Read an Excerpt
MAKING BLIND PROMISES
“I’ll be blunt with you. Your skills are not as valuable to me as they used to be, Day. Over the years, we’ve recruited other Runners—and now, with all due respect, adding another one to our team isn’t a priority. Your friend already knows”—he pauses to nod at June—“that the Patriots are not a charity. You’re asking us for a great deal of help. What will you give us in return? You can’t be carrying much money.”
June gives me a pointed look. If the Patriots turn us down, we’ll really be on our own. “We don’t have a lot of money,” I admit. “I’m not going to speak for June, but if there is anything I can do in exchange for your help, just say the word.”
“I’d be happy to take you in, and you’ll both be well cared for. In return, we’d ask for your help with a new project. No questions asked. But you’ll both need to pledge your allegiance to the Patriots before I’ll reveal any details about what you’ll be doing. These are my terms. What do you think?”
June looks from me to Razor. Then she lifts her chin higher. “I’m in. I’ll pledge allegiance to the Patriots.”
There’s a slight falter in her words, like she knows she’s truly turned her back on the Republic. The fact that she said yes tugs at my heart. If June is giving herself to the Patriots, then she must realize that we have no better choice. And she’s doing this for my sake. I raise my own voice. “Me too.”
Razor smiles, rises from the couch, and holds up his drink as if to toast us. “It’s official, then. You’re going to help us assassinate the new Elector Primo.”
In LEGEND, you met Day, a wanted criminal, and June, the government’s most promising asset. When June’s brother is murdered, Day becomes the prime suspect. But when they meet, the truth is unleashed, and together, they fight for revenge . . . and each other.
PRODIGY takes you deeper into the revolution. June and Day have escaped from the Republic’s stronghold in Las Vegas just as the Elector Primo dies, leaving his son to take his place. But is the new Elector anything like his father? And was joining the Patriot rebels the right decision for June and Day?
The trilogy concludes with CHAMPION, and surprises are in wait. You may think you know what’s coming . . . but even June and Day are shocked by how their story ends.
LAS VEGAS, NEVADA
REPUBLIC OF AMERICA
JAN. 4. 1932 HOURS.
OCEAN STANDARD TIME.
THIRTY-FIVE DAYS AFTER METIAS’S DEATH.
DAY JOLTS AWAKE BESIDE ME. HIS BROW IS COVERED with sweat, and his cheeks are wet with tears. He’s breathing heavily.
I lean over him and brush a wet strand of hair out of his face. The scrape on my shoulder has scabbed over already, but my movement makes it throb again. Day sits up, rubs a hand wearily across his eyes, and glances around our swaying railcar as if searching for something. He looks first at the stacks of crates in one dark corner, then at the burlap lining the floor and the little sack of food and water sitting between us. It takes him a minute to reorient himself, to remember that we’re hitching a ride on a train bound for Vegas. A few seconds pass before he releases his rigid posture and lets himself sag back against the wall.
I gently tap his hand. “Are you okay?” That’s become my constant question.
Day shrugs. “Yeah,” he mutters. “Nightmare.”
Nine days have passed since we broke out of Batalla Hall and escaped Los Angeles. Since then, Day has had nightmares every time he’s closed his eyes. When we first got away and were able to catch a few hours of rest in an abandoned train yard, Day bolted awake screaming. We were lucky no soldiers or street police heard him. After that, I developed the habit of stroking his hair right after he falls asleep, of kissing his cheeks and forehead and eyelids. He still wakes up gasping with tears, his eyes hunting frantically for all the things he’s lost. But at least he does this silently.
Sometimes, when Day is quiet like this, I wonder how well he’s hanging on to his sanity. The thought scares me. I can’t afford to lose him. I keep telling myself it’s for practical reasons: we’d have little chance of surviving alone at this point, and his skills complement mine. Besides . . . I have no one left to protect. I’ve had my share of tears too, although I always wait until he’s asleep to cry. I cried for Ollie last night. I feel a little silly crying for my dog when the Republic killed our families, but I can’t help myself. Metias was the one who’d brought him home, a white ball of giant paws and floppy ears and warm brown eyes, the sweetest, clumsiest creature I’d ever seen. Ollie was my boy, and I’d left him behind.
“What’d you dream?” I whisper to Day.
“Nothing memorable.” Day shifts, then winces as he accidentally scrapes his wounded leg against the floor. His body tenses up from the pain, and I can tell how stiff his arms are beneath his shirt, knots of lean muscle earned from the streets. A labored breath escapes his lips. The way he’d pushed me against that alley wall, the hunger in his first kiss. I stop focusing on his mouth and shake off the memory, embarrassed.
He nods toward the railcar doors. “Where are we now? We should be getting close, right?”
I get up, glad for the distraction, and brace myself against the rocking wall as I peer out the railcar’s tiny window. The landscape hasn’t changed much—endless rows of apartment towers and factories, chimneys and old arching highways, all washed into blues and grayish purples by the afternoon rain. We’re still passing through slum sectors. They look almost identical to the slums in Los Angeles. Off in the distance, an enormous dam stretches halfway across my line of vision. I wait until a JumboTron flashes by, then squint to see the small letters on the bottom corner of the screen. “Boulder City, Nevada,” I say. “Really close now. The train will probably stop here for a while, but afterward it shouldn’t take more than thirty-five minutes to arrive in Vegas.”
Day nods. He leans over, unties our food sack, and searches for something to eat. “Good. Sooner we get there, sooner we’ll find the Patriots.”
He seems distant. Sometimes Day tells me what his nightmares are about—failing his Trial or losing Tess on the streets or running away from plague patrols. Nightmares about being the Republic’s most wanted criminal. Other times, when he’s like this and keeps his dreams to himself, I know they must be about his family—his mother’s death, or John’s. Maybe it’s better that he doesn’t tell me about those. I have enough of my own dreams to haunt me, and I’m not sure I have the courage to know about his.
