Georgianna’s foot sloshed into a half-frozen puddle hidden beneath a crust of snow. She swore, as rainwater and melted snow squelched around the inside of her boot.
Georgianna rounded the corner and checked over her shoulder. She couldn’t see anyone behind her, but she knew better than to assume they weren’t there. She’d heard the rhythmic thuds of footfalls crunching through the snow, the grunts of heavy breath that bloomed in clouds against the frozen air.
She ran on, pushing her wet foot to the back of her mind. She darted along the road, keeping close to the buildings and their shadows. At the next intersection she should turn west towards the camps. But she didn’t dare; not with someone following so close behind. There was a time when she wouldn’t have risked leading an Adveni into such a heavily populated Veniche area. But not now. Now, she didn’t dare make the turning because the road out to the camps was wide and unobstructed. There was nowhere to hide.
The footsteps loomed closer, louder. Georgianna sucked in each freezing breath to burn in her throat and lungs.
Pounding past the intersection, Georgianna ducked into a thin alleyway that curved between mismatched buildings, out onto the street where the market had once been. Collections of stalls stood abandoned in the middle of the road: broken, battered, and damp with mould. She darted between them, shouldering her way into the Trade Inn.
The old trading post diner had once bustled with activity at all times of day and night, but it now stood as abandoned as the stalls outside the door. The tables had been upended, chairs splintered and smashed. The place had been raided a couple of times, though nobody knew why. Perhaps it was aggression for aggression’s sake.
She skidded across the tiled floor in her wet boots, slipping between the tables. At the counter, she ducked down beneath the hatch and grabbed an upended drawer. She almost squealed in delight when she saw what was hidden beneath. A collection of discarded cutlery had been scattered across the floor, including one of the carving knives the owner Oscar would threaten patrons with when he was in a particularly bad mood. Georgianna had been confronted by him like this a few times.
Grabbing the discarded knife, she half-crawled through towards the back rooms.
There was no way she could outrun an Adveni, with their long legs and exceptional training. If she wanted this one off her trail, she had to either wipe out the trail, or wipe out the individual. With the snow falling heavy and fresh each day, there was no way she’d be able to get out of here quickly without being followed.
She ducked behind a heavy door with a broken deadbolt. The air was thick with the acidic smell of brewed liquor, and the floor was sticky with its remnants. But no brewing had been done here for months now. Oscar was long gone.
Holding the door with one hand, Georgianna clutched the knife tight with the other. She stared through the crack between the door and the frame.
The glass from the broken front door crunched and cracked beneath the Adveni’s heavy boots, his breath still clouding in front of him with every heavy pant. Georgianna gritted her teeth and drew in a gentle breath through her nose, remembering what Alec had always told her: if you tried to hold your breath, you would only end up gasping, and unable to fight when the time came. You needed to breathe if you wanted to think, and when you were up against a big brute of an Adveni, you really needed to keep thinking.
For the life of her, she couldn’t remember anything else Alec had said. There were no pretty words to help her here.
A copaq weapon hung ready from the Adveni’s hand, and he made no effort to be quiet as he approached the counter. He swiped tables to the side instead of stepping around them, he kicked broken chairs out of his way.
He opened the hatch and let it land against the counter with a deafening crack.
Georgianna took three steady breaths, counting in her head as he walked straight by the door to the back rooms.
She shoved against the door with her shoulder, pushing all her weight against it and sending it flying out and straight into the Adveni’s face. He shouted in Adtvenis and stumbled back. Georgianna rounded the door and sprang forwards, swinging her foot out to catch his ankle.
He jerked and righted himself just in time, lifting the copaq towards her.
She wanted to run, to hide behind one of the tables, or maybe scream and beg for mercy at the sight of that weapon rising up towards her. Instead, she leapt forwards.
Get close, Georgianna. You have to get close. You can’t be scared to do this.
They weren’t training in the forests around Nyquonat Lake anymore, and it wasn’t Dhiren’s smirking expression that loomed close, taunting her when she wasn’t willing to attack for fear of hurting him. The face scowling down at her was one she had never seen before, and, one way or another, would never see again.
She slashed out with the knife, forcing the Adveni back. The blade screeched against the plated armour across his stomach, tearing through the brown uniform cover. He stepped back, aimed down at her, and fired. The copaq gel splattered across a splintered chair between their feet. Georgianna’s boot squeaked through a splotch of it. As she skidded, her heavy hood fell back, and her thick scarf slipped down to reveal her face.
Stabbing out again, Georgianna lunged forwards. The Adveni lifted his fist and swung.
The blow knocked her sideways; it was like being kicked by a wild horse. She howled and stumbled, her hip smacking into the corner of a table. The Adveni’s hand closed around a fistful of her hair, yanking her head back.
