They had stripped Wren of most of his belongings; his pack, his coat, his knife. It was the knife he missed the most. At least they’d taken the binders off too. And it felt good to be warm again. Now he sat in a small, dim room within the governor’s compound, waiting to hear what would become of him. For some reason they’d thought it necessary to blindfold him when they brought him inside, so he wasn’t sure exactly where he was. He didn’t recognize the room. But there were lots of rooms in the compound that he’d never seen. Wren guessed he was somewhere on one of the lower floors, below the main council room. There were two chairs in the room, with a low table between them.
For all the seriousness of the situation, there was a dark humor in it. He had been here before. It wasn’t the same room, nor were circumstances the same. But not all that long ago, a year and a half maybe, he’d been captured, isolated, locked away so someone else could decide his fate. At least this time he’d chosen to be captured. And he hoped this time his fate would be his own to decide.
Night was closing in on Morningside. It was still his city. He was responsible for it, whether anyone recognized it or not. So, while Wren sat and waited for someone to come and take him before the Council, he closed his eyes and stretched outside of himself, searching for a way to connect to the machine.
It had been easier before, when he’d been able to touch it. Wren didn’t know why, but that always seemed to be the case. Things were clearer somehow when he could touch them. But having had contact with the machine once before, at least he knew what he was looking for. He tried to visualize it, remember what it had been like, what it had felt like.
Somewhere in the ether he found a thread. He focused on that sliver of signal and traced it back to its source. But as he tried to follow it, it seemed to unravel. He tried again, but each time the signal dissolved before he could establish a solid connection. He hadn’t often connected to complex systems, and certainly he’d never faced anything as complicated as Underdown’s machine before. But even so, something felt different. It was almost as if the machine itself didn’t want him to connect. Like it was resisting him.
The door to his room opened, startling Wren back to the physical world. Joris, one of the compound watchmen, stood in the doorway.
“It’s time, Gov–” he said, cutting himself off before he finished the word. “Uh, they’re ready for you.”
Joris smiled sadly. He had always been one of the nice ones. Wren could see the reluctance in his face. He was following orders, but his heart wasn’t in it.
“Thanks, Joris,” Wren said.
There were two other guardsmen waiting in the hall, but Wren didn’t recognize either of them.
“This way,” Joris said. He led them down the corridor. The other two guards stayed close behind Wren, one at each shoulder. Wren’s nerves started running wild as he pictured what he might be walking into. And he didn’t know why they thought they needed three guards. They were treating him like an enemy who might try to escape. As if there was anything he could do to one of these stout men that would enable him to get away, let alone three of them.
They climbed up two flights of stairs and came out into a hallway that Wren recognized well. Joris wasn’t leading them to the Council Room as he’d expected. They were heading towards the old throne room. The room where Underdown and Asher had each once sat. Where Wren had Awakened his mama, and where Three had died. A year and a half later, and Wren was back to where his life in Morningside had started. Maybe it was fitting that it should end here, too.
It had taken everything in Cass not to pursue the guards when they had led Wren away. But he had seemed changed somehow. Unafraid. Sure of purpose. In control. He had spoken to the guards in a tone she’d never heard from him before. And his words to her had been heavy with the weight of command.
Take care of Swoop.
And so she had. She’d taken Swoop’s pack and had managed to get him back on his feet, but it’d taken a lot of effort to get him there. The guards that had been left behind had seemed reluctant both to let them go or to make them stay, so in the end they had just stood around doing their best not to interfere in any way.
The people gathered near the gate had mostly kept clear as well. They’d been largely content to stare at her, most impassively, some with anger and hatred upon their faces. But as she and Swoop had made their way through their midst, Swoop had stumbled and gone down hard on his knees. When Cass had tried to help him up, she’d been surprised to find two other pairs of hands there to assist.
Two women, both in shabby clothes, took it upon themselves to support Swoop the rest of the way, each with one of his arms over their shoulders. Together they had made their way to Mister Sun’s Tea House. Cass hadn’t known where else to go.