“You’re really set on finding the Patriots, aren’t you?” I say as Day pulls out a stale hunk of fried dough from the food sack. This isn’t the first time I’ve questioned his insistence on coming to Vegas, and I’m careful about the way I approach the topic. The last thing I want Day to think is that I don’t care about Tess, or that I’m afraid to meet up with the Republic’s notorious rebel group. “Tess went with them willingly. Are we putting her in danger by trying to get her back?”
Day doesn’t answer right away. He tears the fried dough in half and offers me a piece. “Take some, yeah? You haven’t eaten in a while.”
I hold a hand up politely. “No, thanks,” I reply. “I don’t like fried dough.”
Instantly I wish I could stuff the words back in my mouth. Day lowers his eyes and puts the second half back into the food sack, then quietly starts eating his share. What a stupid, stupid thing for me to say. I don’t like fried dough. I can practically hear what’s going through his head.
Poor little rich girl, with her posh manners. She can afford to dislike food. I scold myself in silence, then make a mental note to tread more carefully next time.
After a few mouthfuls, Day finally responds, “I’m not just going to leave Tess behind without knowing she’s okay.”
Of course he wouldn’t. Day would never leave anyone he cares about behind, especially not the orphan girl he’s grown up with on the streets. I understand the potential value of meeting the Patriots too—after all, those rebels had helped Day and me escape Los Angeles. They’re large and well organized. Maybe they have information about what the Republic is doing with Day’s little brother, Eden. Maybe they can even help heal Day’s festering leg wound—ever since that fateful morning when Commander Jameson shot him in the leg and arrested him, his wound has been on a roller coaster of getting better and then worse. Now his left leg is a mass of broken, bleeding flesh. He needs medical attention.
Still, we have one problem.
“The Patriots won’t help us without some sort of payment,” I say. “What can we give them?” For emphasis, I reach into my pockets and dig out our meager stash of money. Four thousand Notes. All I had on me before we made a run for it. I can’t believe how much I miss the luxury of my old life. There are millions of Notes under my family name, Notes that I’ll never be able to access again.
Day polishes off the dough and considers my words with his lips pressed together. “Yeah, I know,” he says, running a hand through his tangled blond hair. “But what do you suggest we do? Who else can we go to?”
I shake my head helplessly. Day is right about that—as little as I’d like to see the Patriots again, our choices are pretty limited. Back when the Patriots had first helped us escape from Batalla Hall, when Day was still unconscious and I was wounded in the shoulder, I’d asked the Patriots to let us go with them to Vegas. I’d hoped they would continue to help us.
“You paid us to get Day out of his execution. You didn’t pay us to carry your wounded asses all the way to Vegas,” Kaede had said to me. “Republic soldiers are hot on your trail, for crying out loud. We’re not a full-service soup kitchen. I’m not risking my neck for you two again unless there’s money involved.”
Up until that point, I’d almost believed that the Patriots cared about us. But Kaede’s words had brought me back to reality. They’d helped us because I’d paid Kaede 200,000 Republic Notes, the money I’d received as a reward for Day’s capture. Even then, it had taken some persuasion before she sent her Patriot comrades in to help us.
Allowing Day to see Tess. Helping Day fix his bad leg. Giving us info about the whereabouts of Day’s brother. All these things will require bribes. If only I’d had the chance to grab more money before we left.
“Vegas is the worst possible city for us to wander into by ourselves,” I say to Day as I gingerly rub my healing shoulder. “And the Patriots might not even give us an audience. I’m just trying to make sure we think this through.”
“June, I know you’re not used to thinking of the Patriots as allies,” Day replies. “You were trained to hate them. But they are a potential ally. I trust them more than I trust the Republic. Don’t you?”
I don’t know if he means for his words to sound insulting. Day has missed the point I’m trying to make: that the Patriots probably won’t help us and then we’ll be stuck in a military city. But Day thinks I’m hesitating because I don’t trust the Patriots. That, deep down, I’m still June Iparis, the Republic’s most celebrated prodigy . . . that I’m still loyal to this country. Well, is that true? I’m a criminal now, and I’ll never be able to go back to the comforts of my old life. The thought leaves a sick, empty feeling in my stomach, as if I miss being the Republic’s darling. Maybe I do.
If I’m not the Republic’s darling anymore, then who am I?
“Okay. We’ll try to find the Patriots,” I say. It’s clear that I won’t be able to coax him into doing anything else.
Day nods. “Thanks,” he whispers. The hint of a smile appears on his lovely face, pulling me in with its irresistible warmth, but he doesn’t try to hug me. He doesn’t reach for my hand. He doesn’t scoot closer to let our shoulders touch, he doesn’t stroke my hair, he doesn’t whisper reassuringly into my ear or rest his head against mine. I hadn’t realized how much I’ve grown to crave these little gestures. Somehow, in this moment, we feel very separate.
Maybe his nightmare had been about me.
* * *
It happens right after we reach the main strip of Las Vegas. The announcement.
First of all, if there’s one place in Vegas that we shouldn’t be, it’s the main strip. JumboTrons (six packed into each block) line both sides of the city’s busiest street, their screens playing an endless stream of news. Blinding clusters of searchlights sweep obsessively along the walls. The buildings here must be twice as large as the ones in Los Angeles. The downtown is dominated by towering skyscrapers and enormous pyramid-shaped landing docks (eight of them, square bases, equilateral triangle sides) with bright lights beaming from their tips. The desert air reeks of smoke and feels painfully dry; no thirst-quenching hurricanes here, no waterfronts or lakes. Troops make their way up and down the street (in oblong square formations, typical of Vegas), dressed in the black, navy-striped uniforms of soldiers rotating out to and back from the warfront. Farther out, past this main street of skyscrapers, are rows of fighter jets, all rolling into position on a wide strip of airfield. Airships glide overhead.
This is a military city, a world of soldiers.
