Jack numen. They had to stick together. She no longer needed a pink moon to tell her that. “You owe me.”
Saffron half-smiled. “Now you’re speaking a language I understand.”
“So consider this a temporary alliance then. I’m a Numina. We’re sworn to the Green Gods, remember? I have a duty to the leaf mask, and to you as a Jill.”
“I’m not a Jill.” When Jane just stared at her she hunched her shoulders. “If you slow me down, I’m leaving you behind.”
Jane felt something finally unclench in her stomach. The burning at the top of her spine abated slightly. She put her arm under Saffron’s shoulders, supporting most of her weight. “I’ll be sure to keep up,” she said drily.
The Badlands were as hot and dangerous as the stories said. The ground was hard and dry, and cracked like glass. The sun bleached the sky and the piles of bones scattered haphazardly about. Not haphazardly precisely—-they were too big and uniform to be an accident, but whatever internal logic had led the builders was lost on Saffron.
As was Jane’s unhesitating help.
She might be a particularly baffling Enclave girl, but she had a compass, and a good knowledge of geography. Honestly, the most Saffron knew about the Spirit Forest was that it was vaguely north-east. She might have walked in circles for weeks. As a plan, it was kind of embarrassing.
Jane led them up the main street that cut through the Core and clear out of the City through the suburbs and beyond. It had been a highway once, when everyone had cars. She said it stopped at another small lake, but they’d have to go around. There might still be villages scattered about but freshwater lakes always belonged to the Directorate. They’d have farm domes and soldiers and land mines. The villagers were left alone if they stayed away from the water and the Jacks; it was easier to turn a blind eye when they have something to trade.
Saffron tried to keep up but her tag was raw and hot. She was weak and it infuriated her. They’d escaped the Dust but there was no escaping the relentless sun, and there was no water. They’d emptied the canteen hours ago. Sweat crusted salt into her eyelashes. Her arm was on fire. She could barely lift it. She’d never be able to throw a dagger like this.
“We don’t even know if we’re going in the right direction anymore,” Saffron muttered. She wished Killian was here. Or more specifically, that she was back at home with him. She hoped Oona was all right. She felt useless. Thorns grew inside her chest.
Jane tucked her damp hair behind one ear. “The Spirit Forest is north-east and that’s the direction we’re travelling in. I’ll double check with the star positions tonight but the compass doesn’t lie.”
Saffron was moderately impressed despite herself. “How do you know how to do that?”
Jane shrugged one shoulder. “We have mandatory survival training. Just in case.”
The clay hills undulated all around them, sky to sky. Layers of red clay and white silt and dried nearly-blue mud stacked on top of each other. It was beautiful, in its own way. Saffron wasn’t keen to die by beauty though.
“We should keep moving,” Jane said, coughing fine dust out of her mouth. “We need to find shade. Can you keep walking?”
“Yes,” Saffron snapped. “Of course I can.”
She took a single step and her legs gave out. Her vision went grey and spotty.
“You should put on the mask,” Jane said quietly.
Saffron hissed out a breath.
Jane held up her hands placatingly. “I don’t want it.”
“I don’t want it either,” she muttered.
“You should still put it on. It’ll make you stronger.”
Saffron clenched her teeth because she knew Jane was right. She’d avoided it as long as she could. And since it felt like she was dying anyway, what was the harm? She refused to acknowledge that her fingers trembled as she fit the mask over her hair. She wasn’t quite ready to put it over her face like a parasite. It felt like dandelion fluff and burned wheat stalks on her head. She couldn’t tell if it was trying to give her energy or suck her dry.
“Let me put more antibiotic cream on your arm,” Jane said, fishing a tube of white ointment from one of her many pockets.
“Seriously, why are you still helping me?” Saffron asked. The cream was cool on her raw skin. It soothed the itch if not the feeling of poison sliding through her veins like worms.
“We have an alliance, remember?”
“The alliance is why I’m letting you help me, not why you’re helping me.”
“You’re letting me help you because you have no choice right now. You can barely move.”
They walked for a long time until Saffron only knew the heat from the sun and the heat under her skin. They finally stumbled onto small hills, narrow canyons running between them like dry riverbeds. The shadow of clouds raced over them, screening some of the brutal sunlight. Saffron could almost breathe again.
Jane stopped at a divot in the hard ground. A sheet of plastic was staked over it, with a stone balanced in the centre to create a kind of hammock. “What’s that?” Saffron mumbled through her chapped lips. “Animal trap?”
“Solar still,” Jane replied. “For gathering water. Which means someone lives around here.”
Saffron automatically fumbled for a dagger but it slipped through her fingers. Sunlight and moving shadows and red clay made dizzying pattern across her eyes. She had to blink several times before she realized there was a coyote watching them from the crest of a striped hill. His ears were pricked forward on alert, russet fur short as a paintbrush.
“That one’s not wild,” Saffron noticed a collar of braided leather and bones around its neck. “Which means we’re not alone. Don’t make eye contact,” she added. There were wild dogs in the Core sometimes, and everyone knew not to look them in the eye. She tried to say more but her lips were swollen, her words bloated, her tongue shrivelled. It was all wrong. She was dizzy, disoriented, dazed. The leaves in her hair were crumbling to ash.
The coyote stalked closer, sunlight flashing off the copper worked into his collar. There was a leather satchel of sorts strapped to his spine and water sloshed invitingly when he paced closer. His shadow stretched across the clay, touching her.
As if it was a signal they’d been waiting for, more coyotes materialized out of the narrow dusty valleys. Beside them, two men and three women armed with bows and spears. And behind Saffron and Jane, suddenly, a woman with a spear worked with bronze, vulture feathers, and coyote teeth. Dots of white paint followed the curve of her lower lashes.
“Stand down,” she ordered.
Saffron would have made some kind of an answer, preferably with a knife, but she was sliding into the red earth, like a melted candle. Fire raced up the wick of her arm. Jane stood over her and Saffron could see the fine tremors going through her limbs. She wanted to tell her not to worry, the tag would kill her before the others could. If Jane was smart, she would barter her survival gear for her life. Or her gifts as a Numina. But Saffron couldn’t say any of those things. She could only watch, screeching internally with frustration. She was as ensnared as one of the coyotes would have been in a steel trap. She could practically smell the blood; understood perfectly the compulsion to chew off one’s own limb.
“I’m Jane,” Jane replied. Her voice sounded as if it was coming out of a tunnel, like the damp echoing passages that led into the markets. “This is Saffron. We mean you no harm.”
“The solar stills belong to us,” the woman snapped. Her dress was loose, long, and the colour of sand. There were tattoos on her fingers, more dots and lines like rings.
“We didn’t touch anything,” Jane said quickly. “We’re just lost.”
Saffron wished she could kick her. You didn’t go around announcing your weaknesses, even when they were painfully obvious. Maybe especially then.
The woman made a sound of disgust.” “I am Shanti. By the laws of our people, if you are lost and ill, I must offer you three days of hospitality.”
One of the men strode forward and scooped Saffron up. She moaned, partly in pain, mostly in humiliation.
Shanti smiled. “After which time we are free to kill you.”
As they crossed the hills, more solar stills pockmarked the strange landscape. It made everything more alien, as though they had somehow crossed to the moon even though no one had been to the moon in a long time. People barely crossed rivers, never mind the sound barrier. There had been talk years ago of a relocation, of ships sent to orbit to ensure basic human survival of some kind. It had never happened—they couldn’t even figure out how to keep the satellites working. But one could be forgiven for not knowing that with the red dust on their boots and the hot dead air all around.
Smoke from cooking fire wreathed a cluster of brightly coloured yurts on wooden platforms set over the narrow red crests of the hills.The setting sun cast long darts of light off spear points, sword tips and arrowheads. Jane felt her lack of combat experience keenly, as keenly as she’d felt watching that boy die in that basement auditorium.
The village was set out in two concentric circles of yurts, the surrounding gullies and crevices filled with thriving gardens. Tall feathered corn stalks moved gently, peas and squash shoved between them. There must have been accessible ground water nearby, and they would have stolen the soil, or bought it off an illegal caravan.
They crossed over a series of painted wooden bridges that bisected the hills and connected the yurts. A spear poked Jane in the back when her gaze lingered too long on the bright red of tomatoes in the gully gardens. They were taken to a small yurt bleached white by the sun and devoid of any decoration. It glowed like old bones. Inside, the walls were painted with symbols and patterns that whirled like star constellations, a secret language easy to see and difficult to understand.
Shanti thrust a small glass in her hand. “Drink,” she said brusquely before stalking out.
They had placed Saffron on a narrow cot and she was trying to sit up, a similar glass in her hand. She looked dizzy and the liquid sloshed over her hand. Jane crouched next to her to help her steady it. She sniffed it carefully and forced a bright smile. “Probably not poison.”
Saffron gave her a ghost of a smile. “Now you’re learning.”
Jane tasted her own drink—it was tepid water flavoured with mint leaves and lavender blossoms. The smell transported her back to the Enclave gardens, to mint tea at the Collegium, and on the train. Everything in her ached with homesickness, sudden as a flu.
“If you’re mooning over a boyfriend, I’m going to let them kill you.” Saffron had one eye cracked open. “Anyway, crying will only dehydrate you. So cut it out.”
“I wasn’t crying,” Jane replied. “Not really. Isn’t there anyone you miss?”
Saffron glanced away. “Drink more flower water,” she said. “Only one of us should be weak as jacking kitten. And apparently, I’ve got that covered.” Even saying that much exhausted her. Her lips were faintly blue, even though the dim shadows were stuffy. Jane bit at her own lips anxiously, chapped and sunburned. There was no magic to fix this, no omens to lead them out.
The door opened to a flash of sunlight and red clay and Shanti returned with a young girl, about thirteen years old, and a woman with skin as pale as Shanti’s was dark. She ought to have been burned in the relentless red sunlight but the only red was in her violent hair.
“Move aside for Elisande,” Shanti ordered. The red-haired girl didn’t bother with words, just shoved Jane aside.
“Is she your queen?” Jane asked, detecting a certain arrogance she knew very well from the Directorate parties her mother attended.
“Anya, is my spear-sister. Elisande is our shamanka,” Shanti replied curtly.
Jane was surprised that the young girl was the shamanka. She would have expected a shamanka to have wrinkles as deep as the Badlands crags. White paint dotted her hairline and above her eyebrows, dividing her face down the line of her nose. Her hair hung with bones wrapped in red thread and coyote fur. She stood for a long moment over Saffron’s bed, barely blinking. Jane shifted closer but Shanti’s spear hit the back of her knees, crumpling her onto the heavily patterned rug.
“Her soul needs to be fetched back,” Elisande said impatiently. She touched Saffron’s braids and the brittle leaves turned to dust. Elisande’s eyes narrowed, tracing the pattern of woven vines and thorns. She said something in a language Jane had never heard before and suddenly she was being propelled outside with an unceremonious toss of Shanti’s hand.
“Wait,” Jane struggled. “She’s my friend.”
“And you can’t help her. But Elisande can.” Shanti shrugged. “Sit down and wait here, or walk away and let the Badlands claim you.”
Jane was getting heartily tired of meekness and patience being the only choice that was made sense. She wanted to scream, make fire from her fingertips, open the earth until everything trembled. Instead, she crossed her ankles like she’d been taught and smouldered inside. She wondered if this was how Kiri felt every day: defiant and frustrated. She’d always put it down to temper and a certain carelessness for others, but now she wasn’t so sure.
She glanced at Shanti who stood silently at the yurt doorway. She only knew about Ferals from Directorate warnings and the disdainful hushed voices of her teachers when she was little. She could feel numen thrumming through the earth here though, and they were trying to save Saffron. They couldn’t be that bad, could they?
“Is Elisande an Oracle?” She asked hesitantly. “Or a Seedsinger maybe?” The gully gardens were fairly impressive, after all.
Shanti glanced at her. “A what?”
“A Numina,” she explained. “Someone who works with Green Jack numen, and plant magic.”
“We all work numen, just some better than others,” Shanti shrugged. “Magic is everywhere. Always has been.”
Jane tilted her head, intrigued. “Is that what you believe?”
“It’s what we know. Don’t the Cities know it too? We just never needed magic enough to pay attention to it before the Cataclysms and the famines.”
“But numen comes from the earth,” Jane said. “The first Green Jack awakened it when he stepped out of the forest. We’ve channeled it and studied it ever since.”
“Is that what City folk believe?” Shanti raised her eyebrows. “Odd.”
“Don’t you pray to the Green Gods?” The entire village felt as ritual-soaked as the Collegium temple.
“Sometimes. Sometimes to the earth, to the ancestors. Sometimes we dance the rain. People have been doing it for centuries, long before the Jacks even.”
Jane had never heard any of her professors talk about numen that way. Like it was in everything, not just the Green Jack masks. “Don’t you have ceremonies to control numen?”
“Numen can’t be organized or measured,” she scoffed. “It needs to stay wild. No wonder you’re all the way you are. And no wonder your friend is sick.”
As Jane tried to integrate Feral beliefs with Directorate decrees inside her head, the sun sank into the hills as though it was being swallowed. The sky was streaked with purple, lavender and oranges. Jane had never seen anything more beautiful in her life, not even on feast days when paper lanterns were strung between the houses in her neighbourhood. The green of the sunken gardens seemed to glow as the light faded. Water barrels stood on platforms and a well of some kind had been dug into the ground until groundwater bubbled up. It was surrounded with decorated bones, chimes made of salvaged metal, stubs of burning candles in clay dishes and faded prayer flags.
When the drums started, it was a low thrumming that vibrated under her feet. Her numina mark thrummed at the top of her spine.
“It’s time.” Anya replied, pushing out of the tent. The last of the light flashed off her spear head.
Jane scrambled to her feet. “Time for what?”
Two villagers carried Saffron to a raised platform over the gardens, depositing her into a hammock knotted with feathers. Sage and sweetgrass smoke blew around her. Small fires were lit all around the village and more herbs scented the smoke, making Jane dizzy enough that she had to sit down again. Shanti had a cloth mask decorated with bells over her mouth and nose.
When Elisande collapsed, the rest of the villagers sank into unconsciousness. Only Shanti and a few other warriors remained upright and alert. Jane was awake but she was made of water and stone, impossible to move. She could only watch as Saffron began to twitch and tremble, the firelight making her eyes appear red when they rolled back in her head.
The ground was far below, impossibly far, and Saffron knew that touching it would be like landing on rusty nails. Time pulsed, dilating, retracting, moving backwards. The in-between was soft, cooling, full of lavender shadows and torchlight. She was neither fish nor fowl, as her Oona used to say. Even now, hallucinating with pain, it didn’t make any sense.
She couldn’t see the villagers who carried her, only the whirling spill of stars overhead. They winked like the eyes of old and patient gods. She smelled sage, pine. The drums were in perfect tune with her heart. It was steadying, reminding it of its proper natural rhythm.
Elisande was suddenly there, leaning over so that her pale face obliterated the stars. When she moved, they streaked, like a crown. She wore an antlered beaded headdress.
Saffron wondered where Jane was, what they had done to her. She found it mattered, and it was curious enough to distract her for a moment—no one mattered except for Oona and Killian for so long now. Trust her to care for a girl made of glass. She’d shatter before long. Alliance, or not.
Saffron’s tattoo sent unexpected electrical shocks through her veins, stealing breath, thought, everything. Time lapsed again. The sky was impossible: like layers of melted rock candy. Saffron was a dandelion gone to seed, floating on the breath of a child’s wish. She tasted bitter herbs: milk thistle, wormwood.
Elisande was the first to rise and her skin glowed faintly. She scowled at Saffron. “Get up.”
Though she felt insubstantial and odd, Saffron found she could stand for the first time in days. Her tattoo bled darkness, the skin around it bright as sunsticks in a dark stairwell. She was still in the Badlands but the colours were wrong: amplified and alien. She couldn’t tell if it was day or night, the light seemed to be coming from all over and the shadows were long. She couldn’t help but choose paints for an imaginary canvas: cerulean, ochre, violet.
Anya snapped her fingers in Saffron’s face. “Don’t get distracted here,” she ordered sharply. “It’ll kill you.”
She blinked slowly. “Where exactly is here?”
Her eyebrows lifted. “That doesn’t sound promising. If you wanted to kill me, a dagger’s easier.”
Elisande shrugged. “A place is a place. You just need a map.”
“And a big stick,” Anya added with a flash of an incendiary smile. The light caught on the copper wire wrapped around her staff.
Elisande nodded once. “Follow me.”
Saffron looked dubious. “Kid, what are you? Like eleven?”
“Thirteen? Shouldn’t you be doing whatever passes for homework out here?”
“If I was doing that, who would save you? Who would fetch your soul back?”
“It’s not my soul. It’s this bloody tattoo that jacking hurts.”
Elisande rolled her eyes. “And that’s why you need me to save you.”
Elisande took them down into a crevice with steep narrow steps carved into the stratified clay until it opened onto that grass stretched out into a green and gold sea all around. Saffron followed seeing as she had no other choice. Her arm hurt too much and she was too painfully alert to be drugged. Nothing was hazy or nebulous, it was all sharp light and shadows. And while it felt strange to trust her safety to a little girl, there was no denying Elisande knew what she was doing. And Anya treated the younger Feral with marked respect. Saffron couldn’t drudge up that kind of reverence but she might be able to keep her mouth shut. Maybe.
The leaf mask was still limp but it was also superimposed with a lime-and-mint glowing version, as if remembering what it ought to be. It pulsed with promise, vines curling like a lover’s fingers through her braids, berries red as lips after kissing, thorns hiding in wait because what was a kiss without a hint of teeth?
Anya held up a hand. Saffron didn’t see anything dangerous, just that green grass and the purple mountain. The clouds made shapes over their heads: griffin, fox, sunflower. Jane would know what they signified, but Anya wasn’t looking at them either, she was studying the ground. Saffron tensed, expecting snakes, scorpions, fire ants. We’re there even insects in the Underworld?
“Don’t let the shadows touch you,” Anya snapped.
Saffron stepped back, feeling ridiculous. “Shadows? Really? I was expecting monsters.”
Elisande slid her an exasperated glance, the kind only a thirteen-year-old could manage, shaman powers or not. “What else is a shadow that isn’t attached to anything? Use your eyes, Elysian.”
The shadows were dark as oil slicks, slithering and slippery as they closed the distance between them. “What do they do?” she asked, hopping onto a boulder. Darkness pooled at the rounded edges.
“Drain you,” Elisande replied, pulling a painted flute from where it was tucked into her wide embroidered belt. “Turn you into food.”
“And you’re going to play it a lullaby?” Saffron snapped.
Elisande fit a porcupine quill from one of her pouches into one end of the flute and then blew hard in the other. The quill pierced the shadow oozing over the rocks towards Saffron. There was a small sound—squeaky and scratchy and awful, and then the shadow lay limp.
“Give me a knife, anything!” Saffron shouted as more shadows converged, moving over the plains like a dark and dreadful wind. “I have good aim.”
“Only a weapon made from this place will work,” Anya replied. She somersaulted into a patch of red poppies, the end of her staff slamming into a long thin shadow sliding into the spot where she’d been standing.
Saffron suddenly missed the city with its curfews, taggers, rats, and water police. At least she had daggers there and Killian at her back. Here there were only Feral girls and hungry shadows—and a strange pale tree down behind apile of boulders. It was mooth as glass, without leaves or buds.
Saffron leapt to the nearest rock. The boulders didn’t stop the shadows, of course, but it gave her a few extra seconds, a bit more ground for them to cover. They bubbled around her, forming spikes and teeth and claws.
“Stay there!” Anya shouted, her staff moving so fast it looked like it was shooting off copper sparks.
“Like hell,” Saffron muttered. She already owed them too much.
Something touched her ankle.
It wasn’t a bite or a rake of claws as expected, but soft and strange as a cat’s tongue. Still, she stumbled, falling to one knee where her foot went numb. Fatigue leeched up her leg, soft and sinister as a drowning death. She crawled towards the tree, dragging her useless leg. It may as well have belonged to someone else entirely for all it responded.
Porcupine quills fell in a sharp rain as Elisande made her way towards Saffron. She didn’t see the bull-shaped shadow behind her, licking at her heels. She’d feel it soon enough; it was big enough to drop her unconscious. “Behind you!” Saffron shouted, even as Anya skewered it. The air smelled like fire and pennies. The shadows reared up like wild, stampeding horses.
Saffron reached up for the closest branch, hoping it was strong enough to use as weapon.
“Ask its permission!” Elisande warned her, between breaths on her porcupine flute.
“Can I have a damn branch to kill these damn shadows,” Saffron muttered even though it was clear there was no Dryad hiding in the tree, or Protectorate soldiers to haul her away. Still, years of Oona’s schooling had her adding a begrudging “Please.” If she’d had the tobacco Oona had given her for an offering to the Spirit Forest, she’d have left a pinch of it too. But her pockets were empty, here on the other side.
She didn’t wait for a reply because she didn’t speak tree. The branch cracked loudly, startling yellow and purple birds from a bush of papery leaves. The tree pulsed, uncomfortably like a heart. Something red flared within it, but the liquid that oozed from the cut was thick and silvery.
A shadow touched the knee of her good leg. She pulled hard on the branch, and the end was splintery; ragged more than pointed but it would have to do. She drove it into a shadow, and though the tiny inhuman screech made her smile grimly, the shadows kept coming, pouring like ink spilled on drawing paper. Saffron stabbed at them until her fingers were covered in what looked like soot and silver paint. She was out of breath and her festering arm burned with pain. The shadows faded, going grey.
Finally, finally, Elisande snapped her fingers. “This way, Elysian.”
It was now possible to clamber from stone to stone, or would have been, if Saffron could feel her legs. They prickled painfully but only her left leg would hold any weight, even leaning on the silvery thorn branch. Anya slipped an arm under her shoulder. “You’re a lot of work.”
“Then why are you helping me?” Saffron asked. Her neck was damp with sweat under her heavy braids, briars, and burrs.
“Rules of hospitality. And kindness.”
Saffron snorted. “I’m not Jane. I don’t believe in that type of kindness.” They finally came up against the mountain. Its heavier shadow swallowed the others. “How exactly is this going to heal an infected tattoo?”
Elisande and Anya exchanged an infuriatingly superior glance but Elisande only said: “You are in one of these caves.”
“I’m right here,” she muttered even though something close to recognition tingle along her spine. She wanted to believe it was only the feeling coming back into her legs. “I hate riddles.”
The mountain was a honeycomb of sand-coloured caves; some lit with candles, some dark and strange. Inside, Saffron saw a white horse, a black bear, a blue heron.
“Go on,” Elisande said. “Save yourself.”
Saffron stared at the mountain, for longer than she’d care to admit. Long enough that her legs started to work again, even if they did feel a little soft. She could pretend that’s what had made her pause instead of the fear batting its wings against her ribs. Anya started to look bored.
“Sorry my impending doom is taking so long,” Saffron snapped. It made her feel a little better. She thought about Oona and how thrilled she’d be with this adventure. About Killian and how he’d be scowling at her even now. It helped even more than venting her bad temper. Some kind of actual weapon would have been even better.
She started to climb, sand and pebbles scattering under her boots. The bear snapped its jaws at her and she carefully skirted that cave. Every so often, people stared out at her. She wasn’t sure if she was supposed to help them. Since she wasn’t even sure how to help herself at this point, she kept climbing. The wind was warm and smelled of cinnamon and pepper and distant smoke. The sky was turning red and orange.
Blood ran from her tattoo, dripping from her fingertips. She stopped to rest, cradling her sore arm. There was more blood on the ground in front of her, scattered like seeds. It led into a crooked cave. Something moved inside. Saffron approached, fists raised. The person inside glanced up, eyes narrowed.
Saffron looked back at herself.
It gave her a brief moment of vertigo. But there was no denying the coppery skin, the black eyes, the scar on the collarbone from the time she slid off one of the bridges and landed on a rusted truck. She wore only a dress of iron chains wound through with ivy, thistles, and thorns. The Green Jack mask glittered like fireflies. Blood snaked down her arm.She was sure one was supposed to say something spiritual or wise, when confronted with oneself.
“What the jacking hell?”
In response, her twin snarled.
“If you bite me, I’m biting you back.” The surrealness of threatening herself with herself, was disorienting. She touched the chains gingerly. Her twin watched her with the same expression as the bear in the cave below. The iron was cold and slick. She yanked on it, hoping the bolts that secured to the wall were rusty. They weren’t. There wasn’t even a lock to pick. She shook them harder, frustrated. She eventually sat back on her heels, sweat running into her eyes. “I don’t get it.”
She poked her head over the ledge. Elisande was tiny at the bottom. Her antlers looked like tree branches in winter. “What the hell am I supposed to do?”
“Open your eyes, Saffron Foxfire.”
“We hate her, right?” Saffron asked her twin. She could almost feel the chains on her own wrists. Thistles scratched her temples, stinging. The leaf mask was as impatient as she was. The wind changed, and she could smell the musty, wild smell of trapped animals.
There was mud on her twin’s feet, red dust under her nails. Paint on her side, just there under her ribs. “Stand up.” She remembered Elisande’s advice with the tree and added a belated “Please.”
Her twin stood slowly. A fox painted in russet and red ochre stretched from her back, under her ribs, with its head looking between her breasts. Elisande had used Saffron’s full name. Saffron was fairly certain she hadn’t had the strength to tell her what it was when they were first brought to the village.
“Fox for a Foxfire,” she said slowly. Elisande had porcupine quills and a deer headdress. Anya had white swan feathers tied to her staff. There were animals all around her, trapped in the caves. There were stories even in Elysium City of totems and people who turned into animals. Her grandmother still told those stories, passed down from her own grandmother.
“If I knew how to turn into an animal, don’t you think I would have done it by now?” She felt useless and furious and exhausted.
Her twin grabbed her wrist. Saffron froze. She wasn’t going to let herself be trapped in this cave too. But her twin only pulled Saffron’s hand, pressing her palm over the painted fox. Her twin stretched and contorted, her body racked with cramps. Leaves and white berries fell from the mask. She crushed them under her feet, fighting some internal battle. Saffron felt her own insides clench in sympathy. They gasped in unison.
And then skin turned to fur, teeth got smaller and shaper, hands became paws. Her twin landed on four feet, a fox lean and red as fire.
Saffron couldn’t help a breathless laugh. “Well, okay then.” Her tag was healing already. She laughed again, feeling better than she had in years. “Let’s get out of here.”
The climbed down the rough steps. Saffron couldn’t stop staring at the fox, even though it made her a little dizzy. At the bottom, Elisande smiled smugly at them. The fox barked once and then took off through the golden grass. Saffron didn’t call it back.
Anya tilted her head. “You’re supposed to keep your animal spirit tied to yourself.”
“Why would I do that?” Saffron said. “Ever seen a caged fox?” She’d seen them in the City, slinking down alleys or trapped in cages and gnawing at the bars with bloody gums. Jedekiah had considered animals for his sideshow but Saffron threatened to quit. His ridiculous dogs didn’t count.
Elisande smiled wider. “I told you she was strong enough once we broke the binding magic of the tattoo.”
Saffron was acutely aware of the lush and vibrant purple thistles, and goldenrod unfurling from the mask pushed back over her forehead. “Strong enough for what?” She asked, even though she already knew the answer.
The villagers lay unmoving in some kind of magical sleep. Saffron had no training. Jane rubbed the back of her neck, where her mark prickled.
She waited a long time, long enough for concern to turn to boredom. She watched beetles crawl through the cracks in the clay. They made a pattern—she’d been taught that everything made a pattern. But this one was just too chaotic to read.
When the villagers sat up as abruptly as they’d laid down, Jane jumped. Saffron stood up more quickly than the others. She looked fit, strong. Until she collapsed again. Anya signalled for help, and they carried Saffron towards the gully gardens. Jane tried to push through the crowd. “Wait!”
They took Saffron to a large wooden platform with a lit torch in each corner and set her down on a pile of blankets. Shanti prodded Jane with her spear again, hard enough that her shirt tore. Blood welled on her spine, sticky and hot. Suddenly, all she could think about were those Directorate videos again, the ones about the dangers of Ferals: human sacrifice, cannibalism.
“It’s a place of honour,” Shanti said.
When both Jane and Saffron were on the platform, two men turned a huge metal crank and it moved up a column until they towered over the gully gardens. The stars seemed closer. Saffron was covered in green leaves.
There were jugs of mead and a basket of breads and tomatoes, a soapstone lamp with oil and matches. Jane had her pack and everything in her pockets but none of it was immediately helpful. The planks creaked when the wind rose up to touch them with curious fingers. Vertigo nibbled at her knees like rats. Saffron lay quietly, looking surprisingly well-rested. The stitches and the slash through her tag were already healing. They’d be healthy prisoners then.
“Saffron, wake up!” She pinched her shoulder but Saffron didn’t stir.
She had no magic to wake her friend, only magic to see that she needed to be awakened.
The smoke from the fires being put out turned to steam, became a herd of white horses galloping towards them. The torches set at each corner flickered into eyes, arrows, screaming mouths.
And unlike the beetles, she could read these omens perfectly well.
“Wake up, wake up, wake up.”
Jane reached out to snap a leaf off the mask. Saffron woke up swinging. Jane’s head cracked back, pain shooting up her jaw and into her ear. “What the hell—-sorry. Ow, my head. Sorry. Am I sorry?”
Jane pressed on her jaw. “Never mind. We have to get out here. I’ve seen the omens.”
Saffron glanced around. “Don’t need omens to know we’re in trouble.”
“What happened to you?” Jane asked.
“Underworld,” she replied shortly. “Fox. Shadows. It was a thing.”
“But you’re all right?”
“I feel great.” She frowned over the edge. “Pissed off, but great.” Already the plants were getting bigger. “I guess they think they caught themselves a Green Jill.”
“There’s no way down,” Jane told her. “There are three guards, there, there and there. The platform is controlled by that crank. And it’s oiled metal so we can’t climb down.”
“You’ve been busy.”
“It’s easy to see stuff when no one’s looking at you.”
Jane gave an indelicate snort. “Not exactly.”
“Good.” Saffron noticed Elisande on the stairs leading down to a patch of cornstalks. She whistled sharply. “Hey, kid! Get us down from here.”
There was an offended pause.“I helped you fetch your soul back,” she finally replied. “I saved you. And now you owe me.”
Saffron ground her teeth. “Nobody asked you to save me, kid. I made no deal.”
“We’ve never had a Green Jill.”
“Not my problem. And to be clear, you still don’t.”
“Maybe we can reach a compromise,” Jane cut in.
“No,” Saffron and Elisande replied in unison.
“Do you want the Directorate at your doorstep?” Jane pressed.
“Is that a threat, outlander?” An arrow slammed into the wooden platform, piercing through the boards from underneath. The metal tip scraped along her ankle.
“An observation,” Jane corrected calmly, though Saffron could see her hands trembling. The smoke-horses trampled through her.
“We don’t need you,” Elisande said. “We need the Green Jill. And anyway, the Directorate doesn’t come here.”
“They will if they’re chasing a Jack,” Jane pointed out. “It’s not worth it.”
“Not worth it?” It was Anya who replied this time. She said something that had Ferals gathering on the crests, thin as twigs. “You’ve never seen a person starve to death, have you?”
Saffron folded her arms. “I come from Elysium City. Of course I have.”
But Jane hadn’t. She came from a place of candied violets and tea biscuits. She winced. Saffron nudged her hard. “Don’t.”
“Don’t go soft on me. They’re doing it on purpose.”
“They’re not any hungrier than the rest of us,” Saffron pointed out. “And I’m not living the rest of my life up here. However short it will be, before they decide to have one of their own wear the mask.”
“Oh. Good point.” Jane swallowed hard. “Then we should fall back on my philosophy. There’s definitely too many people watching us.”
