Tracker once told me that you never hear the shot that kills you. I’ve never asked just how he knows this information, but as the bullet zips past my upper left shoulder, I’m pretty sure I can hear the pistol that fired it.
That’s their first mistake.
I’m on my feet in one fluid motion, heels digging against the cobblestone path as I lunge across the open space between us and the man with the pistol before Colton can stop me. Surprise tinges his awful gray eyes as my left arm knocks aside the pistol before it can be fired again. My shoulder rams his, the
force carrying both of us off-balance.
We hit the ground in a mad scrambling of hands and legs, each trying to grapple with the other for control of the weapon. A snarl rips from his lips, the scar across his cheek prominent with the evil leer in his eyes. His fist comes up and slams against my jaw. Blinding pain washes across my face but I don’t let go of his wrist.
The pistol falls from his hand and lands on the ground. Before I can make a grab for it, he deliberately kicks it out of range. It skitters into the snow by the bookery’s wooden sign.
From the corner of my eye, I see Colton cuss and run to retrieve the pistol, no doubt determined to put a stop to this fight before one of us gets killed.
My assailant rips his wrist free from my grasp and swings at my face. I’m faster, dodging the strike and rolling to the side. The man scrambles to his feet, his blue and gold cape covered in snow and mud, hair disheveled, and a snarl on his lips. He towers over me and reaches for something on his belt: a wicked-looking serrated knife.
I feel the color flee from my face, and plant a hand in the slushy snow for balance. My knees tuck under me in an effort to get back on my feet.
In one fluid motion, he whips the knife through the air. It sings across my shoulder blades, clipping my shoulder-length, mahogany hair as I lunge away with a hiss.
“Stand still, you little heathen.” His gruff voice rattles the world around me as he swings the knife again.
It cleaves through the air as I stagger on trembling legs then dance out of range. He misses by mere inches, each new attempt only driving him into a frenzy. His eyes harbor a lividness not unlike a wild beast; his gloved hand so tight around the knife’s hilt that I’m half convinced it’ll shatter.
My boots dance over the cobblestone with the nimbleness of a stag as he stabs at the empty space I had been in moments before. I reach out and seize his fluttering cape; my fingers sink into fine silk, tightening their grip as he spins toward me.
The knife slices through the fabric, tangling in the material as I pull the cape with everything I have and swing the bone roses like a crude flail. They collide with his face, slashing across his skin. He shouts in pain and surprise—
His foot slides against a patch of ice. Eyes wide, he stumbles, knees crashing to the ground. The knife burrows into the muddy slush as he tries to regain his balance, only to stop at a harsh click.
“I wouldn’t even try it,” Colton’s Edmondan Irish accent barks with authority as he stands by the bookery sign, the silver pistol trained on the hostile man.
The man grits his teeth, hand hovering over the knife’s hilt. He thinks better of drawing it, but his eyes meet Colton’s grass green ones across the path in challenge.
“Go ahead, boy, what are you waiting for? Pull that trigger and see what happens.” He pauses. “Or are you a coward?”
Colton keeps the pistol trained on the man. “On your feet. Now.”
The man stands up.
“Hands where I can see them,” Colton snarls, and I’m once again reminded that Colton is Kingdom Corps—and not just any Kingdom Corps; he is Henny’s second-in-command to the entire Kingdom. If anyone has the authority to shoot this man right now, it’s him.
The man’s lips form a wry, insane smirk as his eyes ghost over Colton to find me. “Interesting. To think a group of children are the ones responsible.”
I tremble at the biting chill to the words. It’s condescending, but unlike Meridian, this man is not an ally. This man is determined to kill us.
The man’s eyes harden as he continues talking. “That will make this all the more rewarding when your little kingdom crumbles into ashes.”
“We’ll see about that.” Colton’s brow furrows and he makes a motion for the man to start walking. “Frost Flea, look after Henny for me while I deal with this asshole.”
I nod, not about to question him. The Kingdom Corps have no doubt heard the gunshots and aren’t far away. That brings me little comfort. For all I know, they’ll think I’m the one who shot him and shoot me.
Colton keeps the pistol trained on the man and reaches for his crossbow. The man seems almost amused at the action, a smile creeping across his lips. I watch as Colton urges the man down the path and out into the street to meet the Kingdom Corps materializing near the intersection.
I hurry into the house where Henny has been taken by Elisha. I find him sitting on the wooden floor in the entrance hallway, surrounded by towels, a sickening pallor across his face, one hand over the wound on his lower left side. Blood drips to the ground, soaking through his calfskin glove.
“Holy shit, that looks painful,” Ethan says with a grimace from the living room just beyond the hallway. The raven-haired boy keeps a protective hand on his younger sister, who huddles at his side as their father turns toward them.
