a perfect stranger who knows too well
Our pod vehicle, whatever it is, looks like an egg on wheels. When Moe puts a hand to it and closes his eyes, the surface glows like a light bulb. Then he opens the door and tosses me inside. Before I can right myself, Lana climbs in with another girl. We lurch forward and I fly off the seat. With a grimace, I pick myself up and watch Hina's palace get smaller behind us out the window. I don't hear an engine or anything else that could be moving us, but moving we are. Lana and the other Dream breathe hard, their faces shining with sweat, but they don't pay any attention to me.
"Who's driving this thing?" I hiss.
"No one," Mo answers with surprise. "Zis is a Reality Skipper."
"Mortals, when zey dream . . ." He stops, as if remembering who he's talking to. "You know. Ze way your dreams can skip time and place, resting in only ze important places. Skipping ze drudgery of reality." He taps his temple. "All you do is zink of your location, in great detail, zen touch ze Reality Skipper—and it knows ze way."
There's no window for me to verify if this is true, but it sounds as plausible as anything else in this place. The second girl wipes her forehead and her fingers scrape and clink like two pieces of china rubbing each other. Her cheeks are decorated with two perfectly round dots of pink. She's a doll, I realize—with several chips and cracks in her complexion. "Geez. All that for one Nightmare," she says. "Lucky the princess was there. I honestly think he might've made it out except Donovan grabbed her."
"They have Genn," I breathe, hating myself. I'm so stupid. How could I let this happen?
Lana grunts. She takes her waist-length red hair and braids it over her shoulder, tying it roughly in a knot at the end. "Even then . . . When the fountain tipped, he blasted it. That's when we caught him."
"Serves him right for blowing everything up."
Lana's eyes remain unfocused. A line of frustration appears between her brows. "No. There was a Dream underneath it. It was almost like he was trying to stop the fountain from landing on her."
"Zat does not sound like ze prince we know and love," Mo says.
"Yeah," Lana mutters. "That's my point."
The Dreams ignore me. I scoot my already small body as far into the corner as possible and try not to concentrate on the sick feeling in my stomach—not helped by the bouncy rhythm of the racing pod. Even if Alexander deserves this, it doesn't feel better knowing he got it. He's probably with Donovan. Anyone else wouldn't have much chance containing him. Then again, if it's true they have Genn, I can't imagine him risking his sister to try anything.
If she gets hurt, I don't know what I'll do. Maybe Donovan will let her go. He doesn't need her if I'm there to control Alexander. Then again, every time I remember Alexander's face as he said, You planned this, I don't think I can do be the tool Donovan uses to control him.
In fact, I'm sure I can't. This is so dumb. Everything Alexander thinks about me is right. I'm a selfish, impulsive human-worm. And there isn't an eject button to this plan. Even if I could suddenly call it quits and get away, how would I know where they took Alexander and Genn?
When we jerk to a stop, the three Dreams leave the carriage and I sit alone for a moment. Mo pokes his head back in. "Everyzing okay, cheri?"
"Bathroom?" I inquire.
"But of course."
He points outside and I step from the carriage on shaky legs. A thriving camp sprawls before us, a series of hut-like cabins and tents set up between scraggly black trees. The sky and ground are the same death-gray color. Behind the camp lies what I can only assume is the Eye of the World Mountains; jagged eruptions of pitch black rock jutting up into the sky. A few Dreams move between tents, conversing brusquely with each other. The mood is as colorless as the environment.
I find a bathroom in one of the huts, and when I come out, two more Reality Skippers have arrived. Donovan and Lana, with two other Dreams I don't recognize, lead Alexander and Genn toward one of the smaller tents. One side of Alexander's face, from his temple to the middle of his cheek, is red and bright—a recent mark that will become a bruise. A line of half-dry blood trails from his hair by his eye. His black shirt is ripped at the left shoulder. Genn trembles like a leaf, but doesn't appear hurt. My stomach plunges as I see her.
I run after them. Inside the tent, Lana holds Genn by the upper arm. The two other Dreams, both large, contain Alexander on either side. Donovan stands between them, pistol in hand. Except for some crates and a wooden mast supporting the center, the tent is empty. All eyes turn to me as I enter.
"Genn," I whisper, "I'm so sorry." She squeezes her eyes shut, looking away. Two tears slip out and run into her pursed, quivering mouth. I half wish Donovan would point his gun at me and give me my just rewards. Alexander isn't looking at me either.