Georgianna turned the knife in her hand as easily as tying a stitch. She swung back over her shoulder. The blade sliced through his flesh.
The soldier choked and cried out. He yanked his hand away, ripping out a lock of hair. Georgianna turned, each breath verging on the scream that wanted desperately to break free. She swung the knife, feeling as if she’d been made to do it. The blade burrowed into his neck with a sickening ease.
Another shot cracked through the air.
The Adveni’s eyes widened, mouth dropping open. His nostrils flared and he scrabbled at his neck as he staggered backwards. Georgianna watched in muted horror as blood poured over the blade and his fingers. She jerked forwards on instinct to stop him, as he grabbed the handle and pulled the knife out.
He wavered like a drunk man, stumbling forwards and waving the knife in a stupored fury. The blade flashed through the air, and a burning sting sliced down her arm as he collapsed, and she tripped out of the way to stop him taking her down with him.
All she could hear was her breath: heavy and fast. Her pulse beat through her body until it vibrated in her skin. She stared at him, blood pooling beneath his head. She wanted to be sick; she felt like she should be sick. But even as she retched, nothing came.
Breathe, George. Just breathe.
Georgianna eased the copaq from the soldier’s hand. She patted him down and emptied his pockets. She took the cash and the spare copaq gel capsules before turning the tsentyl over in her bloodied fingers. Another breath, another jolt of nausea, as Georgianna pressed her finger and thumb on either side of the cubed device, until it shuddered and flashed blue.
She dropped the tsentyl, and it clattered away across the floor. She brushed herself off, pulled up her hood and scarf, and left without a backwards glance.
Snowflakes hit the window and dissolved. The pellet rain drove into the frozen ground, leaving people running to find shelter from its painful assault. Georgianna paced back and forth in the small front room her family had once called home. She grabbed the blanket from the floor and wrapped it around her again. The thin veins in the material came to life with a glowing amber, adjusting to heat her body. Rain dripped from her sodden hair and onto the blanket, soaking into the edge around her neck. Despite the synthetic warmth, tiny bumps erupted down her arms and across the back of her neck. She shivered and pulled the blanket tighter, hissing as it pulled across the cut on her arm, hastily wrapped in the scraps of a shirt.
The nsiloq mark burned in her shoulder. It had been drawn into her skin on the orders of Maarqyn Guinnyr, previous Commander of the Adveni Tsevstakre, and now Volsonnar of the Adveni force on Os-Veruh. Georgianna reached to her shoulder, brushing her fingertips around the edges, never quite touching the mark. The relief of the salve Jacob Stone had given her was wearing off again; too fast for her liking. She hitched the blanket back up and winced, wrapping her arms around her stomach and gritting her teeth against the pain. It was worth it for a little more warmth.
She returned to the window, rubbing the corner of the blanket against the glass. The patch she cleared didn’t help much. The slate grey clouds shed their rain through the snowflakes, casting the people in shadow as they ran for safety. Safety from the rain, at least. There was no real safety to be had in Adlai. Not any more.
Georgianna leaned against the wall beside the window, drumming her foot against the floor. Raindrops cracked against the glass. Every tap of her boot was a footstep across a large vaulted lobby to a building that no longer existed. Chemical pain twitched around her body. She pushed off the wall and returned to pacing.
A shadow she hadn’t noticed before came closer. The door opened.
Georgianna turned, one hand holding the blanket around her as the other edged around her waist to the small of her back. She wrapped her fingers around the handle of the copaq. In the hallway, Keiran Zanetti rubbed his hand vigorously through his hair and over his face, smearing the water across his skin as he pushed his scarf down from his nose and mouth.
“You’re here,” he said, stepping through the doorway into the front room.
“I don’t appreciate being summoned like a drysta.”
Keiran moved closer. His eyes were the same grey as the storm clouds, and they swept over her face and down to the blanket, pausing where her elbow jutted out to the side. “Are you planning on shooting me, George?”
Once upon a time, Georgianna might have imagined that there was humour in his voice; he knew that she would never shoot him. Now, though, his speech was flat and empty of any such amusement.
“I didn’t know it was you. I thought it might be Olless.”
“I would tell her that you send your regards, but she doesn’t know I contacted you.”
Georgianna chuckled and cocked her head to the side, considering him for a moment. She pulled her hand out from behind her back and slipped it through the gap in the blanket, waggling her empty fingers. “Have you been a bad Cahlven, Keiran? Is that why you called me here?”
He stared at the window. The Cahlven jacket he’d been given looked too tight on him, yet it had been done up all the way to the collar. He looked like the perfect soldier, and though he didn’t have the face of a Cahlven, she might have just about believed it, if she had been seeing him for the first time.
