Eli told me the rest of the truth as calmly as he could manage.
I absorbed it with that same sense of gears sliding together that I had experienced earlier. Now that the puzzle was complete, I merely stood there to admire it from afar. It was the simplicity that really impressed me. I’d been sitting in here, contemplating the complexities inside my head, and the answer was just a naked fact: the Elder liked to be in charge and wanted to keep it that way. From an objective perspective it made sense. He was in charge of things he didn’t want found out; not being in charge could actually be dangerous. Eli’s vague comment about punishment even suggested that the lies might not have started as his idea, though I wasn’t ready to be quite that forgiving.
I thought of the way I’d been treated here, put in the dark and intimidated, made to feel small. Perversely, it made me want to smile. It was almost flattering, to know that he was so afraid of me. In fact, he was so terrified that I would figure it all out, that he’d completely underestimated Eli, who had outdone all of us. Eli, whom his own friend called just a kid, but who was the only reason I was standing on my own two feet in this moment. I imagined the Elder’s carefully controlled face discovering that contradiction and managed a small smirk.
“What?” Emily exclaimed incredulously. The chain reaction of my thoughts had yet to make it out of my mouth, but Emily had no such problems. "Do you mean...Is this because she's the only girl?"
Eli nodded at her solemnly. He was standing too now. A moment ago, all three of us had seemed to be leaning towards the door, anxious to rush out, but that nervous energy had frozen over. “No. I don't know why that happened, except that Alli is so sensitive to others. No, we were all supposed to take a turn. Each new Marker—Guardian—is supposed to be the leader.”
I breathed the words in again, letting them float in through my ears and sink leisurely in the pit of my stomach. I was the only one who could help them tell the truth. Not because I was a new outside influence that might be able to persuade the masses, but because I was meant to stage a coup. If things went the way Eli wanted them to, I would have told the other angels the truth because they would have no choice but to listen to me. It was an absolutely insane thought. Not only did I have no time to process my own death, I was now supposed to put that aside to be in charge of others’ lives. The weight of it made me wish violently for my life as a listless teenager.
Emily let out a shaky breath. “You should have started with that, Eli,” she said, her voice carrying an undercurrent of fear that immediately infected me.
The sensation made me agree with Emily even though I knew Eli had been right to dance around the subject. The responsibility terrified me, but now I’d given my word to help. If he’d started by telling me that I was supposed to be the new Elder, there would have been no convincing me to stay.
Disregarding any sense of secrecy, Emily flung the door open all the way and our frozen energy seemed to melt in the light. “Go,” she said from her new position in the hallway. “Now.”
“Emily, what--?” Eli began, bewildered by her sudden shift from apathy to real distress.
“Alli, Jadin really is in trouble,” Emily told me flatly, bypassing the question. “I was just saying it before, but I mean it now. Think about it. Everyone is supposed to have a turn, but he locked you up. Why?”
The fear acted like a magnifying glass, focusing my thoughts into a precise sunbeam. My voice unlocked to utter an awful realization. “Because Jadin was with me,” I said. Because, unlike the countless other people who’d been in my position, a threat, ready to take over and change things if only they knew better, I had an ally. In fact, I had three, which was why Eli had been locked up before I’d even arrived. I understood for the first time the risk Emily had taken in putting me in the wrong room, the bravery Eli had shown by telling me the truth. They were all in trouble because of me, but right now Jadin was the only one within the Elder’s reach.
I was in the hallway before my mind had fully caught up. Briefly, it tried to remind me that whatever was out here was scary, that I didn’t want to be a leader no matter how much sense it made or how many people it would help. But now that I was out here, I could see the place for the prison it really was. I’d been afraid to leave the safety of that room, but it was impossible to deny that the air was less stale out here and let me think easier; emotions turned into ideas and deductions with a flow that I’d been missing since I’d gotten here. Inside me, I could feel that persistent aching that reminded me of my recent decisions and regrets. But as I stood out here side by side with Eli and Emily, I could finally see past it. I thought, not without some longing, that it was the same sensation I’d experienced my last night on earth, when Jadin had helped me to imagine that it was possible to live my life based on future possibilities instead of past mistakes. At last, I felt like myself. In the midst of so much confusion and purposeful deception, I felt that was a real gift.
“Which way?” I asked. I directed my question to Eli, who had followed me out of the room and was watching me with concern.
“Are you sure?” he asked, in that kind way he possessed that made it clear to anyone who was watching that he was far older than he looked.
I wasn’t. But I took the door out of Emily’s hand and shut it purposefully. What I was sure about was the fact that Jadin had saved me and so had Emily and Eli. It was time to return the favor.