"Good," Lana says. "You're here. Let's not drag this out."
Donovan, despite his leader's position in the group, defers to her words. She must be his mouthpiece. Lana glances at me, then to Alexander. "I'll catch you up, Miss Darcey," she says, still watching my soul partner. "Despite explaining our situation to the prince, and asking very nicely for his cooperation, he insists he doesn't have any information. Maybe he doesn't. But in case he's lying, perhaps you'd like to ask for us?"
Command him to tell them, she meant.
I lick my lips and take an unsteady breath. "Ask him what?"
"The location of the Stitch in Time."
Alexander meets her stare and his mouth tightens, but otherwise he doesn't react. He's uncharacteristically quiet. Maybe he's just worried about Genn.
"Tell him," Donovan says to me.
I take a step back. "I won't," I say. "I won't unless you let Genn go safely."
Genn looks up, blinking her thick, water-logged eyelashes. Alexander watches Donovan for his answer, a spark entering his expression for the first time.
Donovan moves toward me and before I realize what's happening, he's spun me around and yet another dagger is held to my throat.
"His soul," he says in his awful rough voice, "is bound by outside power. To protect you. Answer—" I can't see, but I know he directs this to Alexander, whose eyes are on me now. "—or I will hurt her."
"I don't know where it is," Alexander says slowly.
"Ask him," Donovan whispers near my ear. The bandanna warms with his hot breath.
I concentrate on the edge of the blade against my skin. A steel knife can't be much harder to change than an entire glass window. As I focus, the sharp line of pressure where the blade sits grows softer.
Alexander frowns. He's going to say something—lie, whatever, put himself and Genn in more danger. Even though my inner flame is small, I will it to grow. Alexander, I say into our broadened connection, hoping he can hear it.
Violet? He sounds surprised. His lips, in front of me, don't move. We've never talked to each other this way before. I can feel his presence as if inside me. I almost sigh with relief—but don't, for fear of alerting Donovan.
Don't do anything, I say. The knife won't hurt me. I'll change it.
His response is swift. —Knife? What knife? Violet, I swear to Nyx, there better not be a knife anywhere near you.
What is he talking about? He's looking right at me!
"Now," Donovan growls.
"Tell them," I say. "Tell them where it is."
—Don't tell them, Alexander.
"I can't," he says, voice strained. "I don't know where it is."
A beat passes and then Donovan removes his dagger. The edge is frayed like cotton. "He doesn't know," he says. I'm not sure if he believes us, but for now he isn't willing to force it. As he catches sight of his changed weapon, he shoots me a startled look.
Lana sighs. "Great. More exploring in the Eye of the World Mountains. Just what I wanted. You two—tie his royal highness to the tent pole. I'll stay here and make sure he has incentive not to burn the place to the ground." She looks at me. "A little help?"
For half a second, I think she wants me to be the one to threaten them, but then I understand. "Don't let them hurt Genn," I tell Alexander. That command I don't mind him keeping.
Lana sits Genn on a crate, pulling some chord from the pack on her hip. "And Donovan—take care of your human. She looks like hell."
Donovan tucks his dagger into its sheath, attached to his belt next to his pistol holster.
"She needs food and water," Alexander says, not resisting as the big Dreams move him to the center mast and tie his hands behind it.
—Stop ignoring me!
I finally realize Alexander has been trying to get in.
—What?I loosen my grip on our link.
Bad idea. He's pushing way too hard for a lax hold. In one sweeping breath, Alexander's soul floods into mine and crowds my suddenly too-small body. My trembling hands are his; my eyes provide him a nice view of himself as his wrists are secured.
—Who is that?Fury and confusion flare through me as if my little flame has burst into a bonfire.
Ouch, I gripe at him, mentally elbowing him back. —Um, pretty sure that's you.
—That is not me. I'm on my bike trying to find you. Your stupid comment about the knife almost made me crash.
Donovan pulling on my arm yanks me out of our conversation. Alexander shrinks to a less invasive position in my mind. "Do I have to drag you?" Donovan asks.
When Alexander realizes who else I'm with, there's an eerie pause in my head. —Of course. I should have recognized your destructive touch. Well done. My amazement at your ability to make my life miserable is actually overpowering my anger right now.
I send the Alexander in front of me a puzzled look. The Alexander in my head is rude, bossy, and arrogant. Very much like the real Alexander. The impostor Alexander seems to have no realization of the conversation going on in my head.
