Deliverance Page 69

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He nods as if I’ve passed a test. “No, there isn’t. Not anymore. Do you know why?”

“How in the world could I possibly know why there isn’t a tree in your garden?” I snap.

“You’re a smart girl, Rachel. Why wouldn’t there be a tree?”

I cross my arms over my chest and glare out the window. “Because there was never one in the first place.”

“Wrong.”

“What a shame. Are we done playing this game?”

“There was a tree. A beautiful old pecan tree. It was my favorite in the entire garden.”

“Is this the part of the conversation where I parrot back your condolences?”

“Show some respect, Rachel,” Samuel says from behind us.

Rowan waves his hand as if to tell Samuel not to worry. “Why wouldn’t that tree—my favorite tree—be there any longer?”

“Because it blew down in a storm. Because you got cold one winter and chopped it up for kindling. Because you sent Ian after it before you sent him to Baalboden. Am I getting close yet?”

“Because it became diseased.” His voice sounds just as regretful as it did when he told me he was disappointed in me. “I’d pruned that tree every fall. Cared for it every winter. Enjoyed its shade and its pecans every spring and summer. It was special to me, but then it began to rot from the inside out. By the time I discovered the rot, it was too late. The disease had spread from the branches down into the heart of the tree. If I didn’t cut it down, it would continue to die until, one day, it might fall and hurt someone.”

He waits as if I’m going to comment on the grand lesson I just learned, but I stay silent.

“People are like trees. I prune them. Care for them. Guide them. And enjoy them the way a father enjoys a son when he becomes what he’s meant to be. But when I discover rot, I have to see how deep it goes. It isn’t enough to just cut off the obvious branch. I have to test the core of the tree to see if it’s still solid.”

“And that’s why you had Ian kill his father? To see if Ian was still loyal to you?”

“Exactly.” His smile is full of regret. “Sometimes a father must hurt his sons if he loves them.”

“And sometimes a son must hurt his father if he loves you.” I turn to face him, this small man with the gentle smile and the incurable belief that people are pawns in a game that belongs only to him. “Why are you telling me this?”

His smile dies. “Because I respected your father, and he is no longer alive to see the rot that has spread inside his daughter. But I can see it. The disrespect. The inability to comprehend that your actions led to the very things you blame Ian for. Blame me for. I can see the rot, Rachel.”

“So you’re going to cut me down like your favorite tree?”

He meets my eyes for a long moment. “Yes.”

CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE

LOGAN

The Commander and I reach the edge of the old city midafternoon the day after the attack. Our horses are worn out, their sides heaving, and their heads hanging low. We pushed them hard. I hope they can recover, but more than that, I hope the girls haven’t been harmed. We weren’t far behind the gang of highwaymen who attacked us. Now and then we caught glimpses of them, all riding horses—theirs and ours—as they traveled ahead of us. They couldn’t have been back at their camp for more than an hour.

Hopefully, they used that time to stable the horses and settle in from their trip instead of using it to hurt the girls. If not . . . I try to run the scenarios, but I can’t force myself to think of all the grim possibilities. Instead, I follow the Commander into a copse of birch trees on a rise just outside the city, tether my horse, and then move to the edge of the trees so I can study what used to be a huge city before the tanniyn surfaced.

The Commander joins me, and we stare at the sprawling grid of collapsed buildings, twisted metal spires, and piles of crumbled stone held in place by the hardy tufts of wild grass growing from their depths. A few blocks west of the city’s heart, the buildings are more intact, the streets cleaner. We can’t see clearly past the debris and ruined structures, but it seems likely that the highwaymen are using that area as their base.

“They’ll have lookouts,” the Commander says.

“Yes.”

“We could enter from the east once night falls. Move through the city until we reach them. Then take them out one at a time.”

“Or we could walk right in and pretend to be interested in trading for some of their wares,” I say because the girls have been in the highwaymen’s custody for over twenty hours now, and I am not going to take all night to reach them. If the Commander disagrees, I’ll enter the city alone, the Rowansmark device waiting in my pocket.

“Trading.” The Commander snorts. “They’ll take one look at us and realize we’ve got nothing to trade. Especially nothing worth three girls, seven horses, and a piece of tech.”

“I have a plan.”

He takes his time measuring me with his stare. “I’m listening, and I’d better like what I hear.”

I hold my ground, though it takes everything I’ve got not to reach for my sword. “You’re going to hate this plan until you hear how it benefits you,” I say. “I just ask you to listen to me until I get to that part.”

He lifts his chin in my direction, an indication to keep talking.

“We’re going to trade ourselves. Or, more specifically, you.”

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