“The uniform suits you,” she said, stepping back. “Looks… comfortable.”
“More comfortable than the tunnels.”
“You used to find the tunnels very comfortable, or had you forgotten?”
Keiran growled and propped his hands on his hips. His gaze darted around the room, anywhere but at her. For a moment, Georgianna thought he’d spotted something, but then he rounded on her, and the look was gone.
“The Cahlven can do more in ten days than we did in ten years from those tunnels,” he said.
Keiran stepped forwards, his gaze boring into her. He walked over to a map, discarded on the floor. He crouched, no longer paying attention to her as he brushed off the dust and peered at the map with fondness. He picked up one of the stones they’d used to mark the Mykahnol pillar, and turned it over in his fingers. He set the stone down on top of the Rion District and got to his feet.
“But then, we never considered meeting with the Adveni, did we?”
It didn’t feel like the same room where they’d all crowded around the same map, planning how they would destroy the Mykahnol bomb that was hidden in the centre of Adlai. They’d spent hours scouting possible locations for the weapon, and for where they wanted the shield to protect the rest of the city. Keiran had often sat beside her, his hand on the small of her back, or her head on his shoulder, as they ground through another hour of discussions and arguments. They’d barely left each other’s sides after what Maarqyn had done to them, after they’d whispered their devotions in the dark.
Now, she’d barely seen him in months. He looked as hollow as those weeks in Nyquonat when he’d first been named as a speaker for the Veniche. She wondered if he was eating, or if he was sleeping. But she wasn’t allowed to ask him that any more.
Keiran stared out of the window beside her. “You knew why I had to stay here, George. Someone needed to watch out for Beck.”
“And that’s all you’re doing, right?”
The muscles in his jaw tightened. “You know it is. We agreed this was for the best.”
“When they promised they’d release him.” Georgianna dropped the blanket and flung her arms wide. “Don’t put this decision on me. You know I didn’t agree to this.”
“They will release him.”
Georgianna snorted and shook her head.
“When? It’s been months. And yet he’s still in there.”
“I know how long it’s been. Do you think I’d forget?”
She wiped her hand against the window again and stared out at the rain. “I don’t know any more. You let the Cahlven throw us out from beneath the shield and label us enemies. You were there, Keiran. You helped us. Suns, you practically planned it, and you turned your back on us the moment the Cahlven offered you safety!”
Keiran shook his head. He scratched behind his ear and angled away from her. “I turned my back on you the moment my best friend died beneath that shield.”
Georgianna pushed his shoulder, bringing him back to face her. “No! You don’t get to put this on Wrench. You did this because you wanted to save yourself, just like when you agreed to help Edtroka. You knew he would keep you safer than you’d ever be, down in the Belsa tunnels.”
He glanced over his shoulder, folded his arms over his chest and turned back to face her. Georgianna stared back in defiance. “And that’s why I followed you to Maarqyn, right? For safety?”
Georgianna let out a cry. The blanket skidded through the dust as she kicked it, the veins long faded to black. She ran her fingers through her wet, tangled hair, shaking her head. “I can’t keep having the same fights with you, Keiran. We can’t keep going back to something that’s gone.”
“Gone, right.” He sneered, though his gaze was on the makeshift bandage tied around her arm, spots of blood soaking through. “Like me from your life? You have Dhiren and Alec now, so it’s not like you need me.”
“I did need you, Keiran, but you left. Alec and Dhiren didn’t. They’re the ones I can count on now. Not you, and not the Cahlven.”
“Suns, George, you can’t blame the Cahlven for this. They gave you the option to stay. You only had to say the words. You could still come back. Help them with the peace talks, they’re the only thing stopping either side from blowing everything to dust.”
His gaze darted back to the map, to the stone and along the lines of roads and buildings that no longer existed thanks to them.
Georgianna stared up at him. “Why did you even ask me to come here?”
He met her gaze. “I thought I could make you see sense. I thought maybe you’d agree to come back, that you could make a different choice.”
“Everything is different now. I can’t come back and you know it. I’ve dealt with my choice, Keiran. You should, too.”
Keiran sighed and nodded. Despite having avoided her gaze so often since arriving, now he seemed unable to look away from her face, memorising every inch. “I thought I loved you. But I guess it’s just one of the things that’s different, right?”
He turned away, rolled his shoulders back, straightened his collar. He yanked the door open, walking headlong into the storm.
Georgianna watched his shadow disappear through the window.
I thought I loved you, too.
She gathered up the blanket from the floor and placed it against the wall. She picked up the map, dislodging the stone. Since they’d been forced out from beneath the shield by the Colvohan, they’d been short on supplies. She’d search the house, see what else had been left behind by those Veniche the Cahlven had so easily displaced.
And then she’d return to her real home.