If he isn't Alexander, then who . . .?
I have no choice but to follow an impatient Donovan out of the tent. He shows me a hut where they've packed water and food I can eat, then looks at me. The shadow of his hat makes his eyes seem the same storm color of the sky. "We move in—morning," he says.
"You have to let Genn go."
"Why should I?"
Taking a deep breath, I say, "I'm not going to hurt my friends. I'll get home another way."
He watches me a moment longer. "You're welcome to leave." Without another word, he moves past me. I'm not sure if that means he knows I won't—or that it would be so dumb to try he's not worried. Either way, he guessed right. I can't abandon Genn.
I grab a small canteen, but have no appetite for any food right now.
—I don't believe this. I would kill you if it wasn't my job to keep you alive. Do you have any idea what James Donovan is like?
Alexander's trying to put images into my head, memories, but I shove them aside. I get that I made a mistake without him painting it out for me. Leaving the cluster of tents and huts, I navigate the thin, black trees and find a cold boulder to sit on. The canteen balances on my lap. I'm shivering. The chill is not so much in temperature as in the complete scarcity of life. If I leave on my own, I don't have a prayer of finding my way back.
My fingers tracing the edge of the canteen freeze. —Armand? Why would he be here?
—He's the one who went to get you in Merrymount. That's why I didn't— I hear his growl of frustration in my head. I wasn't going to interrupt whatever romantic excursion you two were having—
—Alexander. I haven't seen Armand at all. My throat feels tight. Armand wanted to come get me? I'm not sure if I'm flattered—or ashamed realizing that if he knew what I'd done, he probably wouldn't want anything to do with me. If he did come—where is he now?
Alexander's quiet, and both our thoughts go to his imposter in the tent.
—But, he can't be Armand, I say. His eyes are just like yours. I watched him melt a dagger, use fire in the marketplace. The air heats, the smoke smell . . . everything. Just like you. Can Armand do that?
—No, he admits. Armand doesn't have any power. No Fear ever joined with him.
That explains why Armand defended himself with only a bow at the masquerade.
—That's . . . sad.
—Yeah, whatever. We're not talking about Armand's lack of Fear, we're talking about your lack of brain. Do you know where you are?
—Lana said something about the Eye of the World Mountains. I let him see the decrepit landscape through my eyes.
—I figured, when my letter didn't go through. You're on the border. The atmosphere there messes with postal travel. He sighs. They've moved since Simon and I scouted them. It'll take days to find you.
I close my eyes. —We don't have days. We're leaving in the morning.
—I know. I was listening. His temper has finally cooled and I feel him sorting through his options in my mind, though he skillfully keeps me from knowing any of his actual thoughts. After a moment, there's a pause in his mental working, as if he's realized something. He reaches into my figurative filing cabinet of memories and pulls out my conversation with Donovan in the bookstore and what happened in Merrymount.
I wish we didn't have to do this connected as we are. As Alexander comprehends what I did, I have no choice but to feel what he does. His reaction is different than his initial outburst, which was a blaze of irritation—obvious, but typical. This anger is deep-rooted and slow. I want to reach inside and stop it from morphing into something that will alter his perception of me forever. It's agonizing to feel it happen and not be able to do anything to stop it.
He doesn't say anything; he sends a memory hurtling into my brain that hits without warning. I see a woman. She's too brilliant to be beautiful, her face too abrupt, too intense. Her hair, pulled off her face and down her back, is pink; her outfit, too, an eye-watering ensemble of pink. A furious wind whips from where she stands, slicing the air with an electrifying power. Light flies off her like curved blades.
The light she sends collides with dark shadows—two forces attempting to swallow and absorb the other. She's smiling, but her face is hauntingly devoid of life. "I'm sorry, brother," she says. The memory is warped; I can't quite see Jack, but I'm suddenly aware the king is not trying to attack her. He's keeping her from getting any closer. "I always assumed she was a trophy wife. You loved her, didn't you?"
Alexander's pain at losing his mother becomes my own. Why is he showing me this? I don't care about the Dream Queen. Then the scene changes. Donovan looks at us, his handsome face bandana-less and his green eyes hard like glass. "Violence is the language they understand—the only one."