Saffron made a noise of frustration. “You’re right. God, I hate this.” She stumbled, as if overtaken by a wave of dizziness. She fell to her knees. “I’d move,” she warned, coughing. “Before I’m sick on your heads.”
The Ferals scattered. Elisande and the spear-sisters stepped out of reach but didn’t leave the area. Saffron let herself go boneless, draped over the blankets. Jane knelt beside her, making noises of panic. “What have you done to her?” she called out. There was a hitch in her voice.
“Nice touch,” Saffron smiled faintly, taking care to stay still.
“She needs rest,” Anya called up. “Not everyone is strong enough to handle the Underworld.”
“Not strong enough, my ass,” Saffron hissed under her breath.
It was another two hours before Saffron rolled over, stretching on her stomach to peer over the edge. Most of their fires had dwindled down to coals. There were the same three guards on duty, but they were playing dice.
“Last chance,” Saffron murmured. “Three days of hospitality come to an end tomorrow at sunset.”
“How are we supposed to get down from here?” Jane asked.
“We have an arrow,” Saffron said. “They very helpfully shot it at you, remember?”
“But no rope. No—-.” She patted her pockets. “Wait, I have a paracord.”
“I suddenly love your ridiculous posh survival gear.” She pushed a green tendril behind her ear. She rose into a cautious crouch, expecting to feel sick. Instead, she felt even better than before the Taggers had grabbed her. “We need a distraction.”
Jane rummaged through the baskets. “We have tomatoes and a handful of peas. Not exactly enough to strike fear in the hearts of Feral warriors.”
“Pack ‘em. If nothing else, we’ll need food.”
“And there’s mead.”
Saffron paused thoughtfully. “And torches.” She smiled slowly. “And lamp oil. We have a firebreather at the sideshow. I’ve seen him do it a thousand times.” She didn’t mention that he’d once set his own eyebrows on fire. “How hard can it be?”
Jane was nibbling on her lower lip in that way Saffron had come to realize meant she had something to say but didn’t know how to say it. Who knew the Enclave folk thought so damn hard all of the time? “Spit it out.”
“If we throw most of the torches into the gardens, that will distract them.”
Saffron nodded. “Perfect.”
“It has a certain poetic justice, I suppose.”
“If you say so.”
“But we’d end up burning what food they do have.”
“Not if they’re quick enough.”
The plan was both simple and logical, and at the same time relied on undiluted luck more than Saffron liked. Actually, she liked it just fine. Killian would be horrified. But it was better than nothing. Sort of.
Jane had already fastened the carbiner at the end of the paracord around the arrow and then up through the slats around the metal tip. There was just enough space between the planks, though her fingers came away bloody. Saffron kept a careful eye on the guards, while trying not to feel so inappropriately happy—as though she were finally at home within herself. She ought to be feeling anger, vengeance, adrenaline. But mostly they were watered down, all flavoured with this brimming well-being. She hated people like that.
It had to be the leaf mask. She knew that to leave it behind was paramount to suicide. She had no interest in turning into a mound of dirt in someone’s flowerpot, like the last Green Jack. She’d just have to bear it. Unless it led to giggling, then she’d hurl both her and the leaf mask straight over the edge of the platform.
“It’s secure,” Jane whispered. “Maybe.”
They strapped on their packs and Saffron tucked the stone lamp carefully in her pocket. There were more torches at the base of the platform—she’d just have to reach them before anyone else, if and when, it came down to a fight. She had no daggers left, and Jane’s pristine survival knife was too valuable to throw. They’d need it later. Assuming there was a later.
Jane tossed the honey liquor, splashing it down over gardens. Saffron threw the torches, hoping the mead would fuel the fire. One of them went out before it landed. Another fell and vanished through the cornstalks. The others stayed lit, and the flames caught hot and hungry. With any luck, the smoke would add another shield to their escape.
Saffron was the first one down the pole. Using the paracord to keep from plummeting before she could wrap herself around the pole was more frightening than any Elysium City rope bridge. There was no slowing down, no scrabbling for purchase. She hit the ground so suddenly she nearly bit her tongue off. Jane landed right on top of her seconds later.
Fire crackled in the gullies, sending up plumes of orange light and smoke. The guards had already rushed to help. Nothing was as important as crops in a place like the Badlands. Anywhere, really. Someone hit a drum—three hard beats. The alarm had sounded. The resulting chaos would either save them or damn them further.
Burning green stalks, silky corn tassels, tomatoes bursting; Saffron felt a twinge of something remarkably like guilt. Annoyed, she snapped a hasty bouquet of dandelions and thistles from her mask, dropping them at the foot of the metal pole. It might help them grow back what they lost tonight. If nothing else, it would grow better than any other plant they had ever seen. They might even get sick of eating dandelion leaf salads. She felt Jane watching her. “Shut up,” she muttered.
The drum played on but underneath it they could hear the panicked voices, the splash of precious drinking water. Steam and smoke billowed like breaths. No one had noticed the empty platform yet. The fire consumed all, crops to common sense.
Saffron and Jane made it to the outskirts of the village, the orange glow flickering violently behind them. Jane was the first to hear the growl. Saffron was too busy gloating in her head. Three coyotes blocked their way. They were bigger than Saffron remembered, reaching to her hipbones. Their growls traveled between them like a cup passed around a feast table. She didn’t know what they were saying. She didn’t have to.
“Don’t run,” she said to Jane softly. “They’ll chase you.”
There was the soft scuff of paws on the packed clay behind them. Saffron fumbled for the lamp. One of the other coyotes yipped loudly, starting a chain of response. The yips got louder, signalling to the village. Jane jumped, startling the coyote behind them, already poised to attack. He became a streak of light brown fur and glistening teeth. Jane twisted away and nearly fell into a dark gully. She swung her backpack in a wide arc but he was already on her. She gave a shout, brief and broken with pain.
The other coyotes sprang into motion. Saffron waved her torch to cut them off. They flinched but they knew torches in the village and it wouldn’t fend them off for very long. She stabbed it at the coyote attacking Jane until his tail fur smoldered. He yelped and raced away.
“Are you dead?” Saffron tried to get a better look at Jane.
“Mostly alive,” she replied, gasping for air. There was a tear in her pants, above the knee. She pressed her hand to it, blood seeping through her fingers. “Thank you.”
The growls of the remaining coyote became agitated. And much closer. Their eyes glinted. “Don’t thank me yet. We’re probably going to die horribly. I just put it off a few minutes.”
“That’s what I like about you. You’re so optimistic.”
Saffron unstopped the lamp and filled her mouth with the oil. It was viscous and thoroughly unpleasant. She forced back an involuntary gag. She waited until Jane had scrambled to her feet before she exhaled forcefully, spraying the oil. It hit the flame and kept going, dragging fire. The flames shot towards the coyotes like a red spear. They yipped, scrambling out of the way. Saffron kept the exhale going until her cheeks tingled and her mouth was empty. The pulse of afterlight slashed at the darkness. She spat, shuddering at the lingering aftertaste.
The coyotes raced away but she didn’t think they would stay away for long. She kicked the empty lamp into the gully.
“Now we run.”
They walked for six miserable days.
Jane mostly limped, but it got the job done. Distracted by the fire, the Ferals couldn’t spare anyone to follow, or if they did, they never caught up. Saffron was good at covering their tracks until they came upon an old road. The concrete fissured, black stagnant water gleaming in the cracks. They found a stream and filled their water bags, plopping in Jane’s purification tablets. They fizzed so violently until Jane wondered if going thirsty was better. They ate squirrels and dandelion roots. It was so hot her hair tangled with dried salt.
The fields on the other side of the Badlands stretched on forever. The bite on her knee was healing, thanks to antibiotic ointment and some kind of leaf Saffron pulled from her leaf mask. It still ached, the skin pulling at the thick scab whenever she walked but it didn’t slow her down anymore. “It can’t be far now.” It was much a plea as a statement.
They talked until they’d run out of things to say. It was obvious that Saffron kept herself closed off from strangers but they weren’t strangers anymore, and anyway, after the second day she was so bored she started answering Jane’s questions. Jane knew about Killian and Oona, about Argent and the underground markets. Even about Saffron’s mother who had fancied herself a freedom fighter but had died before she’d made much of a difference. She talked about the leaf mask, but only in clipped uncomfortable tones and she never took it out of her bag, even when green tendrils escaped to touch her hair. Jane told her about her sisters, about her mother’s work for the Directorate which she still knew virtually nothing about, and how her mother had sold her to the Program. Saffron had the same things to say about Asher that Kiri had said. It made Jane miss her even more.
Jane felt the thrum of the forest in her spine, just before they crested a hill and everything was suddenly green. They exchanged a bright triumphant grin before breaking into a run. Pain nibbled at her leg but Jane didn’t care. They’d made it. They’d actually reached the Spirit Forest.
A wide river separated it from the fields. She remembered learning about the various ways the Directorate protected everyone from the Greencoats who lived inside.
Apparently Saffron hadn’t heard the same stories.
She didn’t see the dead horse that had stopped to drink now sprawled on the bank further down. She stepped forward, her foot skimming the clear water.
Jane grabbed at a fallen branch and hit Saffron across the chest, just as electricity shivered on the surface of the water, arcing up towards her. The wood grounded the current and broke the connection. Saffron landed in the grass, her teeth chattering and the ends of her braids singed. She lay shivering and twitching for a long moment before lifting her head. “Why the hell do you keep saving my life?”
She sat up, wincing. “What the jacking hell was that?”
“The Directorate fills the river with electric eels,” Jane said. “Everyone knows that.”
“It’s a precaution. They can’t spare soldiers to patrol, and since they don’t actually expect anyone to make it out of the City, they make do.”
Saffron shook her hands, as if they were tingling. “That was not fun. I hate everything and everyone right now.” She glared at the knife-bright water. “How do we get across? We don’t exactly have time to build a bridge.”
The trees were thick and tangled on the other side, but still out of reach. Vines dangled, temptingly close. Jane remembered hanging from the dryad tree. “I might be able to reach that.”
Saffron followed her gaze dubiously. “Because Enclave girls can fly now?”
“No, but I can run.” And if she ran fast enough, there was a chance.
There was also a chance she’d land in the water and be electrocuted.
She backed up, reminding herself that running was the one thing she could actually do really well. She pumped her legs hard, pushing off the ground with each step. She gave into the momentum, sprinting faster and faster until she had no other choice but to jump.
She grabbed at the vines desperately. They slipped through her damp fingers until she finally got a proper hold. The shadow of eels swan beneath her. She inched back up, until she could stretch out enough to grab another one. She swung gently, praying desperately that she wasn’t about to plummet. The water shivered. She threw the other vine as hard as she could and Saffron leapt to grasp it, screaming as she jumped over the water. The vines wrapped around each other, bumping them together.
Saffron exhaled sharply. “I had no idea they bred them so crazy in the Enclave.”
“We should be able to swing just a little and jump to the other side.” The vine tore a little, dropping her abruptly a foot closer to the water. Jane dangled, her shoulders popping as they held her weight. There was a buzz, like enormous insect wings.
“Shit, I know that sound,” Saffron hissed, freezing. “Drone cameras. They send them into the Core sometimes.”
Jane finally located the sound of the buzzing. A black drone camera hovered like a metal bird along the river, surveying the area. Everything it saw was transmitted directly to the nearest Protectorate outpost. “What do we do?” she whispered.
“Don’t move?” Saffron suggested.
The vines creaked warningly. Jane’s fingers were damp with sweat, cramping tightly. The drone passed beneath them, close enough that she could see the machinery whirling inside. She dropped another inch. The vine was going to snap. “Hold on,” Saffron muttered. “Don’t you dare fall. We have an alliance, remember?”
Jane’s palms chaffed raw, prickling and stinging. She swung lightly as the drone flew away. She couldn’t wait any longer. The tree creaked, twigs branching. Saffron kicked her feet, launching herself at Jane.
The vines snapped.
Saffron was never so glad to touch the earth.
Until it turned into a weapon too.
Birch trees shot up like spears. Branches scraped at them, knotting together to stop their escape. Saffron turned sideways, her pack catching. Twigs pulled savagely at her hair. The trees kept growing, faster and thicker, pressing into them until it was hard to breathe.
“Leaf mask,” Jane squeaked.
Saffron glared at her between yellow leaves. “I knew you were after the jacking mask.”
“Yes, being crushed by birch trees was my cunning plan,” Jane snapped between wheezes of breath. Her throat was bloody with scratches. “Put it on! This is the Spirit forest, isn’t it? Home of the Green Jacks? And numen responds to numen.”
She twisted, narrowly dodging a branch before it could poke her eye out. “I can’t reach it.”
Jane stretched, grunting with the effort. The trees were like swords slicing at them, like the bars of a cage. She contorted, just reaching Saffron’s pack. It was limp, too long denied a host. And it was in someone else’s hand. Saffron froze.
Jane gave it to her without a word.
Saffron lifted it to her face. Burrs and thistles snagged onto her hair. Her face tingled all the way up into her scalp. Green sparks exploded behind her eyelids, anise on her tongue. It wasn’t painful exactly, but it wasn’t pleasant either. She pulled the tobacco Oona had given her out of her pocket and dumped it on the ground. “Hello, please and thank you.” As a ritual it left something to be desired.
Still, the birch trees shrank into themselves. They left a narrow path, leading deeper into the forest. Saffron pushed the mask up over her hair, already feeling suffocated. She decided to ignore the fact that her hands were trembling.
The forest went on forever. She’d never seen so many different shades of green, even with all of the trees in Elysium City. It was just as crowded as the jostle of skyscrapers and bridges but it was a crowded silence. The air tasted different. But the leaves all looked the same. “Now what?
Jane squinted into the scrubby undergrowth. “That way.”
Saffron frowned. “Why?”
“Look at the grass there, and the way the ivy is growing mostly over your right shoulder.”
“So? It could be a coincidence.”
“There’s no such thing as coincidence. At least not at the Collegium.” Jane replied. “I’m trained to notice and interpret patterns and this is a pattern.”
“Fine,” Saffron grumbled. She didn’t know why she was arguing. She’d been scared to never reach the forest and now she found she was just as scared to enter it. She never dealt well with fear. It couldn’t be stabbed or sold in underground markets. What was it even good for?
Still, she couldn’t deny that she felt lighter, like pollen, but also more grounded and energized. As if she had roots that stretched down into the earth, feeding her whatever it was trees and plants fed on. Sunlight filtered through the branches, dappling everything it touched. A honeybee flew passed, drowsy and drunk with flower wine. Saffron stared at it.
Jane stopped a few feet ahead and looked over her shoulder. “What is it?”
“I’ve never seen a bee before,” Saffron replied, feeling reverent despite her very irreverent self. Maybe the leaf mask was already changing her. She wasn’t sure she liked the thought.
Jane cupped her left hand over her right fist and lifted them briefly to her forehead. “It’s how the bee-priestesses greet a honeybee.”
“Oh.” No leaf mask in the world was going to change her enough to have her genuflecting to a bee, no matter the strange peace she felt. She watched it hover over a yellow weed before flying away.
They followed whatever symbols Jane read in the shadows and the pollen and the flight of crows. Jane spotted the first mask, tied around the trunk of a maple tree, at eye level. The leaves were carved, gilded wood, and clay, pointing the way. “Another trap,” Saffron decided immediately, even as a thistle bent from her hair to touch a carved lily. The wooden mouth laughed at her.
More and more masks led them on, until it was as though a hundred eyes watched them. Some were delicate, others rough-hewn, more of a suggestion than a depiction. “It’s beautiful,” Jane said softly.
Right before someone dropped out of a tree and knocked her on her ass.
Saffron counted three men and two women, but there could be dozens more behind the branches. They carried bows on their backs and daggers on their belts. Saffron was both fiercely envious and fiercely pissed off.
“Get off of her!” She shoved the guy standing over Jane so hard he stumbled. She heard the sound of edged metal scraping out of scabbards as he grabbed the front of her shirt. Burrs scraped at his hand. He released her almost as quickly as he’d grabbed her, and the expression on his face was such a combination of shock and confusion it was nearly comical. But fast as a storm cloud, it went back to cocky poorly-restrained violence. That, at least, she understood.
The others lowered their weapons. Saffron reached down to help Jane to her feet. “Are you with the Greencoats?” Jane asked.
“Of course,” he smirked. “I’m their leader. Roarke. You need a better guard,” he jerked his head in Jane’s direction. “She’s weak.”
Jane didn’t say anything. It made Saffron as angry as the insult did. “She’s fine,” she snapped. Roarke swung out, knocking Jane back. Saffron hooked her leg around his ankle and tossed him into the air. “Leave her be.”
He flipped to his feet, showing off. “She’s meant to protect you, not you protect her.”
“She saved my life,” Saffron retorted. “Twice. So back the hell off.”
“Saffron, don’t bother,” Jane said quietly.
“And she’s an Oracle.” She never thought she’d see the day where she not only defended a girl from the Enclave, but she used a Collegium title to prove her point. The others threw curious glances at Jane and she flushed. Roarke kept his eyes on Saffron. She raised her eyebrows in challenge.
The side of his mouth quirked up in a half-smile. “Come on,” he said. “We’ll take you to the camp and get you sorted out.”
“So you really are Greencoats?” Jane asked, falling into step with Saffron. She clearly didn’t know how to hold a grudge. Saffron would have to teach her.
Roarke turned his arm out. The left was clasped with a leather archer’s bracer, the right tattooed with a Green Jack tattoo. “I’m not sure that proves anything,” Saffron said drily.
He shrugged one shoulder. “I guess you’ll just have to brave.”
She bared her teeth. He laughed. Her legs and feet were tired from walking so much in combat boots. She was painfully aware of every sound. She tried to memorize the route they took but all the trees started to look the same. She couldn’t help but feel more caged than safeguarded as the others closed in, obviously in formation.
“This was definitely a bad idea.”
With Saffron and Roarke already striking sparks off each other, Jane was able to fade into the background and observe. They went deeper into the forest, the leaves rustling in some secret language around them. She tried to read patterns in the branches, the sound of birds, the dapple of sunlight—but with no success. There was both too much and too little to see.
They finally came to a compound built on a small lake. It must have originally been a campground or a resort; there were wooden cabins and a main octagonal hall. A faded broken sign read Arowhon Pines. People emerged from the buildings and along the rocky beach. “Got ourselves a new Green Jill,” Roarke announced. “A mouthy one.”
The answering murmurs were both curious and curiously respectful. They glanced at Saffron, then to a man standing on the nearby porch. He was older, with dark blond hair. His hair was scruffy, his stance calm. If Roarke was the leader, Jane wondered why everyone was looking at him as if waiting for some kind of sign.
No one noticed her noticing. Except him. She wasn’t accustomed to that. He leapt over the porch railing, stalking towards her without a word. Jane glanced behind her, expecting danger, but there was nothing there. She backed away from the intensity of his approach, but he was faster, closing the distance between them. She recognized the blue eyes from her omens. Too late, she wondered if they’d been a guide or a warning.
He had taken one of the daggers from his belt and she hadn’t seen him do it, even staring at him as she was. His blue eyes pinned her, trapped her. She remembered every horror story she’d ever heard about the Greencoats. Adrenaline spiked like rose thorns. Before she could bump into the tree behind her, he spun her around and pressed her cheek to the mossy bark. She struggled but he was stronger, faster. Saffron shouted something foul but Roarke held her back. She drove her head back into his face, cracking his nose.
“Easy,” the man said to Jane.
Right before he stabbed her.
He dragged the tip of his dagger over her numina mark. Pain bit deep but brief. Hot blood trickled down her neck and onto her collar as he let her go. She turned around, wide-eyed, pressing a hand to the small wound.
“What the jacking hell?” Saffron demanded.
Roarke held his nose and spat blood. “That one’s not even a fighter. This one’s the one to watch.”
“Actually, she’s the most dangerous one here,” Caradoc insisted quietly, wiping his blade clean before sheathing it.
A small incredulous laugh burst out of Jane. “You must have me confused with somebody else.”
“Sweetheart, that tattoo bound you to the Collegium. They use it to track numina and their powers. If you have more than the usual, you get sick. It’s an early warning system. If they tattooed you, they’d have been watching you. Might still, if you’re a spy.”
“I’m not a spy.”
“I wouldn’t expect a spy to say otherwise.”
Jane thought of the countless times she’d knelt to show her mark during safety drills, Saffron’s reaction to her tag, Cartimandua asking about her headaches, and inspecting her tattoo at the parapet.
And then her head was a crucible of fire, a winter cave full of teeth. She knew her eyes were open but she didn’t see Caradoc or Saffron, nor the trees or the water. Omens strobed like lightning, electricity coursing through her after every flash.
Houses in the amphitheatre, a burst of wind and fire through the trees, a dock splintering. More red dust on rooftops.
When she came back to herself, she was slumped at the base of the tree, Caradoc crouching next to her. “You’re alright now.”
Jane pressed on her temples to stop the residual throbbing. “What happened?”
“I busted the lock,” Caradoc replied, straightening.
“It can’t be that easy.”
He shrugged. “They see your mark often enough to know if it’s been tampered with.” His voice carried effortlessly, or maybe it was just that everyone was accustomed to listening to him. “Take a walk,” he told the others and they scattered, however reluctantly.
“I didn’t know they were crazy,” Roarke apologized to Caradoc. “Green Jill here is all thistles and prickles.”
“Aw,” Saffron bared her teeth. “Thank you.”
“You have a hell of a way to ask for help.” Caradoc commented.
Saffron looked slightly abashed. Her words, however, didn’t reflect her sudden awkwardness. “You have hell of a welcome,” she returned.
He grinned suddenly, and Jane couldn’t help but stare. Her head was empty of omens and electricity, but she still felt this was something worth paying attention to. He climbed the creaky wooden steps to the porch without a backward glance. Saffron looked at Roarke expectantly, but Jane couldn’t stop looking at Caradoc. His smile turned soft, amused.
“You’re the actual leader, aren’t you?” She asked to cover her foolishness. She didn’t know anything about him really, except that he’d stabbed her.
Saffron narrowed her eyes, cursed. “Of course you are.”
Roarke scowled. “Hey.”
Caradoc propped his boots up on the rail. “I’m a Greencoat, just like the others,” he said. “But it could be I’ve been here the longest.”
“How did you know about the Numina mark?” Jane asked.
“My job to know.” He reached into a trunk beside his chair, and pulled out a small red plastic first aid kit. “Bandages in there,” he tossed it to her.
“I have my own kit,” Jane said reaching into her pocket.
“Fine,” Caradoc turned his attention to Saffron. “Haven’t had a new Green Jill in a while.”
“Is that good or bad?” Saffron asked.
He shrugged. “Just is.”
“I didn’t ask for this,” Saffron pointed out defensively. “I don’t want it.”
Caradoc shrugged again. “The mask doesn’t care.”
“Did you kill the last Jack who wore it?” Roarke asked.
“No,” she snapped. “I didn’t kill him. He tried to jump the Wall like an idiot.”
“And now you’re here,” Caradoc said. “We protect Green Jacks. We’ve all sworn oaths, but if you stay, there are still rules. Jill or not.”
“Like what?” Saffron demanded suspiciously. She was prickly and nervous, like a porcupine. Jane felt more certain now that they were talking rules. She liked to know what was expected of her, and how to stay invisible depended too often on following the rules.
“Common sense,” Caradoc explained. There were daggers on his belt, in his boots, tucked under his sleeve.
Saffron eyed him enviously. “Don’t tell me not allowed a weapon.”
Roarke smirked. “Don’t worry, we’ll protect you.”
Jane had to hand it to him. In less than a half hour he had figured out exactly how to needle Saffron. But when Caradoc flicked him a mild glance, he subsided. “You can have as many knives as you’d like,” Caradoc assured her.
“Thank you,” Saffron beamed at him, a bright young smile, not like her usual sarcastic grin.
“Can you teach her about the leaf mask?” Jane asked quietly. It occurred to her that Saffron would stay, and she would have to go. She had nothing to offer, no reason to be here. She’d run away from home, with no real destination beyond “away”. And now Saffron didn’t need her, not anymore. The pink moon had led her to Saffron but no further. And Caradoc was right to wonder if she was a spy. Why trust her?
“We can,” Caradoc confirmed. “More importantly the forest will teach her.”
“Good. May I stay the night? I’ll leave in the morning.” It would give her time to rest, to read the omens, assuming there were any. Maybe she could convince one of the farm domes that she’s been sent as a numina. If they didn’t recognize her from the Garden. She didn’t think they got that many shows up here, even Directorate ones. Or maybe she could live on the edge of the forest instead, staying out of the way. And trying not to get blown up. As far as plans went, it clearly needed work.
“Where would you even go?” Saffron asked. “You’ll get eaten alive out there. Assuming we’re not shacking up with cannibals in here too.”
“The moon led me to you to keep you safe,” Jane said. “And now you’re safe.”
“Maybe it led you to me to keep you safe too. Ever think of that? You’re not leaving.” She glowered at Caradoc and Roarke. “She’s not leaving. And she’d not a jacking spy.”
“I’m not a Jill either,” Jane pointed out. She tried not to flush, embarrassed. “And I’m not a guard.”
“You’re an Oracle,” Saffron said. “And he doesn’t really think you’re a spy. If he did, he’d have killed you already.”
Caradoc didn’t correct her.
“And anyway, your omens already saved me. They can save the others too. ”
Caradoc inclined his head. “Possibly. You’ll need to control it, now that the eye is closed.”
She touched the bandage, hope and anxiety swirling in her belly. Saffron looked smug. “So it’s settled. You’re not a spy and you’re not leaving.”
Caradoc turned away, losing interest. “Take our Jill to the Mother Tree, Roarke. If she survives, they can stay.”
“What the hell does that mean?” Saffron snapped.
“It means the Forest decides if you stay,” Roarke said. “If you’re a real Jill.”
“Why would I fake that? How would I even fake that?”
A woman named Annie with twisted braids and an enviable tomahawk joined them. A lot more enviable if Saffron had one of her own – or any weapon for that matter. “Leaf masks are still mostly a mystery. We can’t be too careful. The Mother Tree protects the masks, that much we know. She’s the heart of the Spirit Forest.”
“Great. More numen mysteries.”
“Science too,” Annie pointed out. “ Every forest has a Mother Tree with roots that connect to all of the other roots, sharing nutrients. Some trees miles away couldn’t survive without that one single tree. This one just happens to be special.”
“Keep up,” Roarke interrupted as they walked. “Kitchen hall’s that way. Latrines in the other direction, gardens behind the fences over there,” he added but Saffron was only half-listening. There was too much she didn’t know about the Greencoats, about the mask. About the Spirit Forest. “There are cabins for Jacks and bunkhouses or tents for everyone else.”
The cabins lined the pond which glinted in the last of the daylight, fish dimpling the surface. People smiled, busy with work and red-cheeked with the sun. Birds sang all around. It was idyllic.
Saffron had never trusted idyllic and she wasn’t about to start now.
She made non-committal noises. Jane smiled and was polite enough for the both of them. Even to Roarke who’d knocked her off her feet. There was a training ring on one of the beaches. Greencoats sparred with staff and dagger and sword. It made her feel instantly homesick. It made her feel better too—idyllic wouldn’t protect you from the Directorate.
“I know that look.” Annie smiled. She was lean and muscular, scars on her knuckles. There was something motherly about her-- the kind of mother who might hit you over the head with a frying pan. It put Saffron to mind of Oona. She missed her with such a sudden physical intensity that she had to catch her breath. “You want to fight.”
“But you’re not fighting us, Sunshine,” Roarke interrupted. “Not until we know what kind of Jill you are.” He glanced at Jane. “This next part’s not for you.”
Jane just nodded. Saffron sighed. “It’s probably okay to punch him.”
Roarke lifted his eyebrows. “It’s really not.”
“Let’s test your theory.”
Annie grinned. “Easy, Jill. The Mother Tree is off limits to everyone but Jacks.”
“I don’t mind,” Jane said, excusing herself.
“How does she still have manners even covered in blood and bruises and dirt?” Saffron muttered.
“That same way you wouldn’t have manners even covered in silk,” Roarke pointed out.
She smiled at him for the first time. “True.”
Still, it was one of the most difficult things she’d ever done – walking into the forest with strangers, unarmed and expected to blindly trust. It battled with the serenity that was both foreign to her and untrustworthy. The leaf mask was pleased, the foliage like a cat’s whiskers tasting the clean green air without her permission. She clamped her back teeth together.
Annie slid her glance. “Most Jacks get off on that feeling, the closer you get to the Mother Tree.”
Wooden palisade fencing surrounded several gardens dug out in clearings of sunlight. The earth was dark and moist, bristling with corn, tomatoes, peas, radishes, lettuces, beets and leaves she didn’t recognize. Her mouth hung open despite herself. She’d never seen this many fresh vegetables in her entire life. The scent of the nearby pine grew strong, filling her nostrils until she wondered what colour she would paint it: hunter green with a touch of gold. The moss was so bright, it would never look real on canvas; she couldn’t capture the surreal glow. She’d add the three of them to the painting: Roarke the tan of sand, Annie, brown as a wet tree trunk, and Saffron, the rust of red pine.
She recoiled instinctively when a branch brushed her leaf mask.
“It’s just a branch,” Roarke said.
“You’ve never been to Elysium city, have you?” Saffron asked. He shook his head, something shuttered over the mocking amused gleam in his eyes. “If the Protectorate doesn’t get you for touching the trees, the dryads will.”
He blinked. “What, like pretty tree nymphs from the old stories?”
“Not exactly.” She felt better not being the only one who didn’t know anything. The fact that his nose was swollen from her head-butt didn’t hurt either. Her Oona was right – she had more demon in her then Green Jill.
The trail stopped at a huge ring of stones, crouched like turtles. Roarke and Annie stopped respectfully, refusing to cross. “This part’s not for us,” Annie said.
Saffron hesitated. She didn’t know what to expect; bears, cannibals, wolves. She found herself wishing Jane was with her, with her, acceptance of Numen and omens. “What exactly am I going to find in there?” She side-eyed Roarke. “I was assured you guys don’t actually eat people.”
“Don’t be scared, Sunshine,” Roarke replied. “It’s just a tree.”
There was a tree in the centre of the ring, the trunk so wide it would take half a dozen people holding hands to circle it completely. Moss traced the roots and acorns crunched under her boots even though she wasn’t convinced it was exactly an oak tree. It was more like a tree made of many trees. A well glinted between roots that curled around it like a cup.
The leaf mask was light as feathers, even the burrs seem to float on the air. The ivy reached out to touch the heavy branches, twining gently. She didn’t know what to do next. There was no one waiting with convenient instructions, just a boy she didn’t know waiting on the other side of the stones, smirking. Still, she’d survived the Underworld. Surely that that counted for something. She imagined a sleek red fox at her side, ears perked, eyes bright. It helped a little.
Leaves brushed her face gently, like Oona with a cold cloth when she had a fever. Tears stung her eyes even as adrenaline shivered through her bones. She was exposed, emotions crashing, drowning her, even ones she was fairly certain she’d never actually felt. It was comfort, pain, love, lust, hunger, uncertainty, competence, longing…
She tried to jerk away, to turn and run, but the ivy had her lashed to the tree. Her back pressed against the trunk until she felt the imprint of the grooves on her neck and arms. Twigs grabbed at her braids. The branches knotted together until all she could see were leaves, leaves, more leaves.
She knew in a way that made no sense, that the tree was reading her. Just like Annie had said, its roots extended far and wide, touching other roots, exchanging information, nutrients, and tree – thoughts. This tree had known the first Green Jack to walk out of myth, in a time where no one believed in numen. Or in much of anything at all. She dangled there too long, being turned inside out, dissected as much as a Directorate scientist would dissect her.