The sun has just set when Day and I make our way out onto the main strip and head toward the other end of the street. Day leans heavily on my shoulder as we try to blend in with the crowds, his breath shallow and his face drawn with pain. I try my best to support him without looking out of place, but his weight makes me walk in an unbalanced line, as if I’d had too much to drink. “How are we doing?” he murmurs into my ear, his lips hot against my skin. I’m not sure if he’s half-delirious from the pain or if it’s my outfit, but I can’t say I mind his blatant flirtation tonight. It’s a nice change from our awkward train ride. He’s careful to keep his head down, his eyes hidden under long lashes and tilted away from the soldiers bustling back and forth along the sidewalks. He shifts uncomfortably in his military jacket and pants. A black soldier’s cap hides his white-blond hair and blocks a good portion of his face.
“Well enough,” I reply. “Remember, you’re drunk. And happy. You’re supposed to be lusting over your escort. Try smiling a little more.”
Day plasters a giant artificial smile on his face. As charming as ever. “Aw, come on, sweetheart. I thought I was doing a pretty good job. I got my arm around the prettiest escort on this block—how could I not be lusting over you? Don’t I look like I’m lusting? This is me, lusting.” His lashes flutter at me.
He looks so ridiculous that I can’t help laughing. Another passerby glances at me. “Much better.” I shiver when he nudges his face into the hollow of my neck. Stay in character. Concentrate. The gold trinkets lining my waist and ankles jingle as we walk. “How’s your leg?”
Day pulls away a little. “Was doing fine until you brought it up,” he whispers, then winces as he trips over a crack in the sidewalk. I tighten my grip around him. “I’ll make it to our next rest stop.”
“Remember, two fingers against your brow if you need to stop.”
“Yeah, yeah. I’ll let you know if I’m in trouble.”
Another pair of soldiers pushes past us with their own escorts, grinning girls decked out in sparkling eye shadow and elegantly painted face tattoos, their bodies covered thinly by dancer costumes and fake red feathers. One of the soldiers catches sight of me, laughs, and widens his glazed eyes.
“What club you from, gorgeous?” he slurs. “Don’t remember your face around here.” His hand goes for my exposed waist, hungering for skin. Before he can reach me, Day’s arm whips out and shoves the soldier roughly away.
“Don’t touch her.” Day grins and winks at the soldier, keeping up his carefree demeanor, but the warning in his eyes and voice makes the other man back off. He blinks at both of us, mumbles something under his breath, and staggers away with his friends.
I try to imitate the way those escorts giggle, then give my hair a toss. “Next time, just go with it,” I hiss in Day’s ear even as I kiss him on the cheek, as if he were the best customer ever. “Last thing we need is a fight.”
“What?” Day shrugs and returns to his painful walk. “It’d be a pretty pathetic fight. He could barely stand.”
I shake my head and decide not to point out the irony.
A third group of soldiers stumbles past us in a loud, drunken daze. (Seven cadets, two lieutenants, gold armbands with Dakota insignias, which means they just arrived here from the north and haven’t yet exchanged their armbands for new ones with their warfront battalions.) They have their arms wrapped around escorts from the Bellagio clubs—glittering girls with scarlet chokers and B arm tattoos. These soldiers are probably stationed in the barracks above the clubs.
I check my own costume again. Stolen from the dressing rooms of the Sun Palace. On the surface, I seem like any other escort. Gold chains and trinkets around my waist and ankles. Feathers and gold ribbons pinned into my scarlet (spray-painted), braided hair. Smoky eye shadow coated with glitter. A ferocious phoenix tattoo painted across my upper cheek and eyelid. Red silks leave my arms and waist exposed, and dark laces line my boots.
But there’s one thing on my costume that the other girls don’t wear.
A chain of thirteen little glittering mirrors. They’re partially hidden amongst the other ornaments wrapped around my ankle, and from a distance it would seem like another decoration. Completely forgettable. But every now and then, when streetlights catch it, it becomes a row of brilliant, sparkling lights. Thirteen, the Patriots’ unofficial number. This is our signal to them. They must be watching the main Vegas strip all the time, so I know they’ll at least notice a row of flashing lights on me. And when they do, they’ll recognize us as the same pair they helped rescue in Los Angeles.
The JumboTrons lining the street crackle for a second. The pledge should start again any minute now. Unlike Los Angeles, Vegas runs the national pledge five times a day—all the JumboTrons will pause in whatever ads or news they’re showing, replace them with enormous images of the Elector Primo, and then play the following on the city’s speaker system: I pledge allegiance to the flag of the great Republic of America, to our Elector Primo, to our glorious states, to unity against the Colonies, to our impending victory!
Not long ago, I used to recite that pledge every morning and afternoon with the same enthusiasm as anyone else, determined to keep the east coast Colonies from taking control of our precious west coast land. That was before I knew about the Republic’s role in my family’s deaths. I’m not sure what I think now. Let the Colonies win?
The JumboTrons start broadcasting a newsreel. Weekly recap. Day and I watch the headlines zip by on the screens:
REPUBLIC TRIUMPHANTLY TAKES OVER MILES OF COLONIES’ LAND IN BATTLE FOR AMARILLO, EAST TEXAS
FLOOD WARNING CANCELLED FOR SACRAMENTO, CALIFORNIA
ELECTOR VISITS TROOPS ON NORTHERN WARFRONT, BOOSTS MORALE
Most of them are fairly uninteresting—the usual headlines coming in from the warfront, updates on weather and laws, quarantine notices for Vegas.
Then Day taps my shoulder and gestures at one of the screens.
QUARANTINE IN LOS ANGELES EXTENDED TO EMERALD, OPAL SECTORS
“Gem sectors?” Day whispers. My eyes are still fixed on the screen, even though the headline has passed. “Don’t rich folks live there?”
I’m not sure what to say in return because I’m still trying to process the information myself. Emerald and Opal sectors . . . Is this a mistake? Or have the plagues in LA gotten serious enough to be broadcast on Vegas JumboTrons? I’ve never, ever seen quarantines extended into the upper-class sectors. Emerald sector borders Ruby—does that mean my home sector is going to be quarantined too? What about our vaccinations? Aren’t they supposed to prevent things like this? I think back on Metias’s journal entries. One of these days, he’d said, there will be a virus unleashed that none of us will be able to stop. I remember the things Metias had unveiled, the underground factories, the rampant diseases . . . the systematic plagues. A shiver runs through me. Los Angeles will quell it, I tell myself. The plague will die down, just like it always does.
