Scarlet Page 20


Cinder grimaced, too exhausted to tell the story, but knowing she couldn’t keep it from her companions forever. “All right,” she said, sidling past Thorne and into the hallway. “Let’s go back to the cockpit. We might as well be comfortable.”

Sixteen

Scarlet called a hover to take them into Toulouse, nearly draining her account of Gilles’s latest deposit. She sat opposite Wolf during the ride, her pistol digging into her back as she watched him. In such close quarters, she knew the pistol was all but useless to her. After all, she’d witnessed Wolf’s speed more than once. He could have her pinned and half choked before she’d loosened the gun from her waistband.

But it was impossible to feel threatened by the semi-stranger across from her. Wolf was entranced by the rolling farmlands passing by, gaping at tractors and cattle and decrepit, crumbling barns. His legs jogged ceaselessly the whole time, though she doubted he realized it.

The almost child-like fascination was at odds with him in every way. The fading black eye, the pale scars, the broad shoulders, the calm composure he’d had as he nearly strangled Roland, the fierce brutality in his gaze as he’d nearly killed his opponent in the fight.

Scarlet chewed the inside of her cheek, wondering which side of him was an act, and which was real.

“Where are you from?” she asked.

Wolf swung his gaze around to meet hers, the curiosity vanishing. Like he’d forgotten she was there. “Here. France.”

Her lips twitched. “Interesting. You look like you’ve never seen a cow before.”

“Oh—no, not here. Not Rieux. I’m from the city.”

“Paris?”

He nodded and his ticking legs switched to a new rhythm, alternating in time with each other. Unable to take it, Scarlet reached over and firmly pressed her palm onto one knee, forcing his bouncing leg to still. Wolf skittered at the touch.

“You’re driving me crazy,” she said, pulling back. His legs stayed still—for the time, at least—but his surprise lingered on her. “So how did you end up in Rieux of all places?”

His attention swept back to the window. “At first I just wanted to get away. I took a maglev to Lyon, and started following the fights from there. Rieux is small, but it draws a good crowd.”

“I noticed.” Scarlet leaned her head back against the seat. “I lived in Paris for a while, when I was a kid. Before I came down here to live with Grand-mère.” She shrugged. “I’ve never really missed it.”

They’d passed through the farms and olive groves, the vineyards and suburbs, and were swooping into the heart of Toulouse when she heard Wolf respond.

“I haven’t missed it either.”

* * *

The sublevel of the maglev station was obnoxiously bright as they descended on the escalator, the fluorescents overcompensating for the lack of sun. Two androids and a weapons detector were waiting at the bottom, and one beeped the second Scarlet’s feet touched the platform.

“Leo 1272 TCP 380 personal handgun detected. Please extend your ID chip and stand by for clearance.”

“I have a permit,” Scarlet said, holding out her wrist.

A flash of red. “Weapon cleared. Thank you for riding the European Federation Maglev Train,” said the android, rolling back to its post.

Scarlet brushed past the androids, and found an empty bench just off the rails. Despite half a dozen small, spherical cameras orbiting near the ceiling, the walls were scribbled with years of elaborate graffiti and the ghost images of torn concert posters.

Wolf claimed the seat beside her, and within moments his frenetic energy had started up again. Though he’d left space in between them, Scarlet found herself attuned to the fidgeting fingers, jogging knees, shoulders rolling out their kinks. His energy was almost tangible.

Scarlet was exhausted just from watching him.

Trying to ignore him, she dug her portscreen from her pocket and checked her comms, though nothing but junk and ads had come in.

Three trains came and went. Lisbon. Rome. West Munich.

Scarlet grew anxious, and didn’t realize that her own foot had started tapping to the same beat until Wolf placed the pad of a finger against her knee.

She froze, and Wolf instantly pulled away. “Sorry,” he whispered, gripping his hands together in his lap.

Scarlet had no response, unsure what he was apologizing for. Unable to tell if his ears had just gone pink or if it was the flickering lights from a nearby ad.

She saw him let out a measured breath before, without warning, Wolf stiffened and whipped his head toward the escalators.

Instantly on edge, Scarlet craned her neck to see what had startled him. A man in a business suit was passing through the detectors at the base of the escalator. He was followed by another man in torn jeans and a sweater. Then a mother guiding a hovering carriage with one hand while checking her port with the other.

“What’s wrong?” she asked, but the words were drowned out by the blaring speakers, announcing the train to Paris via Montpellier.

The strain in Wolf’s muscles fell away and he bounded to his feet. The track’s magnets started to hum and he went to join the other passengers rustling toward the platform’s edge. The unease had already vanished from his face.

