Deliverance Page 55

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I can make all the right choices now. I can protect the other city-states from Rowansmark’s beacons. I can make alliances and rally an army. I can see that justice finds the Commander and Ian for their crimes. But nothing I do will put Baalboden back together again. Nothing I do will wash away the blood shed by my brother. Maybe that’s not my responsibility, but the survivors I promised to protect became my friends—my family—and they died under my watch. I can’t let that go.

I don’t realize I’ve been ignoring the conversation going on around me until Frankie’s hand squeezes my shoulder.

“You all right?” he asks.

“Just tired.” I make myself smile at him, and then nod toward Orion, who has spurred his horse forward as if hoping to eavesdrop on our conversation. “Mind crowding him until he gets back to his place?”

“With pleasure.” Frankie moves his horse toward Orion, his face set like stone.

“You lied to him.” Connor’s voice is low, but still I glance around to make sure no one overheard.

“What are you talking about?” I ask quietly.

“I observe people. Study their interactions.” He shrugs. “It doesn’t make me a very scintillating conversationalist, and it certainly draws the scorn of those who appreciate a more . . . physical approach to life, but it does have its advantages.”

“I’m sure it does.”

Connor squints as sunlight pierces a gap between the leaves above us. “I know that Frankie volunteers to cook each night so that he won’t have to sit quietly and think about whatever is inside his head. I know that Smithson seems like he’s refusing to talk, but the truth is that he doesn’t know what to say. I also know that the Commander is going to try to kill you sooner rather than later. Willow and Adam are in love, though neither of them is comfortable saying those words. Jodi is driven to prove that she’s fearless, even when she’s terrified—”

“I get it.” I hold my hand up to stop the flow of words. “You study people the way I study technology.”

“Oh, you study people, too. But you’re less concerned with their inner emotional landscape than with their usefulness to your agenda and with any possibility that they might sabotage your plans.”

I stare at him and nearly get smacked in the face by an errant branch for my trouble. “That’s harsh.”

He raises a brow. “It wasn’t meant to be. Your ability to assess motives, strengths, and weaknesses makes you a good leader. The fact that you also have the integrity to not use that ability to harm those who trust you makes you great. And like all great leaders, you know when to keep your secrets, but Frankie seems to be a close friend of yours. Which is why I’m trying to figure out why you lied to him.”

“You may not have your mother’s skill at making people uncomfortable when you walk into a room, but you get there eventually.”

“Indeed. So now I’m curious—why hide your true feelings from a close friend?”

“It doesn’t matter. You’re observant. I get it. And I’m glad, because we’re going to need . . .” I can’t finish the sentence, even though I’ve just proven him right. I do assess people’s strengths, looking for how they can be useful to my plans.

“You’re going to need my observations when you deal with Chelmingford, yes. It’s not a crime to use your people’s strengths, especially when they’re freely offered.” He looks at Frankie as we crest the hill we’ve been climbing and see the vast darkness of the northern Wasteland, ribboned with glittering bodies of water, spread out before us. “But you talk plans and strategy. Contingencies and fallbacks. You don’t talk about why you never sleep well, or why Willow bullies you into eating enough, or why when you’re lost in thought, you look like you’re on the brink of losing everything that matters.”

“Connor—”

He holds up a hand. “I’m not asking you to tell me the truth. I’m simply saying that a truth that eats away at you shouldn’t be shouldered alone. Frankie cares enough to ask. Why not let him in?”

I take a deep breath of the spicy, pine-scented air and find that I have nothing to say. I don’t know how to let people in. I never learned. Besides Oliver, Jared, and Rachel, every encounter I had with the people in Baalboden was guarded. Adversarial. I knew better than to show weakness, fear, or doubt.

I guess some habits are hard to break.

I turn away from Connor and urge my horse to move a little faster while I sort through my heavy thoughts. How to approach Chelmingford. How to transform the stolen transmitters hidden within my pocket into a weapon the Commander will never see coming. How to defeat the three armies waiting for us at Rowansmark when they have the advantage of knowing the terrain and when they must have a supply of tech that my handful of transmitters can’t equal.

But mostly, I think of Rachel. Of missing her. Of how I can’t keep secrets from her, but I don’t know how to stop keeping them from everybody else.

I have no idea how to change that, and so I focus on the problems I can control and tell myself that the secret doubts I’m holding on to are better left unsaid.

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

RACHEL

Someone is screaming—raw, anguished sounds that flay the air and hurt my eardrums. I try to swim up through the layers of hazy darkness that keep dragging me into unconsciousness, but I can’t get my bearings. I’m drifting. Spinning. Weightless and heavy at the same time.

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