And as they approached, Cass noted a number of men and women arrayed around it. Some had swords, some knives, but most of them seemed to be wielding whatever they’d had on hand that might double as a weapon. At first Cass thought they were planning to attack the Tea House, but as she got closer she realized that wasn’t it at all. They were guarding it.
When they saw her coming, they opened a gap in the line for her to pass through, and one of them jogged up the steps and opened the door for them. The inside had changed significantly since the last time Cass had been there, the night they’d fled the city. Some of the tables remained in the middle of the room, but many had been pushed to the corners and stacked. Now the main hall was segmented by folding screens and blankets hung on cords. And there were people everywhere — sitting at tables, sitting in their makeshift rooms, sitting on the floor. Others seemed to be milling around aimlessly. It had all the look of a refugee camp. Many Awakened were among them. Most, in fact. But Cass didn’t see Kit anywhere.
Mister Sun quickly brought them through the main area and after a brief exchange, he took charge of Swoop and led him back to his own room. Mister Sun helped Swoop remove his clothes and then assessed the wound. To Cass’s surprise, Mister Sun seemed to know quite a lot about cleaning and stitching up such injuries. After sealing the wound, Mister Sun applied some kind of salve and dressed it in a layer of bandages.
Once they made sure Swoop was as comfortable as they could make him, they left him to rest and returned to the main room. It was only then that Cass realized the two women who had helped her get Swoop to the Tea House were gone. She never even got their names.
“Mister Sun,” Cass said. “What happened when we left? What’s going on?”
He shook his head and slid a stimstick in his mouth. It activated, and he took a drag before he answered, “Trouble, Lady Cass. Much trouble.”
He led her through the main area and then up the back stairs to a small room on the top floor. Painter’s old room. They went inside and he closed the door.
“There was a riot, after you left,” Mister Sun said. “Many were injured. Some killed.”
“What started it?”
“Who can say which pebble caused the landslide? It had been building for weeks,” he answered. “Citizens of old resent those brought in from outside the wall. Both despise the Awakened. When it was announced you had slain Connor and fled, there was outrage.”
“I didn’t kill Connor, Mister Sun.”
He shrugged. “You were not here. It was convenient to believe what they said, for those who desired the same outcome.”
“What outcome?” she asked.
“They’re rounding people up,” Mister Sun said. “Preparing to move them out of the city.”
“That’s why all those people were gathered at the gate.”
Mister Sun nodded and took another pull on his stimstick.
“They can’t,” she said. “They can’t do that. Those poor people will get slaughtered by the Weir.”
“They claim the guard will patrol to protect them. Some have resisted. Most have not.”
“And the people downstairs?”
“There was backlash against the Awakened,” he replied. “We brought some of them here.”
“What about the others?”
The mention of his name shocked her. “I thought he was dead.”
Mister Sun shook his head.
So, they were forcing the non-citizens back outside the wall. The pure foolishness of it struck her. Particularly now, with the danger that lay ahead.
And logistically, she didn’t see how they could possibly expect to pull it off. There was no way the Council could have put together such a plan in such a short amount of time. Unless of course, they’d been planning it for much longer.
“I need to see Aron.”
Joris opened the door to the throne room, and the first thing that struck Wren was the fact that there were now three throne-like chairs on the dais instead of one. No one was sitting in them yet, which somehow seemed worse than facing whoever was supposed to be there. The room was cleaner than it’d been the last time he’d seen it. The night that Connor and Aron had dragged him through it. Only a few days before, though it seemed like weeks in his mind.
They closed the door behind him and, when Wren looked back, he saw that only Joris remained with him.
“What’s going to happen now?” Wren asked.
“The High Council will be here in a moment,” Joris said without looking at him.
“But what will happen?”
“I don’t know,” Joris answered. Then his eyes flicked to Wren. He lowered his voice. “But try not to be scared.” He tried to give a little encouraging smile.