When it finally released her, she fell to her knees. Bloody scrapes stung when she pushed to her feet but the leaf mask felt lighter on her head, more natural. Happy. The last of the scab, over her healed tag fell away, revealing new skin; and the mark of the Directorate, bisected and broken.
Jane walked out onto a dock, following omens without conscious thought: turning here when a blue jay flew past, there when a pinecone dropped from a high branch. She didn’t know the rules here. There was no Directorate or Collegium, but there would still be rules. Under the beautiful trees were cooking pots and where there were cooking pots, there were schedules, if only for meals. And where there was water, there were water rations. She’d feel better when she knew the rules.
Her numina mark hurt and her head still felt tender, like a sunburn inside her skull. The lightning forks of pain were gone though, replaced with a confusing swirl of half formed images. It was like trying to see in the dark. No matter how hard she tried to focus, nothing became any clearer. Until there was a familiar jagged flash of light.
Saffron again, too pale and too still. Fire burning in the trees. Light through slats of wood set in the ground.
“Hey, easy.” There was a hand on her arm, helping her to sit up. She hadn’t realized she’d collapsed. The sky had faded to pink and gold. “You all right now?” The voice belonged to a young man with pale green eyes that seemed cheerfully mad in his dark face. “I’m Nico.”
“How long was I out?” Jane asked.
“Not sure, not long I don’t think. Why don’t you come and eat. Looks like you need it.”
She couldn’t actually remember the last time she’d had food that wasn’t protein paste in a foil wrapper. Nico chatted easily, as if finding girls unconscious on the pier was a regular occurrence. “Avoid the pickled rapini. It tastes like feet.”
“Duly noted. What’s that?” Jane pointed to a cabin set off from the others, the roof cluttered with equipment, the kind you’d expect on a rooftop in the Enclave. Solar panels, wires, satellite dishes.
“Caradoc’s private cabin,” Nico replied. “Locked up tight and set with alarms and traps.”
“I wasn’t planning on breaking in.”
“Then you’re smarter than me,” he grinned. “I tried on my third night in, on a dare from Roarke. Still got the scar to prove it.” He lifted the hem of his shirt, showing off abs he was clearly proud of, and a puckered scar.
“Did he stab you too?”
“Then I guess I’ve been initiated,” she touched her bandage.
“Oh right, he put out your eye. I heard about that.” They climbed the steps onto the wraparound porch around the hall. Inside, tables circled a central fireplace. A half wall ran along one side, open to a bustling kitchen with shelves stocked with jarred fruits and vegetables. On the counter were platters of fish, roasted greens, red beets, a basket of rolls and glass carafes of herbal teas. She didn’t see stewed livers or finger bones.
“How long have you been a Greencoat?” Jane asked, mostly because the others had paused to watch them approach the food. She felt as awkward and out of place as she had her first high school dance. Her mother had chaperoned, and snapped at her to stop lurking in the corner. They had just moved, and she was new to the school, and the street, and didn’t know anyone, not even Kiri yet. She wondered if Kiri was worried, if she’d find a way to just be glad Jane was out of the Garden. She was probably mad Jane had taken off without her.
“About three years,” Nico nodded a friendly greeting to a table of Greencoats. “My dad was a Mad Jack.” Jane had heard of them, they worshipped trees and considered the Spirit Forest to the only sacred place left in the world. To make a pilgrimage here was the ultimate spiritual goal, even though leaving the City was mostly impossible. After the first Jack had shown himself, the idea of the old gods of the forest and the earth mother had taken root again. It was peaceful for a few years, then the droughts and the earthquakes and the Lake Wars. Some of the villages still worshipped the earth mother but it had fallen out of fashion in the City.
Nico shrugged. “He thought he’d find salvation or God or the Goddess or something but he didn’t know anything about living in the woods. He ate the wrong kind of mushrooms instead and died.”
He shrugged again, forcing the sudden serious gleam in his eyes back behind the curtain and easy-going charm. “Don’t get a lot of Enclave girls here. I like the accent. Very posh.”
He rolled his eyes. “Stop apologizing.”
“I’m – –.” She cut herself off deliberately.
He laughed. “Double helping of dandelion greens for my girl here, Kristoff,” he told the old man behind the sideboard. He was shirtless, with a long grey beard that reached to ribs tattooed with the dark branches of a winter tree. He arranged the food on her plate as artfully as any Enclave chef.
A girl clamped her hand around Jane’s wrist when she reached for the plate. “Why is she eating? She’s from the Enclave, isn’t she?”
Nico sighed. “Ease up, Livia.”
“Since when do we feed the enemy?” she sneered.
“She’s with the Green Jill,” Nico pointed out, rescuing the plate before its contents ended up on the floor. Jane’s wrist began to throb. Livia’s fingers pressed viciously onto her veins, leeching colour.
“I heard she’s not even a fighter.”
“So? Neither were you when you got here.”
Livia’s cheeks went purple. Kristoff rapped Livia’s hand with the back of a wooden spoon. She snatched her arm back, glaring. “She eats,” Kristoff said calmly. “Everybody eats. Caradoc’s orders.” The old man façade crumbled, showing something else, something stern and unyielding.
Livia dropped her gaze, turned it on Jane. She smiled insincerely, an animal show of teeth. “Oops,” she said, dumping her bowl of hot soup on Jane. Jane leapt back, too late to stop the burning spatter from hitting her arms. The bowl clattered to the floor, bouncing off her foot. She calmly wiped her arms dry. Livia was annoying, but she was no Asher. The worst part was the sudden silence, the weight of the stares.
“Damn it, Livia,” Nico said, disgusted. “Why are you such a bitch?”
“Watch yourself,” she spat at Jane, before marching away.
“Welcome to the Grove,” Nico told Jane with an ironic smile.
Kristoff added a strawberry tart to Jane’s plate. “You get double dessert, darling.”
She smiled shyly. “Thank you.”
He shook his head. “Those Enclave manners will get you into trouble.”
She couldn’t understand why, but it was clear he was right.
“Come on,” Nico said, guiding her to a table of his friends. They nodded to Jane with quiet curiosity but no one threw any soup at her head. Progress. She suddenly felt like she was back at the first day of the Collegium, trying to disappear in the crowd. How had the Collegium explained her absence? Or her mother? She hoped, fiercely, that her gift for being overlooked had made them forget her already. Either way, her mother would have come up with a good story.
“Thinking that hard will give you indigestion,” Nico poked her with his fork. “Why do you think Caradoc looks so serious all the time?”
He was sitting at a large table in the corner with three others. He was magnetic, holding everyone’s peripheral attention even as they ate their soup. There were as many hunting knives at his table as butter knives. She wondered how long he had been here, if he knew what they said about him in the City. He didn’t look like a deranged killer.
Nico sighed. “Not you too. Everyone falls for Caradoc.”
Jane turned away. “I’m not – I don’t even know him. He stabbed me!”
He grinned. “Doesn’t matter. He’s a good guy, a leader, and nearly as handsome as me. Hell, I’m half in love with him too.”
One of his friends snorted. He had blond hair and a metal stud in one eyebrow. “You’re so in love with yourself, there’s no room for anyone else.”
“Don’t listen to him,” Nico said. “Will is just jealous because I turned him down.”
Will rolled his eyes. “I have better taste.”
“No such thing.”
Their easy banter put Jane at ease. The tension in her belly released enough that she could eat. “Hey, you’re an Oracle,” Nico said her suddenly. “Can you read the omens for me?”
“Sure.” This at least she understood. It was familiar.
“I want to know if Freya likes me.”
“Life and death all around us; raids, this bloody heat, Directorate army constantly circling and he wants to know about his love life.” Will said, drily.
“Everyone always does,” Jane replied. The girl in question had long hair in a tidy braid and wore leather pants. She was pretty in a petite pixie sort of way. “I don’t need to read the omens,” Jane added. “She likes you.”
“How do you know?”
“She’s glaring at me like I kicked her puppy.”
Nico beamed at Jane. “Yeah?”
Jane reached for the runestones in one of her many pockets. She didn’t have enough anise seeds to give out as a blessing, but at least this was a way she could thank him. Nico was like Kiri, the force of his personality had already acted as a shield and a map.
Everyone at the table eased closer, watching her undo the ties to the leather bag. It wasn’t decorated with gold embroidery or painted with the all-seeing eye like the one she used for formal readings, but it had survived Red Dust, Ferals, and the Badlands. And so had she.
Feeling more confident, she scattered salt on the table before pouring the runes into her hand. The smooth flat stones were marked in white paint mixed with powdered quartz crystal and crushed mistletoe berries. She couldn’t tell if there was the familiar tingle on the back of her neck, not through the burning ache in the raw flesh in the centre of the eye.
She tossed the stones and the way they landed told her as much as the symbols did. Small personal treasures passed around the table as wagers were made. “What do you see?” Nico pressed.
Jane noticed Freya glancing their way. She noticed the scatter of stones, the lone rune rolling to stop at Nico’s elbow, well outside the casting circle, symbolizing patience. “Luck is on your side,” she said. He leaned back, looking smug. “As things are now. Brag about this, and it all falls apart,” she felt compelled to add. “Omens are prediction of patterns – they’re not necessarily a guarantee.”
He shrugged, not the least bit daunted. “When?”
“Three weeks, maybe more.”
His friends exchanged wager winnings but she wasn’t sure what outcome they had bet on. She leaned forward, lowered her voice. “Don’t charm her.”
“How can I help that?” He drawled.
“If you treat her like the other girls, that’s all she’ll ever be.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Are you speaking as an Oracle?”
She shook her head. “Just as a girl.”
Will shoved Nico right off the bench. “My turn.”
The first thing Saffron saw on her return to the camp was Jane silhouetted at the window of the hall, surrounded by Greencoats begging for omens. Saffron pushed through the crowd, noting exits, suspicious glares, weapons. Jane was flushed, but happy enough.
Nico stood up smiling. “Ladies, let me take you to bed.”
Saffron daggered him with her eyes. Jane just looked amused, as if he was a little brother, even though he towered over them and carried himself like a fighter. “That’s Nico.” Jane said.
He bowed at Saffron. “I’m yours to command, Green Jill.”
Outside, the stars clustered together like candles on a feast table. Lanterns guided them down the gravel walk to the cabins. Nico pushed the door open with a flourish, and hit the switch on the wall. The solar lamps flicked on instantly. “Only the best for a Green Jill,” he said. “Although there are no commtabs. Too hard to get a decent signal and we can’t take juice away from Caradoc’s surveillance of the Directorate.”
“Should you be telling us that?” Saffron asked.
He didn’t look concerned. “Not a secret. And we’ve got Beatrix. You’ll see her around. She spends her time researching and practicing pioneer techniques.”
“Worse times are coming. Everyone knows it, even out here. You can only repurpose technology for so long. And there wasn’t much out here to begin with.”
The cabin had a sitting room with a worn couch and chairs and a low table. A bookcase with old paperback novels and vintage clutter stood in one corner, under a truly ugly painting of what looked like a giant shaggy cow about to cry. Saffron shuddered.
“It’s a moose,” Nico said. “They weigh more than a truck, but they’re gentle enough if you don’t get in their way. No need to worry.”
“It’s not that,” Saffron said. “It’s the artwork.” She was offended.
“It’s not that bad,” Nico just shrugged. Clearly his eyeballs were broken. He leaned in the doorjamb. “I’d be happy to sleep over, ladies, in case you need… anything. Anything at all.”
“Go away now,” Saffron said cheerfully, even as she shoved him out onto the porch and shut the door.
Jane shook her head. “You’re terrible.”
“Saves time.” She circled the cabin. “This place is huge.” It seemed decadent, with only the two of them. There was a bathroom with a functioning earth toilet. The beds were saggy but serviceable, with blankets striped with red, green, yellow and black. Saffron lay down, suddenly exhausted.
The springs creaked when Jane lay on the other bed. “I still feel like were on the run,” she said. “I can’t convince my body that were safe.”
“I know,” Saffron agreed. She yawned hugely but her fingers drummed on the itchy blanket. “This place seems too good to be true.”
“I did get stabbed,” Jane pointed out
“That actually makes you feel better, doesn’t it?”
“Glad to help.”
“I’m too wired to sleep,” Saffron said on another yawn.
“Me too,” Jane agreed. “We could…”
They were both asleep before she could finish her sentence.
Still, Saffron wasn’t so tired that she didn’t wake up the moment the floorboard by her bed creaked. She bolted upright, dagger in hand.
“It’s me,” Nico said, turning off his flashlight when she recognized him. She didn’t lower the knife.
“What’s going on?” Jane asked groggily.
“A very good question,” Saffron said, sliding out of bed.
“Come with me.”
She glared at him, disgusted. “Look, I don’t know what you’re used to, but we’re not interested.” She glanced at Jane. “Are you interested in seeing him naked?”
“I don’t th—-.”
“She’s not interested.”
“Come with me now,” Nico insisted grimly enough that she registered that he was serious. She lowered her knife, frowning.
“What is it?” she asked, slipping on her boots. Jane was already dressed and waiting. Those Enclave school drills were good for something at least.
“Helicopters,” Nico said, just as she heard the low thrumming. They crossed through the sitting room, Saffron banging her elbow on the corner of the table. They eased onto the porch.
“Wouldn’t we be safer inside?” Jane asked, as bright lights stabbed at the cabins and the violent winds from the blades pressed down on the treetops. There was a whining sounds and something fell onto a nearby building, detonating. Fire and roof shingles flew like bullets.
“Guess not,” Saffron muttered.
“This way,” Nico led them along the side of the cabin, and into the thick trees. Smoke and dirt whirled around them, stinging their eyes. The helicopter lights were too bright, the darkness too dark. Bullets ricocheted off the ground, smashed through windows. A ladder dangled from a helicopter, a Protectorate soldier clinging to the rungs. Caradoc shot him through the leg with an arrow, and then through the chest. He fell into the lake, screaming. Roarke was on another rooftop, also firing arrows. The soldiers outgunned them by far but he didn’t seem particularly fazed.
A girl tripped, falling hard. There was a soldier on the ground behind her, running her down. She landed too hard; choking, trying to find her breath. Saffron flung her dagger. It hit him in the shoulder, not enough stop him, just enough to make him drop his gun. Saffron slid through the dirt, scrabbling for the knife on the girl’s belt. This time she got him in the throat. He toppled, gurgling and scratching at the hilt. More blood blossomed, like roses in a tea garden.
Saffron stared at him, everything sharp and everything numb fighting inside her head at once. She’d never killed a man before. She’d broken bones and left a girl with a severe limp but she’d never seen that look of shock, not aimed at her. The whirling lights seemed very far away.
The girl, finally able to breathe, hauled Saffron to her feet. Nico was there, yelling something she couldn’t hear. The soldier was very still, staring blankly. Greencoats raced passed him to form protective walls around a frail looking Green Jill and a Green Jack. And Saffron.
They were pushing her up a ladder and suddenly she was back in Elysium, running the rope bridges. The familiar dangerous sway snapped her back to her body, away from the whirling thoughts. Her hands were shaking but at least she was running. Jane looked nauseous but determined, an unintentional mirror. They paused on a wooden platform, breathing heavily. Saffron concentrated on the burn in her lungs, the smell of smoke.
The helicopters circled the camp like deadly metal insects, gleaming blades and glass like eyes, bullets and bombs for stingers. Someone screamed. “I thought his place was protected,” Saffron shouted.
“It is,” Nico said, a stolen Protectorate gun at the ready. “The Directorate can’t get in on the ground. They’re too scared to damage the forest and the source of the Green Jacks, but too scared not to try. And mostly the forest doesn’t want them here.”
Smoke bombs were being launched by Greencoats to cover them, but the shots were already ringing out. A man lay dead, blood pooling in the hole in his chest. Jane’s eyelids began to flutter rapidly, the whites of her eyes rolling, “We have to move,” she barked suddenly.
Nico looked confused. The others stayed where they were. Saffron grabbed Jane’s hand and pulled her up. “Let’s go.”
Jane’s distant gaze snapped into abrupt, intense focus. One of the Greencoats instinctively cringed. “That way,” she ordered, pointing back to where they’d come from. There was nothing polite or apologetic about her now. She looked slightly crazy, as one of the girls pointed out. Gunshots peppered the camp.
“She’s an Oracle,” Saffron reminded the others. “She says run, you jacking well run.” She took off after Jane, pausing only briefly to glance at Nico. “Well? Are you coming to protect me, or what?”
It galvanized him into movement, shoving at the others until they abandoned the sturdy platform for the unsteady rope bridges and ladders. When the explosive hit the tree, everything shattered. A deadly shrapnel of broken branches and wood and rusty nails filled the air.
The force knocked Saffron to the ground. Pain screamed through her as if her bones were the branches, her blood green sap. Heat shrivelled along her spine. The grass growing on the edge of the clearing smoldered. People screamed, she could see their open mouths but the sound of the explosion had temporarily robbed her of all sound except a high pitched ringing that throbbed like an open wound. Jane was sprawled nearby, her head tucked under her arms in a poster-perfect Directorate safety pose. Nico crawled toward Saffron but she waved him off. The delicate Green Jill with the freckles needed more help than she did. She was rocking back and forth, blood staining the white mistletoe berries in her hair.
Another explosion, this time from Caradoc’s cabin. It detonated invisible energy, knocking out the power in the helicopters. Saffron flattened herself down. “EMP,” she shouted at Jane. They used them in the Core sometimes when the Elysians meddled with the jammers that saved wifi and power for the Rings alone.
The helicopter dipped, the propellers catching in the trees. There was no way to get control back in time. It spun, landing on the other side of the pond with a burst of light and noise.
They were left with crackling flames and the groans of people digging themselves out of debris. Saffron and Jane stood together, turning to assess each other’s condition. “Are you okay?” Jane yelled. The smell of smoke and burning sap lingered.
Saffron nodded, pointing to her ears. A burr tumbled out of her mask, charred to a tiny lump of coal. An old-fashioned hunting horn pierced through her muffled hearing.
“That’s the Green Jack’s call,” Nico shouted.
He pointed at her leaf mask then gave up and grabbed her arm, tugging her back towards Caradoc’s cabin. She kicked the back of his ankle and he released her. Roarke dropped off the roof, melted tar sticking to his boots and soot on his face. “Idiot!” He yelled at Saffron. She had no trouble hearing that. “You’re supposed to stay the hell down during a raid.”
“I did!” She yelled back. “What’s your problem now? Jane saved us with her Oracle thing.”
“Not that,” he growled, frustrated. “You went back for Julieta.”
She frowned. “Who?”
“The girl who fell, damn it.”
“Is that supposed to be a thank you? ‘Cause you’re really bad at it.”
“You were selfish.”
“Selfish?” she squeaked. “I saved her life, you ingrate.”
“But it’s not about us,” Caradoc interrupted, the hunting horn in his hand and the other Green Jacks at his heels. “It’s not even about you. It’s about the mask.”
“Oh, screw the mask,” Saffron snapped. When someone gasped out loud, she nearly snapped again. They were ankle deep in blood and fire. Their priorities needed sorting. And the irony that she was supposed to be feeling guilty for saving a Greencoat and not for killing a soldier was not lost on her. She very carefully avoided looking in the direction where she knew the body lay.
“How can we help clean up?” Jane interrupted, ever the peacemaker. There was already a bucket brigade gathering water from the lake. One of the cabins was engulfed entirely in flames but the others looked mostly salvageable. The end of a pier snapped off with a loud crack and sank under water.
“Gardens first,” Caradoc ordered.
“They weren’t hit,” Livia jogged up. “But the palisades need work and the left side of the apothecary was hit.” She noticed Jane and snarled. “This is your fault. They tracked you with that damned Enclave tattoo.” She hurled herself at Jane but Caradoc intercepted her, snatching her calmly around the waist in mid-air.
“That’s not how it works, Livia,” he said. Jane went pale, until her lips looked faintly mauve. “It’s not,” Caradoc repeated. “They didn’t microchip you, though they would have sooner or later. This wasn’t you. Not the first raid, not the last.” He shook Livia sharply when she struggled, fists raised. He dropped her unceremoniously. “Cool off,” he ordered.
Saffron stomped out an ember burning near her foot.
“Remind me again how this place is safer than Elysium City?”
By the time the sun rose, everyone was already cleaning up the charred wet mess of the camp and scavenging parts from the wreckage of the helicopters, before moving to the training field on the beach. The sun was fierce, another burning eye watching them. Jane studied the play of light on the lake but couldn’t find any patterns. She kept being distracted, thinking she’d glimpsed movement or a shift in colours from the corner of her eye, but there was only Livia glaring at her wherever she went.
Since she wasn’t any use as an Oracle, she decided to go for a run. She missed the sizzle in her blood and lungs and legs—so much more enjoyable when she wasn’t running to escape yet another horrible and messy end heading her way. She stretched lightly, heading out before the heat of the day became oppressive. The trail was uneven and narrow and she moved carefully, memorizing markers to find her way back--- a jagged rock, a lightning struck tree. She stopped to gather a branch from the split trunk. Lightning wood was rare and the best kind for rune stones.
Back at the camp she stopped for water, red-faced, panting, and down her camisole and cargo pants. “Where have you been?” Caradoc strode out from between two cabins, watching her intently.
She spilled water, surprised at his sudden appearance. Embarrassed, she wiped her chin. “I was running.”
“You just can’t run off into the forest.”
She winced. “Sorry. Are there bears? Wolves?”
“Men with guns, sweetheart.”
She felt stupid immediately. “Oh”
“This isn’t the Collegium track.”
She wanted to ask him how he knew about that. But he was too intimidating – radiating confidence and resilience and a kind of silent power you’d be a fool to challenge. He jerked his head to the beach were Nico was whooping, and flinging a guy twice his size into the air. “You’d be better served learning to defend yourself.”
She nodded and felt like apologizing again but he’d already turned away. There was a heavily tattooed girl scaling the wall up to his cabin roof. “Satellite on the left, Augusta,” Caradoc told her.
“On it. Not much I can do about the dying satellites.”
“I know.” He glanced at Jane. “Any word on that at the Collegium?”
“Omens say the satellites will only last until the end of the year, if that,” Jane replied. She remembered Oracles in the common room blurting out dates. “They’ve already restricted access. Enclave is trying to make radio and television the new fashion.”
He snorted at that. Jane didn’t know what else to say so she went to the training circle, refusing to picture the blood on the linoleum in the makeshift Amphitheatre, or Asher shoving her against the stairwell wall. Nico quirked a finger in her direction. Everyone turned to stare. “Your turn,” he called out.
She shook her head. “I only know basic self-defence.”
“Figures,” Livia sneered.
“But I’m good with a bow,” Jane forced herself to add.
“Then you don’t need to practice,” Nico pointed out. “Let’s go.”
Jane stepped forward reluctantly, feeling the weight of the gazes of a dozen Greencoats on her. She’d rather face another village full of Ferals than all the scrutiny. Not to mention the fact that she was about to have her ass handed to her. In pieces.
Nico shifted from foot to foot, brown skin gleaming with sweat. “Show me what you got.”
She planted her feet the way she’d been taught, one slightly in front of the other and lifted one arm to block, the other in a fist. She waited. Nico waited, eyebrow raised. “Come at me,” he finally said. “What are you waiting for?”
She’d been waiting for him to attack. The Enclave taught her how to defend herself and the parapet from arrows, attack, outright siege. They weren’t exactly quick to teach its citizens how to fight first. Jane took an awkward step forward. Livia snickered. “Knock him on his ass, Jane,” Will called out cheerfully.
She launched into a clumsy attack before she could talk herself out of it. Nico sidestepped her easily, popping up behind her. She whirled, swinging. He blocked her with the side of his arm, the force jarring her teeth. He danced back. She followed, thinking furiously. She wasn’t tall enough to kick him without him being able to flatten her first. She briefly considered taking a fall in order to grab a handful of sand to throw in his face, but it seemed dishonourable.
The familiar burn along her spine distracted her. Instead of gathering at the base of her neck in an electrical storm of pain, it diffused, branches of light curling up into her skull. She pushed all of her concentration on controlling the numen coursing through her.
She attacked blindly, knuckles skimming his shoulder. He pivoted, and grabbed hold of her wrist, pushing her into the stumble so that she lost her balance. A hit to the back of the knees and she suddenly had sand in her teeth. She rolled over, coughing.
Caradoc’s unsmiling face blocked out the sun and the sky and everything in between. “That’s not good enough,” he said mildly.
She scowled. “I’m aware.”
He grabbed her by the elbow and hauled her to her feet. “You’re weak.”
She had nothing to say to that. She crossed her arms mutinously, something undefined boiling under her usual politeness. She fisted her hands without realizing it. He glanced at them. “Better,” he said. “But not good enough.”
He nodded at Nico. “Again.”
Saffron looked up at the Green Jill sleeping serenely in a tree. Only her pale hair gave her away, and the profusion of white berries in her mask which was drawn down to cover her face. “I’m not sleeping in a tree,” Saffron said.
“You don’t have to,” Annie grinned. “Madeleine just prefers the forest.”
Saffron noticed the lines of silky scar tissue on the wrists dangling over them. “What happened to her?”
“We got her out of a Directorate farm dome. Eventually. She’s never entirely recovered.”
Her wrist bones nearly poked through translucent skin. “How long ago was that?” Saffron asked.
“A year and a half.” Annie’s smile slipped.
Saffron stepped back. “I’m going to need more knives.”
Annie nodded. “I can fix you up. After.”
Saffron felt something dangerously close to a pout forming on her face. “I’m not exactly the meditating type.” And it wasn’t the kind of training she had in mind. Frankly, she’d rather eat dirt.
“A shocking revelation.”
“I don’t see the point.”
“Because you haven’t done it yet,” Annie pointed out.
“Are you telling me, you meditate?”
“Thought so,” Saffron muttered.
“I’m not a Green Jill.”
Saffron lifted the leaf mask off her head, though the burst of her braids. “Want to trade places?”
“That’s not funny,” a Green Jack stormed out of the trees. His mask was a profusion of oak leaves, elm leaves, all sharp and pointed as swords. “It’s a gift, an honour.”
Saffron shrugged. “Easy, Jack. It’s not a gift I asked for.”
“People die for us. You should be grateful.”
“And you should probably back the hell off.” Saffron returned, easing slightly sideways into a bar brawl stance. He towered over her, tall and heavily muscled enough to remind her of Iago from the sideshow. She doubted he’d let her throw knives at him like Iago did though.
Annie slipped between them, expression stern. “Enough.” She lifted both her elbows, jabbing each of them in the solar plexus at the same time. “Saffron, meet Hakim. Hakim meet Saffron.”
“You started without me,” someone drawled, interrupting. “And you know how I love foreplay.”
Saffron turned an incredulous glare at the newcomer. Another Green Jack, but this one was smirking and shirtless. In fact he didn’t appear to be wearing much more than leaves.
Annie sighed at him. “River, I thought we talked about wearing pants.”
“But think of camp morale,” he grinned. “My fine ass is the very best morale booster.”
“Is he for real?” Saffron asked.
“Unfortunately,” Hakim replied.
“You’re the new Jill,” River said, circling Saffron. “Lovely.” He leaned closer.
“I wouldn’t.”Saffron raised an eyebrow.
“Pity.” He flicked one of the burrs clinging to her hair, “Weeds and spiky plants, my little thistle. But you’re still not the most dangerous one of us.”
She flicked a glance to Hakim’s muscles. Amused, River shook his head. He pointed to Madeleine. “Mistletoe and snowberries, all poisonous.” He reached up to tickle her palm. “Wake up, beautiful.” When her fingers entwined with his, he tugged her out of the tree, catching her when she fell. Her long hair brushed the ground, scattering berries. She backed away, eyes wide, when she saw Saffron.
“It’s okay,” Annie assured her briskly. “This is Saffron.”
Saffron had no idea how to deal with frail, damaged girls. She tried to smile but Madeleine only blanched. “Too many knives on you,” River explained. Saffron only had two, which wasn’t nearly enough.
“Which is why she likes me so much-- she knows I’m not hiding anything.” He slung an arm over Saffron’s shoulders. “Come on, Jill, tell me all about your fine self.”
Knowing he was trying to defuse the tension to comfort Madeleine, Saffron let him keep his arm. She wasn’t sure where to look though, it was a considerable amount of bare skin beside her. “You can sneak a peek,” he whispered. “Everyone does.”
“It’s not sneaking a peek when it’s on display.”
“So you’ve already looked then?”
Saffron tried not to laugh but his charm, overblown as it was, was fatally contagious. “Are you always like this?”
“I’m on my best behaviour, my thistle.”
“Nico must just hate you.”
“I believe in sharing.” He winked. “Though he believes in competition. He is, of course, losing.”
“Is flirting your numen power?”
He let his gaze drift down to her mouth, linger. “No.”
Saffron did not blush. It was just unbearably humid, hot air pressing in from all directions. Her leaf mask felt heavier. The grape leaves on his mask waved at her. “I’m in the cabin by the lake,” he murmured, his breath tickling her ear.
She leaned closer. “River?”
“I don’t care.”
He paused for a beat, then burst out laughing. “I like you, thistle.”
“Yes, and I can tell you’ve got such discretion,” she shot back, but she was smiling. By the time they reached the Mother Tree, they had to push through thick veils of leaves, flowers, even ribbons of moss hanging from dead branches. Four other Greencoats waited for them, fully armed. Hakim stopped Saffron. “No weapons inside the grove.”
Saffron dropped her daggers in a cavity between two tree roots. “I already hate this,” she muttered, following the others to the Mother Tree.
But the peace of the grove seeped into her, despite her reluctance. River grinned. “Your mask originated here.”
“How do you know that?” Saffron asked.
“Because you were drawn here.”
“My Oona told me to come here.”
“Same thing.” He pointed to the greenery around her feet. “Plus, the local plants are responding to you. Only mistletoe and oak respond that fast to Madeleine. Her mask comes from across the sea. No one knows how it got here.”
Madeleine’s movements became less guarded, less wounded, until she practically floated up the tree. “Where’s your mask from?” Saffron asked him.
“Here as well,” he practically purred at the leaves that brushed his bare shoulders.
“You’re going to perv on the tree, aren’t you?” She asked him.
Saffron stood awkwardly while the others gravitated to their preferred spots. Madeleine curled into the large roots, Hakim pressed against the trunk, and River stretched out on his back, winking. Saffron paced around them, feeling like an idiot. A peaceful, grounded, idiot, but still an idiot. If Killian could see her now, he’d fall over laughing.
“You’re supposed to relax,” River said.
“This is me, relaxed.”
He laughed softly. “Just breathe, thistle.”
When Madeleine began humming softly to herself Saffron shook her head. “This is even worse than I thought. I’m out of here. “
Rivers fingers closed around her ankle. “Just give it a minute.”
“River, if you don’t let go I will break all of your fingers. And then what will you do in your spare time?”
He sat, lascivious grin turning serious. “It will make you stronger.”
“Is this what this is about? I’d rather be training.”
“This is how we train. The more time we spend with the Mother Tree, the stronger we get. If you have reserves, you can survive longer if the Directorate get to you.”
“Survive so they can drain us longer?” She glanced at Madeleine.
“No, survive until we get rescued.”
“I didn’t need rescuing until I got here,” she grumbled.
“Think of it as another weapon in your arsenal then. If you’re strong enough, you can take the leaf mask off for days at a time. And eventually you can control the effects.”
She thought of the grass growing as she’d been trying to sneak out of the City. Of the bodies piled up on Festival days. “Does the Directorate know that?” She didn’t remember hearing about it at the Green Jack museum in the Rings where school children visited every time the seasons changed.
River shrugged. “Doesn’t matter, does it? The Forest won’t let them in.”
“How does it even know?”
