Deliverance Page 70

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His scar twitches as he curls his lip. “You’re a fool if you think I’m agreeing to that.”

“You haven’t heard how it will work yet.” I hurry on. “Rowansmark put a price on Jared Adams’s head, remember? A huge price. We’ll say that’s you.”

“You want me to pretend to be Jared Adams.” His stare burns into me.

“Yes. I’ll pretend to turn you over to them so that they can collect the bounty from Rowansmark. As a bonus, I’ll tell them I’ve recovered the thing you stole from James Rowan.”

“You don’t offer something on the trading table that you can’t produce,” he says scornfully. “I don’t expect you to understand how these kinds of things work, so let me set you straight. If you tell a pack of highwaymen that you have something, and then you fail to show them the item, they’ll kill you. And then kill me because I was stupid enough to walk in there with you.”

“I have the item.”

His body goes still. “What?”

“I have it. The device. Frankie recovered it from your tent before the highwaymen could pillage it. He recognized how important it was to keep it from falling into the wrong hands. He gave it to me.”

His hand grips the hilt of his sword. “And you said nothing about this? You dragged me an entire day’s journey through the Wasteland because I thought we needed to recover the tech—”

“Exactly. You wouldn’t have come, otherwise, and you wouldn’t have allowed me to leave. Not without a fight.”

He pulls his sword free, and I take a step back. “You’d better get to the part where this benefits me, because I’m about to see the benefit of cutting you down where you stand.”

I meet his eyes and make my voice steady even as I offer up the last piece of leverage I have against him. “You want to know how to work the tech. I’m going to show you. Consider the highwaymen’s camp to be a training ground for what you want to accomplish in Rowansmark.”

And once he knows how to use the device, he’ll feel free to dispose of me as soon as we secure troops from Chelmingford. There won’t be any need for my technical expertise. He’ll betray me. I’ll just have to be ready.

He smiles, and I shiver.

“You’re a fool,” he says quietly. “I told you before that women are your weakness, and you’ve just proved me right. You’re giving up the one reason you still exist for the slim chance that we can rescue those girls and get them out alive. Your life for theirs. Be sure you think that’s a fair deal, because once we start this, there’s no going back.”

“Are you saying you’re going to break your word and try to kill me before we take down James Rowan?” I raise a brow at him, though inside I’m shaking. He’ll kill me, wipe off his sword, and walk away without thinking twice if I let him. “What will you do if our one piece of tech can’t match what they have waiting for us there? What if we have to improvise or improve on it? How will you do that?”

He watches me for a long moment, and then slowly sheathes his sword. “We have a mission. Our task is to engage and subdue the armies waiting for us and to remove James Rowan from power. Anything or anyone else is a distant second on our list of priorities. If you allow women you care about on your team, you’ll worry over them. You’ll make decisions based on fear instead of on strategy.” There’s a tremor in his voice, a first for him. “And then those decisions will cost you your mission and the lives of others who depend on you to make judgment calls without emotion.”

I frown as the shadows lengthen around us. “Are we talking about me? Or are we talking about Christina?”

His mouth snaps shut, and he glares at me. “Who told you about Christina?”

“Lyle Hoden mentioned her at breakfast. Is that what this is about? You cared about a girl and made a decision you regret?”

“Let me tell you how leadership works.” His words are curt. “You can’t care about the individuals. You can only care about the group. The second you start caring about an individual more than the group, your ability to make decisions is compromised. You put one person above the whole, and it costs you the mission. It costs you the group.”

“Caring about Christina cost you the group?” I stare at him. “Was she on your team?”

I don’t expect him to answer me, but he does. His voice is weary. “She had talent as a soldier, but she hadn’t seen combat before the beasts surfaced. We were sent down that shaft to destroy the nest and seal up the hole. We thought we were facing one monster. Maybe two . . .”

He stares at the ruined city where the late afternoon light lingers in pockets of golden, shimmering air. Finally, he says, “There were scores of them. Fat lizard things so big they could crush huge boulders beneath them. They were breathing fire and spewing smoke. We still might have been able to seal up the hole and get out, but Christina got trapped by some of the rocks the beasts were smashing with their tails.”

“And you couldn’t detonate the bomb to seal the hole because she would’ve been killed.”

“Instead of detonating the bomb, I tried to help her. I tried to reach her. . . .” He touches the scar on his face as if remembering how he got it.

“She died anyway, didn’t she?” I ask softly, feeling an uneasy sort of pity for him even while he visibly shakes off the effects of our conversation and squares his shoulders.

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