Scarlet hefted her bag onto her shoulder and glanced back once more before joining him.

The train’s bullet-nose glided past, a blur at first before coming to an easy stop. In one fluid movement, the cars lowered themselves onto the track with a clang and the doors all down the train hissed open. Androids deboarded from each car, their monotone voices speaking in unison. “Welcome aboard the European Federation Maglev Train. Please extend your ID for ticket scanning. Welcome aboard the European…”

A weight released from Scarlet’s chest as the scanner passed over her wrist and she stepped onto the train. Finally, finally she was on her way. No more standing still. No more doing nothing.

She found an empty privacy room with bunk beds and a desk and a netscreen on the wall. The car had the musty smell of rooms sprayed with too much air freshener. “It’s going to be a long trip,” she said, depositing her bag on the desk. “We can watch the net for a while. Do you have a favorite feed?”

Standing just inside the room, Wolf looked from the floor to the screen to the walls, trying to find new places to land his eyes. Anywhere but on her. “Not really,” he said, crossing to the window.

Scarlet perched on the edge of the bed, able to make out the flicker of netscreens on the glass, highlighting a collection of fingerprint smudges. “Me either. Who has time to watch it, right?”

When he didn’t respond, she leaned back on her palms and pretended not to notice the sudden awkwardness. “Screen, on.”

A panel of gossip reporters were seated around a desk. Their empty, catty words flew in and out of Scarlet’s ears, her thoughts too distracted, before she realized they were critiquing the Lunar girl at the New Beijing ball—her atrocious hair, the embarrassing state of her gown, and were those grease stains on her gloves? Tragic.

One of the women cackled. “Too bad they don’t have any department stores in space, because that girl could use a serious makeover!”

The other hosts tittered.

Scarlet shook her head. “That poor girl’s going to be executed, and everyone’s just making jokes about her.”

Wolf glanced back at the screen. “That’s the second time I’ve heard you defend her.”

“Yeah, well, I try to think for myself once in a while, rather than buy in to the ridiculous propaganda the media would have us believe.” She frowned, realizing that she sounded exactly like her grandmother. She tempered her annoyance with a sigh. “People are just so quick to accuse and criticize, but they don’t know what she’s been through or what led her to do the things she did. Do we even know for sure that she did anything?”

An automated voice warned that the train doors were closing and she heard them whistle shut seconds later. The train rose off the tracks and slithered out of the station, plunging them into a darkness only broken by the corridor lights and the blue netscreen. It picked up speed, a bullet coasting down the tracks, and broke ground all at once, sunlight spilling through the windows.

“Shots were fired at the ball,” said Wolf, as the talking heads on the screen jabbered on. “Some believe the girl meant to start a massacre, and that it’s a miracle no one was hurt.”

“Some people have also said she was there to assassinate Queen Levana, and wouldn’t that have made her a hero?” Scarlet mindlessly flipped through the channels. “I just think we shouldn’t judge her, or anyone, without trying to understand them first. That maybe we should get the full story before jumping to conclusions. Crazy notion, I know.”

She huffed, irritated to find heat rushing up to her cheeks. The channels ticked by. Ads. Ads. News. Celebrity gossip. A reality show about a group of children attempting to run their own small country. More ads.

“Besides,” she muttered, half to herself, “the girl’s only sixteen. It seems to me that everyone is overreacting.”

Scratching behind his ear, Wolf sank onto the bed, as far from Scarlet as possible. “There have been cases of Lunars as young as seven years old being found guilty of murder.”

She scowled. “As far as I know, that girl hasn’t murdered anybody.”

“I didn’t murder Hunter last night. But that doesn’t make me harmless.”

Scarlet hesitated. “No. I guess it doesn’t.”

After a heavy silence, she changed the netscreen back to the reality show and feigned interest in it.

“I started fighting when I was twelve.”

She slid her attention back to him. Wolf was staring at the wall, at nothing.

“For money?”

“No. For status. I’d only been in the pack for a few weeks, but it became clear very fast that if you don’t fight, if you can’t defend yourself, then you’re nothing. You’re tormented and ridiculed … you practically become a servant, and there’s nothing you can do about it. The only way to prevent becoming an omega is to fight. And to win. That’s why I do it. That’s why I’m good at it.”

Her brow had knit together so tight it was beginning to ache, but Scarlet couldn’t relax as she listened. “‘Omega, ’” she said. “Just like a real wolf pack.”

He nodded, picking nervously at his blunt fingernails. “I saw how afraid of me you were—not even just afraid, but … revolted. And you were right to be. But you said that you like to have the full story before judging, to try to understand first. So that’s my story. That’s how I learned to fight. Without mercy.”

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