Scarlet Page 32


“No,” said Cinder, bored.

“Well, she does. Miss Scarlet Benoit. Supposedly she just turned eighteen, but—brace yourself—she doesn’t have any hospital records. Get it? Holy spades, I’m a genius.”

Cinder scowled. “I don’t get it.”

Tilting back, Thorne peered at her upside down. “She doesn’t have any hospital records.”

“So?”

He spun the chair to face her. “Do you know a single person who wasn’t born in a hospital?”

Cinder considered. “Are you suggesting that she could be the princess?”

“That’s precisely what I’m suggesting.”

The netscreen turned to a profile and picture of Scarlet Benoit. She was pretty, with pronounced curves and fiery red curls.

Cinder squinted at the image. A teenage girl without a birth record. A ward of Michelle Benoit.

How convenient.

“Well, then. Excellent detective work, Captain.”

Twenty-Five

Scarlet dreamt that a blizzard had covered all of Europe in neck-deep snow. A child again, she came downstairs to find her grandmother kneeling in front of the wood stove. “I thought I’d found someone who would take you in,” her grandma said. “But they’ll never come for you in all this snow. I guess I’ll have to wait until spring now to be rid of you.”

She stoked the fire. The sparks flew into Scarlet’s eyes, stinging, and she woke up with wetness on her cheeks, her fingers like ice. For a long time she couldn’t sort out what was a dream and what was a memory. Snow, but not so much snow. Her grandmother wanting to send her away, but not when she was a child. A teenager. Thirteen.

Had it been January, or later still in the winter? She struggled to piece together thawing memories. She’d been sent out to milk the cow, a chore she’d despised, and her hands were so numb she was afraid she would squeeze the udders too tight.

Why hadn’t she been in school that day? Was it a weekend? A vacation?

Oh—right. She’d been visiting her father, just come back the day before. She was supposed to stay with him for a full month, but she couldn’t stand it. The drinking, the coming back to the apartment in the middle of the night. Scarlet had taken the train home without telling anyone, surprising her grandmother with her arrival. Rather than happy to see her, her grandmother had been angry that Scarlet hadn’t commed to tell her what was happening. They’d had a fight. Scarlet was still mad at her, milking the cow, fingers freezing.

It was the last time she’d ridden the maglev. The last time she’d seen her father.

She remembered hurrying through her chores, desperate to be finished with them so she could go inside and get warm. It wasn’t until she was rushing back to the house that she saw the hover out front. She’d seen plenty hovers when she lived in the city, but they were rare out in the country, where the farmers preferred larger, faster ships.

She’d sneaked in through the back door and heard her grandmother in the kitchen, and a man, their voices muffled. She inched her way around the staircase, her feet silent on the terra-cotta tiles.

“I can’t imagine what a burden she’s been for you all these years,” said the man in an eastern accent.

Scarlet frowned, sensing the kitchen’s warmth upon her cheeks as she peered through the cracked door. He was at the table, a mug in his hands. He had silk-black hair and a long face. Scarlet had never seen him before.

“She hasn’t been as much trouble as I expected her to be,” said her grandmother, who she couldn’t see. “I’ve almost grown attached to her after all these years. But I must say, I’ll be glad when she’s gone. No more panicking each time an unfamiliar ship flies by.”

Scarlet’s throat constricted.

“You said she’d be ready to go in a week’s time? Can that be so?”

“Logan seems to think so. This device of yours is all we were waiting for. If the procedure goes smoothly it could even be sooner. But you’ll have to be patient with her. She’ll be quite weak, and more than a little bewildered.”

“Understandably so. I can’t imagine what this must be like for her.”

Scarlet clamped a palm over her mouth to smother her breathing.

“You have accommodations set up?”

“Yes, we’re quite prepared. It will take some getting used to for us as well, but I’m sure it will all work out once she’s settled in. I have two girls of my own about her age—twelve and nine. I’m sure they’ll adore each other, and I will treat her as if she were my own.”

“And what about Madame Linh? Is she prepared?”

“Prepared?” The man chuckled, but the sound was rough and uncomfortable. “She could not have been more astounded when I brought up the idea of adopting a third girl, but she’s a good mother. I’m sorry she wasn’t able to come with me, but I wanted to draw as little attention to this trip as possible. Of course, she doesn’t know about the girl. Not … everything.”

Scarlet must have made a sound, because the man suddenly looked up and saw her. He stiffened.

Her grandmother’s chair scratched against the floor and the door swung open. She was furious. Scarlet was furious right back at her.