But just then the door opened, and Joris snapped to attention. Three people strode in, followed by several guardsmen. The guards moved into a semicircle, half on each side of the dais with the chairs in between, while the three moved to sit upon the thrones: Hondo, North, Vye. The new High Council. Hondo sat in the middle, though from the arrangement of the thrones, it was hard to tell if that was meant to be a more important seat or not. It was farther back on the dais than the other two, which were angled slightly inwards. From where Wren stood, it felt more like he was at the focal point of all three. But there was still something inherently more intimidating about that center seat — where Hondo now sat. Vye was on Hondo’s right, and North to his left.
Wren tried to remember everything Swoop had taught him about commanding a room. He pulled his shoulders back, widened his stance. Looking at the three of them seated there, Wren was surprised to find he wasn’t intimidated. Before he had left, he would’ve frozen at a time like this. After what he had seen, after what he had learned, these three people seemed somehow lesser than he remembered. The adrenaline was coursing through his body, but he found it within himself to bend that nervous energy to his purpose.
“Wren,” Vye said. “We’re so glad you’re alive. We’ve been worried.”
Her kind voice took Wren completely by surprise. He’d expected an immediate confrontation.
“Where is your mother?” North asked.
Wren paused before answering. Swoop had always encouraged him to take a breath before he answered a question. “I don’t know,” Wren answered.
“You can tell us, Wren,” Hondo said. “It’d be best for everyone.”
“I don’t know,” Wren repeated. “I left her at the gate. With Swoop.”
“And the rest of your guard?” Vye asked.
“We came back without them. Because of the order,” he answered. Then, before they could ask another question, Wren pushed back. “Where are Aron and Rae?”
“They no longer serve on the Council,” North said.
“By whose direction?”
“Aron by choice, Rae by vote,” Vye said.
“And so you decided to steal my rightful authority?”
Hondo exhaled through his nose, a dismissive sound. It annoyed Wren. Hondo seemed small.
“You abandoned your post,” Vye said. She said it with a hint of sadness, like she was explaining to a child why he was about to be punished.
“At this Council’s direction,” Wren answered.
“At one member’s suggestion,” Hondo said. “You have to understand our side, Wren. Connor was dead, Aron hurt. You ran away. You left the city in chaos. So while you thought only of yourself, we had to take measures to ensure the security of everyone.”
Wren felt anger rising at the accusation, the twisting of facts to suit their purpose. But he knew there was no use in arguing. Truth would change nothing here. “Then why exile? Why didn’t you just call for us to come back?”
“To prevent further chaos,” North said. “Trust has all but disappeared within Morningside. If we took control and then handed it back to you whenever you returned again, the citizens would never know what to expect. They’d never know who was in charge or why. It was a difficult decision, but it’s for the best of the whole city.”
There were so many things that seemed wrong with what had happened. Unjust. But Wren had to remember why he had come back. It wasn’t to reclaim his seat, or even to understand what had occurred.
“I never gave up my authority as governor,” he said. “But I didn’t come back to claim it, either. I came back to try and save the city.”
Hondo let out a laugh. “From what, little boy?”
“Your brother is dead,” said North.
Wren shook his head. “I don’t know how to explain it, but Asher is alive. I have to try to stop him. I need to use the machine.”
Vye and North exchanged looks, but Hondo sat forward on his throne. “Certainly not,” he said. “We know what your father could do with that machine. You will not touch it again.”
“Hondo, Asher’s gathering an army of Weir. I’ve seen it myself. And I believe he’s going to bring them to Morningside.”
“There is no such army,” Hondo said sharply. “Unless you bring it. There are serious charges against you that must be answered. You can’t escape them by trying to frighten us with children’s stories.”
“Is this supposed to be a trial?” Wren asked.
“It’s not a trial, Wren,” Vye said. “But we do have a decision to make.”
“Connor and Aron attacked me. They attacked my mom.”
“What happened with Connor and Aron was unfortunate. It was a mistake, to be sure,” Hondo said. “But was it a mistake worth their lives?”
Wren was at a loss. He hadn’t really expected the Council to welcome him back, but he had thought that maybe when he’d explained the situation they’d at least have treated it with seriousness, rather than dismissing it outright.