More headlines sweep by. A familiar one is about Day’s execution. It plays the clip of the firing squad yard where Day’s brother John took the bullets meant for Day, then fell facedown on the ground. Day turns his eyes to the pavement.
Another headline is newer. It says this:
SS NO: 2001963034
AGENT, LOS ANGELES CITY PATROL
AGE/GENDER: 15, FEMALE
LAST SEEN NEAR BATALLA HALL, LOS ANGELES, CA
350,000 REPUBLIC NOTES REWARD
IF SEEN, REPORT IMMEDIATELY TO YOUR LOCAL OFFICIAL
That’s what the Republic wants their people to think. That I’m missing, that they hope to bring me back safe and sound. What they don’t say is that they probably want me dead. I helped the country’s most notorious criminal escape his execution, aided the rebel Patriots in a staged uprising against a military headquarters, and turned my back on the Republic.
But they wouldn’t want that information going public, so they hunt for me quietly. The missing report shows the photo from my military ID—a face-forward, unsmiling shot of me, barefaced but for a touch of gloss, dark hair tied back in a high ponytail, a gold Republic seal gleaming against the black of my coat. I’m grateful that the phoenix tattoo hides half of my face right now.
We make it to the middle of the main strip before the speakers crackle again for the pledge. Day and I stop walking. Day stumbles again and almost falls, but I manage to catch him fast enough to keep him upright. People on the street look up to the JumboTrons (except for a handful of soldiers who line the edges of each intersection in order to ensure everyone’s participation). The screens flicker. Their images vanish into blackness, and are then replaced by high-definition portraits of the Elector Primo.
I pledge allegiance—
It’s almost comforting to repeat these words with everyone else on the streets, at least until I remind myself of all that’s changed. I think back to the evening when I’d first captured Day, when the Elector and his son came to personally congratulate me for putting a notorious criminal behind bars. I recall how the Elector had looked in person. The portraits on the JumboTrons show the same green eyes, strong jaw, and curled locks of dark hair . . . but they leave out the coldness in his expression and the sickly color of his skin. His portraits make him seem fatherly, with healthy pink cheeks. Not how I remember him.
—to the flag of the great Republic of America—
Suddenly the broadcast pauses. There’s silence on the streets, then a chorus of confused whispers. I frown. Unusual. I’ve never seen the pledge interrupted, not even once. And the JumboTron system is hooked up so one screen’s outage shouldn’t affect the rest.
Day looks up to the stalled screens while my eyes dart to the soldiers lining the street. “Freak accident?” he says. His labored breathing worries me. Hang on just a little longer. We can’t stop here.
I shake my head. “No. Look at the troops.” I nod subtly in their direction. “They’ve changed their stances. Their rifles aren’t slung over their shoulders anymore—they’re holding them now. They’re bracing themselves for a reaction from the crowd.”
Day shakes his head slowly. He looks unsettlingly pale. “Something’s happened.”
The Elector’s portrait vanishes from the JumboTrons and is immediately replaced with a new series of images. They show a man who is the spitting image of the Elector—only much younger, barely in his twenties, with the same green eyes and dark, wavy hair. In a flash I recall the touch of excitement I’d felt when I first met him at the celebratory ball. This is Anden Stavropoulos, the son of the Elector Primo.
Day’s right. Something big has happened.
The Republic’s Elector has died.
A new, upbeat voice takes over the speakers. “Before continuing our pledge, we must instruct all soldiers and civilians to replace the Elector portraits in your homes. You may pick up a new portrait from your local police headquarters. Inspections to ensure your cooperation will commence in two weeks.”
The voice announces the supposed results of a nationwide election. But there’s not a single mention of the Elector’s death. Or of his son’s promotion.
The Republic has simply moved on to the next Elector without skipping a beat, as if Anden were the same person as his father. My head swims—I try to remember what I’d learned in school about choosing a new Elector. The Elector always picked the successor, and a national election would confirm it. It’s no surprise that Anden is next in line—but our Elector had been in power for decades, long before I was born. Now he’s gone. Our world has shifted in a matter of seconds.
Like me and Day, everyone on the street understands what the appropriate thing to do is: As if on cue, we all bow to the JumboTron portraits and recite the rest of the pledge that has reappeared on the screens. “—to our Elector Primo, to our glorious states, to unity against the Colonies, to our impending victory!” We repeat this over and over for as long as the words stay on the screen, no one daring to stop. I glance at the soldiers lining the streets. Their hands have tightened on their rifles. Finally, after what seems like hours, the words disappear and the JumboTrons return to their usual news rolls. We all begin walking again, as if nothing had happened.
Then Day stumbles. This time I feel him tremble, and my heart clenches. “Stay with me,” I whisper. To my surprise I almost say, Stay with me, Metias. I try to hold him up, but he slips.
“I’m sorry,” he murmurs back. His face is shiny with sweat, his eyes shut tightly in pain. He holds two fingers to his brow. Stop. He can’t make it.
I look wildly around us. Too many soldiers—we still have a lot of ground to cover. “No, you have to,” I say firmly. “Stay with me. You can make it.”
But it’s no use this time. Before I can catch him, he falls onto his hands and collapses to the ground.
THE ELECTOR PRIMO IS DEAD.
This whole display seems pretty anticlimactic, doesn’t it? You’d think the Elector’s death would be accompanied by a goddy funeral march of some sort, panic in the streets, national mourning, marching soldiers firing off salutes into the sky. An enormous banquet, flags flying low, white banners hanging over every building. Something cracked like that. But I haven’t lived long enough to see an Elector die. Outside of the promotion of the late Elector’s desired successor and some fake national election for show, I wouldn’t know how it goes.
I guess the Republic just pretends it never happened and skips right ahead to the next Elector. Now I remember reading about this in one of my grade school classes. When the time comes for a new Elector Primo, the country must remind the people to focus on the positive. Mourning brings weakness and chaos. Moving forward is the only way. Yeah. The government’s that scared of showing uncertainty to their civilians.