“The trees can read us if we have a mask; or if we’ve been here long enough. The Directorate are strangers and they carry too many guns, too much metal. Now would you just sit down and try.”
Saffron sighed. “Fine. If it means I won’t be sucked dry by this stupid mask.” She sat down but she refused to close her eyes. And she sure as hell wasn’t going to start chanting. At least the Feral ceremonies had made sense to her. Even if they had nearly killed her. “Do the masks make mistakes?” She asked quietly
River turned his head. “What you mean?”
“I mean, why me? Why any of us?”
River shrugged, lean and beautiful in the greenery. “Different trees need different soil.”
“Is that what we are? Soil?”
“Isn’t that what any of us are? In the end?”
“Great,” she groaned. “A philosopher.”
“And yet you’re the one thinking too hard,” he said. “The leaf masks are like the forest, like all green things. Magic, mystery. Instinct.” He shrugged again. “Just close your eyes and jump.”
“That’s how you land on your head and crack it open.”
“Maybe. But sometimes it’s how you fly.”
She rubbed her tailbone. It felt like roots were growing out of her spine. She glanced behind her once, just in case.
“That just means it’s working,” River said. “Jump, Thistle.”
Jane swung her staff up as hard as she could, her palms burning with the effort. Caradoc’s staff slammed into hers, the iron guard ringing like a bell between her hands. The tremors rolled up her quivering arms to her shoulders “Keep your guard up,” Caradoc snapped in that low fierce voice. “This isn’t a recital.”
The sun glared down at them between the leaves, Caradoc glared at her between the branches. She hoped fervently that he would attribute her flushed cheeks to the heat, instead of the fact that she was a furnace of mortification and frustration burning from the inside out. He thought she was spoiled and useless, and she was proving him right. She’d assumed that with enough training she could learn to fight, and he was proving her wrong. She wanted to start running and not stop until she was clear out of the Spirit Forest.
Instead, she told herself to be stronger, be better; her mother’s voice cutting through her limp defeat. She had just enough time to bend her knees and brace herself as Caradoc came after her again. He was barely trying, and he was still so ferocious, it was mesmerizing. She stumbled back, tripping over a root. The end of his staff whistled toward her throat. She went sideways, pretending she was launching into a run. Instead, she darted right, sprinted.
“Good!” Caradoc called out. She felt a small bloom of pride, right before he smacked her backside and sent her sprawling. She lay in the dirt, lungs cramped around a sharp breath. Her tailbone throbbed, her left palm stung. “You’re still not strong enough.” His dark honey hair was dry while hers was a damp mess of tangles and twigs.
She closed her eyes, hiding a small ridiculous flash of hurt. He’d think her weak again, if
he thought of her at all. It wasn’t her fault she thought of him all of the time. He must be used to it. “I know,” she said as simply as she could. His blue eyes narrowed dangerously. She froze, wondering where the anger had suddenly come from. He had to know she was trying.
She pushed to her feet, ready to dodge more blows aimed at her head. He gripped her wrist and hauled her up when she didn’t move fast enough. His fingers stayed pressed against her pulse; it tapped like a woodpecker leaving secret messages.
“What have you done to yourself?” He demanded. He was scowling at the wraps around her hands, now smeared with blood. She was half-tempted to read the patterns of the stains: an orchid, a running horse, fire. “Jane.”
She shrugged. “I was practicing.”
He held her gaze for a long moment. He was as unflinching and unforgiving as the sun. She may as well be naked.
He cursed softly under his breath before leading her sharply between the pines. He took her to his cabin then stopped, realizing that he was still holding her wrist. He dropped her arm, but she still felt his touch like a brand. “Sit down.” He nodded to a tree stump polished into a stool. He opened a tin box filled with an assortment of liquids in glass bottles, sutures, and bandages. He pulled out a small blue bottle.
“I have a healing salve in my pack,” she said softly. “You don’t have to waste yours.” At least she’d come prepared. It helped her feel less like the child he must think her, all wide eyes and stupid mistakes.
He used the dagger from his belt to slice through the knots of her bandages, ignoring her comment. His expression was stern but his hands were surprisingly gentle, even with the faded scars crossed the knuckles. The material stuck to her broken skin and he pulled it clear, carefully but quickly. He wasn’t the type to save you necessary pain, but he wouldn’t compound it either. The blisters at the base of her fingers had burst, raw and messy.
“You have to take care of your hands, damn it.” He dabbed at the cuts with a clear liquid that smelled antiseptic and burned like fire. “If infection sets in, you could lose them. Is that what you want?”
“Of course not,” she replied quietly, gathering the few threads of dignity still left to her. He was talking to her as if she was a child, the only thing she could do was not respond like one. “But I have to train, don’t I? You said it yourself. I’m no good.”
He swore again, closing his eyes briefly.
“I know you don’t want me here,” she added.
“You don’t know anything.” When he opened his eyes again, she knew he was seeing Jane, not the little girl from the Enclave. She caught her breath when he stroked a strand of damp hair off her cheek. “Who broke you, beautiful?” He asked. “And why the hell do you keep handing everyone the weapon?”
She didn’t know what to say. She felt as raw as her blisters. His fingers slipped further into her hair, titling her face toward him. “Don’t,” he added hoarsely. “Don’t let us keep breaking you.”
He was standing so close his legs were between her knees. She could see the stubble on his jaw, the scar too close to his jugular. He glanced at her lips and she felt the recognition chase up her spine. She was sure he was going to kiss her, could already feel his mouth on hers when he stepped back.
“Ease off the weapons training until your hands heal.”
“Shouldn’t you be meditating with the other Jacks?” Roarke asked. “It’s supposed to be good for you.
“Kicking ass on the training field would be good for me,” she said accusingly. “But I can’t because no one wants to punch a Green Jill.”
Roarke grinned his crooked grin. “I kind of do.”
The moment stretched, suddenly composed of sunlight and silence and a simmering awareness that took her by surprise. Dandelion flowers brushed her brows.
“Come with me,” Roarke said finally, shoving his hands in his pockets with the kind of force that suggested he was stopping himself from doing something else with them.
She eyed him suspiciously. “Why?”
“Just come on. Is everything a fight with you?”
“Yes.” But she followed him because, as always, curiosity was stronger than common sense.
He cut behind the cabins to a garden of herbs. “Vegetable gardens are safe but the raid took out this section. We need the herbs for tinctures and medicines, more than the deer and the rabbits need them.” Mint and parsley and rosemary grew in fragrant bushes behind a damaged fence. The smell of smoke lingered, even under the herbs responding to her presence. The basil flowered as she watched it. “Fence needs rebuilding,” Roarke said casually. “Interested?”
“Thank God,” Saffron replied immediately. “Pass me the hammer.”
He handed it to her. “Know how to use it?”
“Not a clue,” she said cheerfully. “I assume I just bash at the nails.”
“Close enough. We need to move the posts first.”
She tucked the hammer into her belt and helped him drag heavy cedar posts through the dirt. By the time they’d finished, her arms ached and she had half a dozen splinters. She felt instantly better. She might not bite anyone today after all.
They dragged the charred and split corner post away, maneuvering a new one in place. “You don’t actually need that hammer,” Roarke said. “And wire works better but all we have is rope. Hold that there.” He pulled tight on the thick rope, winding it into place. The muscles in his arms and chest strained against his shirt. There were scars on his forearms.
“How long have you been a Greencoat?” she asked.
“Most of my life. Caradoc’s my uncle.”
“He is? I didn’t think he was that old.”
“He’s not.” He didn’t elaborate.
“Has he always been a Greencoat too?”
“When did he—-.”
“That’s his story to tell, not mine.”
“Then tell me yours.”
He wiped sweat off his face with the side of his arm. “You know, when I suggested this, it’s because you didn’t strike me as the chatty type.”
She thought of Killian and the way he looked at her when she was pushing for details. She had the sudden urge to draw him, in case she forgot the tilt of his nose, the ironic slash of his eyebrows. She missed him enough to tighten her hold on the rope until it scratched her fingers, drawing blood. The pain helped.
Roarke didn’t look at her, just kept working on the fence. “My mother tried to wear the leaf mask when I was young.” He shrugged one shoulder but didn’t say anything else.
She handed him the next part of the rope, using her entire body to prop up the next post. Sweat trickled down the small of her back. “But you’ve never worn the mask? Never wanted to?”
“I prefer fighting.”
She shot him a look. “So do I.”
He half-laughed. “Most Jacks like the chance not to have to fight for everything.”
“I’m not like most Jacks.”
“Believe me, I know.”
The cedars and pines towered over them, dappling the sunlight as it touched the rosemary. “I like the trees and the quiet,” she admitted. “Anything’s better than the City.” She stepped away from the finished corner fence, splinters and rope burns on her fingertips. “Roarke?”
She walked away before she could give in to the temptation to touch him. Not here, not like this. Not when it might mean something.
Jane had run for an hour before spending twice that amount of time attacking Nico with a staff. She’d practiced on her own just long enough to form more painful blisters, not quite long enough to improve. Now she felt rubbery and raw. Saffron leaned against the porch railing, watching her wrap her hands. “You’re trying too hard.”
“I have to prove myself,” Jane insisted quietly. The sun was hot and intrusive, sticky as honey being poured between the tree branches. She tried not to remember how it had gilded Caradoc’s face when he looked at her and actually saw her.
“You don’t actually.” Saffron grinned. “You’re with me, remember? And I have a plant growing out of my head so apparently I’m gold.”
Jane had to smile. “I think you’re getting used to it.”
“I had to pull a burr out of my nostril this morning.” She sounded like she didn’t care, which meant she cared too much. Jane hadn’t known her long, but they’d already escaped certain death together. A lot. Some friendships just started in fire and burned on.
“Well, you’re getting used to Roarke, anyway.”
Saffron groaned, pointing at Jane. “Don’t.”
She blinked innocently. “Don’t what?”
“You know what. You’re getting all starry-eyed with the romance crap.”
She laughed. “I hope he reads you poetry.”
Saffron was horrified. “That was just mean.” She nudged her. “I’m so proud.”
Jane rubbed the back of her neck with a towel. The memory of Caradoc’s knife digging into the tattoo gave her an idea. She looked at Saffron thoughtfully. “Got a minute?”
“I need you to try and hit me.”
“I’m not beating you up, Jane. You have enough bruises.”
“Just try. I have an idea.”
She pushed off the porch and circled her friend. “It’s a terrible idea, whatever it is.”
Jane just nodded. “Go.”
Saffron punched her in the face.
Jane staggered back, pain daggering up her jaw. Saffron lowered her hands. “What, exactly is this supposed to prove?”
She massaged her cheek. “Ouch. Try again.”
Saffron rolled her eyes. “I wasn’t trying, Jane. I was doing. In case you hadn’t noticed.”
Jane took a deep breath, felt for the prickles of power under her eyelids. Three breaths in, three breaths out, just as the Collegium professors had taught her. I am the earth where the seeds of wisdom grow.
Saffron sighed, as if she was the one being punched, and swung again. Jane jerked back and her knuckles grazed her shoulder. “Better,” Saffron approved. She swung again and again.
Jane followed the pinpricks of light behind her eyes, the itch burning in her legs, forcing her to move. She sidestepped an elbow aimed at her nose. She avoided the fist careening toward her left kidney. Saffron tried again, frustration turning her cheeks red. Jane followed the steps to a dance she hadn’t learned yet. It continued to work until Saffron kicked her in the thigh. She fell back into the dirt but she was grinning through her bruises.
Saffron propped her hands on her knees, leaning over to catch her breath. “What the hell was that?”
“Numen,” Jane replied, excited. “If I can predict the next strike, I can avoid it.” She wiggled her jaw. “You hit like a girl.”
“Vicious and precise?”
Saffron reached a hand down to help her to her feet. “I think you’ve finally found you’re fighting style.”
Something close to excitement tingled in her belly. Was this how Saffron felt every day? Walking through the world and knowing her worth, knowing that she could handle whatever came her way? It was intoxicating, invigorating.
“I’m getting a drink,” Saffron darted into the cabin.
Numen continued to pulse through Jane. Part of Jane knew she was moving, walking silently between the cabins and the trees, eyes blind to the camp, but tracking other movements. Her pupils went white, scaring most of the Greencoats into scrambling out of her way. She heard birds, the wind on the lake, footsteps.
She shot an arm out, catching Livia in the throat. The other girl gagged and stumbled back, attack interrupted before it had even properly begun. Jane kept walking, climbing the steps to Caradoc’s cabin, where few were invited. He rose from a chair, frowning. Beside him, Roarke made a sound of surprise.
Jane lifted her chin.
“Now,” she said. “It has to be now.”
“Time to go,” Jane insisted.
When Jane wandered away, looking suddenly drunk, Saffron had followed. She may or may not have paused to smirk at Livia. “What—whoa.” Jane’s pupils were white as salt and old bones.
“Numen,” Caradoc said softly.
“Time to go,” Jane repeated. Saffron shuddered, waving her hand back and forth in front of Jane’s face. “Stop that, Saf.”
“But the raid was scheduled for tomorrow night,” Roarke said.
Caradoc just looked at Roarke when he opened his mouth to keep arguing. “Can you handle it?”
He snapped his jaw closed and nodded curtly.
“I’m going too,” Saffron said.
Caradoc handed Roarke a stolen Protectorate rifle. “Green Jill’s don’t generally go on raids.”
“This one does.”
Roarke checked the chamber of the gun. “Good luck, Caradoc.”
“You need me,” Saffron insisted, reaching for throwing daggers before they could stop her. It was rude to claim someone’s else’s weapons but she didn’t care.
“And yet we’ve managed fine without you for years.”
“’Fine’ is the not the same as ‘well’,” she pointed out archly. She held up her hands as placatingly as she knew how to—which wasn’t entirely successful. She was pretty sure her conciliatory smile looked more like a scowl. Caradoc only raised an eyebrow but at least he wasn’t smirking like his nephew. “I can help,” she pressed. “Misdirection. Lots of green stuff. And I can lead guards away. They won’t be able to resist the idea of bringing in another Green Jill.”
“She has a point actually,” Roarke said.
“And if you get shot? Caradoc asked mildly. “If you die? What then?”
“Then you have the leaf mask,” Saffron replied. “And someone more willing to wear it.”
“Is this some kind of suicide mission?” he asked sharply.
She waved that away and reached for another knife. “If I go down, I go down fighting. But no, that’s not what this is about.”
Caradoc watched her for a long moment before glancing at Roarke. “Your raid, your call.”
Roarke smirked more. Saffron considered it the highest form of self-restraint that she didn’t throat-punch him. He finally nodded. “Okay.”
She grinned, adrenaline already blooming under her skin.
“You take orders,” Caradoc cut in.
He grabbed her wrist. “You take orders.” He repeated, unsmiling.
“No problem.” She ignored Roarke’s snort of disbelief in favour of stuffing more knives in every available pocket. She’d have liked a rifle or a gun too but she had no idea how to use one. “Don’t let her fall on her face,” Saffron tossed over her shoulder, leaving Jane staring blindly.
Roarke took Augusta, with her tattoos and tech knowledge, and the cook, Kristoff. Saffron wasn’t sure what he could do besides cook stew, but he was grizzled and scarred and managed to look deadly in an apron, never mind a Protectorate uniform to match Augusta and Roarke. “Same plan,” Roarke said “Stay low and stay quiet. This is a raid, not a battle. We free the Jack and we get the hell out.”
“Fall behind, stay behind,” Kristoff agreed. “Standard raid rules.”
“Except for you,” Roarke murmured behind Saffron. “We’d come back for you.”
As they left the camp, Saffron studied a map of the farm Roarke had pulled from his pocket. The main dome was in the centre, surrounded by smaller domes, outbuildings, guards, barbed wire, and fences. “They’ll be keeping him in the main dome, in a central pit,” he explained. “You stay on this side. They’d expect us to attack to from the back so we’ll go in through the front.”
It took over an hour to walk to the edge of the Spirit Forest and another hour after that to get to the farm. By the time they reached the stubble of corn fields the clouds had gathered like a herd of grey horses stampeding the starry sky. “Huh,” Kristoff grunted. “Little girl was right.”
“Sweet.” Augusta nodded. “The rain will cover us and explain the grid going down when I cut the power.”
“Are you giggling?” Roarke gaped at Saffron. “I didn’t even know you knew how.”
She didn’t mention she’d never giggled before in her life. She flipped a knife between her fingers just to show off.
“Just come on, Saffron the Stupendous.”
“How did you know that was my sideshow name?”
“How could it be anything else?”
The glass domes glittered with a thousand raindrops. Roarke nodded to the guards, two by a side entrance, three more around the back. Augusta and Kristoff marched up to the front, rifles trained on them from above. Barbed wire and electricity made Saffron think of the Wall back home, and the bodies littered around it. She wasn’t sure what to expect, but it wasn’t the front gates swinging open to admit them. She sat back on her heels, stunned.
Roarked grinned. “That’s Gareth. He’s one of us.”
“And one of them?”
“But mostly one of us. He’s saved our asses more than once.” He met her eyes. “Stay covered.”
“I mean it.”
She huffed a breath. “Don’t be an old lady. Go on.”
Roarke loped away, joining Augusta and Kristoff as they entered the farm compound. Saffron couldn’t make out any details through the fence and the silver rain beyond general movement. She scampered up a tree, the branches moving to help her, and cradling her when she stopped. Roarke and Kristoff were making their way to the main dome, postures confident and alert. If she hadn’t known better she’d have taken them for proper soldiers. Augusta veered left.
The wait was long, boring and tense. Saffron had nothing to keep away the memory of the soldier she’d killed, of the mask controlling her as effectively as the Directorate, of worry over Oona and Killian. She was almost glad when there was an ominous popping sound, followed by a crackle of blue light along the fence. The lights in the compound went out.
It wasn’t long before a shadow burst out, running towards the shelter of the woods. Saffron couldn’t tell who it was. She slid down the trunk and eased out of the undergrowth. It was a woman she didn’t recognize. She was all muscle and teeth. And Green Jill mask. “They got you out!” Saffron exclaimed, amazed at the speed of the raid. “Where are-.”
The Green Jill didn’t answer, didn’t even pause. She did, however, punch Saffron so hard in the stomach that she flew back several feet and knocked into a tree. The branches tried to catch her, but they couldn’t do anything for the burst of pain. She choked on a breath, Even Dahlia didn’t hit that hard. “Bitch.” Saffron wheezed. The Green Jill was already gone, vanished into the green darkness.
She’d left behind two guards though.
Saffron pressed back into the branches, willing them to grow leaves to cover her. The grass shone in the rain, unfurling blades like tiny knives. The tree sighed, leaves thickening.
It wasn’t enough.
Or, conversely, it was too much.
The grass grew as well, pushing at the soldiers’ ankles, then their knees. They only had to follow the profusion of green to where Saffron dangled like a ripe apple.
“I’m not a little girl,” Jane was still seeing distant flashes, but they were finally fading. She felt different, stronger.
Caradoc eyebrows rose. “I didn’t say you were.”
She blinked, her pupils returning to normal. She wobbled slightly. Apparently her newfound inner strength didn’t extend to her legs. Caradoc caught her before she crumpled and embarrassed herself completely. So much for proving she was capable. His arms were strong around her as he led her to the soft couch in the corner. The blue light from the bank of computer and vid screens on the opposite wall made the cabin feel like it was underwater. It didn’t help that she felt the world titling. Caradoc crouched in front of her. “Deep breaths, Jane.”
She smiled weakly. “I’m fine.” She couldn’t help a small thrill when he spoke her name, but at least she could hide it. He took her hands, turned them over to examine her palms.
“These look like they’re healing.” His fingers brushed her skin. She swallowed.
“I’m all right,” she said again. When he just looked at her, she shrugged, “It’s worth it,” she amended.
“Don’t they teach how to ground the numen at the Collegium anymore? Like a lightning rod?”
“This is different.” He stayed where he was but he didn’t say anything, just waited. Of course he knew it was different—he was the one who had known to alter her numina mark. He was still holding her hands and she concentrated on the gentle scrape of calluses and scars. He was all coiled strength, sharp patience. “My father wore the mask,” she told him softly.
His fingers tightened around hers. “He was a Green Jack?”
She shook her head. “No, you don’t understand. He wore it when I was conceived.”
“Green Jack aren’t born. They’re chosen.”
“I know that. But the Directorate always experiments, surely you know that too. So even though I wasn’t born a Green Jill, I think it must have affected my numen.” It was the first time she’d said it out loud. “Even no one quite knows how yet.”
He tilted his head, considering. “It makes a certain kind of sense.” He stood up, releasing her. He paced the room, stopping to switch on a kettle plugged into a solar hot plate. “So the Program was reactivated. They must be getting desperate.”
She sat up. “You know about that?” He nodded curtly. “My mother sold me to the Garden.”
“Your mother.” His voice was ice and bare branches and bloodstained teeth.
“Not the word I’d use.”
“Anyway, that’s why I ran away.” She smiled drily. “I’m really good at running.
“It’s not just running away if you’re also running towards something.” His eyes burned into hers. “Jane,” he said when she didn’t respond. She was trying to memorize the dark sound of his voice, the way he stood, like he could handle anything. She nodded, not wanting to sound like the breathless girl she was very much afraid she was. “Your mark kept your numen in check. That’s why they do it. So they can find you. One day they want to alter it to see what you see, but they haven’t figured out how to do that yet.”
She thought of the headaches, the pain at the top of her spine. She shifted, watching him prowl. “I think being here in the Spirit Forest makes me stronger somehow.” She lifted her chin. “Which means I can make you stronger too.”
One of the screens flashed insistently, interrupting them. He bent over a keyboard, typing furiously. He must be receiving some sort of message from his contacts among the rebels in the City. The kettle whistled but he ignored it. Jane knew she should leave but instead she went to the small table and began to prepare the tea. She rinsed the pot and added the leaf-and flower-petal blend to a strainer. She swirled it three times before setting it inside the teapot. She poured the water and set the cups out. They were chipped and worn but she handled them carefully, as if they were china. She took star anise from her pouch and added one pod to the bottom of each cup. She poured the tea over it, added milk and honey, and stirred three times.
She turned to find Caradoc watching her. “The Enclave tea ceremony,” he said quietly.
She brought him a cup, without asking how he knew about the tea ceremony. He wouldn’t answer her anyway. He drank, the blue light making his eyes bluer, and touching the faint stubble on his jaw. He inclined his head. “Never thirst,” he murmured the traditional words.
She thought there might be something shivering between them, hoped fiercely that it wasn’t just her imagination.
And then her eyes rolled back in her head. “Bloody hell,” she said. “Not again.”
She didn’t fall this time, though her teacup tumbled to the floor. “What do you see?” Caradoc demanded, ignoring the broken shards around his boots.
The flashes were too quick, too jumbled. But she felt the prickling in the back of her calves. “We have to go.” She strained to make out details, caught corn fields, the flash of an electric fence, rain-smeared domes. Saffron. “We really have to go.”
Caradoc was already reaching for a sword. A gun sat at his left hip. “We’ll never catch up,” she said as they crossed the porch. The visions were still flashing; she was walking through veils of colour and light. “And I need my chiton.”
To his credit, Caradoc didn’t argue. He motioned to Livia, loitering as always, by his cabin. “She needs the dress in her cabin. Like that white one you wore.”
She preened. “You noticed.”
“In my pack by the cabin door,” Jane interrupted.
“Now, Livia.” Caradoc insisted when she didn’t move fast enough.
She was back in minutes, looking displeased when he handed it to Jane. He walked away without another word, leading Jane to a small paddock set behind the training grounds. Nico chased after them. “Not you,” Jane snapped, straight-arming him across the chest.
He stumbled to a halt, insulted. “Why not me?”
“You’ll die,” she said flatly. She held out her fingers. “I can see your blood on my hands.”
He paled. “That’s not creepy at all. Shit, Jane.”
“Follow us to take care of the horses at the river but you don’t cross over,” Caradoc told him, handing him the reins of the smaller horse. “Help Jane first.”
“I can do it,” Jane said, reaching down to scoop a handful of dirt first. She swung up into the saddle. “Society girl, remember?”
“Society girls carry mud?” Nico asked, perplexed.
“I need to connect to the earth,” she explained briefly.
“You’ve got the camp,” Caradoc told him before turning his horse around and heading down the trail. They picked their way carefully around roots and boulders before coming out onto the road. Careful meandering turned to a trot, rain and wind stinging like insects. She longed for a wild gallop but it was too dark and the road too uneven.
They stopped at the river of eels and left the horses for Nico, not far behind. “We have rope bridges to get across,” Caradoc said. “But the Directorate likes to sabotage them.” He tested the strength of the ropes before motioning for her to follow. “There’s a village not far off. They let us steal their horses. For a fee.”
“Vegetables and fruit?”
Jane pressed more earth to her numina mark as she walked, willing the visions to slow down and make sense. Her eyes felt like embers.
“Anything more?” Caradoc asked.
She shook her head. “I may know more when we get there. The future is always fluid, but especially right now. It wasn’t like this when they left for the raid but Saffron is not exactly predictable”
“I knew I shouldn’t have let her go.”
“It may have been worse without her.”
“All I know is that she’s in trouble.”
By the time Saffron realized what was happening, she was caught between two soldiers. They were at a disadvantage, having been trained to protect Green Jacks at all costs—-but she was at worse disadvantage, unable to reach for her knives.
“How the hell did you get out?” one of the guards asked.
Saffron did her best to elbow him in the head but she just didn’t have enough traction. The circle of light from the torches being lit around the gate got closer and closer. She couldn’t see Roarke or Kristoff, just the yellow mullein and Queen Ann’s lace growing up all around them. What was the point of the Green Jack’s gift, if she couldn’t use it to grow trees sharpened like spears or poisonous leaves to slap at her captors?
“They better get the damn power back up,” the soldier muttered to Roarke’s spy at the gate. “And call for a sweep, Gareth. The boss will hand us all over to Cartimandua if we lose his Jacks.”
Gareth nodded but his eyes were on Saffron. He knew damn well she wasn’t the same Jill that had been kept in the dome-pit. He ducked away. She wanted to raise the kind of hell that would sear their eyeballs but keeping quiet was a better strategy. She remembered Jane talking about seeing more when no one was looking at you. If she called all the soldiers down on them with her urge to descend into serious violence, it would be that much harder to get out. She needed to be invisible.
She slumped. It turned her into dead weight, which made the soldiers curse, but it also made them less concerned with her escape. Once they were inside the dome, she might be able to knock their heads together. Or strangle them with ivy from her leaf mask. She kept her eyes half-open for Roarke and the others but the rain was too heavy. It pattered on the glass dome roof like frantic paws scrabbling for purchase.
The plants inside the dome shifted in a wind no one else could feel, sighing at the presence of a Green Jill. The smell of wet earth and green things intensified. “Hell of a thing,” the soldier on her left murmured, distracted.
She aimed for him first. She managed a solid clout to his ear and he staggered. His companion was faster, jerking Saffron’s arm up behind her back. These weren’t street fighters like Argent, or rebels relying on speed and surprise, these were trained Protectorate soldiers. She didn’t have a chance. He smacked her head into a column. At least Gareth hadn’t raised the alarm.
Small comfort when the soldiers tossed her onto the bed down in the pit, not bothering with the ladder.
Jane tried not to look as self-conscious as she felt. They had stopped so she could change into her chiton and it felt strange to her now, as if it belonged to someone else. She tried to remember the ballroom in the castle, the elegant dresses, her mother’s poise. When the gate swung open she met the guard’s scowl and raised rifle with a haughty stare. “I’m here to see the Green Jack”
He barked a laugh. “Sure, sweetheart.”
Caradoc’s hand drifted to his sword. Jane angled between them. “Now,” she insisted, turning her head so he could see her numina mark. She hoped the torchlight and solar bulbs weren’t bright enough to show the scab bisecting the eye. Or the fine trembling in her hands.
He gaped at her. “Beg pardon, Numina.”
She nodded once. “Let me pass, if you please. We’ve had a rough night. The roads are not safe.”
“Of course, of course. Apologies.” He scrambled out of her way. “We weren’t expecting you.”
“Of course you weren’t.”
He frowned at Caradoc. “This is your only escort?”
“Private security,” she said smoothly. “And thank goodness for that. As you know, the Directorate has called all available soldiers home. The two soldiers I was given didn’t survive when we were ambushed on the road.” The compound was dark except for solar lights set around the domes and torches along the fence. “Are we quite safe here?”
“The rain shorted out the power. It happens. Nothing to worry about,” he assured her. “Gareth has gone to have it sorted. If you’ll come with me.”
“Thank you,” she said, feeling both unbearably pompous and secretly proud that her plan was working. She slid out of the saddle and he steadied her politely. Caradoc stiffened. “And you are?”
“Petrov, Numina. I…” he paused, as they crossed the grounds and ducked under the covered walkway. “That is…”
“Yes?” She clasped her hands behind her back, knowing it made her look chilly and austere. Better, it covered the trembling in her fingers.
“I wondered if you might—only if there’s time—.”
“I’d be happy to read your omens,” she said, reminded so strongly of her duties at the Elysian cellas that she felt momentarily disoriented. “After my other obligations, of course.”
“Of course.” He quickened his pace. “Sir Summervale is away.”
“You knew that.”
“I can see you to the guest quarters. But we have no cella, I’m afraid.”
“I’d like to start the rituals now, if it’s not too much bother.”
“Shouldn’t you like to rest?” Petrov asked, surprised.
“I’m far too awake after the ambush. It would be better if I had some occupation.” And the dome called to her, the reflection of the rain and torchlight making patterns of oak leaves and swans and horses. Caradoc still hadn’t spoken. The shadows swallowed him. Petrov led her inside. “May I get you anything, Numina?”
“Silence for my work, and privacy. Interruptions can cloud the reading, you understand.”
“Oi,” he called out, his voice ringing between the curved glass walls. “Guards outside.”
“What the hell for?” a guard grumbled, stomping up a walkway between rows of ginger and wheat. “We’ve already had to—-.” He stopped when he saw Jane in her chiton.
“Shut your hole and you might get a reading,” Petrov barked. “Out.”
“You did that very well,” Caradoc murmured when they were alone. “We’ll make a Greencoat out of you yet.”
Pleasure snuck a tingle down her spine, even though this was hardly the time to be distracted by kind words and hushed tones. The dome was like the ones in the Enclave—humid, green, and thick with pollen. It was like breathing perfume. Caradoc stalked straight to the central pit. Saffron glared up at them. “This is so embarrassing.” There were fresh bruises on her cheek and she was covered in mud.
“You’re hurt.” Jane knelt at the edge of the pit.
“You didn’t have to put on a dress to rescue me, you know. Society girls,” she winked. “Always overdressed.”
“Your face,” Jane murmured.
“Yeah, that’s thanks to lovely Green Jill we were here to rescue. She punched me in the stomach and into a tree.” She touched her swollen cheek. “Someone needs a hug from the Mother Tree. Not to mention a boot to the head.”
“She punched you?” Jane dropped the ladder down into the pit. Saffron clambered up like her boots were on fire.
“Right before she left me to the guards chasing her out. So they grabbed me instead.” She bent to reclaim her pile of knives by Caradoc’s left boot.
“No alarm?” Jane asked, surprised. “Augusta’s that good?”
“Yes,” Caradoc said. “She is. But most of the regular soldiers wouldn’t ever have seen the Green Jill, not up close. That’s only for captains and Sir Summervale.” He nudged Jane. “Now, let’s go,” he said. “We’ve been here too long.”
“Slight problem,” Saffron pointed out. “There are guards every-damn-where.” She stayed hidden behind a trellis of flowering peas. On the other side of the windows, soldiers stood under the pavilion, glancing with studied casualness sat the dome. “And they’re acting weird.”