“It’s a difficult time, Wren,” Vye said. “We think it’d be best for everyone if you stay here in the compound.”
“You’re imprisoning me?” Wren asked.
“It’s not prison, no,” North said. “It’s for your good and for the good of Morningside.”
“It will be confusing to the people if you’re out with them,” Hondo added. “And it may not be safe for you. You are to remain within the compound until such time as we deem appropriate to release you.”
Wren stood in stunned silence as two guards came forward. They ushered him towards the doors where Joris was waiting. Joris opened the door, and they joined the two other guards who were still waiting outside. And the five of them escorted Wren away to his prison.
Painter sat on the flat roof of a two-story building, with his legs dangling over the sides, and watched as the final traces of dusk seeped out of the horizon. Night would soon be fully upon them. The air was cold and damp, but the clouds had begun to break apart overhead, and here and there he could glimpse stars flickering and glittering in the heavens above. He was deeply weary from the journey, but his mind was active.
Tonight he would just observe. He knew better than to let himself hope that he might catch a glimpse of his sister on this first night. Instead of going out to hunt for her, he had decided it would be better to watch the Weir first. To get a feel for how many there were, and how they moved. They had rarely shown up in numbers of late, nor did they regularly approach the wall of Morningside. But perhaps here on the outskirts, he would be able to study their movements and discern any patterns.
He didn’t have to wait long. There was an electric cry away to his right, not terribly far away. It sounded mournful and lonely to him, then. After a while he began to see them moving throughout the dark streets and alleyways below. Those were few in number, and if they had any plan or pattern, it was beyond Painter to decipher.
As the night wore on, Painter grew drowsy, and after a time, he scooted back on the roof so that his legs were no longer over the edge, out of fear that he might doze off and fall. He dragged his pack in close behind him and leaned back against it. He was still looking up at the sky when sleep overtook him.
Soon afterward, Painter began to dream that there was a shadow on his rooftop. Only it was darker than a shadow, and there wasn’t anything there to cast it. As he watched, it began to spread towards him, like oil pooling in only one direction. The closer it drew, the more it rippled and seethed, as if the shadow were actually a living thing. Painter was frightened and tried to crawl back away from it, but found he couldn’t move, couldn’t even cry out.
Something seemed to grow from the middle of the inky surface, a bubble, which became a horn, which became a pillar twisting itself towards the sky. And then it was neither pillar nor shadow at all, but just a man in a long black coat. The man was young, no older than Painter, and perhaps even younger. His features were sharp, handsome, and he had a wide smile. But Painter saw the smile was not in the young man’s eyes. Those were dark; dark and cold and full of malice. He came and sat next to Painter.
“I’m looking for someone,” the young man said. “I wonder if you are him.”
Everything within Painter told him that there was danger, but the young man’s demeanor was patient and calm. Disarming.
“I need someone to go before me. To tell of my coming.” He leaned forward, as if revealing a secret in confidence. “I need someone to be my voice.”
Painter found that he could speak, could move freely. And while part of him cried out to flee, there was something engaging about this young man that made him want to linger. Surely it couldn’t hurt to sit and talk.
“I d-d-don’t think that’s mmmm, that’s me,” he said.
The young man smiled.
“I can help you,” he said. “I will help you. And your sister. If you’ll allow me.”
The young man held up his hand between them, and his expression was one of waiting for permission. How the young man knew about Snow and what he intended to do, Painter didn’t know. But he felt in his heart that a crucial decision lay before him, one that once made he could never unmake. An opportunity once missed, that would never come again. For a moment, he struggled against himself.
But what, in reality, would he be giving up? Here was someone who had need of him. Someone who could help him. Someone who could help Snow. Looking at the young man, still patiently waiting for his decision, Painter felt reluctance. But he couldn’t find a reason for it. Fear, unfounded. And Painter was tired of being afraid.
He nodded, and the young man extended his hand to touch Painter’s mouth. And then he smiled again and stood, and walked to the edge of the roof. He turned back to face Painter.
“When the sun rises, tell them,” he said. “Tell them I’m coming.”