But I only have a second to dwell on this.
We’ve barely finished the new pledge when a rush of pain hits my leg. Before I can stop myself, I double over and collapse down onto my good knee. A couple of soldiers turn their heads in our direction. I laugh as loud as I can, pretending the tears in my eyes are from amusement. June plays along, but I can see the fear on her face. “Come on,” she whispers frantically. One of her slender arms wraps around my waist, and I try to take the hand she offers me. All around the sidewalk, people are noticing us for the first time. “You have to get up. Come on.”
It takes all my strength to keep a smile on my face. Focus on June. I try to stand—then fall again. Damn. The pain is too much. White light stabs at the back of my eyes. Breathe, I tell myself. You can’t faint in the middle of the Vegas strip.
“What’s the matter, soldier?”
A young, hazel-eyed corporal is standing in front of us with his arms crossed. I can tell he’s kind of in a hurry, but apparently it’s not urgent enough to keep him from checking on us. He raises an eyebrow at me. “Are you all right? You’re pale as porcelain, kid.”
Run. I feel an urge to scream at June. Get out of here—there’s still time. But she saves me from speaking. “You’ll have to forgive him, sir,” she says. “I’ve never seen a Bellagio patron drink so much in one sitting.” She shakes her head regretfully and waves him back with one hand. “You might want to step away,” she continues. “I think he needs to throw up.” I find myself amazed—yet again—at how smoothly she can become another person. The same way she fooled me on the streets of Lake.
The corporal gives her an ambivalent frown before turning back to me. His eyes focus on my injured leg. Even though it’s hidden under a thick layer of pants, he studies it. “I’m not sure your escort knows what she’s talking about. Seems like you could use a trip to the hospital.” He raises a hand to wave down a passing medic truck.
I shake my head. “No, thank you, sir,” I manage to say with a weak laugh. “This darling’s telling me too many jokes. Gotta catch my breath is all—then gotta go sleep it off. We’re—”
But he’s not paying attention to what I’m saying. I curse silently. If we go to the hospital, they’ll fingerprint us, and then they’ll know exactly who we are—the Republic’s two most wanted fugitives. I don’t dare glance at June, but I know she’s trying to find a way out too.
Then someone pokes her head out from behind the corporal.
She’s a girl both June and I recognize right away, although I’ve never seen her in a freshly polished Republic uniform before. A pair of pilot goggles hangs around her neck. She walks around the corporal and stands in front of me, smiling indulgently. “Hey!” she says. “I thought that was you—I saw you stumbling around like a madman all the way down the street!”
The corporal watches as she drags me to my feet and claps me hard on the back. I wince, but give her a grin that says I’ve known her all my life. “Missed you,” I decide to say.
The corporal gestures impatiently at the new girl. “You know him?”
The girl flips her black, bobbed hair and gives him the most flirtatious grin I’ve ever seen in my life. “Know him, sir? We were in the same squadron our first year.” She winks at me. “Seems like he’s been up to no good in the clubs again.”
The corporal snorts in disinterest and rolls his eyes. “Air force kids, eh? Well, make sure he doesn’t cause another public scene. I’ve half a mind to call your commander.” Then he seems to remember what he’d been rushing to do and hurries away.
I exhale. Could we have pulled any closer of a call?
After he leaves, the girl smiles winsomely at me. Even under a sleeve, I can tell that one of her arms is in a cast. “My barracks are close by,” she suggests. Her voice has an edge to it that tells me she’s not happy to see us. “How about you rest there for a while? You can even bring your new plaything.” The girl nods at June as she says this.
Kaede. She hasn’t changed a bit since the afternoon I met her, when I thought she was just a bartender with a vine tattoo. Back before I knew she was a Patriot.
“Lead the way,” I reply.
Kaede helps June guide me down another block. She stops us at the elaborately carved front doors of Venezia, a high-rise set of barracks, then ushers us past a bored entrance guard and through the building’s main hall. The ceiling is high enough to make me dizzy, and I catch glimpses of Republic flags and Elector portraits hanging between each stone pillar that lines the walls. Guards are already rushing to replace the portraits with updated ones. Kaede guides us along while blabbing a nonstop stream of random small talk. Her black hair’s even shorter now, cut straight and even with her chin, and her smooth-lidded eyes are smudged with deep navy eye shadow. I never noticed that she and I are pretty much the same height. Soldiers swarm back and forth, and I keep expecting one of them to recognize me from my wanted ads and sound the alarm. They’ll notice June behind her disguise. Or realize that Kaede isn’t a real soldier. Then they’ll all be on top of us, and we won’t even have a chance.
But no one questions us, and my limp actually helps us blend in here; I can see several other soldiers with arm and leg casts. Kaede guides us onto the elevators—I’ve never ridden one, because I’ve never been in a building with full electricity. We get off on the eighth floor. Fewer soldiers are up here. In fact, we pass through a completely empty section of hallway.
Here, she finally drops her perky façade. “You two look about as good as gutter rats,” Kaede mutters as she taps softly against one of the doors. “That leg still buggin’ you, yeah? You’re pretty stubborn if you came all the way out here to find us.” She sneers at June. “Those goddy obnoxious lights strung on your dress nearly blinded me.”
June exchanges a glance with me. I know exactly what she’s thinking. How in the world can a group of criminals be living in one of Vegas’s largest military barracks?
Something clicks behind the door. Kaede throws it open, then walks in with her arms outstretched. “Welcome to our humble home,” she declares with a grand sweep of her hands. “At least for the next few days. Not too shabby, yeah?”
I don’t know what I expected to see. A group of teens, maybe, or some low-budget operation.