“Go summon help. The sooner the better.”
Ethan, despite his history of butting heads with Henny, nods and runs to another room in the house.
“Is he going to be okay?” the young girl asks. She’s not much older than seven, maybe eight, if I remember correctly. She toys with her shoulder-length, curly blonde hair, watching as I hover by Henny.
Elisha Adalwulf nods. “He’ll be just fine, Ali. Now go help your brother,” he says with a gentle, confident tone, reassuring even though there’s nothing reassuring about the situation. It appeases Ali at least as she disappears into the room Ethan did earlier.
Elisha’s short, salt and pepper hair is slick with melting snow as he presses a cloth against the wound. Henny winces, and I reach a hand out to touch his shoulder. Whether it does any good or not, it’s hard to tell, but truth be told, I’m more versed in ending someone’s suffering than helping them during it. Elisha looks to me a few seconds later.
“You got lucky.”
“No offense meant, but I didn’t get this far on luck alone.”
“I see that.” His eyes turn toward the blood dripping from the bone roses. “Clever little trinket you have there... I see why they call you the Heroine of Rondo now.”
“The rumors make it out to be more glamorous than it actually is.”
“That I don’t doubt.” He offers a warm, amused smile.
Henny flinches with a hiss when he shifts some of his weight. Sweat beads his brow as his amber eyes glance at the doorway. He opens his mouth to say something, but isn’t able to get the words out before another wave of pain hits him.
I kneel beside him, staring at the wound and not knowing what to do that Elisha isn’t already doing. It’s a bad one.
Images of Matthew flare through my mind. How scared he looked the day Hunter shot him. How much he suffered. How I didn’t get a chance to say…
No. I chase the thoughts from my mind. Henny is not Matthew. He’s hurt, but he’s also strong. He’ll be okay. Young men like Henny don’t just die to stupid madmen with guns. They just don’t.
“It’s a scratch, Ragamuffin,” Henny manages to wheeze for my benefit. “Nothing that can’t be fixed.”
“You’re a terrible liar, you know that.” I feel the tears burn behind my eyes, threatening to fall, praying help gets here soon. Just like that day with Matthew, I’m powerless to do anything but watch this all unfold.
“No more than you are.”
“Yeah? We both can agree I couldn’t win a game of poker if my life depended on it.”
Henny snorts in amusement. “You don’t even know how to play poker, Ragamuffin.”
“You’ll just have to teach me, then.”
Beyond the doorway, I hear a loud whining sound not too unlike an alarm. Elisha looks in that direction, relief in his eyes.
“Hold this here,” he instructs before he gets up, running to meet the military-style ambulance that pulls up to the pathway’s end outside. A different branch of Kingdom Corps steps out of it; these soldiers wearing olive green uniforms with a bronze hare on them, but lacking the faceless helmets the grunts usually have.
“I’ll be fine, Ragamuffin,” Henny says through the pain and glances down at his wound. He quickly turns his attention to the approaching soldiers, brow furrowed in annoyance.
“You better be. We have a Kingdom to get back on its feet and a world to change.”
“I’m looking very much forward to it.”
The soldiers hurry toward us, eyes widening in surprise to see that it’s Henny of all people who was the one shot. I grit my teeth in warning when they glance at me with accusing eyes, but let them work as I step back.
Henny winces, but manages to get to his feet long enough to move onto the stretcher right outside the door. He offers me a small hint of a half smirk, but I know he doesn’t feel it. The fear in his eyes just can’t be hidden, and it’s contagious as I tremble, wanting nothing more than for everything to be okay.
My eyes lock with one of the Kingdom Corps medics, a woman much older than me.
“Be careful with him,” I manage. It’s a weak attempt at speaking and seems to surprise her. She doesn’t say anything in response, but nods to show she understands. After all, this man is their new ruler. She damn well better be careful with him.
Then they’re gone just as fast as they arrived, leaving me standing in the cold—blood-soaked rag in hand, a frigid sensation in my soul as I listen to the vehicle’s wailing siren fade.
Elisha places a hand on my shoulder, a gentleness in his dark brown eyes. His thin wire-rim glasses sit cockeyed on the bridge of his nose. Light stubble dusts his chin to match the forced attempt at an encouraging smile on his lips. Snowflakes now rest on his burgundy vest and white long-sleeve dress shirt.
He doesn’t tell me it will be okay—that Henny will be fine and that none of this happened. He doesn’t even try to lie to me. Instead, he guides me farther into the warmth of the little log cabin bookery. A wave of heat from a fireplace wraps around me as he bids me to take a seat on a leather couch in the living room.
