Scarlet Page 38


She froze with her fingertips millimeters from his eye sockets. The fury drained away all at once and she collapsed, sobbing uncontrollably on the floor. Wondering what was wrong with her. She reached for her hatred again but it slipped continuously from her mind, like trying to hold on to an eel. The harder she tried, the faster and harder the tears came. Choking her. Blinding her. All her anger dissolving into hopelessness and misery.

Her head filled with self-loathing. She was useless. Weak and stupid and insignificant.

She folded in on herself, her cries nearly drowning out the thaumaturge’s unimpressed chuckle above her.

“How unfortunate your grandmother hasn’t been so easy to manipulate. It would make this all so much simpler.”

Her mind hushed, the destructive words slipping back to a far, quiet corner of her thoughts, and the tears faded away with them. Like turning a faucet on and off.

Like toying with a puppet.

Scarlet lay crumpled on the floor, gasping. She swiped the mucus from her face.

Digging her hands into the carpet, she forced her body to stop trembling and pushed herself up, using the doorjamb for support. The thaumaturge’s face twisted in that sickeningly charming way he had.

“I’ll have you escorted back to your quarters,” he said, his tone all syrupy kindness. “Thank you most humbly for your cooperation.”

Thirty

Alpha Ze’ev Kesley’s hard-soled boots clipped harsh against the marble floor as he marched through the lobby, ignoring a handful of soldiers that nodded to him in respect, or perhaps fear. Perhaps even curiosity at the officer who had spent weeks out in the midst of humans, pretending to be one of them.

He tried not to think of it. Being back at the headquarters felt like he’d awoken from a dream. A dream that had once sounded like a nightmare, but not quite so anymore. He had woken up to a reality much darker. He had remembered who he really was. What he really was.

He reached the Lunar Rotunda—an ironic name that had pleased Master Jael greatly. He passed a mirror, pocked and darkened with age, almost not recognizing his reflection with its clean uniform and hair combed neatly back. He snatched his gaze away.

He smelled his brother as soon as he stepped into the library and the hairs on his neck prickled. His pace faltered briefly as he made his way through the wood-paneled gallery and into the thaumaturge’s private office. It had once been suited for royalty—a room for important, high-society Earthens to muse over the philosophical works of their ancestors. Display cases had once held priceless art and bookshelves climbed two stories over his head. But the books were all gone now, rescued when the opera house had been taken over by the military, and a musty, mildew scent had settled into the pores of the surrounding wood.

Jael was seated at a wide desk. Made of plastic and metal, it stood stark and dull against the extravagant décor. Ran was there too, leaning against the wall of empty shelves.

His brother smiled. Almost.

Jael stood. “Alpha Kesley, thank you for coming at such short notice. I wanted you to be the first to know your brother had made it back safely.”

“I’m glad to see it,” he said. “Hello, Ran. You were not looking too well last I saw you.”

“Likewise, Ze’ev. Your smell is much improved now that you’ve washed that human off.”

Every muscle tightened. “I hope there are no hard feelings about what happened in the forest.”

“None at all. You were playing a role. I understand you did what you had to. I should not have interfered.”

“No. You shouldn’t have.”

Ran hooked his thumbs over the wide sash around his waist. “I was worried about you, brother. You seemed almost … confused.”

“As you said,” said Ze’ev, tilting his chin up. “I was playing a role.”

“Yes. I should never have doubted you. Nonetheless, it is nice to see you returned to your normal self, and that her bullet didn’t go deeper. I’d worried when I heard it go off that she may have hit your heart.” Ran grinned and turned back to Jael. “If we are through here, I’d like to request permission to report to command.”

“Permission granted,” said Jael, nodding as Ran saluted him, a fist to his chest.

Ze’ev caught a trace of Scarlet’s scent on Ran as he brushed past, and his stomach squeezed. He urged his body to relax, burying the animal instinct to tear out his brother’s throat if he found out he’d laid one finger on her.

Ran listed his head, expression darkening with a withheld secret. “Welcome home, brother.”

Ze’ev remained expressionless as Ran continued on, waiting until he heard the door close at the other end of the gallery. He saluted the thaumaturge. “If there’s nothing else—”

“Actually, there is something else. A few things, actually, that I wish to discuss with you.” Jael sank back into his seat. “I received a comm from Her Majesty this morning. She’s asked that all packs stationed on Earth be prepared to attack tomorrow.”

His jaw tightened. “Tomorrow?”