Instead we enter a room where only two other people are waiting for us. I look around in surprise. I’ve never been inside a real Republic barrack before, but this one must be reserved for officers—there’s no way they’d use this to house regular soldiers. First off, it’s not a long room with rows of bunk beds. It could be an upscale apartment for one or two officials. There are electric lights on the ceiling and in the lamps. Marble tiles of silver and cream cover the floor, the walls are painted in alternating shades of off-white and a deep wine color, and the couches and tables have thick red rugs cushioning their legs. A small monitor sits flush against one of the walls, mutely showing the same newsreel that’s playing on the JumboTrons outside.
I let out a low whistle. “Not shabby at all.” I smile, but it fades away when I glance over at June. Her face is tense beneath her phoenix tattoo. Even though her eyes stay neutral, she’s definitely unhappy and not as impressed as I am. Well, why should she be? I bet her own apartment had been just as nice as this. Her eyes wander around the room in an organized sweep, noticing things that I’d probably never see. Sharp and calculating like any good Republic soldier. One of her hands lingers near her waist, where she keeps a pair of knives.
An instant later, my attention turns to a girl standing behind the center couch. She locks her eyes onto mine and squints as if to make sure she’s really seeing me. Her mouth opens in shock, small pink lips formed into an O. Her hair is too short to braid now—it drapes to the middle of her neck in a messy bob. Wait a sec. My heart skips a beat. I hadn’t recognized her because of that hair.
“You’re here!” she exclaims. Before I can reply, Tess runs over to me and throws her arms around my neck. I hobble backward, struggling to keep my balance. “It’s really you—I can’t believe it, you’re here! You’re okay!”
I can’t think straight. For a second, I can’t even feel the pain in my leg. All I can do is wrap my arms tight around Tess’s waist, bury my head in her shoulder, and close my eyes. The weight on my mind lifts and leaves me weak with relief. I take a deep breath, taking comfort in her warmth and the sweet scent of her hair. I’d seen her every single day since I was twelve years old—but after only a few weeks apart, I can suddenly see that she’s not that ten-year-old kid I’d met in a back alley. She seems different. Older. I feel something stir in my chest.
“Glad to see you, cousin,” I whisper. “You look good.”
Tess just squeezes me tighter. I realize that she’s holding her breath; she’s trying hard not to cry.
Kaede is the one who interrupts the moment. “Enough,” she says. “This isn’t the damn opera.” We break apart to laugh awkwardly at each other, and Tess wipes her eyes with the back of a hand. She exchanges an uncomfortable smile with June. Finally, she turns away and hurries back to where another person, a man, is waiting.
Kaede opens her mouth to say something else, but the man stops her with a gloved hand. This surprises me. Judging from how bossy she is, I would’ve assumed that Kaede’s in charge of the group. Can’t imagine this girl taking orders from anyone. But now she just purses her lips and flops onto the couch as the man rises to address us. He’s tall, probably in his early forties, and built with a bit of strength in his shoulders. His skin is light brown and his curly hair is pulled back into a short, frizzy tail. A pair of thin, black-rimmed glasses rest on his nose.
“So. You must be the one we’ve all heard so much about,” he says. “Pleased to meet you, Day.”
I wish I could do better than standing hunched over with pain. “Likewise. Thank you for seeing us.”
“Please forgive us for not escorting you both to Vegas ourselves,” he says apologetically, adjusting his glasses. “It seems cold, but I don’t like risking my rebels needlessly.” His eyes swivel to June. “And I’m guessing you’re the Republic’s prodigy.”
June inclines her head in a gesture that oozes high class.
“Your escort costume is so convincing, though. Let’s just conduct a quick test to prove your identity. Please close your eyes.”
June hesitates for a second, then obliges.
The man waves a hand toward the front of the room. “Now hit the target on the wall with one of your knives.”
I blink, then study the walls. Target? I hadn’t even noticed that a dartboard with a three-ring target is on one of the walls near the door we came through. But June doesn’t miss a beat. She flips out a knife from her waist, turns, and throws it straight toward the dartboard without opening her eyes.
It slams deep into the board, just a few inches shy of the bull’s-eye.
The man claps his hands. Even Kaede utters a grunt of approval, followed by a roll of her eyes. “Oh, for chrissake,” I hear her mutter. June turns back to us and waits for the man’s response. I’m stunned into silence. Never in my life have I seen anyone handle a blade like that. And even though I’ve seen plenty of amazing things from June, this is the first time I’ve witnessed her using a weapon. The sight sends both a thrill and a shiver through me, bringing memories that I’ve forced into a closet in my mind, thoughts I need to keep buried if I want to stay focused, keep going.
“Pleased to meet you, Ms. Iparis,” the man says, tucking his hands behind his back. “Now, tell me. What brings you here?”
June nods at me, so I speak up instead. “We need your help,” I say. “Please. I came for Tess, but I’m also trying to find my brother Eden. I don’t know what the Republic’s using him for or where they’re keeping him. We figured you were the only people outside the military who might be able to get information. And finally, it seems like my leg needs to be operated on.” I suck in my breath as another spasm of agony sears my wound. The man glances down at the leg; his eyebrows furrow in concern.
“That’s quite a list,” he says. “You should sit. You seem a bit unsteady on your feet.” He waits patiently for me to move, but when I don’t budge, he clears his throat. “Well, you’ve introduced yourselves—it’s only fair for me to do the same. My name is Razor, and I currently head the Patriots. I’ve been leading the organization for quite a few years, longer than you’ve been causing trouble on the streets of Lake. You want our help, Day, but I seem to remember your declining our invitations to join us. Several times.”
He turns to tinted windows that face the pyramid-shaped landing docks lining the strip. The view from here is amazing. Airships glide back and forth in the night sky, covered in lights, several of them docking right over the pyramids’ tops like puzzle pieces. Occasionally we see formations of fighter jets, black eaglelike shapes, taking off from and landing on the airship decks. It’s a never-ending stream of activity. My eyes dart from building to building; the pyramid docks in particular would be the easiest to run, with grooves cut into each side and steplike ridges lining their edges.
I realize that Razor is waiting again for me to respond. “I wasn’t entirely comfortable with your organization’s body count,” I offer.
“But now apparently you are,” Razor says. His words are scolding, but his tone is sympathetic as he puts his palms together and presses the fingertips to his lips. “Because you need us. Correct?”