I see from Alexander's point of view, like his dream memories. I feel him wanting to force his point, light the room on fire, cause Donovan to sweat—but he doesn't. He waits, because he doesn't want to prove Donovan right. He searches Donovan's eyes for a hint that the Dream is using this idea—this ridiculous notion that Nightmares only know how to destroy—as an excuse to back his attacks. But no, this isn't a personal vendetta disguised as a revolution. Donovan really believes himself. Alexander feels as if he's been dropped in a steel, doorless room with a pre-detonated bomb.
He takes a step back, then he hears the scream. It's Enna—he knows it. He waited. He didn't move to stop it and now it's too late.
The memory ends. I know what he meant me to see, but does he think I chose to do this simply because I'm too heartless to think of an alternative? Using his own method against him, I shoot my memories into his mind. First, me painting inside my dad's studio and his pleasure at my smile, then I show how it looked and felt for me to hear the gods spell out my death at his expense.
—All right! He jerks free. All right, he repeats, softer. I can't tell which one of us is shaking—or if we both are—but our connection trembles, unstable.
For a long while, neither of us thinks or says anything, though the connection remains intact. The barrage of painful memories only proves once and for all that we're completely awful for each other and have been slowly and methodically destroying the other's life since the day we met. I hug my arms around my knees, colder than ever before.
—We have to get Genn out of here. He says here as if he's physically beside me on this rock, which he sort of is.
I agree, though I see no way to accomplish this more-than-idealistic endeavor. Where would I take her in this barren landscape? And how far would we get before Donovan caught up?
Reading my doubt, Alexander says, —They don't know they have a fake. It's me they need, not her. They might not go after you.
—Maybe. But without Genn as ransom or me to command him, what leverage will they have against fake-you?
—Go back to the tent.
I think I'd rather find Donovan and challenge him to a duel to win Genn's freedom. The idea of facing her betrayed tears sounds like a particularly brutal form of torture I'm not sure I'll survive after Alexander's rebuke.
—Man up, kid. But his words, though clipped, lack their usual fire. I can't tell if it's because he's actually showing some remorse after yelling at me, or because he's worried I'll become an unusable blob of human emotion if he doesn't let up. —You're not going for Genn anyway. You're going so I can see this pretender up close.
I approach the tent with Alexander straining impatiently in my mind. When I step in, Lana raises a suspicious eyebrow.
"Can I, um, talk to them?" I ask.
Lana sits with her back against an upside-down crate, her ankles crossed in front of her. Donovan's pistol is in her lap and pointed at Genn. She looks sideways at her two captives. They're close enough she can hear and observe any interaction between us. At last she shrugs. "All right, whatever. I don't care."
I step past her, moving between fake-Alexander and Genn. His eyes follow my movement and I feel unexplainably nervous knowing he's a total stranger. But I ignore him—for now—and kneel beside Genn. She's still refusing to look at me. Her make-up has provided a visible graveyard for her earlier tears.
"Genn," I say softly and she shoots me a glare to rival either of her brother's. The one inside my head gives a small arch of approval.
I close my eyes and let myself imagine all the things that could wrong. I let myself be afraid. My fear rises around me like a misty aura. When I touch Genn's cheek, my fear slides into my fingertip, sinking into her skin as if pulled by a magnet. Her cheeks flush with color and her eyes brighten.
"Alexander tells me it tastes like blackberry ice cream," I say.
Half of her mouth pulls up in a reluctant smile. "Yes. Dark, but sweet."
I glance back. Lana, who looks a little revolted at the consumption of my fear, has her head turned. "I'm going to get you out," I whisper to Genn.
She squints, doubtful. "Trust me," is all I dare say before turning toward the Pretender, as Alexander called him. Swallowing, I move a little closer and study his face.
He's not saying anything, not even looking at me. His closed demeanor is like a carefully contained bottle. His worry is only evident in the taut hunch of his shoulders and the line on his forehead. Much different than Alexander's confidence, so charmingly sure of his place at the very top of the heap, secure that the world is his and that he's safe in it, without ever having considered otherwise.
As if feeling my stare, he looks up, and just like that, his expression shifts and his eyes come to life.
—I don't know if you know this about yourself, but see the way he's hardly blinking, and his face is all indifferent and intense at the same time? That's exactly what you do.
Before real-Alexander can answer, I reach out and cup fake-Alexander's cheek. His skin is hot and dry and instantly warms my hand. I pull back.
—And he's hot. Just like you. I pause. Do not say what you're thinking of saying right now.
—I wasn't, he mutters as if offended—but of course can't help adding, Obviously I already knew I was hot.