“Her negotiations with the Eastern Commonwealth have not gone according to her desires, and she’s quite finished offering compromises that they refuse to accept. She has offered a temporary continuation of peace should the cyborg girl, Linh Cinder, be captured and handed over to her, but that has not happened. The attack will be centered in New Beijing, beginning at midnight their local time. We will attack at 18:00.” He tucked his hands into his wide crimson sleeves, their embroidered runes catching the light of self-sustained bulbs overhead. “I’m glad you’ve returned in time to lead your men. I want you positioned at the heart of our Paris attack. Will you accept this role?”

Ze’ev clasped his hands behind his back, gripping his wrists until they ached. “I do not wish to question Her Majesty’s motives, but I cannot understand why she is calling us away from our initial objective of finding the princess in order to teach a petty lesson to the Commonwealth. Why the change of priorities?”

Jael leaned back, studying him. “It is not for you to question Her Majesty’s priorities. However, I would hate for your mind to be clouded as we head into this important first battle.” He shrugged. “She is enraged with the escape of this Linh Cinder. Though she may be a mere civilian, she was able to see beyond Her Majesty’s glamour. And yet, she is not a shell.”

Ze’ev couldn’t keep the surprise from his face.

“We are not sure yet if this unusual ability is due to something in her cyborg programming, or if her own Lunar gift is exceptionally strong.”

“Stronger than Her Majesty’s?”

“We do not know.” Jael sighed. “What is strange is that this ability of hers to resist our queen is not unlike Madame Benoit’s ability to resist me. To find two nonshells with the same skill in such a short period of time is quite remarkable. Unfortunately, I am no closer to determining the reason for Michelle Benoit’s ability. I tested her granddaughter an hour ago—she is as malleable as clay, so she has not inherited the trait.”

Behind his back, Alpha Kesley’s fists clenched. Still, he couldn’t shake her scent from the room, the faintest breath of her dancing beneath his nostrils. So Jael had questioned her, and Ran must have been there too. What had they done? Had she been hurt?

“Alpha?”

“Yes,” he said, quickly. “I apologize. I thought I’d sensed the girl.”

Jael started to laugh. A clear, amused laugh. It was Jael’s peculiar warmth that Ze’ev had always distrusted most—at least the other thaumaturges made no pretense of their ruthlessness, their haughty control of the lesser Lunar citizens … and of their soldiers.

“Your senses are remarkable, Alpha. Without doubt, one of our best.” He tapped at his chair, before pushing himself up. “And your strength of character is unequaled. Your loyalty. Your willingness to make sacrifices. I’m sure none of my other men would have gone to the lengths you did to obtain information from Miss Benoit, gone so above the call of duty. That is precisely why I’ve chosen you to lead tomorrow’s attack.”

Jael paced to the row of shelves and ran a finger along them, dust collecting pale and gray against his skin. Ze’ev kept his expression blank, trying not to think what sacrifices Jael thought he had made, so far above the call of duty.

But she was there in his mind. The pad of her thumb brushing against his scars. Her arms wrapping around his neck.

He swallowed hard. Every muscle drew tight against his bones in an effort to block out the memory.

“Now it is only a question of what to do with the girl. How frustrating that we finally find someone who might lead us closer to Princess Selene, just when we no longer have use of the information.”

Ze’ev’s fingernails bit into his palms. Frustrating seemed laughable. If Her Majesty had changed her focus away from the princess three weeks ago, Scarlet and her grandmother never would have been involved in any of it.

And he never would have known the difference.

A clamp squeezed in on his chest.

“But I am optimistic,” Jael continued, speaking absently. “We may still find a use for the girl, if she can persuade her grandmother to talk. The madame tries to play at ignorance, but she knows why she is able to resist control. I’m sure of it.” He fidgeted with the cuff of his sleeve. “Which do you suppose will be more important to the old lady? Her granddaughter’s life, or her own secrets?”

Ze’ev had no response.

“I guess we will see,” said Jael, returning to his desk. “At least now I’ll have some power over her.” His lips parted, showing perfect white teeth in a pleasant smile. “You still have not answered my question, Alpha. Will you accept the role of leading our most important battle in the European Federation?”

Ze’ev’s lungs burned. He wanted to ask more, to know more—about Scarlet, her grandmother, what Jael would do to her.

But the questions would not be acceptable. His mission was complete. He no longer had any tie to Mademoiselle Benoit.

He clasped a fist to his chest. “Of course, Master Jael. It would be an honor.”

“Good.” Opening a drawer, Jael pulled out a plain white box and slid it across the desk. “On that, we’ve just received this shipment of ID chips from the Paris quarantines. I hope it won’t be too out of your way to take them down for wiping and reprogramming? I want them to be ready for the new recruits I expect to arrive tomorrow morning.” He tilted back in his chair. “We will want as many soldiers available as we can manage. It is imperative that the people of Earth be too terrified to even consider fighting back.”

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