I do, still clutching the bloody cloth in my hands. I watch as he walks through a wooden archway to a generous sized kitchen with granite countertops and walnut cabinets with an air of dignified pride about him. I turn to pan the cedar-paneled living room.
A fire roars in its stone prison: several photographs in golden frames arranged on the mantel. They’re of Ethan, Ali, and a blonde-haired woman who must be their mother as well as a younger Elisha. Each one smiles in the pictures, which look to have been taken in a market square, likely somewhere local.
I allow a fleeting, sad smile. We worked so hard to get these children home to their father. Went through hell and back. They were the lucky ones.
My mind wanders to Henny and Colton. Both young men worked under the table, risking everything behind the scenes to return prisoners to their homes and free the slaves Hyperion’s cruel policies rounded up. Now it’s a reality, and Henny might not live long enough to see the dream become something more.
My fingers tighten around the cloth, crushing the stiffening fabric together. I close my eyes despite every instinct warning me not to, and bite back tears. None of this is fair. We came all this way only for it to crumble to the ground in a spectacular fashion.
He’s not dead, yet, my inner rustler chastises me over the clack of a printing press running somewhere in another room in this house. Despite the rhythmic clacking, tiny footsteps move across the floor in my direction. My shoulders bristle and I tighten my grip on the cloth, every nerve on edge. Something soft drapes around my shoulders and I open my eyes, watching as Ali flops down on the couch beside me with a beaming smile on her face.
It’s just Ali. I try to calm my nerves, but it doesn’t do me any good.
“Don’t cry, Miss Rags,” she says, reaching up to adjust the blanket she put around my shoulders. “Daddy says the doctors in Lexicon are really good. They’ll take care of Mister Henny.”
The fabric in my hands becomes twisted into a tight knot. “I hope you’re right, Ali. I really do.”
“Even though the guy’s an asshole, he didn’t deserve that,” Ethan adds, coming into the room. He leans his elbows on the couch’s back. My eyes narrow. Ethan and Henny did nothing but butt heads like two stubborn goats the whole time we were on the run from Sahrobi, and now he’s actually showing some compassion toward him. Then again, he owes Henny. Without him, both of these kids would have been dead a long time ago.
“Language, Ethan.” Elisha steps into the living room with two porcelain teacups filled to the brim with amber liquid. He hands one to me. I cradle it with trembling hands, allowing the bloodied rag to fall across my thigh.
“Sorry, Dad.” The boy averts his eyes, but doesn’t seem all that apologetic.
Elisha takes a seat in a rocking chair tucked in the corner by the fireplace. “To think the new Kingdom is already off to a rough start doesn’t bode well for its future overall.”
I stare at the liquid in the cup, watching the light from an elegant ceiling fixture catch across it with a low shimmer. “It’s not fair.”
“Few things are, Rags.” Elisha ignores my snort and sips his cup of tea with the finesse of a well-mannered gentleman. “But that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to hedge the odds in our favor.”
I arch an eyebrow in curiosity.
“As you may or may not know, I’m the Kingdom’s chief propaganda producer. It’s my duty to ensure that even the most dismal of news looks good to the masses.”
“No offense, Mr. Adalwulf, but if you couldn’t spin Rondo to look good, I fail to see how you’re going to make the assassination of the Kingdom’s new leader look like a good thing.”
“I don’t intend to,” he chides, then takes another sip of tea. His calmness irritates me, as if leaders being assassinated is commonplace in Lexicon. “The key to earning the sympathy of the people is to manipulate their emotions. If anything, Henrick being shot is a positive thing for the Kingdom overall.”
I grit my teeth, rage boiling in my blood at his words.
He pins me with a firm stare before I can respond. “I can work with the attempted assassination of a leader, especially one who is still—to my knowledge—very much alive. I can spin this to make Henrick look like the underdog hero everyone needs and that, in turn, will help to establish whatever foundation he sees as a future for the Kingdom.”
“You’re really that good, eh?” I don’t try to hide my skepticism. I’ve heard of people like Elisha before. People who manipulate the Kingdom’s public news outlets to get a desired result from the people. He’s supposedly the best in his field, but I need to see it to believe it.
“I was instrumental in covering up Tobar. No one to this day, aside from those involved, knows the fate of that settlement. Everyone thinks it was just abandoned in favor of Adonis because the alternative will cause outrage and uprisings.” He pauses, looking thoughtful. “Though, now with Hyperion gone and the hierarchy rapidly changing in its last days, history can finally be told as it really was. It will take time and careful planning, but in due time, the truth about Tobar will come out. It’s all about controlling the media in organized steps.”
He’s got me there. I didn’t even know about Tobar until I found out by accident. It literally is one of the best kept secrets in the Kingdom at this point.