And then he stepped backwards off the roof and instead of falling, he shattered into a hundred fragments, which in turn became some kind of winged creatures, black like crows or ravens. They scattered in every direction, and Painter awoke with a start, his hands shooting out reflexively.
It took a moment for him to recognize where he was. And when he did, he quickly turned this way and that, searching for the young man. But there was no one to be seen on the rooftop. He rubbed his eyes to ensure he had actually awoken from his dream. The words still echoed in his mind.
Tell them I’m coming.
Painter touched his mouth, ran his hands over his face. And then he became aware of a strange sound, like a quiet popping or soft crackling. Or like the flapping of leathery wings. Painter glanced around again to look for the source of the noise. And when it occurred to him to look over the edge of the building, his breath caught in his throat.
The streets below were teeming with Weir.
Moving through the city after dark had become more dangerous than Cass had anticipated. The curfew was still in effect, and it seemed like the number of city guards had swelled in her short absence. On top of that, there were here and there pockets of rough-looking men and women skulking in the shadows. Whether they were working in league with the guards, or just out on their own accord, they certainly weren’t operating in any official capacity. Cass wondered if these were the same kinds of people that had slain Luck and the others. But there was no time for questions now, and fortunately moving unseen had become almost second nature to her, particularly when she was on her own. The fatigue from the day’s journey slowed her some, but not as much as she would’ve expected.
Cass found her way to Aron’s shop on the eastern side of the city, in the outer ring of buildings set closest to the wall. His was one of the larger establishments in Morningside and had actually been two separate buildings at one time. The lower floors were dark, but light shone around the edges of the curtains pulled across the upstairs windows.
There was no one out front that she could see, but given what she’d seen at Mister Sun’s, Cass had every reason to expect there were guards at every door. She had no idea what kind of reception she might get, she didn’t want to risk a violent confrontation. She crept around the building looking for alternate ways in.
On the backside of the building, there was a balcony on the second floor. There were no obvious ways to gain access to it from ground, but the building next door had a decorative trellis that was easy to scale. Cass gained the roof of that building and paused there, watching for patrols. She saw only one guard on the wall. Too many in the city, too few on the walls.
When she was sure it was clear, she ran and leapt the gap between the two buildings and landed lightly on Aron’s roof. She crept to the edge and lowered herself down to the balcony. Inside, she could hear voices. She tried the handle to the door, but of course it was locked. That made her think of Wren, and she paused for a moment, wondering where he was and what was happening with him. She took a deep breath and steadied herself.
She couldn’t imagine that anyone on the Council would do him any harm. Not now. Not when he had returned so peacefully.
Actually, she could imagine it. But she refused to let herself do so. She would find Aron and, with him, answers.
Cass looked around on the balcony to see if there was anything she could use to open the door; a hidden key, or secret panel. And while she searched, the door clicked and swung open. She whirled to face the door and found herself staring into the radiant blue eyes of one of her kindred.
“What… Lady Cass?” she said, surprise evident in her voice and on her face. It was Kit. “Lady Cass, what are you doing here?”
Kit came forward and embraced her in strong arms, and then stepped back quickly, as if remembering her place. “Oh, I’m sorry, Lady,” she said. “I was just so surprised…”
Cass smiled in spite of herself and hugged Kit in return.
“Kit, it’s so good to see you. I feared you were dead.”
“No, ma’am, not yet,” she answered. “Though not for lack of trying. But really, what are you doing out here? How did you get out here?”
“I climbed. I need to see Aron.”
“OK,” Kit said. “OK, sure. He’s inside.”
Kit led her inside, through a large open room with wooden floors and a number of chairs. It was warm and comfortable, dusky with its lights turned low. There were several Awakened throughout the room, and others besides. The conversation all but stopped as Kit escorted Cass through.
They found Aron sitting in a small upstairs room in what looked like a workshop. He was sitting on a stool and had something on a workbench in front of him. He was hunched over it intently when Kit tapped on the door. There was a long wide bandage across the back of his head.
“Yep?” Aron said, without turning.