“I can take care of them,” Jane said, nerves fluttering in her belly. When she moved, their gazes followed. She realized she glowed in her pale chiton.
Caradoc looked at her sharply. “There are four of them.”
She smiled. “And they all want to know their future.”
“I’m predicting violence,” Saffron said. “And pain.”
“I’ll keep them occupied,” Jane said. “Just find the others and get to the gate.”
“And then what?”
She shrugged. “I have no idea.” She walked out into the misty darkness. She heard him swear softly behind her and then nothing. She was scared enough to feel nauseous, and not quite connected to her own body. But she had to do this, had to prove herself. If not to the others, as Saffron claimed, then to herself. If she wasn’t Jane of the Enclave, then who was she?
Time to find out.
The soldiers turned in unison at her approach. “That was fast,” Pretov said.
“There’s too much electricity still lingering,” she explained. The last of the rain clung to her eyelashes. “Even with the power down, the lightning of the storm is too much. I’ll have to wait until morning when it’s cleared. But I still won’t sleep, so perhaps I might read for you now? If your duties allow?” She exaggerated her Enclave inflection, the faint accent her mother and teachers had drilled into her.
Petrov glanced at the others. “It’s quiet enough now. Shall we go to the quest quarters?”
Where she’d be trapped.
“It’s best if my feet touch the earth to open the connection,” she said. ‘The rain seems to be stopping, you don’t mind, do you?” She stepped off the flagstones before they could object, and onto the wet grass.” You want to know about Samuel,” she murmured to Petrov. She’d never been given clear names before, only images.
His eyes widened, and then narrowed suspiciously. “How did you know that?”
She looked down her nose at him in disdain. She had a fleeting thought that her mother would finally have been proud of her. “I am a Numina, am I not?”
He bowed, slightly awed. She didn’t stop until she was in the darkest part of the field, between the gate and the domes, knowing he would follow. She forced herself not to glance around for the others. She needed to focus, to offer a few omens too accurate to be doubted, and true enough to be worth the threat of Protectorate punishment for leaving their posts. She slipped out of her shoes and pressed her heels into the soft earth. She held anise seeds in her hand--- the familiar tradition helped the soldier relax, even if they didn’t realize it. It was tradition, ritual, power.
She lifted her chin, feeling her pupils blanch again.
The voice was soft, gentle. Roarke stumbled to a stop so suddenly he had to put his arm out to stop Saffron from ploughing them both to the ground. She tracked his gaze to the pale lithe young man pressed against a tree. He wore a leaf mask so delicate it looked like it was made from paper. An orchid glowed in his dark hair.
Roarke whistled once, a soft and haunting song from an impossible bird. Caradoc came out of the shadows within moments. He saw the Jack and his usually mild expression slipped. “What’s your name?”
“Roman,” he whispered.
“If you come with us,” Caradoc said. “We can take you out of here.”
“Do you promise?” he asked tremulously. “I’ve been here so long.”
Saffron could only imagine the iron chafe marks and bruises he must wear, like Madeleine’s sharp bracelets. His sleeves were long, covering his arms and wrists all to the way to the base of his fingers. His eyes were dark and uncertain.
“Come with us,” Caradoc repeated. Roman took a step forward, then froze, flinching when the solar light crackled and flickered above his head. He reached for Saffron’s arm. Sighing, she let him, but mostly because there was no time to tell him that just because she was a Jill, didn’t mean she was sweetness and sunshine. She had a feeling River would love him though.
They moved fast. The main gate was too far but there was another door within reach. But when they reached the circle of solar lights, Roman smiled once. It was crooked and smug and something shivered in warning inside Saffron’s chest, but too late.
He had already gripped the chain of the bell and was ringing it violently. The metal sound was like a hundred flung daggers. Saffron kicked his arm but the damage had been done. Already the guards were shouting to each other. “Over here!” Roman yelled. “Greencoats!”
Roarke knocked him off his feet but Roman only laughed, sprawled on his back in the mud. “As if I’d go live like a savage in the woods. Do you know who my father is?”
When recognition hit, Caradoc’s jaw clenched. “Roman Summervale. Goddamn it.”
“Your father did this to you?” Saffron gaped. She wasn’t sure why she was so surprised, parents did as much and worse in the City. He just seemed so proud, so happy about it.
“He raised me to greatness.” His gaze roamed her body. “If you stay, he can do the same for you.”
“I’d puke on you if I had the time.” But she was already running, feeling the tremble in the ground from Protectorate boots behind her. Caradoc made some signal she didn’t see, but the others veered left and she did the same. The fence loomed ahead, bristling with barbed wire. Gareth opened a small gate under an extinguished torch before disappearing. Smoke and rain made the air taste dangerous.
So did the electric dart that sliced past Saffron’s ear, buzzing and sparking when it slammed into the side of a wooden pavilion. She whirled, dagger in each hand. The rain made it difficult to see. She squinted, willing herself to be patient. If she threw too soon, she’d miss the target. Too late and it might leave a scratch but that was all. Soldiers poured across the wet grass, lights flashing on tasers and rifles. Saffron darted around Roarke to place herself in front of the others. “Crazy girl,” Kristoff thundered. “Behind the line”
“They won’t want to hurt me,” Saffron said. “So I am the line.”
Caradoc was already on horseback, thundering towards Jane standing in a circle of soldiers. Her chiton was lake-blue and made her look ethereal as mist. The soldiers gleamed with weapons and chemical light. Caradoc cut one down with his sword and bent to swing Jane onto the horse behind him.
A dart exploded next to Augusta’s head, blinding her. She dropped into a crouch, making herself as small as possible. Saffron threw her first knife, then her second. One of the soldiers grunted, the knife blooming from his shoulder, another ducked. The others formed a line and advanced.
“If you fire, you hit a Green Jill!” Saffron shouted at them. She stepped just inside the circle of light, close enough that they could see the burrs and thistles and dandelions gone to seed. Silky white pod fluff drifted like storybook snow.
“Shit, Saffron, pull back!” Roarke reached to grab her arm and stopped himself just before his fingers brushed her. She couldn’t throw a dagger if he got in her way. Later, she would decide it was the most romantic thing anyone had ever done for her.
Kristoff wasn’t nearly as romantic. He tossed Saffron back into Roarke yelling “Run!” before he charged the line of soldiers like a demented bull. Roarke wrapped his arms around Saffron and they hit the ground just as the rain turned to bullets.
Kristoff was fast, but not fast enough. He took out three soldiers and crumpled with a smile on his face, his beard stained with blood. Saffron crawled back, shock tightening her throat. She bumped into Augusta, tears streaming from eyes gone to flint. A bullet hit Roarke in the arm when he rose into a crouch. His body snapped backward, blood spraying from the wound. He pushed back to his feet, fingers pressing into the wound, head down as if he was walking against a storm.
“No!” Caradoc pulled the reins tightly and blocked Roarke. “Don’t waste his sacrifice.” When Roarke hesitated, Caradoc kicked him lightly from the horse’s back. “Go.”
They pushed through the gate just as the fence sizzled back into electrified metal. When Saffron brushed too close to the chain links the power jolted through her. It was a brief song, one full of pain and bone and blue light searing into the spine.
They finally made it into the forest where no searchlight, no hunting dog or rifle, was stronger than a Green Jill. The woods closed around them like a fist.
The return trip back to the camp was silent and solemn.
“Should we track the Jill?” Roarke had asked when they’d first set out.
“She’ll find us if she wants to,” Caradoc said. “We’re not a running a prison. She’s out. Good enough.”
“I’m sorry,” Roarke grimaced, clutching his wounded arm. “It all went to shit.”
“They usually do,” Caradoc replied. “Anyway, you freed her, which was the objective.”
“And she’s a peach,” Saffron said grimly. “She wasn’t worth Kristoff.”
“No one is.”
And then two hours passed with nothing but the clomping of the horse hooves and the dripping of water from pine boughs. Jane would have walked but when she shifted to slide to the ground, Caradoc’s hand closed over hers where they were clasped around him. He didn’t speak or turn to look at her, and she stayed where she was.
They reached camp as dawn broke through the clouds. The birds sang a cheerful song in contrast to their stark procession. Most of the Greencoats were awake and waiting. Jane heard Kristoff’s name being whispered and flinched. Livia was the first to break through the crowd, fury staining her cheeks red. “You!” she snarled at Jane. “This is your fault. If you were as good an Oracle as everyone says you are, Kristoff would still be alive.” She choked on the last word.
Jane paled. “I know.” She had nothing to say in her defense. She’d replayed the night in her head for the last two hours. She’d known Saffron needed help, known Nico had to stay behind—why hadn’t she been able to see Kristoff? She slapped at her numen, wishing it could explain. Instead, her spine burned.
Caradoc scrubbed a hand roughly over his face. “We are not doing this right now.”
“No.” His weariness sharpened to a weapon. “Kristoff is to be honoured and remembered. And this is not the way to do it. He made his choice.” He motioned to a woman with a shaved head. “Can you see to Augusta’s eye and Roarke’s shoulder?”
“It’s fine,” Roarke said.
The healer just jabbed her finger into his wound until he staggered back, ashen-faced and swearing. “You’ll come with me then?” she asked blandly.
They walked away but Livia stayed where she was, glowering. Jane just wanted to close her eyes and sleep for a week. Her head spun. She didn’t even realize she’d passed out until she came to again, stretched out on Caradoc’s saggy couch.
Thirst and hunger and fatigue hit her in waves—-but she mostly felt mortification. Why did she have to keep falling apart around him? She must have made some sound of frustration, something animal and harsh, because he turned around in his chair. “You’re awake.”
She rubbed her eyes. “If you say so.”
His smile was fleeting. She might have imagined it. “What happened?” she asked when she couldn’t bear the silence any longer.
“My guess? Numen burnout. You have to be careful. I’ve seen people burned inside out to a shell. You’re not an ocean,” he elaborated. “You’re a cup. You need to be filled up so you don’t run dry.” At least he hadn’t compared her to a silver goblet or a glass chalice, something pretty but useless. Something from the Enclave.
“This never used to happen.”
“Your numina tattoo was different then,” Caradoc reminded her. “They use powder from leaf masks mixed with charcoal and iron dust. Iron stops magic. Or at least interferes with it.”
“But doesn’t the Directorate want more numen?”
“Sure but they want numen they can control.”
“Is that what’s in the new Directorate tattoos too?”
“That’s my guess,” Caradoc said. “They want to see who reacts and how. And if they’re tagging everyone, they’re getting desperate.”
“There is no numen poisoning, is there?”
He smiled a little. “Not that I can see. It’s just another early-warning system for the Directorate to keep an eye on everyone.”
“So they get everyone paranoid to turn each other in as well.” She tried to sit up but when everything swam out of focus, she lay back down.
“What did I just say about resting?” he sighed.
“I can sleep in my cabin,” she mumbled. “Out of your way.”
“I’d rather you stay where I can keep an eye on you. Livia is less likely to try her hand at murder in my cabin.”
Kristoff. Jane turned her head away towards the cushions, blinking back tears.
“Hey.” She heard Caradoc’s chair creak when he stood up but she didn’t move. He crouched beside her and she concentrated on the pattern of the stupendously ugly cushions instead of his scent of soap and cedar. “This wasn’t your fault any more than it was Roarke’s.”
She didn’t want to be comforted. But she didn’t want him to leave either. “I should have been able to save him.”
He brushed a strand of hair off her neck. “You saved my nephew. And Nico. And if we’d gone tonight as planned, maybe Kristoff would have made it. Or maybe none of us would have.” He bent closer, his breath soft on her ear. “You did good.”
She turned to face him then, something new blazing through her.
“I can do better.”
Saffron waited for Roarke outside the apothecary cabin. She knew he hadn’t spotted her, she was too well camouflaged in the greenery. She leaned against a tall tree and watched him descend the porch stairs in long loping strides. Everything he did crackled with energy. Even when he seemed lazy or relaxed it was a mask, his own form of camouflage. His shirt was ripped, a neat bandage tied around his left bicep. He was lean and strong, as if he always knew exactly what his body could do.
She pushed away from the trunk, just as he stopped and glanved in her direction. “Saffron.” She was mildly impressed. He shrugged his uninjured shoulder, reading her expression. “I grew up around Green Jacks, remember?”
She nodded at his arm. “So they didn’t have to chop it off?”
“Couple of stitches. Just a graze, no big deal.”
She remembered the burst of the bullet, his body being flung through the rain. “Does it hurt?”He shrugged again. She took that as a no, or close enough anyway. “Good.” She grabbed his hand and dragged him deeper into the forest, away from the camp, away from expectations and recriminations and duties.
He followed, perplexed but curious. “Where are we going?”
She had no idea actually. But this spot by the lake was as good a spot as any. And private, which was all she wanted. She turned, tugging him forward with a fistful of his shirt. She kissed him hard, hungrily, and after a very brief startled pause, his arms wrapped around her. His tongue slid over hers in tiny hot licks. He tasted like rain. When he eased back, she blinked at him. Everything inside her hummed. “What was that?” he asked softly.
“Does it matter?”
“Maybe,” he nipped at her mouth. “Maybe not.”
“I don’t want to think,” she slipped her hands over his hips, his leather belt digging into her fingers. “And I don’t think you want to either.”
“So I’m convenient.”
“No. Yes. I don’t know.” There was too much talking, too much thinking again. “Are you going to take off your clothes or chat me to sleep?”
“Is everything a dare with you?” She just widened her eyes impatiently at him. “Challenge accepted.” His grin was wicked. Something sparked inside her belly.
His mouth found hers again but this time the kiss was slow and lazy. She was suddenly no longer sure whose idea this was in the first place and she didn’t much care. She wanted him to keep kissing her like this forever; like they were both drowning or flying—like they needed each other to survive. Somehow they found themselves lying in the ferns, all ragged breaths and desperate hands. His body pressed against hers and she arched to meet it. He dragged open-mouthed kisses across her throat until dandelions bloomed in her hair. She smoothed her palms over the hot skin of his back, pulling his shirt up when it got in the way. His knee pressed between hers. She pulled at the rest of his clothes, he at hers.
The ferns closed over them as he closed over her—and there was no thinking, no thinking, only the wild voice within, finally allowed to sing.
Jane woke up to the sound of whispering. She sat up, feeling groggy but refreshed. Caradoc was in his chair and Saffron and Roarke stood around the consoles and the radios. It didn’t take Oracle training to know there was something new between the two of them. She hid a smile even as Caradoc noticed her. “How long did I sleep?” she asked.
“Eleven hours,” Saffron replied. She was twirling a knife between her fingers. “I held a mirror to your nose to make sure you were still breathing. You tried to slap me.”
Saffron grinned. “Your aim’s improving.”
Jane ran a hand through her hair, trying not to care that she must look dishevelled and rumpled. As usual, the shadows under Caradoc’s eyes and the stubble only made him look more rugged. Clearly this infatuation wasn’t as easy to get over as a case of numen burnout. Her stomach complained loudly that it wasn’t getting any of her attention. Roarke tossed her an apple. She bit into it gratefully. “What did I miss?”
“Training. A memorial for Kristoff,” Saffron replied. “And Livia being a bitch.” she grimaced ruefully. “I’m sure there’ll be a repeat performance.”
“She’s just upset,” Roarke said.
Saffron snorted. “Don’t defend her to me, Roarke. Lots of people can be upset without being jackshits about it.”
She grinned. “Nope. So remember that.”
Jane looked away. Saffron flirting seemed more intimate than the hours they’d spent sealed together in a bedroll against the Red Dust. Caradoc was, of course, entirely focused on his screens. “Any word out on our raid?” she asked quietly.
“Plenty of words,” Saffron was the one to reply. “Most of them unsavoury.”
“Not yet,” Caradoc said. “A message was sent to Summervale and to the Directorate headquarters, but that’s it.”
Jane finished her apple. “Good. Then I’m going to go practice.”
He shot her a telling glance. She held up a hand. “After I fill my numen cup with pancakes and eggs.” He nearly smiled.
“I’ll come with you,” Saffron said. “I’m starving.”
Roarke grinned knowingly. She shoved him amiably. Jane barely saw it, just a blur of motion out of the corner of her eye. Saffron paused, snapping her fingers in her face. “Jane? Hello? Are you trancing out again?”
Jane shook her head mutely. The others tuned to follow her frozen gaze as the blood drained from her cheeks. The screens flashed one after the other, switching from Directorate emails and hacked video feeds to the same bounty poster.
Jane Highgate. Wanted for crimes against the Collegium and the Directorate.
She saw herself in all of the screens, a grainy but identifiable image of her inside the Summervale farm dome in her Oracle chiton. “Security feed,” Caradoc said darkly. “Must have had just enough battery power after even Augusta took the grid down.”
“It’s not like you were going to back to Elysium City anyway, right?” Saffron tried for a reassuring tone, with which she clearly had no practice whatsoever. “I mean take it from me, you’re not missing much.”
Jane thought of the Program, of the warnings, of the girl shot when she tried to escape the headquarters. She thought of her family, of Kiri. She’d hoped they would just let her go, that Jane was as unimportant as she had felt. The apple sat like a stone in her belly. “I have to go back.”
Saffron gaped at her. “Jane, you have a bounty on your head.”
“Your reputation is not worth sacrificing yourself over,” Roarke pointed out when Saffron nudged him sharply with her elbow to help her out.
“But that’s not it, is it?” Caradoc asked, crossing the cabin to stand in front of her.
She swallowed, forcing words out through her suddenly dry throat. “They’ll kill my family.”
“Because of the Program,” Caradoc said. “But mostly because a Numina who can’t be controlled, has to be stopped.”
“You can’t know that,” Saffron argued, though it was obviously the truth. She knew the Directorate. It was written all over her face.
Jane thought about the way Cartimandua circled her at the parapet the night she’d fled. As if she knew something. She reached blindly for the cup of tea by the keyboard. She drained it even though it was too hot and burned a path down to the icy stone in the stomach. She slammed the cup down, turned it three times and then flipped it over again. She pointed. “A swan for deceit, a horse for destiny, and two crossed swords.” It might not mean much to them, might just be the dregs in a tea cup, but to her it told a story. A story without a happy ending.
“I have to go.”
“And then what?” Saffron asked. “What’s your plan?”
“I’ll figure it out.”
“Ah, the plan of martyrs and madmen everywhere,” Roarke muttered.
“You’re not ready yet,” Caradoc said softly.
She stared at him, eyes dry and hot. “Maybe not. But I have no choice.” She went back to staring at the bounty announcement. “I could tell them I was kidnapped or something. To buy myself some time.”
Caradoc tilted his head. “Might work.”
“It will have to.” She spun on her heel, ready to pack her things and walk out into the forest. He caught her elbow even as Saffron squawked her protest. “Jane, it’s midnight. You can’t leave now.”
“I can’t wait either.” Even now, Kiri might be being dragged out of her bed. Her mother might be in prison carriage, her sisters cornered at school. She felt sick. She’d been naïve, selfish. Idiotic. She couldn’t beat Cartimandua and the Directorate. She’d been mad to think it was possible.
“You can’t travel alone at night so soon after a raid. At least wait until the morning,” he urged. “We’ll come up with a proper plan.”
“He’s right,” Saffron said. “You need to give us a fighting chance.”
“Us?” Jane echoed. “No.”
“Saffron, you’re a Green Jill,” Roarke said. “You can’t just—-.”
Saffron cut him off, her smile as sharp as her knives. “Us.”
When Jane couldn’t convince her otherwise, she gave up in favour of gathering her belongings and food from the dining hall. Saffron followed her, as if she didn’t trust Jane not to run off when her back was turned. There were hours and hours left until the sun rose but Jane knew she couldn’t sleep anymore. She paced the training grounds instead. Saffron and Roarke watched her. She pointed to Roarke. “Come at me.”
He didn’t move. “Like hell.” He jerked his chin towards Saffron. “She’d kick my ass.”
Saffron snorted a laugh. “I need to practice,” Jane insisted. And to get out of her own head before she gave in the scream building in her throat. “And it might not be as easy as you think.”
“She’s right,” Saffron conceded. “And she knows how I fight. This will be a better test.”
Roarke shook his head like he thought they were both insane but stepped onto the beach regardless. The stars watched them. Jane remembered a Feral story about the stars being the eyes of the ancestors. “You should at least have a weapon,” Roarke said.
“I don’t need one.” She plucked a staff from the stand and handed it to him. Something new burned inside her, something strong. “Use this so you don’t pull your stitches out.”
He spun it one-handed, grinning. “I think I can manage.”
“Show off,” Saffron called out.
Roarke aimed the end of the staff at Jane’s heart, stopping a hairsbreadth from touching her. Or would have, if she hadn’t already moved back a step. She called up the burn of the numen traveling up her spine, of the roots of lights it sent into her skull, showing her flashes of what wasn’t there yet. Roarke came at her again and again, and again and again she anticipated moves he hadn’t decided to make yet. It filled her with a calm that was cold and numbing, like a winter pond.
Roarke finally stopped and leaned on the staff, sweating. “I admit it. I’m impressed.”
“She’s getting good,” Saffron agreed. “But Jane, the Directorate is always better.”
“Council cabin,” Annie interrupted them from the edge of the beach. “Now.”
Saffron had never been inside the council room, it looked like most of the others, except all of the tables had been pushed together to form a single massive one in the centre. There were maps on the walls that had Saffron itching to fix perspective and shading. Caradoc was bent over more maps, the set of his mouth uncharacteristically hard. “I’ve just gotten word,” he said, without preamble. “The Program goes public in a few days with mandatory opening celebrations in the amphitheatre.”
“What’s that?” Saffron asked. She’d heard Jane talk about it in her sleep sometimes.
“It’s partly about holding public Trials in the new Amphitheatre,” Caradoc explained. “To find someone strong enough to wear the mask. And partly about letting people get killed so no one has to feed them.”
Saffron thought of Madeleine and River, and even herself; of soldiers and guns and a wall full of electricity. “They’re looking for the wrong kind of strength.”
“Maybe,” Caradoc said. “But that won’t stop them, not now. Cartimandua is not known for her long philosophical debates. They’ve started to take away anyone under the age of sixteen with any particular talent for numen or violence, the younger the better. The Tagging centres are also Testing centres. The Elysian rebels have been finding the bodies of those who don’t make it.”
“They have houses built in the Amphitheatre,” Jane added. “Where genetically coordinated couples will be forced to live and breed Green Jack babies. It’s supposed to be an honour.”
Saffron watched her carefully. “Is that why you ran away?”
“Good choice. So why exactly are you going back to that again?”
“The good news is that the bounty on Jane is not public yet,” Caradoc cut in. “It’s internal. Only Directorate.” He looked up at her across the table. “I need to know everything you know about the Program and the Amphitheatre.”
Jane told them everything she could until Saffron began to think that being a girl from the Enclave wasn’t any better than being a girl from the Core. “I do not miss the City.” She turned to Caradoc. “So what does this have to do with the Greencoats?”
He smiled and it was the slow burning of a fuse attached to more dynamite than the world could handle. “Cartimandua will parade her Green Jacks around the Amphitheatre, to prove to the Elysians that she is in control. That means all of the Jacks will be in one place at the same time.”
“How do you know that?” Jane asked him. It was a lot to base on an assumption.
“Because Cartimandua is my sister.” Silence thrummed between them. Jane lowered herself into a chair. Saffron’s eyebrows disappeared somewhere under a cluster of burrs. His jaw clenched. “She started training with the Protectorate when she was sixteen, with our father long before that. He was a Director.”
“Hell of a family reunion,” Saffron muttered.
Caradoc’s mouth twitched with a ghost of a smile. “I might be the only one who can stop her,” was all he said. “At the very least, I know how she thinks.”
“And I thought Killian was good at keeping silent,” Saffron said. “I’m going with you.”
Caradoc shook his head. “We’re not taking a Jill into the City.”
“I’m not just a Jill,” she argued. “I know the City better than anyone.” She tore a map off the wall and slammed it onto the table. “Where’s the meet-point with the rebels?” When he rattled off a bunch of street names, she pointed. “There.”
“So we’ll mark it and you’ll stay here,” Annie said.
“How would you get there?” Saffron challenged. Caradoc sighed at the map, choosing a route. “That road’s blocked off because of flooding. This one is full of soldiers hanging out in the alleys. And that turn you just made? You’ll get taken out by the sniper in that building. He doesn’t have a gun, but he likes to piss out of the window.” She folded her arms smugly. “I think I’ve made my point. If you’re seriously thinking of taking on the Directorate in their own territory, you need me.”
Jane bent her head, rubbing the base of her skull. The dimming solar lamps cast shadows on the table in front of them. “What do you see, Jane?” Caradoc asked quietly.
“I don’t know,” she said, frustrated. “Horses, swords, lightning. Danger, blood. Nothing unexpected.” She tried harder, until she made a small mew of pain. She shook her head. “There’s no plan yet,” she said. “So there’s no way to know how it will go wrong.”
“Well, that’s encouraging,” Saffron said.
Dawn gave way to the searing afternoon sun by the time they reached the edge of the Badlands. They had weapons, food, water bags, and several Protectorate uniforms— very little of which would help them cross the parts of the Badlands that belonged to the Ferals. The cracked red hills stretched out as far as they could see.
“Well, this is going to be fun,” Saffron said. “Think they erected statues in our honour?”
“Definitely. And at least one festival day,” Jane said, smiling despite herself. “Certainly a rousing folk song.”
“What did you two do now?” Roarke asked.
Saffron shrugged. “We burned down their gardens.”
“And possibly the entire village,” Jane added helpfully.
“And see how I exhibit no surprise,” Roarke murmured.
“They started it.”
“Is there a way around?” Saffron asked Caradoc who stood squinting in the sun. “Which will piss me off, by the way, since that would have been helpful information the last time we were here.”
“There’s a Directorate road,” Caradoc replied. “But it would add two weeks to our trip. And even with the soldiers mostly called back for the Trials, I wouldn’t like our odds.”
Jane wiped sweat off her forehead. “Hoods, maybe? Or some kind of disguise?”
Saffron’s smile was slow and sharp. “I have a better idea.” Roarke groaned. She turned her shoulder to him pointedly and addressed Caradoc. “We need more fighters.”
“Ferals, I have to point out, are damned good fighters.”
“But they’re not mercenaries,” Caradoc reminded her.
“But they hate the Directorate as much as I do. So I know I can change their minds.”
“I have something they want,” she explained. “Me.”
“Saffron, no,” Jane said, horrified. She remembered vividly Saffron lying unconscious on her pallet, and the light glinting off Shanti’s spear.
Saffron just shrugged. “They want a Green Jill.”
“You’re not just going to give yourself to them,” Roarke said harshly.
“Of course not. I’m not a martyr, or an idiot. But I can trade a visit or two to sit in the garden, in exchange for some of their warriors.”
Caradoc looked intrigued. “The soldiers wouldn’t know what to do with Ferals.” He looked at Jane. “Do you agree with her assessment?”
Jane blinked, not accustomed to being consulted. She thought of Elisande, of Shanti and Anya and the angles of their bones under their skin which could only come from hunger.“Yes,” she said reluctantly. “They’ll do anything for a Green Jill.”
“What does she know?” Livia broke in. “She’s just a—.”
“She knows people,” Caradoc cut her off. “While we posture, she watches.”
“So here we go then,” Saffron declared. Caradoc caught the back of her jacket, pulling her to an abrupt halt. Her arms flailed.
“We send messengers first,” he said. “With terms. And then we set out at first light.”
“We don’t have that kind of time!” Saffron protested impatiently.
“We don’t have the time to be ambushed and skewered with spears either.”
“I’ll go,” Jane offered quietly. Saffron’s eyebrows snapped together. “They’ll recognize me.”
“Yeah, I’m not so sure that’s a good thing.”
“But it will make them more likely to believe that you’re here and willing to negotiate.”
Saffron didn’t look pleased but Jane knew she didn’t have a counter-argument. Caradoc pointed at her. “You stay here. If they see you, they might fight first and talk later. You have that effect.”
“Fine.” She plucked a long purple thistle from the mask, wrapping it in dandelion leaves and handing it to Jane. “Bring this.”
“That could be from any plant at all,” Livia pointed out.
“It’s the same cuttings I left after the fire,” Saffron explained curtly. “Anyway, once they bring it to their gardens, they’ll see soon enough that it’s not like regular weeds. It might not be as good as leaf mask, but it still has some power.”
“I’ll go with Jane,” Nico offered.
Jane shouldered her pack, the water bags inside sloshing reassuringly. “Thank you.”
Saffron hovered next to her. “Don’t let them take you to the Underworld.” Jane just snorted. “And don’t trust that little brat.”
“And don’t be too polite.” She turned to Nico. “Don’t let her get killed.”
“Are you kidding?” Nico checked his taser, and then pointedly adjusted the sword strapped to his back. “I might still need her help with Freya.”
“I’m telling Will you admitted you needed help with your love life,” Jane said.
He pulled her hair lightly. “We have been a bad influence on you, girl.”
She sincerely hoped so.
The Greencoats were silhouetted in a line, watching them leave. The walk along the spines of the clay hills was quick but demanded concentration and care. The sun was a relentless companion. Nico was alert and intense, unlike the casually confident person he was at camp. It was partly reassuring, partly distracting. She stopped thinking about it the moment she saw the first coyote. “On your left,” she said softly. “Coyote.”
He turned, swore under his breath. “Two more on the other side.”
“We’ve reached the border,” Jane said, adrenaline flooding her so quickly she felt her heart pounding in her teeth.
“Hell of a family reunion,” Saffron said again to Roarke as they watched Jane and Nico walk away.
“Aren’t you going to ask me why I never told you?” he asked flatly.
“I wouldn’t have told you either.”
He nearly smiled at that. She’d meant it—she’d have kept that kind of information to herself. But then she wasn’t the type to hold hands over her feelings, even if they had slept together.
“Is Cartimandua your mother?”
“No, thank the Green.” He wouldn’t look at her. “She’s dead now. No one’s safe from Cartimandua, not even her own sister.”
“Also dead, not because of her though. It’s just Caradoc and me.”
He seemed to need something from her beyond compassion—and she blamed it on Jane that she not only recognized that in him, but wished she knew what it was so she could hunt it down for him. She sighed. Stabbing people was so much easier.
“Jane will be fine,” Roarke said, misreading her.
“Mmhmm.” Didn’t he realize he was the one who needed comforting here? And why wasn’t she pouncing on the subject change like Cerberus on a scavenger? They walked on between the trees while she grew more and more annoyed with herself.
“You don’t have to babysit me, Saffron. I’ve always known who my aunt is.”
And just like that, her annoyance turned back on him. Every word she wanted to say felt like a knife in her mouth.
They heard the snick at the same time.
It was faint, easily overlooked if you’d never heard it before. But if you had, there was no mistaking it. She went so cold, her scalp tightened painfully.
She wasn’t sure who had yelled it, her or Caradoc, but it was too late. That click always meant it was too late. There was no time to pinpoint its exact location, only the slap of the tripwire slicing through leaves towards the trigger. Crossbow bolts followed. Augusta was the first to drop. Livia launched herself at Will, knocking them both out of the way.
“Anyone hit?” Caradoc asked.
Livia and Will stood up gingerly. Livia pulled a bolt from her sleeve. “Not really.”
Will stared at her. “You’re my hero, Liv.”
Caradoc exhaled. “Directorate trap.” His head snapped around. “Don’t move!”
The ground suddenly gave away under Will and he crashed through the cover of leaves into the pit waiting below. He disappeared, screaming. “I said don’t move!” Caradoc yelled when everyone twitched instinctively towards Will. He moaned, sounds more animal than anything human. Every line of Livia’s body angled towards him.
