Deliverance Page 71

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“She died. Half the team died. All because I put her ahead of the mission. I never made that mistake again, and neither will you, because if I think your ability to make decisions has been compromised, I’ll finish you. I’m not interested in dying because you feel a misguided sense of responsibility for the few instead of for the many.”

“You loved her, didn’t you?” I know I sound too curious, too surprised, but I can’t help it. The thought that the Commander was once capable of love is too foreign to wrap my mind around.

His eyes flash. “Let’s get this done.” He turns on his heel and stalks toward the city. I have to hurry to catch up.

CHAPTER THIRTY

LOGAN

We enter the city at midafternoon the day after the attack. I march the Commander in front of me, my sword out. I’m glad I don’t have to see his face while I do it. His necklace, the one that marks him as the leader of a city-state and is capable of keeping the tanniyn at bay, has been left behind. Buried beneath a tree close to where we tethered our horses. I carry the Rowansmark tech in my pocket, wired to the two additional transmitters I brought.

The thought of demonstrating how to use it and then handing it back to the Commander makes my heart pound in quick, jerky thumps, but the thought of leaving Willow, Jodi, and Nola to the highwaymen is worse.

The city seems to tower over us as we enter. Everything is tall—the buildings, the faded metal signs now covered in moss and ivy, the broken pieces of road that inexplicably cross other roads like bridges over water. I stare at the underside of a road-bridge as we walk beneath it and wonder at a civilization that had so many wagons, they needed roads in the sky.

My pulse is pounding loudly in my ears as we walk. Everything inside of me is wound tight, a coil of anxiety that I have to willfully ignore. The girls will be okay. They have to be.

We haven’t moved more than a few blocks through the ruins before three men materialize from behind a rusted hunk of metal that looks like an enormous once-yellow wagon with rubber wheels and glass windows all around the sides.

“State your business,” one calls to us. The other two heft crossbows and aim them at our hearts.

“I’m here to make a trade.” My voice seems to bounce off the half-crumbled brick storefronts that line this section of the city.

“What’s with the weapon and the old man?” the speaker asks.

“He’s my collateral.”

One of the men snorts and shakes his head, as if marveling at my foolishness, but the third jerks his crossbow to the left and says, “Come with me. We have sentries posted throughout the city. Try anything funny, and we’ll kill you.”

Not before I kill you. My hand rests on the outline of the device sheltered in my pocket as grim resolution fills me.

It takes nearly an hour to wind our way through the wreckage of the city, dodging the craters left by the tanniyn and ducking around burned-out husks of buildings. When we finally reach the cleaned-up streets of the western side of town, another pair of sentries steps out to meet us.

“Whatcha got?” a thin, red-eyed man asks.

“The boy here says he wants to make a trade. Apparently, he thinks Rufus will be interested in the old man.”

The red-eyed man spits on the cracked gray road beneath his feet. “Seems unlikely, but let’s ask him.”

Leaving our original guide behind, we follow the red-eyed man into the highwaymen’s base camp. Here, the debris has been cleared, and shaky structures are propped up with boards and branches. A few taller buildings gleam dully in the afternoon sun, their windows reflecting the clear blue sky beneath a layer of grime.

I search the windows of the buildings we pass, looking for Willow, Jodi, and Nola, but I don’t see them. Here and there, a group of men in the ragged, patched-together clothing of highwaymen stare at us from inside a building as we pass, but for the most part, the street seems empty. When we turn left onto a wide street with cracked sidewalks, everything changes.

Horses mill about a large, flat square of the same kind of stone that makes up the old road beneath our feet. A fence encloses the square, and an awning covers the eastern side, sheltering piles of hay. A couple of men lounge in front of the makeshift stable, their eyes assessing us carefully as we pass. I remember the way the highwaymen attacked—the speed and precision with which they killed our guards, stole our horses, and left with the girls—and remind myself not to underestimate Rufus and his band of criminals.

Past the stable, the smell of roasted pig fills the air. One of the buildings has smoke curling up from a chimney, and as we get closer, the scent of baking bread and the yeasty aroma of a strong, dark ale mingles with the smell of the cooking meat and makes my stomach rumble.

I glance at the building where the food is being cooked, taking in the wide space where a window used to be, the cluster of round tables and chairs scattered across the floor inside, and the dozen or so men seated in those chairs who stop chewing to watch us as we walk by.

No girls.

“Here we are.” The red-eyed man stops before a wide, low-slung brick building and raps sharply on a narrow blue door.

“Yeah?” a voice asks from inside.

“Traders here.”

The door swings open, and an older man with greasy clumps of gray hair hanging from his head steps out.

“No weapons allowed inside,” he says, seeing my sword still pointed at the Commander’s back.

“If I don’t keep a weapon on him, he’s likely to bolt,” I say.

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