“Sorry to bother you, Aron, but someone’s here to see you.”
“Oh yeah? Who’s that?” he said, swiveling on his stool. He blinked a couple of times as his old eyes adjusted, and then his eyes opened wide and he shot to his feet.
“Easy, Aron,” Cass said. “I’m not here to fight. I just want to talk.”
His shoulders relaxed, and his eyes went a little sad.
“I’ll leave you two alone,” Kit said. She squeezed Cass’s arm as she passed by, and disappeared down the hall.
After she left, Cass and Aron just stood staring at one another for a time, neither sure of what to say or where to start. Finally, Aron just shook his head.
“I’m sorry, Lady. I know it don’t make any difference now, but I am sorry.” He held out his hand, offering her a seat in the chair tucked in the corner of the room. Cass nodded and moved towards it, but she stopped when she saw what was lying on the workbench. It was a rifle. Long-barreled, old but well-cared for; well-worn, well-used. A deadly thing.
Aron followed her gaze, and then looked back up at her.
“It’s OK, she’s safe,” he said, and picked up a piece that looked like the trigger mechanism from his workbench. “Puttin’ her back together. After a long time away.”
Cass went to the chair and sat, and Aron returned to his perch on the stool.
“If it hadn’t been for Mister Sun,” Cass said, “you would have been first on my list to find and string up.”
“But he seems to think there’s been a change of heart. And from what I see here, I have to admit I could be persuaded to believe it.”
“I wish you would,” he said. “But I won’t blame you if you don’t.”
“How did we get here, Aron?”
He shook his head and looked down at his hands with a sigh.
“It’s what happens when people lose their way,” Aron said. “Me, I lost sight of what I came to do. Forgot I was there for the people, not for the Council. Let others convince me that what was good for the Council was good for the city.” He looked up at her then. “We see where that got us. I ain’t tryin’ to make excuses. I’m my own man, I made my own decisions. And I’d undo a bunch if I could. But I think maybe that knock on the head put some things right.”
Hearing him confirm what she’d suspected didn’t immediately upset Cass as much as she’d thought it would. There was anger, of course, but there was a strange sort of relief, too, in knowing that her instincts had been right, that she hadn’t just imagined it all. Still, she hadn’t asked the big question yet.
“Did you try to have my son killed?”
Aron clenched his jaw and squinted, grimacing at the question. But after a moment he answered, “She was never supposed to get that close.”
Cass felt a knot of rage tighten in her chest, but she swallowed her wrath. For now.
“You gotta believe that,” Aron said, holding his hands up. “I would never have gone along with it if I thought for a second he was gonna be in any danger. It was never supposed to go that far. But that girl… that girl was better than any of us ever expected.”
Cass wondered. Aron seemed sincere, genuinely pained by the close call. He’d always loved Wren, in his own gruff way. But Connor. Connor had been in charge of the guard.
She thought back to that night, how long it’d taken the guard to show up, after she and Able had already cornered the girl.
“Was it Connor who assured you that Wren would be safe?”
“Of course,” Aron said. “He was gonna put some of his men in the right spot, make a couple of heroes in the process…” He trailed off, and his eyes widened, only now making the connection. He shook his head again and cursed quietly. “I don’t like to speak ill of the dead, but I shoulda seen that. Even then we were at odds. I was just too blind. It was only supposed to scare you. Get you over on our side.”
“Your side? Your side of what?”
“Forcin’ ’em out. There was just too many people for the city. That’s why Underdown had such strict laws, so little tolerance. Always an excuse to push someone out if ever there was threat of trouble.”
“So all this time,” Cass said, “you’ve been working to undermine Wren as governor, so you could enact your own policies. Why the game then, Aron? Why proclaim him governor, if you were all against him from the start?”
“It’s all games, Cass. Always has been. Once Underdown was gone, somethin’ had to be done quick. The people out there, most part they don’t care who’s in charge, as long as someone is. There was a good story there, made it easy for them to believe that nothin’ was really gonna change, and that’s what they wanted. Underdown’s son. Looks just like him. Sure he’s young, but he’s got the Council.