“He’s alive,” Caradoc snapped. “But we can’t charge in there blindly.” He crouched to liberate a long branch from the side of the road. “Nobody jacking move.”
“Let me do it,” Roarke said. “They need you in the City.”
“Saffron,” Caradoc asked, ignoring him. “If Roarke moves, knock him out.”
Caradoc used the branch like a walking staff, gingerly prodding the ground ahead before taking a step. It was a slow and arduous process. Sweat ran down Saffron’s nose and she hadn’t even moved. He found another pit, this one more of a shallow trench, but it was filed with broken bottles and rusted metal. “Almost there,” Livia called out. “Will? Will!”
There was a clear path to Will, and another that required climbing over rocks and partly up a tree. “Too easy,” Saffron warned loudly. She remembered an old entrance to the underground market where soldiers had set traps of wire, trigger-released rifles, and bombs in old soda cans. One casual kick and Saffron and Killian had seen a girl blown into pieces. Her blood stained the bricks for months.
“I need a rock,” Caradoc said. Roarke bent to retrieve one from the rubble of the road. “Don’t miss.”
Saffron stopped him. “Let me. Saffron the Stupendous, remember?”
She focused on Caradoc who pivoted to face her. He lifted his hand, waiting. She stared at his palm until it was the only thing she could see. She released a long steady breath and lobbed the rock. He caught it easily and tossed it onto the path in front of him.
Saffron’s neck muscles threatened to snap.
“Again,” Caradoc said. Roarke was already collecting them, and passing them to Saffron. She threw four more and they lay innocuously on the path.
The fifth stone broke open the forest.
The mine shattered dirt, fire and twigs. The blast shivered through the trees, shaking trunks and tearing though leaves. The force of the explosion sent Caradoc careening backwards. He seemed to hang in the seared air for an impossible moment before hitting the ground. Heat and power flung the others away with enough force to steal their breaths. Saffron’s ears rang and her lungs clenched. Yellow dandelion petals drifted off her mask.
She grabbed Roarke’s ankle when he scrambled to get up, screaming his uncle’s name, and was nearly kicked in the face for her trouble. He only subsided when Caradoc sat up slowly, covered in dirt and blood. His shirt was shredded, the left side of his body raw with welts and scrapes. Roarke slumped with relief. Livia took her hands away from her ears. Caradoc spat dirt. “Guess I’m going to need more stones.”
The sound of his voice was muffled as if Saffron was underwater, but she could mostly hear it around the throbbing in her ears. She studied the damage of the landmine, the small crater of earth, the branches dangling above, the smoldering leaves. The rest of the path led into the trees. “I can get us through the next part,” she said. She thought she might be shouting.
She eased closer, taking care to step only where Caradoc had already stepped. The grass tangled around her. She crouched, digging through it until she could feel a tree root pushing up through the ground. “Come on,” she muttered to the mask or the green, or both. “Grow.”
The smell of pine needles grew sharper, stronger.
She pushed an image through the roots, and the branches growing out to touch each other over the path. She imagined a bridge growing towards the pit where Will had stopped making any noise at all. The branches grew, touched, but didn’t form anything but more forest shadows. Her hair, full of thistles fell into her face and she pushed back at it, frustrated. A thick braid brushed her elbow, giving her an idea. She pulled tendrils out of the leaf mask and braided them together. “Come on,” she muttered. “You owe me.”
Slowly, slowly, the branches responded. Birch and maple and pine tangled together, braiding into a bridge any Dryad would have been proud of. She straightened, weary and light-headed. “Let me try first,” she said. “If it’s not strong enough, the trees should keep me from falling.” It was as good a theory as any.
She used the thrown rocks as a guide and stepped up onto the branches. She hoped she wasn’t about to plummet and break something important like her ass. They creaked, but held. She took another step and suddenly it was just like crossing the rope bridges in the City. Caradoc and Roarke followed.
Will was slumped inside the pit, the bottom was lined with sharpened sticks, glass, and rusted metal. He was just out of reach. There was blood on his face and his neck, but he was breathing. “Will, grab the branch,” Caradoc was on his stomach, reaching down. Will moaned, eyelids fluttering. “Damn it, the blast knocked him out.”
“There’s rope over here,” Livia said. She was close enough that Saffron could see the melted buttons on her jacket.
“No,” Caradoc said. “Anything that looks useful or tempting in any way is probably hiding a bomb of some kind. Don’t touch anything.”
Livia recoiled. Saffron reached up to grab three pliable branches from the tree brushing her shoulder with leaves. She braided the branches together, willing them to keep growing in the same pattern. She was glistening with sweat by the time she had something long enough to be useful. She looped it around her waist and Caradoc lowered her down. She had to tuck her feet against the side so as not to get caught in a nest of rusty barbed wire.
Will’s legs were torn and raw. One of the stakes was stuck near his shin, pinning him. She couldn’t quite reach it to free him. She looped the branches around his chest, knotting them. She hoped he passed out again. “Pull him up!”
There was a sharp tug and he choked on a scream. He was conscious and clammy by the time they pulled him out completely. Caradoc carried him on his back over the bridge back to the relative safety of the fields. Livia was cleaning and wrapping Will’s legs when Jane and Nico found them. His boots, thankfully, had mostly protected his feet.
“Shit,” Nico rushed to Will. “What happened?”
“Protectorate traps,” he downed whiskey from a flask.
“We got the bleeding stopped,” Livia sat back. “Mostly.”
“You’ll have to head back to camp in the morning,” Caradoc said. “Can you handle it?”
Will nodded. Saffron noticed Jane had a fat lip. “Shanti or Anya?”
“Shanti,” Nico confirmed. “She was perfect.”
“No,” Jane elbowed him hard. “You are not allowed to flirt with the girl who beat up my face.”
“But she agreed to a meeting?”
Jane touched the bruise on her jaw. “Eventually.”
The Feral village was essentially the same: layers of baked clay and wooden platforms and hidden gardens, but the scorched edges were new. There were still plants, but not as many. The coyotes paced close, growling softly. As the emissaries, Jane and Nico walked in front, with Saffron tucked in the centre and surrounded with drawn weapons. Likely an insult to Feral hospitality but Greencoats knew one thing: protect the Green Jill, even here under the fierce blue sky and fiercer sun.
Shanti and Anya waited outside one of the painted tents. Shanti’s white face tattoos glowed against her dark skin and Nico’s posture straightened slightly. Jane resisted the urge to smack the back of his head, but only barely.
“Elisande will speak to you now,” Anya said. Her red hair was braided and coiled into what looked like a hangman’s rope. Jane decided not to take it as a sign. Sometimes, a creepy bloodthirsty girl was just a creepy bloodthirsty girl. Anya’s and Shanti’s spears crossed. “Only the Jill.”
“The Jill has her honour guard, just like Elisande,” Jane said quickly before Nico started spouting poetry or Saffron shot her mouth off.
Anya looked annoyed. “Fine.” She moved aside. “Hands where I can see them, Numina.”
Caradoc pushed through to stand with Jane, and they escorted Saffron into the dim cool of the tent. Elisande sat on a stool, pouring hot water over the mint leaves she cut from a small plant in a mosaic pot. She wore her full ritual regalia, from the antlered headdress to the porcupine quill dress and the flute at her belt. If Caradoc was surprised that the shamanka was an adolescent girl, he didn’t look it.
Saffron dropped onto the edge of a cushion and pushed the leaf mask up off her face. “It itches,” she said by way of a greeting.
“Fox girl,” Elisande said.
“Little girl,” Saffron shot back.
Jane closed her eyes briefly. “Diplomacy, remember?” she hissed at Saffron.
Saffron made an irritated noise but made an effort not to glower. Elisande’s eyes went distant, hazy. “Wolf,” she said to Caradoc. “And hawk,” she added to Jane. Jane could have sworn she felt the flutter of wings.
“We have a proposal for you,” Saffron interrupted.
“Is it in the form of an apology?” Elisande asked. “For burning down our gardens?”
“I’ll apologize for that when you apologize for taking us hostage.”
“We would have treated you well.” She was dangerously close to petulant.
“And you still can,” Jane said smoothly. “We need warriors,” she continued. “And everyone knows Feral warriors are the best.”
Anya smirked at the flattery. Still, it diffused some of the tension. Elisande was too sharp to take it at face value, but she still struggled not to preen. “We aren’t mercenaries,” she said.
“Maybe not, but everyone has a price,” Saffron said, matter-of-factly. “We need fighters to infiltrate the city and take on the Directorate; you need a Green Jill.”
“What exactly are you offering?” Anya asked sharply.
Saffron reached out to touch the mint plant. It responded almost instantly, turning a dark vibrant green and unfurling new leaves. The strong scent of peppermint competed with the incense. “Once we’re done in the City, I stay here for a month in exchange for your help with the fight.”
“Ferals don’t go into the City.”
“Wouldn’t you like to take the fight to the Directorate for once?” Saffron asked. “To take them by surprise?” Saffron explained the situation, without mentioning Cartimandua’s relation to Caradoc.
Shanti frowned. “This isn’t our concern.”
“It doesn’t have to be,” Saffron pointed out. “Because come harvest time, you’ll have food to feed your village. And I think that is your concern.”
“Only a month?” Elisande asked. “We’re worth more than that. A month per warrior.”
Saffron choked. “No way. Two weeks per warrior.”
Saffron muttered something under her breath that sounded a lot like “brat” but was too muffled to be properly heard. “Fine.”
“Why negotiate at all?” Anya asked. “You’re here now.”
Caradoc hadn’t moved or spoken since he’d ducked into the tent and the harsh snap of his voice startled them. “Because I always assumed the Ferals had honour.”
“You can’t eat honour,” Anya shrugged.
“We’ve sent you food,” Caradoc pointed out. “The Greencoats have always shared their bounty. We aren’t the enemies.”
Elisande pulled her knees up, making her look even younger. “And if you die, Saffron? We’re left with nothing.”
“I’m not going to die, you creepy little girl.”
“That promise isn’t yours to make, is it?”
“Another Jack would take her place,” Caradoc said.
Saffron’s shoulders hunched. “I feel like a potato being bartered over at the underground market.”
“And how do we know this isn’t a plot to weaken us? To send our warriors out of the village and leave it vulnerable?” Shanti asked.
Saffron rolled her eyes. “I don’t want your village. I don’t actually like it here.”
“You have my word,” Caradoc said. “As Caradoc of the Spirit Forest.”
“And you would really stay with us?” Eisande asked Saffron quietly. “Your oath on the fox that walks with you?”
“For the agreed-upon time, as long as you treat me well.” Saffron answered very pointedly. “And you don’t get to keep me. I’m not a pet.”
“But you’d stay inside the gardens the entire time? Sleep there too?”
“I’ll make out with the corn if you think it’ll help.”
Elisande sat for a long moment before turning to look at Shanti, then at Anya. Shanti shook her head. Anya smiled. Elisande closed her eyes, lips moving as she murmured words to spirits, or totems, or just herself. There was no way to know. Except for Jane, who felt numen brush her skin, lifting the hairs on her arms. Elisande’s eyes snapped open. “I agree.”
“Good,” Anya’s smiled turned to a grin worthy of a people called feral. “I’ll go.” Shanti didn’t look pleased. Anya shrugged. “You don’t have to.”
She sighed. “I go where you go.”
Saffron stood up. “Good, let’s go now.”
“Wait.” Shanti said. “We’ll need a demonstration first. If we’re to send warriors to fight with yours, then we need to know that yours can even fight in the first place.”
Caradoc stood up. “A fair request.”
Shanti looked at his scars and muscles and the way he stood. “Not you,” she said. “I’ll fight your weakest, not your strongest.” She turned to look at Jane. “Her.”
Jane stared back at her, stomach suddenly filled with sparks. Saffron opened her mouth to protest, then shut it again consideringly. Caradoc just smiled slowly. “Deal.”
“Are you crazy?” Jane asked under her breath as they left the yurt. She blinked at the too-bright sun. “You said it yourself, I’m not a fighter.”
“Not like us,” he agreed. He turned her to face him. “So don’t fight like us,” he said. “Fight like you.”
There was no time to prepare, she was suddenly pushed onto a long platform. There were swords and knives and spears stuck into the barriers, lining the platform with weapons. Tiny bells rang softly, tied to the ropes and the barbed wire railing. Feral music was iron and spear and hard red clay. It wasn’t her song. She tried to do as Caradoc suggested. She was anise seeds, the fire at the top of her skull, the way the light dappled through the cedars back at camp. She would make her own music.
As Shanti’s spear caught the light, Jane took a moment for a long deep breath. I am the earth where seeds of wisdom grow.
The first blow sent Jane into the barbed wire. Her arms stung, pinpricked and torn. Her ribs ached. She thought one of them might have popped out, stabbing her from within.
The second blow was harder, faster.
The third blow didn’t land.
Numen coursed up her spine, winding like fiery roots and digging into her brain. It was uncomfortable, painful, invigorating. Hers.
Jane rolled out of the way. The spear scraped against the barbed wire and caught. She took advantage of the distraction to roll to her feet, behind Shanti. She could see Caradoc below them, fierce and patient, and Saffron hollering something unintelligible and no doubt profoundly rude. Jane turned away. She couldn’t afford to be distracted. She was alone on this platform. It was her song, her dance.
Shanti swung around, but she didn’t use her spear this time. She aimed a savage kick at the outside of Jane’s knee. She missed, but only barely. Jane followed the pattern of the light, the shape of Shanti’s shadow. She leapt over the spear, dipped low under a dagger.
Shanti smiled for the first time. “You can’t fly forever, little hawk.”
Jane wanted to say something pithy, something witty like Kiri or Saffron would have, but there were only shadows and light and the tingle in her legs, urging her to move. She imagined she was back in the Castle ballroom, dancing an uncomplicated dance. Shanti slipped on a spatter of sweat on the boards. She was panting, her muscles gleaming. Jane was equally sweaty, but didn’t feel any particular gleam. She was tired and bedraggled.
But she was winning.
She twirled out of the way again and then shot her hand out, seizing the spear shaft. Instead of stopping it, she pulled it closer in a sudden move that had the other end stuttering when Shanti compensated. Jane followed through, smashing it into Shanti’s legs and knocking her down. Jane tossed the spear over the side of the platform, scuttling back out of reach. She’d lost the connection, her numen sputtering out like a candle.
But it had burned long enough, just long enough.
The drum stopped. Shanti flipped into a crouch.
“You’ll have your warriors.”
While Saffron was glad to have four Feral warriors and three coyotes committed to their plan, she was less thrilled that she’d have to spend time in the village. By the time they reached the suburbs, she mostly just wished they’d stop staring at her like she was a salad to be eaten. She was half afraid she’d wake up with bite marks.
The abandoned houses of the suburbs watched them with dead glass eyes dusted with red. “What about the Dust?” Saffron asked, exchanging a glance with Jane.
“Set for tomorrow,” Caradoc replied. “I checked my sources before we left. We’re good if the schedule holds.”
“And if it doesn’t?”
“Not so good.”
As they cut through a backyard with a damaged fence folded like a paper fan, Caradoc paused, glancing up. The air thrummed. Saffron tried to remember where she’d head that sound before. The coyotes darted instantly under the deck, ears flat.
“Take cover!” Caradoc shouted just as the sky filled with black metal and gunfire. Saffron leapt into a rosebush which thickened around her so quickly she was pierced with thorns. Roarke rolled under a garage door hanging off rusty hinges. Jane flattened herself on the ground and wriggled under a van on the driveway. Caradoc was the last to hide himself as he tried to shove the Ferals to safety. Livia and Augusta dragged Shanti and Anya into the garage with Roarke, just as the helicopters crested the roof.
Saffron pushed at the glossy sharp leaves, trying to see what was happening. The air pushed down on them, slashing at the treetops and flinging dead leaves and litter into the road. One of the feral warriors, Beryl, was too exposed, frozen in shock as she squinted up at the helicopter. Saffron imagined they must look like enormous birds of prey to a people who rarely even used solar batteries.
“Move, idiot!” Saffron yelled at her. Beryl didn’t hear anything except the slash and whir of the blades.
When she finally moved, it was because a bullet slammed through her chest. Two more followed, in her shoulders and her stomach. She crumpled, blood blooming all over her body like deadly flowers. More gunfire followed, but it was broad and basic, without clear direction. Bullets pockmarked the flagstones and the glass left in the house windows shattered. Saffron burrowed deeper into the thorns and petals, wishing she’d hidden somewhere sturdier. The ground exploded at her feet, dirt stinging as it pelted her legs.
The helicopters drifted slowly away, the sounds of the blades fading slowly. It was several minutes before anyone moved. “Saffron,” Roarke barked. “Are you hit?”
“I’m fine,” she said, as the roses spat her out covered in bloody scratches.
“They’ll send foot soldiers in to search the area next.” Caradoc cut her off. “We have to move.”
Shanti and Anya crouched next to Beryl. The feathers in her hair were pale and broken spines. One of the coyotes whined, licking at her foot.
“Did they see the rest of us?” Saffron asked.
“No, that was a routine sweep,” Caradoc said grimly. “They saw her by accident and probably assumed she was a squatter. If they’d seen the rest of us, we’d all be dead. Which will happen if we hang around here much longer. We got lucky. Let’s not push it.”
“Tell that to Beryl,” Shanti said darkly.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “But we have to go. Now.”
“We can’t just leave her here,” Anya said through clenched teeth. “She has to be set high for the birds to carry her soul to the Underworld. There are rituals.”
“There’s no time,” Caradoc said. “If you stay to do your rituals, you’ll be joining her. We can’t stay here.”
The Ferals stood together, tension rumbling through them. The coyotes growled, scenting the sharpness between them. Jane stepped forward, glancing at Saffron. “If we get her up into a tree, can you grow it around her so the soldiers don’t see her body?
“I know it’s not the same,” Jane said to Anya. “But the bonebirds will find her, and there must be hawks and other birds around here.”
They looked at each other, muttering words in their own language. Finally, Shanti stepped forward. “Will you also make the marks?” she asked Saffron. “As the Green Jill?”
“I don’t know what that means, but yes,” she replied. As long as it got them out of here.
“Quickly,” Caradoc barked, already hoisting Beryl off the ground. The warriors closed in, helping to carry her to a tree across the street. Saffron leaned against the tree, flattening her palms.
“Hi, tree,” she said. “Grow. And fast, please. Like really fast.”
“The birds eat her bones clean so she can travel swiftly,” Anya said as they lifted Beryl’s body up to the lowering branches. “We paint the wings on her face so they can find her.”
“I didn’t exactly pack my paintbrushes,” Saffron said.
“Use her blood.”
As Saffron climbed up onto a branch, the leaves were already covering Beryl, rolling her into a green cocoon. She dipped her finger into the wet bullet hole in Beryl’s shoulder, stomach roiling. It was hot and raw to the touch and no amount of imaging could make her pretend it was just red paint. She made the two diagonal lines above the eyebrows and the slashes down the length of her cheekbones as Anya described them to her.
Caradoc waited for her to shimmy back down to the ground. “Move out.”
“I don’t like it,” Saffron said when they’d finally crossed through the suburbs.
Nobody looked surprised.
“Seriously,” she insisted, staring up at the immense castle-like parapet around the Enclave. “Jane, maybe you should just come with us.”
“You know I can’t,” Jane said. It was surreal to be back at the Enclave. To see the parapet, the shadows of people she knew on patrol and the rubble of abandoned houses so near the boundary. She had never wanted to run so much in her life, to feel the connection of her own feet on the ground, taking her away. “I hate that we can’t do this together but you have to save the other Jacks and I have to save my family.”
“I know,” Saffron said. “I know. And you’ll kick ass in there.”
She half-smiled. “Thanks.”
“I mean it. They won’t know what hit them.” She crossed her arms. “And when you hear that the Amphitheatre is burning to the ground, you’ll know we kicked ass too. You fix this and then you meet us back in the forest, Highgate. I mean it.”
Jane turned to hug her. Saffron only protested a little, huffing and rolling her eyes. But she hugged back, fierce and protective. She pulled a clump of purple thistle off her mask. “For good luck,” she claimed, looking faintly embarrassed. “Shut up,” she said to Roarke who didn’t look brave, or stupid enough, to have said anything in the first place.
Jane’s fingers tightened over the leaves. “Wait.” Something prickled through her, but it was vague. “Something about strawberries.”
Saffron raised an eyebrow. “Your omens need work.”
Jane tried harder, but it was like using your palms to catch enough raindrops to drink. “Don’t drink pink champagne.”
“I’m not going to the Enclave. Believe me, there’s no champagne in the City.”
Jane nodded unconvinced as they ducked into the shadows between the houses to change into their Protectorate uniforms. Caradoc came to stand in front of her, hidden from the others by cedar bough and lilac bush. They could almost be back in the forest. She stared at her feet, incongruous in their scuffed boots under the linen hem of her chiton. She felt the warmth of his body so near to hers that she couldn’t think of a single thing to say except: “Thank you.”
It was only a fraction of what she felt, but why embarrass them both? “Thank you,” she said again, her voice stronger. “You didn’t have to take me in, whatever Saffron thinks.”
“Jane,” he said hoarsely. “Look at me.”
She lifted her eyes, ready for patience but instead, she saw something raw, something gentle. He was unshielded, his lake-blue eyes clear as water. She caught her breath, taken by surprise. His callused hands slid up her arms, leaving a trail of shivers even though his touch was fire and kindling. She was already melting. His fingers closed over the back of her neck, brushing her numina mark. They tightened, strong, almost rough, but when his mouth closed over hers, it was achingly gentle. He kissed her as though there was no danger, no conspiracy, no rifles above them; and as if there was no doubt they would find each other again. She leaned into it, her lips parting. Their tongues touched briefly, hot and intoxicating. Breaths tangled, turned ragged.
Too soon, he rested his forehead against her. “Be careful,” he whispered. When he walked away, he didn’t look back.
With her lips still tingling, she approached the main gate, feeling both ember and ash. There was movement on the walkways above and she knew exactly which weapons were trained on her and from where. She lifted her chin, making sure her many bruises were visible.
“State your business,” a voice called out. She knew her rumpled chiton was her only shield. If she’d been wearing anything else, they’d have shot her by now. She turned slowly, showing her Oracle mark. “I’m a Numina,” she answered, words wobbling.
There was a flurry of hushed conversation, the glint of guns. Fear boiled inside of her. The familiar walls that had once felt so safe and comforting, loomed over her like a jail cell. The captain of the guard stepped out, gun lifted. “It took me a long time to get find my way home,” Jane said. And it wasn’t home anymore. That didn’t matter. Protecting her friends and family mattered.
She was faintly grateful for the nerves seizing her throat, they would stop her explanation from sounding rehearsed. “I was on watch,” she said. “I thought I saw something and went to investigate and that’s when they grabbed me.” The hot humid air pressed against her. She brushed her fingers over the thistle in her pouch, the prickle lending her courage. She couldn’t calm her breath or centre herself enough to predict what would happen now. Her heart stuttered and then shook like thunder, like a storm breaking beneath her ribs. “May I see my family now, please?”
“We have questions,” the captain said. “A lot of questions.”
Saffron hated leaving Jane to fight her battles alone, but she hated having to walk back through Wall into Elysium City even more. Entering the City was actually fairly simple—the Directorate wanted people inside and away from the farms. Leaving might get you shot, but arriving got you a microchip bracelet for the Rings, a supply of protein bars, and a room in a flat in the Core.
But despite that, Ferals would definitely be questioned and detained, at the very least. But if they entered as prisoners, they couldn’t be captured. Caradoc walked ahead, the coyotes attached to a makeshift leash in his hand. It had taken nearly an hour to convince the Ferals not to command them to bite his face off.
Saffron shoved the leaf mask in her pack but she still felt unbearably exposed. Her head was suddenly vulnerable, breakable. Somewhere along the way, a clutch of weeds and thistles had become her shield. The Protectorate uniform she’d stolen from Killian’s sister itched. Light glinted off the barbed wire, sparking here and there when electricity surged too quickly along the lines.
The Ferals clumped together, surrounded by the Greencoats in their stolen uniforms.
“Badlands10-15, code RedC12.” Caradoc shouted up at the towers. “Feral prisoners, so don’t keep me waiting.”
The gates opened. Saffron shifted, her grip on of her pack tightening protectively. Roarke stood with his rifle set against his shoulder. One of the soldiers whistled. “I’ve never seen that many Ferals.” He leered at Shanti’s legs, outlined by his flashlight in her sand-coloured dress. He had no idea he was even now cheating death.
“We’re expected,” Caradoc said. More flashlights tracked them, noting uniform tags, rifles, coyote teeth.
“There’s no transport,” someone said to Caradoc.
“There’s not meant to be,” he replied. “We have our orders, soldier, and they don’t involve parading through the streets to make a target of ourselves.”
Heart hammering, Saffron forced herself to walk calmly and confidently. She hoped fervently and fiercely that no one noticed the trees growing right over their heads. An acorn dropped on the soldier’s head, and he looked up annoyed. The leaves rustled, glossy in the artificial light.She hadn’t exactly had much time to meditate. Everyone was always shooting at them.
Still, she’d managed to make that bridge out of branches. She was improving. She slipped her fingers into the top of her pack, touching a bristle of burrs. “Stop it,” she murmured.
The soldier was still frowning up into the oak. The wind moved the leaves but they didn’t respond, didn’t multiply or start to flower. He turned away, uninterested. “Curfew in effect until the Trials,” he said. “You shouldn’t have any trouble. Stay out of the Amphitheatre district though, there are Cerberus on patrol.”
Caradoc nodded and then signalled sharply to the rest of them. They moved instantly and precisely, like any Protectorate unit. Saffron had seen enough parade drills to know how it was done. And if she was still muttering curses and imagining winter magic to keep the trees quiet, no one had to know. They marched like that for three more blocks until she said “Left here.”
Saffron took point. She knew the streets better than Caradoc who been gone for years. Whatever he felt at being back was well camouflaged by his usual calm and competent demeanor. The Ferals ran carefully, more accustomed to leaping crevices than a steady pace. Cats streaked by, hissing at the foreign scent of coyotes. A few windows glowed with the distinctly acidic light of a sunstick but mostly it was dark and silent. She almost wished it was raining again, it would have added a layer of sound to hide them. She took them into the alley set up for the rebel-meet. Elysium City was the same—it still stank of horse manure, mud, and metal. But at least tucked into the shadows, she could breathe again.
Saffron wondered if she was hallucinating. Perhaps she’d fallen asleep standing up. Or maybe being electrocuted and walking for days and using the leaf mask had left lasting damage. Nothing else could explain how Killian was standing in front of her.
And speaking her name.
She’d never heard his voice before. It was soft and hoarse, like an animal too long in hiding. He looked the same, if a little leaner. He still had a katana at his shoulder, but more knives at his belt. There was a fresh scar on his jaw, by his right ear.
“It’s really you,” she blurted out, right before launching herself at him. They hit the brick wall, Saffron laughing like a hyena.
“You’re crushing my spleen,” Killian said fondly.
She knew she was beaming like a child sitting on a mountain of candy. “Killian.” She shook her head, as if it would help her make sense of the surprise. Small broken parts of her that she hadn’t even noticed were suddenly mended. “What are you doing here? Not that I care. But what? How?”
“I’m here for Caradoc. I was hoping you’d be here too.”
“I’m Caradoc,” Roarke said, as he’d said to her and Jane when he’d found them in the woods. He was Caradoc’s shield, a clever misdirection. She understood the need for it, but this was Killian.
“You are not,” she said.
Roarke hissed out a breath. “Saffron.”
“Well, you aren’t. And this isn’t some stranger. I’ve known Killian my whole life. I taught him how to scale the rope bridges.”
“You pushed me off.”
“One time!” Killian chuckled and she couldn’t help but stare. “How is it you talk now?”
“I could always speak,” he said softly. “I chose not to.”
“Later, Saf,” he said. “I’m the rebel guide. We need to get off the streets.”
“You’re with the rebels now?” she demanded. “Oh, Killian, I knew you’d get yourself into trouble without me.” He just shot her a look, one so familiar that she instantly wanted to sketch it. He pulled pointedly at one of the purple thistles in her hair. “Hey, the leaf mask wasn’t my idea. And I’m staying out of trouble.” Roarke snorted so hard she nearly asked him if he was having sort of seizure.
“I need the password,” Killian said quietly. “From the real Caradoc.”
“You say you’re with the rebels?” Caradoc stepped forward. “Prove it.”
“You say you’re Caradoc,” Killian returned. “Prove it.”
“You first.” Roarke’s hand hovered over his knife. Saffron scowled at him, trying to silently tell him to stop being such an ass. He didn’t appear to get her message.
Killian murmured a list of letters that made no sense, so softly Saffron couldn’t quite make it out. The set of Caradoc’s shoulder relaxed. He leaned forward and whispered something in Killian’s ear but try as she might, Saffron couldn’t make it out either. And working voice box or not, she knew Killian would never tell her. He took things like loyalty and secrets very seriously. She was happy enough to see him that she found it mildly endearing. That part wouldn’t last.
‘This way,” Killian said. She was a little disgusted when he led them through a door she had passed by dozens of times with no idea that rebels lived nearby. They went up two floors, crossed a rope bridge, and down into the atrium of what had once been a shopping centre. It was all cracked glass and dusty tiles and escalators that hadn’t moved since before Saffron was born. “You’re staring at me,” Killian murmured.
“I’m afraid if I blink, you’ll disappear.”
A walkway took them to an old subway entrance, boarded up and rigged with Directorate explosives. Killian ignored it, turning right and then back outside into another alley. The route was so circuitous, even Saffron grew disoriented, which she supposed was the point. They finally squeezed through a door hidden behind a dumpster that smelled so strongly of ammonia and rot that she had to hold the edge of her sleeve to her nose. Killian shrugged. “The smell keeps people out,” he explained, making some signal to a rebel Saffron couldn’t see.
Like the underground markets, the rebels lived in the subway tunnels, only they chose to go much deeper. Saffron walked close to Killian, dropping her voice low. “Tell me everything,” she demanded.
He looked at her out of the corner of his eye. “I missed you.”
“Yeah, yeah.” She poked him with one of the arrows. “You owe me years of talking. So talk. You can start with Titus and the rebels,” she suggested drily. “Because, really?”
“This from the girl hanging out with Cartimandua’s little brother.”
“Yeah, that’s just weird,” Saffron agreed. “And yet I trust him.”
“That’s even weirder,” Killian teased. “The mask really has changed you.”
“Don’t say that.”
“I was kidding.” He touched the side of her wrist when she wouldn’t look at him, would only stare blindly at her boots marching forward. “Hey.”
She shrugged one shoulder awkwardly. She didn’t actually want to talk about it or hug it out or whatever. It had just slipped out. “I didn’t want to bow to the Directorate,” she said. “And I don’t want to bow to a sprig of leaves either.”
“You’re still you,” Killian said.
“How can you know that?” Damn it, she was talking about it.
“Because I know you, Saffron.”
“Have you seen Oona?”
“Last week. She lectured me on not getting enough sunlight.”
“Good.” She had to ask even though she didn’t particularly care. “Your mom? Brothers?”
“Same,” he said. “Don’t make the face.”
“I can’t help it.” She did try though, just a little. “How are they taking your defection to the rebels?”
“They think I’m dead.”
She pushed a clump of burrs off her brow. They prickled at her fingertips. “Why?”
“I faked my own death,” he admitted. “So they wouldn’t have to pay for my choices.”
“Your brothers should at least pay for theirs,” she muttered. They walked on, the silence stretching on, comfortable and familiar. “So you’re as chatty as ever, then?” Saffron said.
“It still hurts my throat,” he admitted. “And people talk all of the time without saying anything at all. It’s exhausting.”
“I’m not people,” Saffron said with mock indignation. “There’s no need to be insulting.”
