Deliverance Page 54

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The Commander drops his fork to his plate with a clatter and shoves his chair away from the table. “Fine. You approach Hank. I’ll head to Chelmingford. We leave in an hour.” He stalks out of the room.

Connor looks from the Commander’s retreating back to Lyle. “What was that all about? Who’s Christina?”

Lyle picks up his mug of juice. “That’s his story to tell, and if you’re wise, you won’t ask him for it. I think I’ll go ahead and send a messenger ahead of you to Chelmingford, too. Tara Lanning, their leader, is on decent terms with Jason, but given his current frame of mind, it might be best to assure her that he does, indeed, have allies. Now go pack up your things so you can spend a little time with me before you leave.”

An hour later, we stand at Hodenswald’s gate, our travel packs freshly provisioned by Amarynda. A groom brings our horses out to us, and I pat my brown mare on the nose before strapping my travel pack and bag of tech supplies to the back of the saddle. Chelmingford is a five-day journey northeast if we push the horses. I’m anxious to get started. The faster we reach Chelmingford, the faster I can turn south and catch up with Rachel.

Amarynda pushes Lyle’s chair to the gate so he can see us off. Connor rushes forward as they come to a stop, and Amarynda wraps her arms around him and whispers something in his ear. He clings to her for a moment and then gives his grandfather a hug as well.

When Lyle lets him go, I step forward and shake the leader’s hand.

“Thank you for your help,” I say. “You’ll have no more trouble from the beacons.”

“Nor from Sharpe, apparently.” Lyle raises a brow at me. “He was reported missing this morning not ten minutes after someone else reported an unsightly mess of guts and bone all over the street in front of my favorite tailor’s house.”

I hold his gaze. “I wouldn’t know anything about that.”

“Of course not.” His smile is sly.

The Commander looms beside me, his face set in a scowl. “We’ve done what we promised, Lyle. Time for you to hold up your end of our bargain.”

Lyle’s smile spreads. “One-quarter of my troops and a diplomatic emissary to Brooksworth to show Hank how to disable his beacons and to beg for armed forces in exchange. Plus, I’ll send an emissary ahead of you to Chelmingford to hasten your discussions there. My courier can travel faster alone than you can with your group.”

“How will your Brooksworth emissary know how to fix the beacons?” the Commander demands, cutting his eyes toward me.

“Connor explained the process to me,” Amarynda says. “I’ll go to Brooksworth myself. If I’m successful, Hank’s troops will convene at Lankenshire in one week, along with ours. If he refuses me, then our commanding officer will let you know.”

“Fine.” The Commander and Lyle shake hands, and then the Commander mounts his horse and rides out of the city, the rest of us on his heels. Willow is already outside the gate waiting, having checked the surrounding Wasteland for signs that the trackers on our trail caught up while we were inside Hodenswald.

“We’re clear,” she says. The Commander rides past her without acknowledging her words.

Our horses leave hoofprints across the dew-soaked meadow as we head northeast to Chelmingford. The Commander and Peter take the lead. Gregory and Orion guard our backs. My people are staggered in between. I wait until there’s a sufficient distance between us and the guards and then say to Connor, “You surprised me at breakfast this morning.”

Frankie grins. “For a moment, you reminded me of your mother. I don’t mind saying that woman makes me sit up and pay attention.”

“Yes, I’m well aware that my mother and my sister command everyone’s attention and respect.”

There’s a shadow of bitterness in Connor’s voice that has me looking closely at him as our horses climb over a half-rotten log with wildflowers peeking out of its cracks.

“Clarissa and Cassidy can be intimidating, but that isn’t necessarily something to aspire to,” I say.

“Depends upon whom you ask.” Connor’s dark eyes scan the ground, and he carefully maneuvers his horse around a cluster of moss-covered stones that would surely have captured a hoofprint. “I don’t have the ability to make an entire roomful of people sit up and take notice when I enter the way Mom, Aunt Mandy, and Cassidy do, but sometimes the most valuable observations can be made when you’re the kind of person everyone overlooks. Sometimes when you stay in the background, it lends impact to the moments when you choose to take center stage.”

I smile. “Agreed. I spent years as an outcast in Baalboden. Most people wanted nothing to do with me. Sometimes being invisible gives you the space to sharpen your mind and learn while everyone else is busy running in circles trying to get noticed.”

“And look at you now,” Frankie says. I flinch at the pride in his voice—it’s as if he’s willfully forgotten how many of us died while I was in charge. “The leader of Baalboden’s survivors and a boy who has the respect and trust of the heads of two other city-states.” He leans across me and points a thick finger at Connor. “Just goes to show it doesn’t matter who you are or what you come from. It only matters what choices you make now.”

That’s true for Connor, but who I am and what I come from matter immensely. If I hadn’t been born to Marcus and Julia McEntire, the Commander would’ve taken no notice of me, I’d have grown up in Rowansmark, and my brother wouldn’t have been driven to destroy thousands of lives in retaliation for the ruin of his own.

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