“I think it started right, or close to it. When we started, we all just wanted to keep it all together. But after the big attack, and Wren makin’ that announcement that we were bringin’ everybody in… it didn’t take long for us to start wantin’ other things. Different things.”
“And you were going to murder my little boy for it.”
He shook his head again forcefully. “No, Cass. I don’t blame you for not believin’ me, I know I wouldn’t. But no, I just thought it’d rattle him. Make him see why it was dangerous to have those people around. But then your son, that boy, he went and surprised us all. Said to let it go. Forget about it, move on like it never happened. Well, not a one of us had thought of that. After that, everyone started spinnin’ their own plans.
“And then when we found out it was Painter’s sister. Well, good God, I wanted to hang myself. And I thought maybe when he found us in that room with Wren, I thought maybe he’d found out. And Connor…” He looked over at his rifle. “Well, I guess maybe there’s something to that… reapin’ what you sow.”
His eyes went glassy for a moment, and Cass left him to his own thoughts while she wrestled through her own. Pieces were starting to come together for her, in a broken kind of way that made it seem all the more true. Factions within factions. Plans gone awry, either from sabotage or because the plans themselves were poorly made. Overreactions, overcorrections.
People usually talked about conspiracies like they were so clean-cut, always perfectly executed. The schemes revealed in her mind were a tangled mess. And that made them believable, because they were so utterly human.
“Hondo and Vye, I understand,” she said. “I never felt right around those two. But what about North? Rae?”
Aron came back to himself and looked at her.
“Rae, no, Rae’s too much a straight-shooter, too strong-minded. I don’t think she ever knew much about what the rest of us were up to. And North… well, I never could read North. He’s a power player to be sure, and he looks out for himself. But truth be told, I got the feelin’ he’s careful about stayin’ in the inner circle because he don’t like what might happen if he wasn’t.”
“And what about you, Aron? What now?” Cass asked.
“Now… now I’m trying to do what I should’ve been doin’ all along. Just takin’ care of people with my own hands, the best I know how.”
“Kicked off the Council?”
He made a dismissive sound. “Naw, I quit. Told ’em what I thought they could do with their High Council.” He shook his head. “No, I’m goin’ with ’em. Been talkin’ with the Awakened here, and some others. Once we all move outside, we’re gonna run the patrols, keep these people safe. It’s what I shoulda been doin’ all along. What about you?”
Cass got to her feet. “I think I’ll pay a visit to our High Council in the morning.”
Aron stood and nodded. “You’re welcome to stay here tonight, if you don’t mind sharin’ some space. Might be safer than tryin’ to go somewhere else.”
“I may take you up on that,” Cass said. She wanted to catch up with Kit, and as much as she wanted to stay angry at Aron, she felt his change of heart had been genuine and thorough. There wasn’t much point in harboring hatred for a repentant man when she already felt so short of allies. She wasn’t ready to trust him yet, but she could see maybe doing it again one day. She nodded and started towards the door. Just before she left, Aron cleared his throat. Cass stopped and turned in the doorway.
“I know it don’t change nothin’,” he said. “But I am sorry for hurtin’ you, Cass. For all of it.”
She nodded. And for some reason, an old dusty box on the workbench caught her eye. It looked like rifle ammunition. Cass nodded towards the rifle.
“Didn’t know you were much of a shooter.”
“Was, back in the day,” Aron said. “Been a long time.” He smiled and gazed down at the weapon, and rested his hand lovingly on it. “She looks like a sweetheart, but she hits like an angry drunk.”
“What’s she shoot?”
Aron flipped up the lid on the old box, and pulled out a large shell. He held it up for Cass to see.
“Thirty kilojoules,” he said. “You ever seen anything that mean before?”
“I have,” Cass said. “Got any extra?”
Aron looked puzzled and a little taken aback. “I don’t know about extra,” he said, “but how many you need?”
“How about three?”
There were still plenty in the box. He took out two more shells and handed her the three hefty rounds.
“Don’t lose ’em,” he said. “They don’t make ’em much anymore.”