“Why did you stop talking in the first place?” Her hand twitched to grab at him in case he decided to make a run for it. She’d stopped bugging him to talk he day he walked away from her and disappeared into the Rings for three days and nights. When he only shrugged, she relaxed slightly. “It’s about your dad, isn’t it?”
He nodded. She waited for approximately twelve seconds then sighed. “I’m going to need actual words here, Kill.”
He smiled slightly. It was almost as good as a speech. Almost.
“My dad hanged himself when I was seven,” he said. She’d known that already.
“He worked as a scientist for the Directorate. He did mostly genetic manipulation, stuff with the Dryads and the bonebirds. Until they moved him to the chemical unit, before I was even born. He showed an ‘aptitude’. He was one of the first to work on the Dust.”
That part was new to her.
She just couldn’t picture Killian’s idiot brothers with that kind of genetic background. She’d always assumed they’d been some kind of failed experiment with feral rats. Actually, that theory was still sound.
“But when they started to use the Dust on the suburbs, on people, he protested.”
Even that many years ago, that wouldn’t have gone over well. “So he didn’t hang himself, he was killed.”
Killian put down the bow. “No, he killed himself. It was the only way he could think of to prove to the Directorate that he wasn’t a threat, that his family should be spared.” Saffron could think of half a dozen ways off the top of her head but she didn’t say so. She thought of Jane as well, and went cold. “We were kicked out of the Enclave and moved into the City.”
“You were Enclave?” That was frankly as shocking as anything.
“Yeah. And when I found his body, I knew enough to keep quiet. Literally.”
“You stopped talking that day.”
“Not entirely. Just enough to make them think I was too damaged to worry about.” He met her eyes. “I stopped talking the day I met you.”
She tilted her head. It felt too full and too full of rage over seven-year-old Killian. “Why?”
“Because I knew you mattered, even then,” he quirked a small smile. “And I knew within five minutes of meeting you that you were all mouth. You’d have set off all the Directorate alarms.”
She couldn’t actually dispute that. “I don’t know what to say.”
“You get used to it.”
She hugged him fiercely. “You can stop protecting me now, dumbass.” She said into his ear. “I can take care of myself. I’m not seven anymore.”
He hugged her back, his arms sliding around her waist. They walked for a few more minutes before they finally reached the rebel headquarters, which was just an abandoned platform, like the markets. It had a small kitchen, with chairs and tables and weapons. Wooden bridges led to the other side which was mostly cots and hammocks. Saffron peered down the dark tunnel dubiously. “Remember when those soldiers found the market that one time?”
“Tunnels have conveniently caved in on both sides,” Killian assured her. “And we post better guards than the markets. We got this, Saffron.”
Kilian was greeted warmly, and Saffron wondered abruptly if he would consider returning with her to the forest, or choose to stay with the rebels. She liked them a little less for it. “Welcome,” said a man with a sword on one hip and a taser on the other. “I’m Titus.”
Saffron recognized him. She and Killian had watched him save the blue-haired boy from the Taggers from their balcony. Caradoc introduced himself before Roarke could claim is identity.
“Finally, we meet in person,” Titus said genially. Despite it all he looked strangely fatherly, at least ten years older than Caradoc and with an arm slung over the shoulders of the girl who had helped him in the alley that night. “My daughter Vix.” She was short, pale from living underground but also sharp as a blade. She and the others couldn’t help staring at the Ferals.
When Titus noticed, he ordered them to clear out. They shuffled away reluctantly, the hammocks swaying overhead. “We don’t get a lot of visitors,” Titus told the Ferals. He was friendlier than Caradoc but he had the same worry lines at the corners of his eyes. She trusted it more than his smile.
Still, she kept the leaf mask hidden inside her jacket.
Jane followed the captain through the Enclave streets, escorted by three additional soldiers. Everything looked the same, from the painted doors to the pots of peppermint leaves; she was the one who was different. Even so, all she could think about was Kiri. They stopped at the main Cella, the marble gleaming in the torchlight. Her mother waited in her best dress even though it was the middle of the night. Jane sagged with relief. One more person who was safe. And if her mother was safe, her sisters would be as well.
“Is this your daughter?” the captain asked her mother.
She looked down her nose at Jane. “Yes.” She didn’t say anything else, didn’t ask after Jane’s bruises or her disappearance.
“Very good,” the captain said. “Thank you, Lady Highgate.”
Lady Highgate. That was new. Jane felt mildly ill wondering what her mother had done to gain the new title. “Are you here to take me home?” she asked softly, knowing very well what the answer would be.
“Of course not,” her mother replied. “Not until you’ve proven yourself to the Directorate. Until then, I’d have preferred you’d actually died.”
Jane swallowed a surprise sting of tears, and moved from the vestibule and into the domed rotunda without a word. They crossed the mosaic floor, patterned with leaves and eyes. The Pythia statue loomed as beautiful as ever in the empty Cella, standing guard with the other Green Gods. They took Jane behind the statue and down an aisle of columns, into a set of basement rooms she hadn’t even known existed. “I don’t understand,” she said. “Why can’t I go home?”
“I told you, there’s a bounty on your head. We sent word to headquarters. Until then, you’ll answer some questions.”
“Of course, captain.” It was strange how easily her voice went meek, her eyes downcast. And yet finally, it felt like a shield, not a sword to be wielded against her. The sword belonged to her now. Suddenly, her eyes were lowered to hide a surge of triumph and determination. “May I have some water?” she asked when he pointed to a bench inside a room lit by candles and with a glass wall, dark as scrying mirror. “I’ve been running for days.”
He nodded to one of the soldiers who scurried away. The room was cold and empty and white. The water she was given tasted like mint and she smiled. “It’s good to finally be home.”
The captain paced in front of her, eyes narrowed. “You say you were abducted while on watch?”
“Yes, captain. I thought I saw something while on patrol and went to investigate.”
“Why didn’t you raise the alarm?”
“I wasn’t sure if there was actually anything to raise the alarm over. It was dark and late and I was tired. By the time I realized what was happening, it was too late.”
“How did they get away? The parapet is manned at all hours. We have sentries, patrols.”
“I don’t know,” she said regretfully. “I’m a novice Numina, sir, not a soldier. They put something over my mouth and I was unconscious for hours.”
“And where did these men take you?”
“I didn’t say men, captain,” Jane returned. Caradoc had warned her they would try to trip her up on the details. “There were both men and women, I believe. I can’t be entirely sure. I was blindfolded most of the time. But when I finally escaped I was on the edge of a forest.”
“You were there for two months?” he asked dubiously.
She blinked. “Has it really been that long?”
The pressure of his silence threatened to break her. She bit her tongue to keep from babbling. She jumped when the door opened and the soldiers snapped to attention, even the captain.
She wore the same tunic, her blue eyes shrewd and sharp. Jane could see the resemblance now, the same stubborn jaw as Caradoc, a certain slant to the cheekbones. Homesickness burned through her.
“Thank you for sending word, captain,” Cartimandua smiled. Her dark hair was braided and coiled over her head like a crown. Knives bristled from the tops of her boots. The Directorate tattoo between her collarbones was dark as a jet pendant. “Jane, again. Interesting.”
The last thing Jane wanted to be was interesting.
“You left jus after we assigned you to the Garden,” Cartimandua continued.
“I didn’t leave,” Jane said. “I was taken.”
“How unfortunate. And did you happen to mention the Program to our captors?’
“Hmm. And why did they take you?”
She swallowed. “I assumed they wanted an Oracle. They kept asking me to read omens.” She could hear Caradoc’s voice in her head: tell as much of the truth as you can.
“And they did this to you?” Cartimandua approached, gaze flicking from bruise to bruise to blistered feet.
“And still you told them nothing?” She half-smiled. “You must be tougher than you look, Jane. I’m impressed.”
“You’re assuming they knew about the Program to ask me,” Jane pointed out.
She raised a brow sharply. “This one’s clever,” she murmured to the captain. She turned back to Jane who was trying not to squirm as her spine began to tingle.
Not now, she pleaded to herself. Please, not now.
“And you somehow managed to escape, and so close to the Trials. How convenient.” Cartimandua circled Jane so slowly she felt like a sparrow trapped in a cat cage. And she knew the exact moment Cartimandua saw her numina mark. Her fingers closed over Jane’s nape, digging in painfully. “Captain, you may go.”
“But surely…is it safe?”
Cartimandua turned her head slowly. “Don’t make me repeat myself.”
The soldiers bowed and hurried out. Cartimandua slammed Jane into the glass wall. Jane’s cheek cracked against the glass, igniting her bruises. “You’ve met my baby brother, haven’t you, Jane?” She jabbed at Jane’s blinded eye tattoo. “What a bother he’s always been.”
Jane felt blood tricking from her temple. “I don’t know what you mean.”
She clicked her tongue. “I don’t like it when people play me for a fool, Jane. It makes me cranky.”
Jane tried to swallow, but her neck was contorted at the wrong angle.
“You know, your mother is most cooperative. A shame it doesn’t run in the family.” She tapped on the wall twice and the room behind it was suddenly flooded with light. The mirrored glass showed Kiri tied to a chair, crisscrossed with ropes and blood. Her left eye was swollen shut.
Jane struggled in earnest. “What have you done to her?”
“The council wanted me to take your family into custody.” She smiled, as if sharing a secret. “But I was a girl once too, Jane. And often, our friends are our true family. Especially at the Collegium, I’m told. I never tested strongly for numen, I’m afraid. Unlike you.”
Her spine tingled. Cartimandua was doing all of this as much because she had no numen of her, as because she needed to protect a City.
“We had to question her, you understand,” Cartimandua said, pleasantly, as if they were discussing scones. “I’m reasonably certain that she’s no threat—-at least not to the Program, and certainly not now. It’s too late to stop it. I was going to let her go.” She sounded disappointed. “But she appears to have become rather useful.” She released Jane. “So I’ll ask you again. What is Caradoc planning?”
“I don’t know!” Jane replied frantically.
Cartimandua signalled and a soldier stepped forward to slap Kiri across the face. Blood dripped form her nose, spattering over her. “Please,” Jane shouted, pounding on the glass. “Stop,” she begged Cartimandua. “Please, stop.”
“You have the power here, little novice,” Cartimandua replied, leaning against the wall. “Your words can stop this.”
Jane rubbed her eyes. Kiri’s face kept fading away to other images, some past, some future: red dusted rooftops, the oppressive heat of the farm dome, Saffron lying too still, Caradoc’s blue eyes watching her through bare branches.
“I’m sure my handsome brother filled your head with romantic stories of Green Jacks and life in the woods. You probably ate strawberries every day. Do you know what the Elysians eat, Jane? Mud and protein paste,” Cartimandua said. “My brother is the villain here, not me. He hoards the Green Jacks. We try to feed thousands, but he gets the ballads and the pretty girls sacrificing themselves for him.”
She shook her head. “Do you have any idea how many lives we save? And still, the Elysians fight us at every turn. They have babies whom we feed, just to have them raised into rebels. It’s exhausting, frankly. And if I was as heartless as you’d like to believe, I’d snap your neck and hers. After long hours of torture.” She shrugged. “But I’ve never trusted torture. It’s not very efficient.”
Jane tried to close her eyes, to stop the visions. But it was too late. She knew her pupils had changed, and Cartimandua had seen it. She pulled a syringe out of her pocket, filled with pale blue liquid, and jabbed it into Jane’s neck. On the other side of the glass, Kiri screamed.
Jane sagged, weak and dizzy. She was no longer made of flesh and bone and numen, she was mist and smoke and might float away entirely. This wasn’t part of the plan. There was a plan, wasn’t there? She couldn’t be sure anymore.
Cartimandua guided her to the bench. “What do you see, Jane?”
Jane tried to push the images away. She bit her tongue, her lips, trying to stop the words from flooding out. She tasted copper.
Cartimandua crouched beside her, waiting patiently. “It’s a truth serum,” she explained with a kind of gentleness that sent shivers skittering down Jane’s spine. “There’s no point fighting it.”
The back of her neck was on fire but the rest of her might as well be drowning.
“Tell me, Jane, what do you see?”
Titus’s war room was just like Caradoc’s: maps and screens and too many mouths moving. Strategy was never her strong suit. She usually jumped in and learned how to swim before the waves dragged her under. Or Killian pulled her out.
“I don’t want the government,” Titus said wearily and Saffron had the impression it wasn’t the first, not even the hundredth time he’d said it.
“Then why do all of this?” She waved at the maps and the screens and the quivers of green-tipped arrows in every corner. She’d always wondered why the rebels bothered doing what they did.
“Someone has to. And if they raise our children to be good little Directorate soldiers and clerks, we’ve lost the City. We’d never get it back.”
“So why not take over completely?” Nico asked.
“They have their job to do and I have mine.”
“Karma,” Titus replied with a stark smile. “It’s checks and balances. We make sure they don’t go too far.”
“And what do they do for us?” Saffron asked sourly.
“They feed us.” She snorted. He didn’t smile. “How would you feed a City this size?”
She didn’t have an answer for him. Titus and Caradoc mulled over more contingency plans, Nico and Livia argued, and the rebels sharpened their weapons. The Ferals stood against the damp tiled walls on the platform and tried not to breathe the dank air.
“Are you sure about this?” Saffron asked Killian. She’d gotten used to the sky endless and uncluttered above her. The tunnel walls pressed too close. “We used to laugh at the rebels.”
“You laughed at them,” he corrected her.
“I guess.” She was thrilled to see Killian again, but now that the glow was fading, she felt discombobulated. Her skin prickled.
“Come on,” Killian said. “We’re having a feast.”
“A feast?” she echoed, following him to the end of the main platform. There were platters of roasted squirrel meat, star anise tea, a salad of herbs, protein paste cupcakes, and, incredibly, a bowl of tiny strawberries drizzled with real cream. It was an unimaginable luxury. Titus grinned at her over the table. “It’s tradition to feast before you go into battle.”
“So you can at least die with a full stomach?”
“It’s something,” he shrugged.
The rebels were welcoming after the first bottle of wine and downright cuddly after the second. They kept trying to entice Anya to join them on the saggy couches but she only snarled. She ate the strawberries though, and the currant jam. Nobody drank the water. Livia had a surprisingly sweet singing voice, even if her songs were filthy. Nico tried to flirt with Shanti until she poked him in the ass with her spear.
Saffron felt better, full and sleepy and sparkly with wine. She wound her arm through Killian’s. “I kind of love you, you know.”
His smile was crooked. “Have another strawberry to soak up all that wine.”
Roarke watched them over the rim of his glass. Someone offered a toast. Caradoc and Titus were deep in conversation. Anya looked bored and sleepy. More food was brought out, more wine, more strawberries.
Saffron decided to go for a walk to clear her head. The lights were too bright and there were too many voices. Someone grabbed her suddenly, dragging her into a small alcove. It was the kind of dark niche that would have been painted with gold dust and filled with oak leaves and candles to honour the Green Jacks up on the streets. She pressed her dagger to his throat, but Roarke only smiled down at her. He looked as wild-eyed and wine-fuelled as she felt.
“Killian’s going to win, isn’t he? You’re going to choose him.”
“I’m not a prize,” she scoffed. “And neither are you.”
He kissed her or she kissed him; mostly they collided like stars somewhere in the middle. She thought of meteors and comets burning in the sky. Oona had told her once that everyone was made up of star dust, but Saffron only believed it when Roarke was touching her. The thought alone would have embarrassed her, if she’d been capable of thought. But maybe she didn’t want to be star dust after all, maybe she wanted to be earth and roots and moss. Something she could feel in her hands, not write poems about.
Roarke propped his back against the wall and pulled her between his legs, his hands stroking her spine. She arched into the touch, nipping at his bottom lip. Finally, finally, they were using their mouths for something other than talking around a point of strategy.
A while later, they stumbled back to the platform, giggling. Saffron had never felt quite to light, even after drinking greensap whiskey in the Rings. Her head spun. Roarke steadied her, grinning foolishly. “You’re drunk.”
“So are you.” She pointed to the others, passed out in various awkward positions. “So are they.”
Nico was sliding off the couch. Saffron didn’t see Killian but Caradoc had his head thrown back, mouth open. “I’ve never seen your uncle actually—-.”
Too late Saffron remembered Jane’s cryptic warning.
She tasted the strawberries on her tongue. The bowl was empty, except for a bit of wine, dyed with crushed berries, like pink champagne.
“Shit, you said they were all here,” someone said.
Roarke’s hand tightened in hers, but when he turned towards her he was moving too slowly, too strangely. She wanted to tell him to run but her brain didn’t seem to be talking to the rest of her body. Her lips were numb. The leaf mask tucked inside her jacket pressed burrs into her skin, drawing blood. It wasn’t enough. And there was nothing down in the concrete and tile tunnels to respond to her. She couldn’t grow them a bridge to lead them out.
“Never mind, they all ate the strawberries. Look, there she goes.”
Jane woke up in a house that was vaguely familiar. It itched at her memory while she tried to sit up, her head spinning. The truth serum was followed by a sedative and she couldn’t recall what she’d told Cartimandua. The more she tried to remember, the more her head hurt.
“Get up.” Asher looked the same, snarling and growling and swaggering. But she could tell he was afraid. She could practically smell it on him. Strangely calm, she rose slowly. Waves of nausea roiled through her. She was wearing a ritual blue chiton and gold leaves in her hair. “We’re in the amphitheatre.”
“Congratulations, genius. Where else would we be?”
She ignored him, moving gingerly to look out of the window. The sun was too bright, too sharp. It gilded the sand on the ground, the glint of soldier’s weapons, the rows and rows of Elysians crowded together. The house trembled faintly with the force of the spectators cheering and stomping their feet. The other houses stood on identical platforms, decorated with green and gold, fluttering fabrics and leaves made out of wire and tiny solar lights. The Green Jack statues were draped with wreaths and garlands. Horses galloped passed, manes braided with green ribbons. “It’s already started,” she murmured, mostly to herself.
She realized then that Asher was wearing a ceremonial tunic in cream-coloured linen painstakingly embroidered with hundreds of oak leaves. They matched the gold leaves wound around her head like a crown. They dug into her scalp.
The solar lamps flashed red. Asher clenched his jaw. “We have to go downstairs. Now,” he insisted when the bulbs went red again. He was sweating. “We have to go out the front door and wave and smile and act like we’re in love.” Jane snorted. Asher snorted back. “Not my idea, Highgate. We were matched, despite Kiri’s trick with the hydrangea petals. She shouldn’t have messed with me. I was sick for days and yet here you are again, the date that wouldn’t die. I don’t know where you were,” he added, disgusted. “But you should have stayed lost.”
“I had no choice,” she said.
“You got caught,” he corrected, shoving her down the first few steps. “Figures. Can’t even run away properly.”
She stopped on the landing, turning to stare at him. Something in the way he’d said Kiri’s name sent a warning tingle across the back of her neck.
“You gave Kiri up to Cartimandua,” Jane realized. She’d never felt this kind of rage before, so cold her insides might shatter. For a moment she felt nothing, not the nausea or the pressure in her head or the chafing of her numen against electricity.
“I had to,” Asher replied. He didn’t sound sorry, but his hand clenched, and unclenched. There were fresh scars on his arms, pink and puckered with scabs. “I have friends to protect too.”
“I doubt that.”
She didn’t have time for his pain. And she’d lived with the Greencoats, her body remembered her training, however brief it had been.
She turned sideways at the last moment and his fist cracked into the wall instead of her face. Power surged flashing faintly blue. She smelled smoke and ozone and burning hair. Asher staggered backwards, the shock enough to stop him, if not knock him out completely. Jane hooked her foot around his ankle. His forehead cracked against the wall. She stepped over him dispassionately.
“Come on, Asher,” she said, descending into the glaringly bright foyer of the ground floor. Glass glittered all around them, clear as a vid screen. “Time to be famous, just like you’ve always wanted.”
Saffron wasn’t entirely sure how she’d gone from the Core to the Spirit Forest to the tunnels, only to end up in a room made of stone. The amphitheatre curved around them, sunlight falling in blocks through narrow barred windows. Saffron was in a cell with Roarke, Livia and Nico. Caradoc was across the hall next to Anya and Shanti. She couldn’t see the other Ferals. She couldn’t see Killian. Something hot and raw tangled inside her.
She pressed against the bars, trying to see into the other cells. She saw Argent chained to a wall, inspecting his sword. Now she knew why the soldiers had carted him off. She didn’t see anyone else though, no one that mattered. “He’s not here,” Roarke said flatly, knowing exactly who it was she was searching for.
“He has to be.” Her eyes were so wide they hurt. “They wouldn’t have killed him.” Couldn’t have killed him.
“I don’t think they did.”
“Then he has to be here. There has to be an explanation.”
“There is,” he agreed. “Your friend is one of them.”
Saffron punched him in the face before she even registered her own reaction. He didn’t say anything, didn’t make a move to retaliate which infuriated Saffron further. She wanted blood on her knuckles; she wanted to make the world bleed until it made sense.
She hadn’t trusted the rebels, but she didn’t trust anyone. She blamed the leaf mask for her uncharacteristic faith in Jane and the Greencoats. It didn’t make things any easier, only sharpened the weapon growing in her gut.
“I knew you couldn’t resist, little brother.” Cartimandua strode down the walkway, trailing soldiers.
Caradoc stepped forward, cursing under his breath. “Cartimandua.”
Saffron had never seen her this close before, only propaganda posters and the statue in the Rings. She had the same presence as that statue: cold, beautiful, and unmovable. “It’s been too long,” she said pleasantly.
“The rebels are yours,” Caradoc stated.
“Of course they are. Everyone is mine.”
“All this time?”
“Mostly. Titus has been very useful. We need someone to fight and the people need a thread of hope. And to be shown how impossible it is for anyone else to do what we do.”
Saffron felt both hot and cold all at once. Killian would never have given himself to Cartimandua, not for anything. The only other option was that he was gone. Hurt. Dea—-. No. No.
“It doesn’t have to be this way.” Caradoc’s hands curled around the bars.
“I agree. So isn’t it time you gave up your annoying quest to coddle the Jacks and come home?”
“You know I can’t do that. Someone has to protect them.”
“Then, I can’t imagine why you’d think I could give up Elysium either. I owe this City better than that.”
“As if you care about the City,” Roarke spat. Saffron, who knew the catharsis of mouthing off to the people who tried to hold you down too well, didn’t know how to get him to stop talking. But she was suddenly very certain that no one was allowed to punch him but her.
Cartimandua’s smile widened, as she turned around. She motioned a soldier back, when he aimed his taser at Roarke. “No need. He’s family.”
“You’re not my family,” Roarke said. “You killed my mother.”
Her eyebrows rose. “More lies, Caradoc?” she asked her brother. “Really, I thought you were the people’s hero and above all of that.”
“It’s not a lie though, is it?” Caradoc said. “You forced our sister to wear the leaf mask.”
“Only because you refused.”
Caradoc flinched. It was the first time Saffron had seen him betray a moment of pain. Even when the land mine tossed him into the trees, he’d been less affected. “I didn’t know you’d turn on her. We were so young. You were supposed to look out for her. She was only sixteen!”
“I suppose it doesn’t matter anymore,” she said.
“It matters,” Roarke ground out.
She shook her head. “Nothing matters, you stupid boy. The Green Jacks are dying, quicker and quicker.”
“Listen to me. We know the Jacks better than you do. They don’t get used up in the forest, not the way they do here.”
Cartimandua narrowed her eyes. “You’re lying.”
“I’m not. How do you think we manage to send so much food out of the forest? You’ll never keep them alive in labs and chains.”
“Then join me. Because the satellites are falling. And after that, the power will go. We’ve always known it was coming, and now we’re out of time. The grid is teetering. Without the Jacks, there’s not enough food. People are already hungry.” She turned slightly, meeting Caradoc’s eyes. “And I don’t need to tell you how desperate hungry people get.”
“Oh, so you turned megalomaniac because you needed a snack?” Saffron asked loudly. She’d been hungry, hungrier than Cartimandua ever would be. But mostly she said it because Roarke had opened his mouth to say much worse. She shoved his swollen face into the bars and the pain momentarily stole his voice. Behind her Nico sighed, “Shit, Saffron.”
Cartimandua raised a dismissive eyebrow. “Core rat,” she said. “I’d know one anywhere. One of yours?” she asked Caradoc.
“Actually, she was a rebel,” he answered smoothly.
“Not a very good one, it seems.”
Belatedly, Saffron remembered she was a Green Jill and really ought to shut her damn mouth. And then it didn’t matter because Cartimandua tasered her and the volts of power snapped her back teeth together. Roarke and Nico struggled to catch her before her head hit the stones.“Cartimandua, enough,” Caradoc snapped. “What are you really up to?”
“Saving my people.”
“Then let me help. Free the Jacks. You’ll get your food then.”
“It’s too late for that.” She shook her head. “I’d hoped for better, Caradoc. I really did. But now I’ll have to make an example of you.”
“Fine,” he agreed. “I surrender. But let the others go.”
Cartimandua just smiled again and then walked away without another word. Roarke crouched beside Saffron, blood trickling from the corner of his mouth. She shuddered, tasting copper. She tried to sit up, but could only lift her neck. Her jacket had fallen open. She stared down at herself, horror growing exponentially. “It’s gone.”
Roarke glanced down at her questioningly.
“The leaf mask is gone.”
The Amphitheatre was deafening. There were so many people that they were reduced to smudges of colours. Asher propped himself up on the fence beside Jane. “You’ll pay for that,” he said around his swollen top lip. Jane ignored him. He looked briefly surprised, but that might just have been a side effect of having his face smashed into a wall.
The other couples emerged from the houses, blinking in the hot sun. The crowds cheered, craning to get a better look. Jane’s face flashed on a vid screen, pale but composed. Asher stared up through his hair, turning sideways so his bloody nose was mostly hidden. It looked as though he was tucking her against him, wanting to be closer. The audience cheered, throwing flowers. “Play the game, Highgate,” he said.
Jane just felt sick.
The pavilion behind Cartimandua framed her with gold. Her hair was woven into a crown again. She looked capable and strong; like someone who could protect the Elysians. “Welcome Elysians,” she announced, her voice like a white bird released off the prow of a ship. It mesmerized, carried the hope of thousands as if it was nothing but more air under its feathers. “Today we are truly one people.”
“We are forging a path to the future. One where we do not rely blindly on numen held greedily by another; but instead where we hold our fates in our own two hands. Such a thing requires courage, and sometimes, sacrifice. But I believe the City is worth it.” She waved her hand and the metal gates set into the main archway creaked up. “And now you see how I put the City before everything, before even my own family.”
Soldiers shoved Caradoc into the amphitheatre. He was streaked with green paint and soaked to the skin. There was a gash dripping blood down his temple. Jane didn’t know where to look; she couldn’t look away but she couldn’t stand to see him there either.
“My brother Caradoc, leader of the Greencoats.”
Jane pressed to the very edge of the platform. She tried to find a pattern in the green splotches, the blood on his shirt, anything. The electricity humming through the wires and electric barbs woven through the fence behind her rose the hairs on the arms.
“And my misguided nephew, Roarke.” Cartimandua continued, looking chagrined. “I would save them if I could, but they have acted against the Directorate. They would tell you our brave Jacks are not strong enough to be heroes. But I know different. Green Jacks are the true selfless heroes. And by denying that, Greencoats steal food from your own mouths, and that I will not stand for. I swore an oath to stand for this City, and stand I shall.”
Caradoc and Roarke were joined by a ragged group; Saffron, Shanti, Anya and Nico, Livia.
And Kiri. She was bruised, with stitches on her face and arms. Her dress was torn but the beads still flashed. They wouldn’t have let her wear her Seedsinger chiton, no now.
“They must be punished with this City sitting witness. After all, what is the point of finding new Jacks, if I can’t protect them for you? Rebels, Ferals, Greencoats—-none can break us. Today we will have new champions strong enough to wear the mask, and today, we will have justice.”
A portcullis rose on the other side of the amphitheatre. The crowd waited expectantly, ravenously. There was already blood in the sand from previous fights. Warriors streamed in, armed with maces and swords and clubs. The horses spat sand from under giant hooves. They weren’t Protectorate soldiers, trained and orderly. These were men and women talented at violence. They were fighting to be the next Jack, fighting to kill Jane’s friends, fighting because they wanted to.
She was glad the others were at least allowed weapons as well. She supposed it wouldn’t have been an entertaining fight without them. A massacre did nothing for morale, but a sacrifice would make the crowd feel fierce and untouchable.
A small woman wearing leather went for Caradoc. Her slender swords sliced at him and though he was fast, she was faster. She kept advancing until his shirt was shredded, the skin stained red beneath. He finally went low and Saffron whipped one of her knives at her.
Roarke and Nico were shoulder to shoulder, blocking sword strikes from above and flashing hooves below. Nico went down, disappearing from view. Jane gasped, hands tightening on the fence. She couldn’t see him, only more weapons, more horses, more warriors. She couldn’t see Kiri either. The crowd thundered behind her, pressing against them like the sea.
The fight went on and Cartmandua’s examples weren’t falling as quickly as she’d anticipated. The audience stamped their feet, beginning to favour the underdogs. At a signal from Cartimandua the warriors who were still able to move, melted away. Kiri was on her knees, alive but wounded. Anya gripped her spear, the sunlight flashing off the copper, Shanti at her side. Nico lay with his leg bent at the wrong angle and his chest a raw mess of flesh and splintered bones.
Numen shot up Jane’s spine, as if she didn’t already see flashes of blood on the sand and Saffron lying too still again every time she closed her eyes. And abruptly, Jane couldn’t watch anymore. She couldn’t—wouldn’t—stand apart and read the omens in her friends’ blood. Not when she could make those same omens a weapon. Not when she could help.
The house was circled with barbed wire and electricity to keep the crowds from coming too close but there was nothing to stop her from dropping down the front of the platform and onto the sand. Because it was madness, suicide. Who would choose it over the luxury of the house rising up behind her?
Jane swung over the decorative fence, dropping into the amphitheatre. Her left ankle throbbed dangerously, and refused to take her full weight. The crowd surged forward, desperate to see what would happen now. Jane limped towards her friends, finally feeling numen coursing inside her. She couldn’t look at Nico, it made her breath stutter in her throat.
Saffron was the first to greet her. “You’re an idiot.”
“But I missed you,” Jane returned. She tried to smile because, under the circumstances, it was the most defiant act she could imagine.
“Like I said. Idiot.”
Caradoc shifted so his back was to hers. “Something worse is coming.”
The growling came from everywhere. The arches were empty, iron portcullis gates slamming shut. The sand shifted under their feet. “What’s happening?” Kiri asked.
Jane steadied her. “I’m so sorry.”
“Sorry later,” Caradoc snapped. “Fight now.”
The trap door opened under the sand, lifting platforms into the arena. Acid-green eyes flashed. “Cerberus,” Saffron swore.
Directorate videos hadn’t truly been able to convey their strength and their alienness. Jane mind staggered, trying to associate them to dogs, boars, anything familiar, but the combination was too grotesque. Powerful muscles hunched under fur, lips peeled off teeth the size of icicles. Even the audience members, safe behind their fences, leaned back slightly.
In seconds, jaws clamped around Roarke’s arm, spattering saliva and blood. Saffron jabbed a dagger into the back of the Cerberus’ neck and it screamed, shrill and sharp. Roarke wrapped the ruin of his sleeve around the wound. The Cerberus took off, running erratically. Shanti gave a shout of warning.