"What are you doing?" the fake Alexander asks. Same smoky, rough voice.
I press my lips together. From the corner of my eye, I can see Lana watching us. An idea comes to me, and I start talking as I use my finger to draw in the dirt on the other side of fake-Alexander.
"Do you need any fear? I can conjure some up if you like."
I write: Ur not A.
Fake-Alexander glances at my message, then back to me. "I'm fine," he says slowly. And then, quieter, "Ask me anything."
I narrow my eyes, searching his face for signs of deception. His promise is vague enough, I don't think Lana will catch on to what's happening. There's no way she'd guess the duplicate in front of me isn't the genuine article. The only thing stopping me from believing is the sarcastic commentary in my head.
"About my family," he continues. "My past. Enna. Anything."
At the mention of Enna's name, Alexander flares up. I stiffen. I know, from experience, what an incredibly private detail that is.
I shift closer. "About me. What do you know about me?"
—Smart, Alexander acknowledges. Someone in his life might know about Enna. But no one knows anything about me. At least not as much as he knows.
Fake-Alexander's gaze softens. It looks borderline tender.
But then Donovan comes in and growls upon seeing me. "What is she doing in here?" he asks Lana, holding the door flap in one arm.
She frowns. "Relax. I'm watching her. What's she going to do?"
"Get out," he says to me.
I embrace Genn. "We have a plan," I whisper in her ear and stand up, making sure to stomp over and obliterate my message in the dirt as I go. Donovan oh-so-kindly holds the tent flap open.
—I have no idea who he is, or how he's managing such an impressive impersonation. He can fend for himself.
I bite my lip guiltily, weaving through tents. I don't know either, obviously, but he doesn't seem like a bad guy, whoever he is. On the other hand, if he has Alexander's power, it's the Dreams who get in his way who'll need the sympathy.
—I think I can get Genn out of the tent. I show Alexander my plan, improvised and full of potential problems as it is. But after that, I have no idea where to go, or how to stop Donovan from catching us all over again.
—Wait until after dark, then leave our connection open. I can help you. Do you know where they put the Reality Skippers?
—Yeah. They're just—right there. Will that work?
I hold back my retort. As if he has my best interests at heart. I run a hand through my hair. —Okay.
Without warning, he closes our link. I feel empty without him, and colder. Rubbing my arms, I walk around another tent and see Mo sitting under a propped canopy, whittling a chocolate flute. He glances up as I approach.
"Mind if I sit by you?" I ask, nodding at the makeshift log next to him.
"Ne vous gênez pas."
Whatever that means. I take his smile as consent and sit down.
"Try zis," he says and hands me a piece of chocolate.
I bite off a small piece and close my eyes. A sharp intake of bliss surprises me. "It's good."
I look at my glowing skin. With a twirl of his finger, my luminance fades and he sighs.
"A little bitter, your joy," he says. "But still appetizing."
I glance down at my chocolate and frown. Dreams create joy, maybe, but then they steal it. Mo literally robbed me of mine. Not that I feel its absence, but still. Going by side effect, it's almost better to meet a Nightmare than a Dream; better to lose your fear than your happiness.
Maybe that's what I'll tell people, if I ever get home. Nightmares help us get rid of our fear. By using BlissMax, we're keeping it bottled inside us, and one day, that decision is going to come back to bite.
We lapse into silence, Mo whittling away. Occasionally he gives a tiny shudder. I don't think this atmosphere is any more pleasant to the Dreams than it is to me. I think it's getting darker; hard to tell, without the sun. I see Donovan on the other side of the camp and with a muttered farewell to Mo, I walk over to him. "Excuse me," I say. "Where do I sleep?"
"With me." He says it with reluctance.
He points at a nearby tent and raises his eyebrows.
I shuffle to his tent, where I can only assume he hasn't left anything valuable or secretive out in the open for me to find. Inside is pretty standard, with a cot that I'm only too happy to steal before he gets in. Not that I won't relinquish ownership if he asks nicely—ha.
Other than that, it's mostly empty. There's a chest, but it isn't locked so probably doesn't hold more than clothes and other necessities. A few rolled papers—maps, maybe?—are on the ground between the chest and a crude-looking stool.
I lie on my back and stare at the canvas ceiling. I don't know how I'll manage to leave without Donovan knowing, but he seems less than concerned with the prospect of my rebellion. I'll figure it out.