Cass slipped them into a pocket.
“I’ll be sure to keep my eye on where I put them.”
She gave him a parting nod and left him to his work.
Wren’s room was small, but nicely furnished, with a bed, a couple of chairs, a table, a desk, and a small lamp that glowed with a warm orange, almost like firelight. They had brought him dinner, and Joris had stayed with him while he ate. But that had been a couple of hours ago, and no one had come by since.
Outside, night had fallen completely, and Wren had been growing increasingly anxious as darkness closed in, wondering if perhaps tonight would be the night that Asher would make himself known. But now as Wren sat quietly on his bed, he could hear no calls or cries from the Weir. At first he’d wondered if he’d been placed in a room where the windows were too thick to hear any noises of the night. Then he’d heard the low murmur of occasional voices in the courtyard and known that the silence of the Weir was genuine.
But, strangely, the air seemed heavy. Wren didn’t really know how else to describe it. It was like the night itself had weight, and was pressing down on all the city. Even when he tried to stretch out through the digital, it took more effort. He had made several more attempts to connect to the machine, and had each time had the same result. The signal was just too complex for him to hold on to.
Wren’s body was overwhelmingly tired from the day, but his mind was too active. He was just thinking about trying to see if he could fall asleep anyway, when there was a gentle knock at the door. It seemed strange for someone to knock on his door, given the fact that he couldn’t open it himself. Or rather, he could if he wanted to risk it, but he knew that would very likely invite the wrath of the three guards they had posted outside. The Council was too well aware of his talent for locks.
“You can come in,” Wren said.
The door clicked, and the handle turned; when the door opened there was a hulking frame behind it. North.
“Hello, Wren,” he said, stepping into the room. “May I join you?”
North bowed his head slightly, and then closed the door behind him.
“I can’t stay long,” he said. “But I wanted you to know that I am sorry for how things have gone.”
“OK. Are you going to let me go then?”
North gave a small smile and shook his head. “Not at this time. But you should know that not all is at it appears.” He stepped closer, as if someone might be listening in. “Is what you said about your brother true?”
North paused in thought. Then he nodded to himself. “I will see what I can do about getting you access to the machine. If not tomorrow, the next day.”
“There may not be a next day,” Wren said.
“The walls are strong, little one,” North said. “We need not fear the Weir.”
Wren shook his head. “You’re wrong, North. You don’t understand.”
“I know these are hard times. But you are young and have seen fewer of them than I have. We’ll find our way through, you’ll see.”
Wren thought for a moment about trying to explain, trying to describe to North what he had seen, and felt, and what it meant. But he knew it would be useless. North was right, he had seen many more difficulties than Wren had. And he had been blinded by them, thinking that this was no different than anything he had faced before. And Wren didn’t know how to convince him otherwise.
“Can I ask you something?” Wren said.
“Why did you order us exiled? I thought you were our friend.”
“I was, and I am,” North said. He seemed hurt by the implication that he would be otherwise. “I know it is hard to understand. But at the time, issuing that order was the only way I could warn you. I didn’t know whether it would keep you away, or if it would cause you to return. But either way I knew it would tell you something was wrong. And I hoped your isolation would make you harder to find for those who may have been looking.”
Wren didn’t know whether to believe him or not. It made some sense. If Wren believed him.
“I must go,” North said. “But I will make every effort to help you gain access to the machine.”
“Tomorrow,” Wren said.
North nodded. “Or the next day.” The big man bowed his head again, and then knocked twice on the door. “Rest now,” he said. “You still have friends in this city.”
The guards opened the door from the outside, and with a final nod, North was gone. The guards closed the door, and Wren heard the lock click into place. Prisoner in a place he had once called home.
He didn’t know what to make of all North had said. Little of it mattered at this point. They didn’t seem to understand how the affairs of the Council were meaningless in the face of what Wren feared was to come.
But there was nothing more he could do for now. He got up and switched off the lamp, and then lay down on his bed. Wren closed his eyes and listened for the cries of the Weir that should have been there, and weren’t.