“Once upon a time, there were no Markers. Someone made them up.”
As he said the words, the mocking quality of them died away. What started as obvious enjoyment at my discomfort became the beginnings of something like boredom. The image of a professor was still prominent in my mind: a drowsy man giving a lecture by rote, uncaring whether or not the students were actually listening or merely doodling in their notebooks. It was that shift that told me he was telling the truth. Without my noticing, he had come to resent me; it would have been easy for him to continue in that sing-song child’s voice, making a joke out of my naivety. He didn't.
I shook my head anyway, but all that did was make me feel more dizzy. My legs had lost their strength, as if the barbed words had torn the muscles from them. I was extremely aware of my belt and what was missing from it. Had the pouch been attached, it would have dragged me to the floor.
“You can sit down,” the Elder offered, gesturing to the simple chair paired with the desk.
I shook my head again, violently, and gripped the edge of the desk until my fingers hurt. I felt vulnerable enough without putting myself into a physically prone position. If I surrendered my power to stay upright, I knew that my mental power wouldn’t last long, and that was all I had left. He wanted me to sit and listen, but I refused to do it his way: numb and quiet. I could feel the truth in his declaration, but I didn’t understand. I couldn’t allow myself to succumb to the shock value of his words until I understood.
Watching me, the Elder sighed. The sound seemed to contain genuine emotion, and he seemed honestly bothered when he said, “This is the part I don’t understand.” He waved a hand, measuring my stance, my no-doubt stricken face. “You come in here upset because you know something is wrong, but you’re all always so shocked to learn that you were right.”
Shock hardly covered it. The foundation of my world had been stripped away. It was as if I’d lived my whole life misusing the directions left and right. In a way though, he was right about my reaction. I’d never been happy. There’d been a time when I would have begged for a revelation like this. But that was the problem. What was the revelation? He’d said he would tell me, but all I had were more questions. They were jumbled in my mouth, each trying to push its way to the tip of my tongue.
I choked them back and focused on what I did know: he’d added too many details.
“That…” I tried. My voice was fragile so I swallowed it down, tried again with marginal success. “That doesn’t make any sense.”
“Why not?” he challenged, and now that the question was in my court, I understood how aggravating it was.
“Because…” I floundered for words while my knees shook under me. Inside, I could feel the shape of those words—Your job is a lie—settling, filling the empty spaces that I’d battled against for so long. On that sensation alone, I thought I could probably accept what he was saying, except for one detail. “Because it is a job.” I articulated as best I could. “I’m part of a chain: I Mark them with Dust, they die, Emily Leads them. I have to. It’s natural. No one could make that up.”
The Elder nodded, which made me nervous. It was like we were playing chess and I’d just moved exactly the way his strategy had counted on.
“The Dust is just a tool. It doesn’t trigger anything. There is a chain, but you’re not step one,” he chuckled humorlessly. It sounded tired. I wondered how many times he’d given this speech, if at one point there had been humor in the sound. “Honestly, after what you’ve seen, do you really think that death needs a signal? Or any help from you?”
I locked my teeth against an irrational sense of embarrassment. That had been exactly what I’d thought. No matter how I’d tried to comfort Eli, I’d never thought of myself as anything less than death’s accomplice.
“But,” I tried to begin again. It still didn’t add up. There were lies here, I just couldn’t decide when he’d told them to me. “What about Alli?” It was natural that my thoughts would stray back to her; she’d been killed because of the connection I was trying to make right now. “The visions and dreams. That happened because….” Because of me, I wanted to say. Because I'd Marked her for a death that hadn't come. My mouth tried to form the words, but got stuck on the letters. It wasn’t because of me, I realized. I hadn’t caused anything. I’d Marked Alli successfully, taken care of my task the way I was supposed to. Mine hadn’t been the link in the chain that had failed.
The Elder was watching me work this out, waiting for me to come to the conclusion on my own. Then he sat forward intently, latching onto the new subject. “Do you know why she didn’t die that first night?”
Once more, helplessly, I shook my head. I could feel my eyes burning again, because all I did know was that she’d avoided the accident because she was a good friend. I thought of that night when she’d taken my hand and helped me out of the cold, even though I’d been cruel to her. For a moment, I got stuck on the memory and the rest fell away.
“She lived,” the Elder was saying, “because she saw you. Not all of you, and, of course, she didn’t understand, but that glimpse was enough. Enough to make her think, to make her aware of her surroundings and keep her from blindly following the crowd. You were there, Jadin, and you protected her. You were her Guardian.”
And all at once, I understood. It was a single, unassuming word, and it broke through my mental fog with the explosive quality of a grenade. I knew what he meant without having to ask. My entire being reached out, shrugging on the title like an old coat, familiar and worn in all the right places. But heavy. So very heavy.
I watched that cruel smile return. “It’s ironic, actually,” the Elder said snidely, enjoying himself again. “All of this obsession about your job, and that was the first time you’ve ever done it right.”