A heavy knock on the door makes me nearly spill my tea all over the floor. I only just manage to steady the teacup before that can happen. Ethan and Ali look toward it, but make no move to get up. Elisha does though, and sets his teacup on a small end table near the rocking chair. He vanishes from the room, only to reappear moments later with Tracker and Jericho in tow.
“Rags.” Relief tinges Tracker’s voice as the tall, older, dark-skinned man lays eyes on me. I look up, wanting nothing more than to run to him right now. I resist the urge and instead study my teacup.
“What in the hell happened?” Jericho’s Midland Territory drawl pierces the air. The wiry man runs a hand through his wavy, copper hair and takes stock of the room. Concern rests in his eyes as they fall on me and I see him take a step closer, only to stop himself before he gets too far into the room.
“Henny got shot is what happened.” I stand up, letting the blanket fall to the couch, and the rag on my knee to fall to the floor. “And I would’ve been, too, but he missed.”
“What did this man look like?” Tracker asks.
I tell him, mentioning his cold words of ‘praise Antiquity’ and how he targeted Henny first, then me. With each word, Tracker seems to grow more troubled as his brow furrows.
“I see,” he says in a firm, but quiet tone. “Rags, with me, we’re going home.”
I don’t question it, knowing better at this point. A part of me is glad he’s here. Tracker won’t let anything else happen to me.
Elisha and Jericho exchange silent looks. I don’t know what these two’s history is, but something tells me they go way back to Jericho’s rustling days.
“If you don’t mind, I think I’ll stick around here and discuss some things with Elisha for a bit,” Jericho finally says.
Tracker nods in agreement and heads for the door.
I hand my teacup to Ali and offer the girl a forced smile. “Thank you.”
“Miss Rags, will you come back to visit?”
“Sure thing. Just gotta take care of a few things first.”
“Like the guy who shot at you?” Ethan knows that most people who take a pot shot at me don’t exactly have a great track record for staying alive.
“Something like that.” I don’t ignore the warning look in Tracker’s eyes as he opens the door, allowing the frigid air to wash through the hallway.
Henny weighs heavy on my mind as I follow Tracker back into the cold, sticking close to his back. We turn toward Sadie’s house, the city feeling a lot less friendly than it was when we first arrived.
“Good heavens, what happened?” Sadie meets us at the door and immediately notices the dirt and slushy mud I hastily tried to wipe away from my clothes on the way back home. Tracker hangs his leather flight jacket on the coatrack by the door and walks past her.
“There was an incident at the bookery.”
“An incident?” Sadie raises an eyebrow, suspicious. She looks at me before directing her question to him. “What kind of incident?”
“Nothing you need to concern yourself with at this time.”
Yeah, right. I resist the urge to tell her what really happened out there. I mean, Henny only got shot. But that’s not important enough to tell her about, right? Some days I hate this secret rustler thing where we don’t tell Sadie things we should probably be telling her.
“Did you start another fight?” Sadie’s eyes fall back on me. “Did someone recognize you from Rondo and try to collect the bounty on you?”
Despite the warning look from Tracker not to say anything, I do.
“It’s a little more complicated than that... I didn’t technically start the fight; I may have finished it, though.”
“Rags,” she says, her voice turning stern. “We’ve been over this. You can’t go around picking fights, especially in this town. The K. C. will shoot you if they catch you.”
I flinch at the way she says it.
“Alright, Sadie.” Tracker steps in to my defense. “That’s enough. Rags wasn’t completely innocent in this, but she didn’t instigate it. Henrick did.”
“Henrick? What did he do?”
“Technically, nothing more than walk down the road as the new leader of the Kingdom. Fieldson handled the situation, but long story short, there was some hostility between him and another party, shots were fired, and we’ll be heading to the hospital to check up on him in about a day or two.”
Sadie’s eyes widen. “That isn’t a little scuffle, Tracker! They could’ve been killed.” Her eyes flick toward me. “She could’ve been killed.”
“I assure you, Sadie, the situation is handled. Henrick was wounded, but he’s a strong young man. I have every bit of confidence he’ll recover.”
He damn well better. I resist the urge to tell Tracker otherwise. That wound looked awful.
Sadie doesn’t seem to buy his words, either, but doesn’t push her luck. Instead, she waddles into the kitchen with a heavy sigh. There’s really not much else she can do about the situation—and she knows it.
The remainder of the day is spent trying to come up with some semblance of normalcy despite the heavy cloud hanging over us all. My first day back with my family, and it feels so foreign. Seeing Frank, Addison, Sadie, Tracker, and Jericho again should make me happy. They’re my family; the people I love and cherish near to my heart. This is what I’ve been fighting for, This is my family, the people I love and cherish near to my heart. and yet, I feel like a stranger.
Not knowing abou