My eyes rolled open with a click, like the cocking of a gun—armed, dangerous—and for a brief and merciful moment, I remembered nothing. My brain wouldn’t make sense of my surroundings, my eyes wouldn’t adjust to the light. A dull ache clung to the backs of my lids and the world felt too fuzzy around the edges—the tunnel vision peeled away too slowly.
It took long seconds for the ceiling above to shift into focus—flat and smooth, a panel of shiny steel, almost like a mirror but warped. A distorted reflection gazed back at me, a ghostly white girl in dark clothing, colorless eyes and snowflakes for lashes. I only recognized it was me because of the jacket, the one I remembered stealing, mossy green with a zipper slashed at an angle across the front.
Had I always looked like that? Long hair and eyes wild? More of an animal than a girl?
I supposed I had.
The wind outside howled, as though in answer to my thoughts, and I realized we were still on the train. The speed pressed me into the seat, the world beyond the window was reduced to a blur. It was bright inside the cabin now, daytime screaming at full force, which meant I must have been out for hours.
Remembering the events from last night, my eyes sought out the soldier. I turned my head slowly, and once I blinked away the sleep, I saw him clearly for the first time. He sat on the bench opposite, close to the door, as though guarding it.
He had one of those closed-off faces, like most of the soldiers I’d seen, all cold and hard. But with him, it wasn’t just his expression. It was the structure of the face. The sharpness of the edges, the visible tension in the muscles, almost like he’d carved the humanity out with a sharp tool.
He wasn’t looking in my direction but still managed to keep the gun aimed at my head. He wouldn’t be giving me another chance to escape.
I didn’t really think he meant to kill me—he would have done it by now—but he also could have left me for dead last night. Which meant he must want something.
But what could he want with a beastly creature like me?
I could think of only one possible explanation: the simple fact I was a woman, one of the few left in this dying world, and the small chance I could be a Daughter.
Normally, Daughters of the King were carefully collected and hoarded by the government, like precious objects, like material treasures, but there was still the chance of outlaws living in hiding, like my mother. Maybe that’s what he thought I was. Maybe I could convince him of it, which would help secure my safety. For a little while, at least.
But there was no way of knowing for sure what his intentions were, since his expression revealed nothing, and he wasn’t likely to start talking to me any time soon, since the soldiers from the Wastelands didn’t speak to women.
In all my nineteen years of life, I was used to dealing with all manner of people. Savages—madmen—my heartless mother. Anything but this. We’d never had soldiers like these before in the King’s Country.
Everything about him was meticulously kept, from his neat hair to his starched uniform, the thick brown fabric belted snugly over a trim chest. He even held himself still with such precision it was difficult to tell if he was breathing, which was impressive in an entirely new and frightening way. The world around him seemed reduced to chaos in comparison.
The only proof of weakness was the dried blood on the seat, proof he’d been injured, although I couldn’t tell where. All I knew for sure was that I’d heard the gun go off last night.
“What happened?” I croaked, my mouth dry.
He stiffened but didn’t answer, not that I expected him to, but I stared at him hard, as though daring him to look at me.
His discipline never wavered, and I felt a small chill at the base of my spine, something similar to fear but not unlike excitement.
He’d already made it clear he would use any force necessary to keep me here, so I wasn’t going to try running again. Not just yet. These soldiers were devoted to their beliefs, but even though his gods made him fear me, that didn’t make him weak. I made sure to remind myself of that.
The next chance I’d get to shoot him, I wouldn’t waste it.