Well, I can’t argue with that. “I’m sorry,” I say. “We’re running out of options. But believe me, I’ll understand if you turn us away. Just don’t turn us in to the Republic, please.” I force a smile.
He chuckles at my sarcasm. I focus on the crooked bump of his nose and wonder if he’d broken it before. “At first, I was tempted to let you both wander Vegas until you were caught,” he continues. His voice has the smoothness of an aristocrat, cultured and charismatic. “I’ll be blunt with you. Your skills are not as valuable to me as they used to be, Day. Over the years, we’ve recruited other Runners—and now, with all due respect, adding another one to our team isn’t a priority. Your friend already knows”—he pauses to nod at June—“that the Patriots are not a charity. You’re asking us for a great deal of help. What will you give us in return? You can’t be carrying much money.”
June gives me a pointed look. She may have warned me about this on our train ride, but I can’t give up now. If the Patriots turn us down, we’ll really be on our own. “We don’t have a lot of money,” I admit. “I’m not going to speak for June, but if there is anything I can do in exchange for your help, just say the word.”
Razor crosses his arms, then walks to the apartment’s bar, an elaborate granite counter embedded into the wall and shelving dozens of glass bottles of all shapes and sizes. He takes his time pouring a drink; we wait. When he finishes preparing it, he takes the glass in one hand and wanders back to us. “There is something you can offer,” he starts. “Fortunately, you’ve arrived on a very interesting night.” He takes a sip of the drink and sits down on the couch. “As you probably learned while down on the street, the former Elector Primo died today—something many in the Republic’s elite circles have seen coming. At any rate, his son, Anden, is now the Republic’s new Elector. Practically a boy, and greatly disliked by his father’s Senators.” He leans forward, saying each word carefully and with weight. “Rarely has the Republic been as vulnerable as it is now. There will never be a better time to spark a revolution. Your physical skills might be expendable to us, but there are two things you can give us that our other Runners can’t. One: your fame, your status as the people’s champion. And two”—he points his drink at June—“your lovely friend.”
I stiffen at that, but Razor’s eyes are warm as honey and I find myself waiting to hear the rest of his proposal.
“I’d be happy to take you in, and you’ll both be well cared for. Day, we can get you an excellent doctor, and pay for an operation that’ll make your leg better than new. I don’t know the whereabouts of your brother, but we can help you find him, and eventually, we can help you both escape into the Colonies if that’s what you want. In return, we’d ask for your help with a new project. No questions asked. But you’ll both need to pledge your allegiance to the Patriots before I’ll reveal any details about what you’ll be doing. These are my terms. What do you think?”
June looks from me to Razor. Then she lifts her chin higher. “I’m in. I’ll pledge allegiance to the Patriots.”
There’s a slight falter in her words, like she knows she’s truly turned her back on the Republic. I swallow hard. I hadn’t expected her to agree so quickly—I’d thought she would need some persuading before she committed herself to a group that she so obviously hated just a few weeks ago. The fact that she said yes tugs at my heart. If June is giving herself to the Patriots, then she must realize that we have no better choice. And she’s doing this for my sake. I raise my own voice. “Me too.”
Razor smiles, rises from the couch, and holds up his drink as if to toast us. Then he sets it down on the coffee table and comes over to give each of us a firm handshake. “It’s official, then. You’re going to help us assassinate the new Elector Primo.”
I DON’T TRUST RAZOR.
I don’t trust him because I don’t understand how he can afford to hide out in such nice quarters. An officer’s quarters, in Vegas of all places. These rugs are each worth at least 29,000 Notes, made from some sort of expensive synthetic fur. Ten electric lights in one room—all switched on. His uniform is spotless and new. He even has a customized gun hanging on his belt. Stainless steel, probably lightweight, hand embellished. My brother used to have guns like that. Eighteen thousand Notes and up for a single one. What’s more, Razor’s gun must be hacked. No way the Republic is tracking those for fingerprints or locations. Where did the Patriots get the money and skills to hack such advanced equipment?
This all leads me to two theories:
One—Razor must be some sort of commander in the Republic, a double-crossing officer. How else can he stay in this barrack apartment without being detected?
Two—the Patriots are being funded by someone with deep pockets. The Colonies? Possibly.
In spite of all my suspicions and guesses, Razor’s offer is still as good as we’re going to get. We have no money to buy help on the black market, and without help, we have no chance of finding Eden or making it to the Colonies. Also, I’m not even sure we could have turned down Razor’s offer. He certainly hasn’t threatened us in any way, but I doubt he’d just let us walk back out onto the streets, either.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see Day waiting for my response to Razor’s statement. All I need to see are the paleness of his lips and the pain laced across his face, just a few of the dozen signs of his fading strength. At this point, I think his life depends on our deal with Razor.
“Assassinating the new Elector,” I say. “Done.” My words sound foreign and distant. For a moment, I think back on meeting Anden and his late father at the ball celebrating Day’s capture. The thought of killing Anden makes my stomach churn. He’s the Republic’s Elector now. After everything that’s happened to my family, I should be happy for the opportunity to kill him. But I’m not, and it confuses me.
If Razor notices my hesitation, he doesn’t show it. Instead, he nods approvingly. “I’ll put out an urgent call for a Medic. They probably won’t be able to come until midnight—that’s when the shifts change. It’s the fastest we can be on such a tight schedule. Meanwhile, let’s get you two out of those disguises and into something more presentable.” He glances over at Kaede. She’s leaning against the couch with hunched shoulders and an irritated scowl, chewing absently on a lock of her hair. “Show them to the shower and give them a pair of fresh uniforms. Afterward, we’ll have a late supper, and we can talk more about our plan.” He spreads his arms wide. “Welcome to the Patriots, my young friends. We’re glad to have you.”