“Scarlet, you know better than to eavesdrop. Go to your room!”

She wanted to scream, to stomp, to tell her that she couldn’t just send her away like she was nothing, not again—but the words wouldn’t come. They were choked off at the base of her tongue.

So she did as she was told, her feet pounding up the stairs and into her room before her grandma could see the tears.

It wasn’t only realizing that she wasn’t wanted, or that she could be passed off to any stranger that came for her. It was that, after six long years, she’d just begun to feel like she belonged. Like maybe her grandma loved her—more than her mother had, more than her father. Like maybe the two of them were a team.

After that morning, she’d lived in fear for a week. Two weeks. A month.

But the man never came for her, and she and her grandmother never spoke of it again.

“Scarlet?”

The tightening of Wolf’s arm around her waist dragged Scarlet back into the present, into a train car that was slowing down around her. She was curled up like a child with her back against him, and though her eyes were squeezed shut, a few hot tears had escaped, rolled over the bridge of her nose, dripped across her temples. She hastily brushed them away.

Wolf stirred and propped himself up behind her. “Scarlet?” His tone was nervous.

“I had a bad dream,” she said, not wanting him to think the tears had anything to do with him. Already they were stopping and she rolled onto her back. It must have still been night for the darkness that took up the train car, but the unnatural glimmer of city neon targeted the crates just inside the door, sending splashes of pink and green over the stacked boxes.

“I remembered something,” she whispered. “I think it might have to do with the princess.”

He tensed.

“I remember my grandma mentioning Logan now, but she didn’t want me to overhear. I was eavesdropping. And there was another man…” She told him the story as well as she could, piecing the memory back together again as her brain threatened to fog over.

When she was done, she lay still, listening to the whistle of wind outside the train cars. Her side was stiff from sleeping on the hard crate.

Rather than look relieved or hopeful, Wolf peered down at her, terrified.

“That’s what they’re looking for, isn’t it? I mean—it must have been the princess that they were talking about. I don’t know where she was, who was taking care of her … I never saw her. All this time I thought she’d been planning on sending me away, but now … after what you told me about Logan Tanner and Grand-mère and Princess Selene…”

Wolf pulled away from her, sitting up and curling his knees against his chest. He stared blankly at the stacks of crates surrounding them.

“This man had an accent. I think he was from the Eastern Commonwealth.” Scarlet pushed herself up beside him, combing her hair to one side. “And I’m pretty sure my grandma called his wife ‘Madame Linh.’ I don’t know how common of a name it is, but … I would recognize him if I saw him again. I’m sure I would.”

“Don’t say that.” Wolf pressed his hands over his ears. “I didn’t hear that.”

Scarlet blinked, stunned by his grimace. “Wolf?” Reaching forward, she tugged his hands down. “This is good, isn’t it? They want information, I have information. We’ll barter. We’ll trade for my grandmother’s safety. Isn’t that—”

“Don’t go.”

His gaze trapped her in the darkness. Tousled hair, faint scars, flecks of sleep in his eyelashes. Wolf twisted a curl of her hair around his fingers.

“Don’t go looking for your grandmother.”

A streak of orange light flashed through the door and vanished.

“I have to.”

“No, Scarlet, you don’t have to.” He grasped her hand, engulfing it in both of his. “There’s nothing you can do for her. If you go, you’ll only be putting yourself in danger. Would your grandmother want that?”

Scarlet yanked her hand out of Wolf’s grip.

“We can run away,” he continued, his fingers scrambling for contact, knotting themselves around her pockets. “We’ll disappear in the forest. Go to Africa, or the Commonwealth. We can survive and they’ll never find us. I can keep you safe, Scarlet. I can protect you.”

“What are you talking about? Just last night you said that if I had any information it could help, it could be my grandma’s only chance, and now I have information. I thought that’s what you wanted.”

“Maybe,” he said. “Maybe, if you had a full name, an address, something specific. But a last name and a country—an enormous country—and a description? Scarlet, if you tell them this, they’ll only take you captive, in hopes that you’ll be able to identify this man.”

Tugging at her zipper, she studied him, how his eyes were more crazed with every breath he took.

“Good,” she said. “Then we’ll offer to trade me for my grandmother.”

He shrank back, shaking his head, but Scarlet was bolstered. “We’ll go together. You can tell them that you have information, but you’ll only give it to them on the condition that they let you walk away free, and that you take my grandmother with you. And they can have me.”

Wolf shuddered.

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