Anya planted the end of her spear and leapt into air, her sandals skimming its knotted spine when it charged blindly at her. Jane wasn’t sure if there were spikes suddenly protruding from the fur. She didn’t have time to wonder, as the Cerberus, denied its first victim, turned baleful eyes on her and Kiri, huddled together. Numen ignited Jane’s spine until she might have had spikes of her own. There were only shadows and light and the tingle in her legs, urging her to move. She dodged, dragging Kiri with her. Kiri was slow, bleeding from various wounds. The Cerberus watched her hungrily, nostrils flaring. When it attacked, Caradoc was suddenly here, knocking them back. Jane she landed in the sand between his feet. Maddened by the blood and the shouting, stamping crowd, the other Cerberus pressed closer, snarling.
I am the earth where seeds of wisdom grow.
“On your left,” Jane shouted, and Caradoc shifted to block. He had a short sword; enough to discourage an attack but not enough to truly stop it.
“Saffron, drop!” Jane ordered, feeling her pupils go white. Time became veils of light and colour. Saffron dropped and the Cerberus who had sighted her, jostled into another, who snapped back with a crack of teeth. They turned on each other in a fury of jaws and claws.
The battle continued, too slow and too quick, as Jane struggled to see an escape. She scanned the amphitheatre, dark arches, butter-coloured stones, flash of weapons. Cartimandua stood on her dais, silently furious. The barbed wire at her feet looked like metal vines.
Red dust, light through slats of wood, blood in the sand.
Jane blinked. Light through slats of wood. The trap doors had closed after regurgitating monsters onto the amphitheatre floor. But they were still there, and one of them was lit from beneath. Light shot through the gaps, just like the omen.
“We need to get to the door,” Jane shouted at Caradoc.
Jane dragged Kiri across the bloodied sand. The audience shouted excitedly, assuming the two girls were about to get eaten. Caradoc stabbed a Cerberus in the eye. Blood spattered on the back of Jane’s leg. His teeth followed, but it was a graze, not a full bite. It stomped, whining with panic and pain.
Anya smashed her spear down into the spine of a soldier aiming at Shanti. He crumpled, silently. Shanti smiled her thanks, just as he rolled over, blood sputtering from his lips. He had just enough strength left to fire his gun. The bullet tore through Anya’s eye. Shanti leapt forward, screaming, but it was too late. Blood pooled in the sand under Anya’s head.
Shanti tried to drag Anya’s body away from the charging Cerebus. Jane grabbed her arm. Shanti snarled, drawing back to hit her. “Anya wanted you to live,” Jane shouted, ducking her head down but not letting go. “That was her point. We have to go, now.”
Shanti finally stepped away from her dead spear-sister.
Jane hated to leave Nico behind too. They deserved better, even dead. Saffron kicked a Cerberus in the nose when it snapped its jaw at Roarke’s leg.
“I’m getting the hang of th——.”
The trap door opened beneath them, dropping them into darkness.
Saffron’s bones were made of iron. Her entire body was rusty. Adrenaline was the only thing keeping her from creaking to a complete stop.She’d been apart from the leaf mask too long. She tried not to think about the fact that she had no idea where it was—in the tunnels, Cartimandua’s pocket, anywhere. Roarke was grimacing and green with pain. Jane helped Kiri to her feet. Caradoc was already standing, sword ready.
They were alive. For now.
There were cages all around them. Cerberus bit at the bars, growling and barking. The ground shook and sand trickled from the ceiling. They’d landed in the hypogeum under the amphitheatre.
When the first soldier burst out of the shadows, Caradoc stopped her from stabbing him.. Her knife arm felt clumsy and it sent a new terror shivering through her. “Sympathiser,” Caradoc explained curtly. There were two tiny lines scratched into the button of his cuff.
“Liang,” the soldier introduced himself. “I can get you out but we have to hurry.”
“Where do they keep the Jacks?” Caradoc explained as they ran down a dusty tunnel. Even now he was a Greencoat.
“There are Jacks are in the yard,” Liang pointed at the tunnel offshoot. “They’re going to be paraded through the amphitheatre between Trials.”
“Thank you, Liang.” Caradoc stopped at the mouth of the tunnel leading to the courtyard. “Get them out. I’ll get the Jacks.”
“I’m going with you,” Roarke said through clenched teeth.
“What are you going to do? Bleed on them?” Saffron snapped.
“She’s right,” Caradoc said. “You’re wounded. And it has to be now. Cartimandua will keep the Trials going because she can’t admit we got out. She’ll pretend it was planned that way. She’ll send soldiers, but she won’t be able to spare as many as she’d like. Go. I’ll meet you at the tree on Charles Street.”
“Don’t go south,” Saffron said. “They blocked most of those roads during the last riot.”
“I’m going with you then,” Jane said, separating from the group.
“Like hell you are.”
“You need me,” she said simply, before darting away. Caradoc followed. There was no time to argue. No time to get out if they didn’t hurry.
Saffron wanted to follow them on principle, to know that a Green Jill had helped release the Directorate’s precious Green Jack prisoners, but she also knew she wasn’t quite fast enough. She might trip over her own feet and stab herself in the face. Magic chained her, dragged her down, and she couldn’t fight it with her fists or her knives. She tasted anise, like she had the first time she’d worn the leaf mask, and more alarmingly, salt. Roarke slid his good arm around her waist. “I’m fine,” she mumbled.
“I’m the one losing blood and I still look better than you,” he said. “Take the help, Foxfire.” She did, mostly because she didn’t have an option. They held each other up, stumbling after Liang. Livia and Jane’s friend Kiri were close behind. Liang shoved them into a small closet just as more soldiers raced past.
“Clear,” he said. “But grab those tunics behind you. With any luck you’ll look like amphitheatre groundskeepers.”
Saffron pulled the uniform over her head. It smelled like disinfectant and animal sweat. Roarke hissed when the movement pulled his wound open. They climbed stone steps up into a small alcove. A soldier glanced at them from the archway leading to the courtyard. Liang nodded. “Cerberus got loose again. Just taking them to the healers.”
The soldier turned away, more interested in the fight beginning on the sand. The crowd stomped their feet. The noise shivered through Saffron’s teeth. Liang took them though a hidden door and they slipped out onto the road. There was no one to see them or to cry the alarm. The streets were deserted. Even the birds were silent.
They turned down a lane littered with acorns from a nearby oak tree. Saffron wanted to curl up into the branches. She knew it was a consequence of the leaf mask, knew no oak tree could help her without it. And then the oak tree surprised her.
Killian, knowing her shortcuts as well as she did, came around the other side. He had a black eye and a broken hand wrapped with a makeshift bandage. Relief flooded through her so deeply she felt sick with it.
The others reacted somewhat differently.
Killian wrapped himself around Saffron like a turtle’s shell, until she was tucked against the alley wall and protected from the various knife and spear points digging into his back. She turned her head slightly to look at him, slurring slightly.
“Took you long enough.”
“Stay close,” Caradoc whispered, as if Jane had any intention of being anywhere else.
There were gates and alarms blinking in the wall and the gleam of glass windows. There were more servants and scientists in this section of the hypogeum, so close to the labs. “To the left,” Jane told him. “There are stairs leading up to the courtyard.”
She plucked the gold leaves from her hair before they caught the light and gave her away. She couldn’t do anything about the chiton, it was too obvious. She’d have to hope they didn’t recognize her, that they saw just another Oracle. She rubbed the back of her neck. Her tattoo felt bruised. A crow, red dust. Her numen was petering out, showing her the red dust of an attack that had already happened.
They darted up the stairs, peering into the bright courtyard. Soldiers milled about, more interested in the cheers coming from the open archways. A Cerberus in a cage snarled. They slipped into the shadow of a row of storage sheds for weapons, tools, and water barrels. Several yards away were four Green Jacks in a painted carnival cart. It was festooned with ribbons, but the bars were iron and the lock closed tight. Jane grabbed Caradoc’s arm. “Duck when you hear the crow.”
“Stay here.” Caradoc climbed onto the roof of one of the sheds lined against the wall. He walked the line, staying crouched low. She slipped inside the nearest shed. His footsteps sounded on the roof above her. Her muscles tightened like bowstrings. She wanted to do so much more but she’d lost the connection, her numen finally sputtering out.
A crow landed on the cart’s roof, cawing loudly. The nearest soldier glanced back. Caradoc was already slipping beneath it, clinging to the underside. One of the Green Jacks slapped the bars. He had shoulders like a bull. His companions were thin as saplings. “Oi, can I get some water?”
It distracted away from Caradoc but only to turn the attention on her. The soldier sighed and turned to the water barrels. Jane didn’t have time to move. She could only duck deeper into the spider-thick darkness, wedging herself between two barrels inside her shed. Light fell like an arrow, touching the hem of her chiton. She held her breath. The soldier filled a pitcher, muttering to himself. When he turned away, Jane sagged, finally inhaling.
Caradoc had already lowered himself to the ground, and he wriggled out, grinning up at the Jack. “Ready to get out of here?”
“Born ready, mate.”
One of the Jacks pressed against of the cart. “I have to stay. I volunteered for this to protect my family.”
The others leapt out, following Caradoc to the storage sheds against the wall. Jane met them there, adrenaline making her feel both electrified and ill. A blond soldier blocked their way. Caradoc lifted his short sword. She only tapped a button on her cuff, showing the faint lines scratched there. They could have been marks of wear, weren’t. “Use the door under the eaves there. I’ve just left my post.” She turned away, raising her voice. “Need help at the western gate!” she called out, breaking into a run that pulled soldiers after her.
“You have a lot of secret supporters,” Jane said.
“Cartimandua’s not the only one who knows how to use sleeper agents. But that soldier will die,” he added tightly as they slipped out the gate. “And she knew it. Anyone manning the gates will be executed once Cartimandua realizes we escaped and took three Jacks with us.”
They’d finally made it out of the amphitheatre but Caradoc didn’t relax. “There’s something else going on,” he muttered as they turned into an alley. “She has a plan.”
“More than breeding programs and arena fights?” Jane asked.
“Much more,” he said grimly. “Everything today was pageantry. And she uses everything like a weapon. So what is she distracting us from?”
Jane didn’t have an answer, especially not when they turned a corner to find Saffron lying on the ground, too pale. Roarke and Killian were fighting, yelling in low savage voices. Kiri watched uncertainly. Livia wiped blood off her face. If she’d tried to stop them she wasn’t going to try again. Roarke shoved Killian hard. He hit the wall, his pack falling off his shoulder. “You sold us out.”
Saffron eyes fluttered as she lost consciousness. “Um, guys?” Jane asked, kneeling beside her.
“I saved your life,” Killian said.
“You gave us up to the Directorate.” Roarke shoved again. “To Cartimandua.”
Killian dodged, this time shoving back. “I was on watch when it happened. So I played along.”
Saffron’s eyes were closed, coppery skin too pale. Jane remembered her vision. She chafed Saffron’s hand but nothing happened.
“Played along for what?” Roarke insisted. Violence boiled between them.
“Little boys,” Jane snapped loudly, her voice like a whip. “Shut the hell up. She’s dying.”
“For this,” Killian answered Roarke, even as he tossed his bag to Jane. “The leaf mask,” he explained.
The leaf mask was as brittle as Saffron was limp, crumbling to dust at the edges. An ivy tendril draped itself around Jane’s wrist. “Saffron,” she urged, placing the leaf mask over her friend’s face. “Wake up. Wake up.”
“You’re letting the Directorate win,” Roarke added. “Time to wake up and kick some ass.”
Killian took Saffron’s other hand, leaning to whisper in her ear. “You can’t leave your Oona alone.”
Saffron twitched. Jane pressed the leaf mask harder onto Saffron’s face. “It’s not working.”
She called up her numen, feeling it travel up her spine and tried to force it down her arms instead of up to her skull to show her images of things that would break her heart. Her fingertips went numb. She curled them into the leaf mask, willing it to get stronger, to heal her friend. The professors at the Collegium would have told her this wasn’t how numen worked, but they didn’t know Jane had been conceived by a Green Jack, and they didn’t know Saffron. She held onto that hope, channelling so much numen. Sweat dampened her forehead. The oak tree beside them pelted them with acorns. Slowly, so slowly, the leaf mask began to respond.
Jane tasted green things as the edges of the leaves curled instead of crumbled. The dusty goldenrod shook itself and the dandelions turned into little suns. She trembled with the effort of forcing her numen into parts of herself she hadn’t realized it could travel. She was an overgrown road, a faded map.
The ivy moved from her wrist, curling around and around her arm, creeping into up her hair. It changed to mint leaves and white tea roses and glossy blackberries. The inside of her skull was traced with green lightning. The leaf mask was abandoning Saffron, clinging to Jane instead. Saffron would fall apart into dark fertile earth. “No.”
She lifted a hand to rip it off her head. The ivy tightened, until her fingers turned blue and cold, even as they burned from within with the power of her numen.
But it was still ivy. It was still a leaf from Saffron’s mask.
Jane tore roses and peppermint off her living crown. She tucked and braided them into the faded leaves still draped over Saffron’s brow. “I need iron.”
Caradoc passed her a knife from his belt and she pressed it to the ivy vine above her elbow. The lighting in her head intensified, until she had to blink green sparks out of her vision. Encouraged, she cut through the vine, tangling it immediately into Saffron’s mask. She hoped to confuse it, force it to latch back onto Saffron to save itself and therefore Saffron as well.
“In the old stories, green magic is broken by iron,” she explained to the others. “Like they use in the tag tattoos.” Caradoc had told her that. “Kiri, convince the mask to stay with Saffron.”
“How the jacking hell am I supposed to do that?”
“It’s kind of like a seed,” Jane said desperately. “Or at least a strawberry plant sending off runners. Try.”
Kiri knelt beside Jane, placing her fingertips on the mask and pressing it against Saffron’s skin. She closed her eyes, singing a soft song like a lullaby. She smelled like wet earth suddenly, like dark loam and rain. Already exhausted from Cartimandua’s beating, blood dripped from her nose.
The ivy unfurled, touching Saffron’s braided hair, and the blood on her lip from where she’d bitten through it. Jane scooted back out of its reach. The perfume of mint and rose petals wafted around her. “It’s working,” she whispered.
Kiri kept singing, insistent but still soft.
Saffron shifted slightly, so slightly they all froze, staring at her. She finally cracked one eye open. “Ow.”
Jane made a strange sound, somewhere between a sob and a laugh. Roarke stared at her. “I’ve never seen that before. What did you do? Can you do it again?”
She smiled wanly. “I have no idea.” She steadied Kiri when her friend slumped. They clung to each other. “You did it, Kiri.”
“I’m awesome,” she mumbled, not opening her eyes.
“You really are,” Saffron croaked. She looked at Roarke and Killian. “Um, guys?”
“What do you need?
“Are you in pain?”
“Yes, in fact. You’ve got my hands clamped tighter than Protectorate cuffs.”
They released her so abruptly her knuckles bounced lightly on the ground. She smirked at Roarke. “I told you Killian didn’t betray us.” She turned to Killian. “And you’re a dumbass, by the way.”
She pushed up on her elbows. Roarke and Killian hovered beside her, hands extended uncertainly. She slapped them both away.
“I thought I’d feel worse after dropping dead.”
“Just a little dead.” Jane smiled faintly. “I told you the moon had plans for us.”
Saffron grinned. “So you did. And apparently the leaf mask threw a tantrum and abandoned me,” she added wryly. “Ungrateful hunk of dirt.” She raised her eyebrows at Jane’s crown. “I guess that makes you a Jill as well now.”
She touched the rose petals wonderingly. “I guess so.”
“Let me give you a tip,” Saffron said pushing to her feet. “These things are a pain in the ass.” She hugged Jane briefly. “Thank you.” The oak tree ruffled its leaves over them.” Saffron glanced up. “Oh, shut it.”
“My numen is different than the others,” Jane added hesitantly. Kiri snorted at the understatement. “I’m not exactly sure what it means but I think we’re linked now. The leaf mask split into two.”
“It’s what the Directorate have been trying to do all along,” Caradoc said quietly. “What my sister has been obsessed with.”
“And Jane did it in seconds without hurting anyone,” Saffron gloated.
Jane glanced at Kiri. “Almost anyone.”
Kiri tried to smile around her split lip. “You’re going to tell me what’s going on eventually, right?”
“And you basically stuck it to that bitch Cartimandua?”
Kiri touched the bloody gash on her face. “Good enough for now.”
“I like her,” Saffron said.
“Careful, that’s two Enclave girls you like,” Jane teased.
She recoiled in mock horror, before glancing at Killian. “Let’s go home. Just for a minute before we go back to running for our lives. I want to see Oona.”
Saffron hurried through the deserted streets. Caradoc’s brow furrowed as he looked around. “Is that his celebration face?” Safffron asked Roarke. “It needs work.”
“No, that’s his we’re-all-going-to-die face.”
“But I’ve already done that today.” Her giddy good humour faded when Caradoc paused. He was staring down the empty street. She turned to follow his gaze. It was definitely strange but everyone was in the amphitheatre. She decided he was overreacting.
Until she noticed the red dust on the windowsills.
They were already so close to home, too close. Dust spilled out of the doorways, glittering on broken glass. She kicked an empty canister as she broke into a run. “Saffron, wait!” Roarke swore. Killian was already at her side, thundering into the apartment building. The stairwell was thick with dust. She burst into their apartment, dread and fear prickling inside her rib cage. Killian hovered in the doorway, out of the sight of the security camera. If they found out he was alive, his family would suffer for it.
The living room window was broken and light fell in, shining on Papu, covered in rust and blood. Saffron wasn’t sure if she was breathing or sobbing or both as she fell into Oona’s room. Too late, too late.
Oona was in her rocking chair, blood streaking her dusty cheeks like tears. She was so still, gone. She thought someone might be holding her hand but she couldn’t tell. She couldn’t feel anything but the pressure in her chest. She staggered into the hall. Killian moved, as if he was going to step into the apartment towards her but she held up her hand.
“This is what Cartimandua was really doing,” Caradoc said after a horrified pause. “The amphitheatre trials were mandatory, just like Festival days.”
“Except for the ill,” Saffron continued dully as Jane stepped forward to close Oona’s eyes. “And the old.” Everything inside her went sharp. She was surprised her leaf mask didn’t turn to knives.
“They’re Dusting the City,” Jane explained when Livia and Kiri looked confused. “It will kill anyone who’s not in the amphitheatre.”
“She’s culling,” Caradoc added. “Before the grid goes down entirely.”
“Less people to feed,” Jane agreed, so quietly Saffron could barely hear her over the thudding of her heart. Oona’s garden had taken over the fire escape, blooming thick and green with the Green Jack’s soil. Saffron had really thought she was saving her.
Caradoc was at the window, peering through the peas curling up the sill. “They’re sending drones,” he said quietly. She could see the tinge of red to the air. “They haven’t finished.”
Saffron remembered Oona talking about the Green Jack, how no one deserved to die alone. She turned back to the others. “How do we stop them? How do we stop them?” she yelled when no one answered her.
“We have virtually no weapons,” Caradoc said. “And there must be hundreds of the drones out there right now.”
“And is she wrong?” One of the Green Jacks asked. He held up his hands when Saffron snarled at him. “I hate the bitch as much as you do, but when the last of the tech goes, it will be chaos. As bad as the Cataclysms.”
“No,” Saffron said very clearly. “That is not a plan. That is giving up. We were too late for my Oona and Papu, like hell we’ll be too late for everyone in the Core. Like hell that bitch is going to win. She doesn’t get to kill our people to save hers.”
“We might not have weapons like the Directorate,” Jane added. She already smelled like mint and roses. “But we have Green Jacks. And that means we have the trees.”
“An army of trees,” Roarke said. “It’s something.”
“And Elysium City is a forest of sorts, just like the Spirit Forest. It must have a Mother tree,” Saffron said. “If we can link to it, the all of the trees will be ours.”
“They’re moving east from the fourth district,” Caradoc said, still at the window. The bonebirds were already circling. “Cartimandua will keep everyone in the amphitheatre for a few more hours at least. Long enough for the dust to settle. Literally.”
“We’ll help,” two of the Green Jacks said, including the one who’d just wondered if Cartimandua was doing the right thing. The third had already passed out on the floor. His bones poked out of his linen shirt.
“I’ll go with you then,” Caradoc continued. He nodded at Kiri. “You stay here with the other one.”
“You could stay too,” Saffron suggested to Killian. “I can’t lose everyone, Killian.”
He met her eyes. “No. My father died to stop the Dust. I’m not staying here. I’m going to do what he couldn’t do. And I’d never leave you, Foxfire.”
She knew he wouldn’t stay. Caradoc was still working out a plan, but she was already running out the door. The Core was the colour of fox fur.
When they reached the fifth district, they were too late. They had to double back and circle to the sixth, crouched on either side of the street. Saffron pressed her hands against a towering maple tree. It rustled, growing bright buds, green as butterfly cocoons. Saffron pushed harder, willing the branches to reach out like hands, like swords and spears. The drones whirred and clicked like giant poisonous insects as they approached. Silver canisters were tossed into window, one after the other. She heard a scream cut off abruptly.
“Talk to the Mother Tree,” she leaned into the tree so desperately the bark scratched at her arms, leaving welts. “Tell her we need her. We need you all.”
Jane was wrapped around an ash tree, muttering some kind of Woodwife prayer. Her ash tree dipped over the sidewalk, into the street. It was slow painful work. Saffron blinked sweat out of her eyes. She could feel all of the bones in her body, too sharp, too hollow. Green Jack skeletons flashed in her head. She pushed the images away.
The drones were too close.
There was a beep as one hovered, turning a metal eye in their direction.
“Get down!” Roarke crashed into her just as the bullets hit the tree, shattering the trunk. Shrapnel bit into her back and her legs like a thousand wasps. She scrambled back to her feet. She had to reach the next tree. More bullets came and Roarke was there again, knocking her down. “Are you nuts?”
Killian crouched behind a car, using Roarke’s rifle to pick off the drones as they closed in. A dryad tossed what looked like human bones at the drones that drifted too close to her tree.
“We almost have it,” Saffron insisted, stretching towards the tree until her shoulder screamed. Her fingers brushed a root. A little further. Something tore in her rotator cuff but she was able to wrap her hand around the root. Burrs prickled into her hair and the back of her neck. She didn’t know where the Mother tree was, only that it was connected through the roots that traveled underground, just like the rebel tunnels. She pushed every ounce of energy into her plea. Jane was curled limply around her tree, dropping black berries from her mask. They rolled across the sidewalk.
Slowly, slowly, the trees reached out, tangling branches. A barricade of leaves and flowers began to form, creaking and rustling. The other trees responded, like lightbulbs switching on. Oak and ash and maples curved over the street and stretched in front of buildings.
The drones crashed into each other, caught in the trees, and shattered on the concrete. Canisters rolled into the gutter.
Saffron was too weak, too empty. There was only green sap, only roots digging down, only fire moving through her and burning her hollow. Someone was carrying her.
The trees continued to grow over them, shedding petals and catkins. They trapped the drones until they plummeted, falling like metal rain.
The Core was safe.
For now, at least.
Jane felt like she’d turned to dandelion fluff and might blow away entirely. She could smell the roses and the mint of her mask. Caradoc held her tightly until they found an abandoned building to hide in. The basement was Dusted but empty except for boot prints. Soldiers had already swept, they’d be safe enough, at least for a little while. Saffron wanted to back for her grandmother but she didn’t know what to do with the body. She couldn’t bury it, couldn’t burn it. She couldn’t even walk.
Before she left, Shanti told them the other Ferals had left before the drugged strawberries were brought out, feeling too trapped in the subway tunnels. Anya and Shanti had stayed, to buy at least two more months of a Green Jill’s life in their gully gardens. Jane promised they would get their two months but her words slurred with exhaustion and she wasn’t sure Shanti believed her.
Jane slept for two days, waking only when Kiri forced her to drink water. The bruises on her face were healing and someone had found her new clothes to wear. Caradoc left to scout the area on a regular basis but he was always there when Jane woke. She dreamt of Green Jacks, burning satellites falling to earth, red dust under her fingernails. She woke with a startled yelp, the back of her neck damp with sweat.
Caradoc looked over from his post at the window. She could make out the shapes of the others, still asleep. It must be late. “Okay?” Caradoc asked.
She nodded, pushing the mask off her face. Rose leaves itched. I am the earth where seeds of wisdom grow. She might not feel particularly wise but the rest of the prayer was suddenly true in a way it never had been before. She might one day, literally, be earth.
“Drink more water,” Caradoc passed her a plastic jug. She drank, tasting mint and roses. He shrugged. “Your friend Kiri insisted on taking some leaves from your mask for the water. She says it tastes like home.”
“It does.” She touched the mask, the mint leaves that tangled with her hair. Her numina mark felt cool, like spring water. She was used to it burning.
“Does it hurt?”
“No,” she said. “It just feels odd.” She’d never expected to be anything but Jane, a shy Oracle from the Enclave. She didn’t know what it meant to be a Jill. Fear and excitement thrummed through her. “I guess this is the new me.” She drank more water, forced herself to stay calm. “Do you think Cartimandua is right? About the power being the next to go?”
He nodded. “The grid has been on the edge for years. Most of it is older than the Cataclysms. The rest is cobbled together from pieces that aren’t much better. Not enough manpower, not enough supplies.”
“At least we can make more masks now,” she said. “Or try to, anyway.”
“Will Kiri help?”
“I think so. She can’t go back home. I think she’ll like it at the camp,” she smiled wryly. “Once she gets used to it.”
“We’ll protect you, Jane,” Caradoc said, eyes pinning hers. “I’ll protect you.”
She smiled softly. “I know. I’ll protect you too. And I think I’ll probably make a better Jill than a Greencoat.”
“But you’ll still come home with me?” He asked hoarsely.
“Of course. Isn’t that where Green Jacks go?”
“No.” He crouched in front of her. There was still blood on his shirt, dried paint on his collarbone. “So you’ll come home with me?” he repeated, taking one of her hands.
She caught her breath. She’d been so afraid that she’d stopped being the girl from the Enclave to him, only long enough to become a Green Jill. To become another responsibility.
She nodded, words tangling in her throat. He lifted her hand, pressing a kiss to the inside of her wrist. She felt rosebuds blossoming in her hair. She leaned into him.
The building shook, dirt raining through the cracks and crevices. An alarm pierced the darkness.
Saffron sat up. “Jacking hell, the Elysians are rioting again.”
Saffron was sure it said something unsavory about her character that she found the riot comforting,
No matter what happened, no matter how hard they were pushed down, Elysians always pushed back. Something in her longed to be out there with them. But even besides the fact that she was a Jill now, she was too weak. Stronger than she had been, but not strong enough. She had to leave the mask pushed up in her hair if she didn’t wear it on her face. If she took it off even for a few minutes she felt like passing out.
The others were pushing out of their bedrolls. The Green Jacks stayed close to each other. They would have to find somewhere else to hide soon. The trees outside were probably taking over the street. Luckily, she and Jane had already altered them so much to stop the Dust, hopefully, the verdure would be attributed to that.
“They’re going to bomb the amphitheatre before morning,” Killian said, pushing abruptly into the basement.
“She’ll only rebuild it,” Caradoc muttered. “She’s desperate.”
“Still, if you’re going to go, I’d go now,” Killian said. “Before it’s too late. There are bounty posters everywhere.”
“Thank the Green Gods,” Livia muttered, already shoving her arms into her jacket. “Let’s go.”
“Signals are spotty,” Killian continued, his eyes on Saffron. “That should help. And there aren’t a lot of Elysians likely to give you up. At least not tonight.”
She frowned at him. He frowned back. “What?”
“You’re looking at me funny.”
“That’s because I’m going to miss you, idiot,” he muttered.
“I’m not going anywhere.” She felt Roarke’s eyes on her as well.
Saffron always assumed that once she’d left the City, she’d never return. But she knew Killian wanted to organize proper rebels, ones who actually rebelled instead of obeyed, and she was fairly certain if she left him alone he’d get an arrow in the back. And someone had to make sure Titus and his bloody moles paid for what they’d done.
Not to mention, someone had to help Killian distribute whatever food Jane and Caradoc sent their way, as well as make sure the Tagging centres didn’t go on unchallenged. There was no question the Directorate would try again. And again. Especially if the last of the satellites were failing.
“I’m staying with you, dumbass,” she told Killian. His smile was startled and sweet. She nearly groaned. He really would get himself killed without her.
She stepped closer to Roarke. She didn’t owe him explanations or excuses, but she liked him. She’d miss him. “I have to stay,” she said. “The Core will need a Green Jill more than the Spirit Forest does.”
“I know.” He didn’t sound surprised.
She shifted awkwardly. “I’m sorry.” She kissed him, and his hands closed over her hips, as if he could keep her close. “Goodbye, Roarke.”
Saffron turned away, refusing to admit that her eyes felt hot. Jane watched her sympathetically. “Don’t,” she muttered. Jane just smiled. “And don’t die.” She hugged Jane hard. “We’re linked now remember?”
“I should be saying that to you, don’t you think? All things considered.”
She snorted. “I don’t know, but I think you might be as reckless as I am.”
“I shudder to think,” Roarke said. She nudged him with her shoulder, glad for the comraderie, even if it was a little forced. “I’ll look after her.”
“She doesn’t need it,” Saffron admitted. “She’d pretty bad-ass for an Enclave girl.”
“For a Green Jill, you mean,” Jane said.
They helped Jane, Caradoc, Roarke, Livia and the three Green Jacks sneak through the chaos of the Core. Bonebirds circled overhead. They’d been feeding for days. Saffron tried to think of Oona as a Feral, with her bones and body given to the birds.
Killian stood next to her as the other disappeared into the shadows.
The riot went on for three days. True to Caradoc’s prediction, Cartimandua and the Directorate began rebuilding the amphitheatre within hours. The makeshift bombs had only managed to blow apart on of the outer walls and a section of seating.
In the end, the Directorate still had the City, and the Green Jacks, though fewer of them.
But the Core had its own Green Jill now too. She walked the rope bridges at night, visiting balcony and rooftop gardens, blooming dandelions and chickweed and stinging nettles; all of the overlooked weeds that grow a little stronger when challenged.
She was on a rooftop when the lights flickered and died.
The whirling pink and purple glow of the Rings lasted a little longer, but even they faded. She knew they wouldn’t be turning back on again. She met Killian’s eyes.
Shakespir Edition, License Notes
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Alyxandra Harvey lives in a stone Victorian house in Ontario, Canada with a few resident ghosts who are allowed to stay as long as they keep company manners. She loves medieval dresses, used to be able to recite all of The Lady of Shalott by Tennyson, and has been accused, more than once, of being born in the wrong century. She believes this to be mostly true except for the fact that she really likes running water, women’s rights, and ice cream.
Aside from the ghosts, she also lives with her husband and their dogs. She likes cinnamon lattes, tattoos and books.
She is mostly fueled by literary rage. And tea.
Find her at [email protected]
Other Books by Alyxandra Harvey:
The Drake Chronicles
The Lovegrove Legacy
Love Me, Love Me Not
What do Saffron, a scavenger from the Core, and Jane, an Oracle at the Collegium have in common? The Directorate--and the dangerous magic of a Green Jack's leaf mask. After the Lake Wars and the droughts, a Green Jack walked out of the forest, and out of legend. Whatever he touched grew, and there was enough food to eat. But it wasn't enough. Nothing was enough. Elysian City closed its gates, poisoning the suburbs, fighting the Ferals of the Badlands, and keeping the rebels trapped inside the Spirit Forest. For a little while. Because a Green Jack's mask might help the crops grow in the dry months, but it also kills whoever wears it. And recently the masks are rejecting them faster and faster. And now Saffron has a choice: wear the mask or let a small piece of magic die. Meanwhile, Jane's family secrets are catching up to her. Her mother offers her to the Directorate's new Program. Survival is optional. And although the Directorate controls both science and magic, but they can't control everything. Not anymore. But if science can't save them, and magic can't save them---how will Saffron and Jane save each other?