And just like that, we’re officially bound to them. Maybe it’s not such a bad thing, either—maybe I never should’ve argued with Day about this in the first place. Kaede motions for us to follow her into an adjoining hall in the apartment and guides us to a spacious bathroom, complete with marble tiles and porcelain sinks, mirror and toilet, bathtub and shower with frosted glass walls. I can’t help admiring it all. This is wealth beyond even what I had in my Ruby sector apartment.
“Don’t be all night about it,” she says. “Take turns—or get cozy and shower together, if that’s faster. Just be back out there in a half hour.” Kaede grins at me (although the smile doesn’t touch her eyes), then gives Day a thumbs-up as he leans heavily on my shoulder. She turns away and disappears back down the hall before I can reply. I don’t think she’s forgiven me entirely for breaking her arm.
Day slouches the instant Kaede’s gone. “Can you help me sit down?” he whispers.
I put the toilet cover down and ease him gently onto it. He stretches out his good leg, then tenses his jaw as he tries to straighten out the injured one. A moan escapes his lips. “I’ve gotta admit,” he mutters, “I’ve had better days.”
“At least Tess is safe,” I reply.
This eases some of the pain in his eyes. “Yes,” he echoes, sighing deeply. “At least Tess is safe.” I feel an unexpected twinge of guilt. Tess’s face had looked so sweet, so wholly good. And the two of them were separated because of me.
Am I good? I don’t really know.
I help Day take off his jacket and cap. His long hair drapes in strings across my arms. “Let me see that leg.” I kneel, then pull a knife from my belt. I slice the fabric of his pant leg up to the middle of his thigh. His leg muscles are lean and tense, and my hands tremble as they brush up along his skin. Gingerly, I pull the fabric apart to expose his bandaged wound. We both suck in our breath. The cloth has a massive circle of dark, wet blood, and underneath it, the wound is oozing and swelling. “That Medic better get here soon,” I say. “Are you sure you can shower on your own?”
Day jerks his eyes away, and his cheeks turn red. “Of course I can.”
I raise an eyebrow at him. “You can’t even stand.”
“Fine.” He hesitates, then blushes. “I guess I could use some help.”
I swallow. “Well. A bath instead, then. Let’s do what we have to do.”
I start filling up the bathtub with warm water. Then, I take the knife and slowly cut through the blood-soaked bandages wrapped around Day’s wound. We sit there in silence, neither of us meeting the other’s eyes. The wound itself is as bad as ever, a fist-size mass of pulped flesh that Day avoids looking at.
“You don’t have to do this,” he mutters, rolling his shoulders in an attempt to relax.
“Right.” I give him a wry smile. “I’ll just wait outside the bathroom door and come help after you slip and knock yourself out.”
“No,” Day replies. “I mean, you don’t have to join the Patriots.”
My smile dies. “Well, we don’t have much of a choice, do we? Razor wants both of us on board, or he’s not going to help us at all.”
Day’s hand touches my arm for a second, stopping me in the middle of untying his boots. “What do you think of their plan?”
“Assassinating the new Elector?” I turn away, concentrating on unlacing, then loosening each of his boots as carefully as I can. It’s a question I haven’t figured out yet, so I deflect it. “Well, what do you think? I mean, you go out of your way to avoid hurting people. This must be kind of a shock.”
I’m startled when Day just shrugs. “There’s a time and place for everything.” His voice is cold, harsher than usual. “I never saw the point of killing Republic soldiers. I mean, I hate them, but they’re not the source. They just obey their superiors. The Elector, though? I don’t know. Getting rid of the person in charge of this whole goddy system seems like a small price to pay for starting a revolution. Don’t you think?”
I can’t help feeling some admiration for Day’s attitude. What he says makes perfect sense. Still, I wonder if he would’ve said the same thing a few weeks ago, before everything that had happened to his family. I don’t dare mention the time I’d been introduced to Anden at the celebratory ball. It’s harder to reconcile yourself to killing someone who you’ve actually met—and admired—in person. “Well, like I said. We don’t have a choice.”
Day’s lips tighten. He knows I’m not telling him what I really think. “It must be hard for you to turn your back on your Elector,” he says. His hands stay slack beside him.
I keep my head down and start pulling off his boots.
While I put his boots aside, Day shrugs out of his jacket and starts unbuttoning his vest. It reminds me of when I’d first met him back on the streets of Lake. Back then, he would take off his vest every night and give it to Tess to use as a pillow. That was the most I’d ever seen Day undress. Now he unbuttons his collar shirt, exposing the rest of his throat and a sliver of his chest. I see the pendant looped around his neck, the United States quarter dollar covered with smooth metal on both sides. In the quiet dark of the railcar, he’d told me about his father’s bringing it back from the warfront. He pauses when he finishes undoing the last button, then closes his eyes. I can see the pain slashed across his face, and the sight tears at me. The Republic’s most wanted criminal is just a boy, sitting before me, suddenly vulnerable, laying all his weaknesses out for me to see.
I straighten and reach up to his shirt. My hands touch the skin of his shoulders. I try to keep my breathing even, my mind sharp and calculated. But as I help him pull off the shirt and reveal his bare arms and chest, I can feel the corners of my logic growing fuzzy. Day is fit and lean under his clothes, his skin surprisingly smooth except for an occasional scar (he has four faint ones on his chest and waist, another one that’s a thin diagonal line running from left collarbone to right hip bone, and a healing scab on his arm). He holds me with his gaze. It’s hard to describe Day to those who have never seen him before—exotic, unique, overwhelming. He’s very close now, close enough for me to see the tiny rippled imperfection in the ocean of his left eye. His breaths come out hot and shallow. Heat rises on my cheeks, but I don’t want to turn away.
“We’re in this together, right?” he whispers. “You and me? You want to be here, yeah?”
There’s guilt in his questions. “Yes,” I reply. “I chose this.”
Day pulls me close enough for our noses to touch. “I love you.”
My heart flips in excitement at the desire in his voice—but at the same time, the technical part of my brain instantly flares up. Highly improbable, it scoffs. A month ago, he didn’t even know I existed. So I blurt out, “No, you don’t. Not yet.”
Day furrows his eyebrows, as if I’d hurt him. “I mean it,” he says against my lips.