We did not leave the same way we came in. Considering we arrived in handcuffs, that was not a surprise. For that same reason, the amount of security, keypads, and clearance required to get through the building wasn’t a surprise either. What was a surprise was that we strode out the front of the building. No attempt was made to conceal us in our obvious prisoner attire. The lack of concealment struck me as we strode through a waiting area filled with patrician women on the first floor, which was also odd. Their lack of scrutiny made me believe that either they were aware of what was going on beneath where they sat, or they knew who I was and wasn’t surprised. I certainly recognized some of them.
A valet had brought an SUV around the front of the building, handing the keys over to James, who was to be our chauffeur as well as our guard. I got into the front passenger seat, gesturing for my friends to get into the back. We were in the heart of downtown. Skyscrapers line the overly busy streets. People walking up and down the sidewalks. A few looked our way in curiosity, studying our outfits. So, we were not a usual occurrence.
We rode in silence. Traffic wasn’t congested enough that we made slow, steady progress. I flipped down my sun visor, to look at my friends in the backseat in the mirror. Kagan sat with his arms crossed, tension written all over him. Nakoa’s posture wasn’t much different, he just had an arm around Kalea instead of having them crossed. Kalea was the exception. She was trying to lean across her brother, to look out the window, awe on her face. It made me smile, despite the circumstances. Despite what had happened to her, she was not bowed at all. It was one of the things that made her so special. Nothing was so big that it couldn’t be overcome.
“None of you have been to a city before?” I asked, drawing James attention to me for a moment.
“No,” Kalea answered. Kagan just scowled out his window. Nakoa ever the quiet one. “Of course, we’ve heard stories. But seeing it is whole different thing.”
“Trust me, living in a small town is much better.” Kagan looked up at that. “The city stinks. Its dirty. Sometimes it feels like there isn’t enough room for everyone. Homeless live in alleyways. People care less about each other. Not to mention the truly disgusting practices of their faith.”
“It’s your faith too,” James said, frowning over at me.
“No, James. I may have been born into it. But it was never mine.” I looked out my window. “All I ever wanted was the freedom to live how I wanted, love how I wanted, breed how I wanted. And my mother had the person I loved the most in the world killed in an attempt to control me.”
“Did she?” it was posed as a question, but there was disbelief in his tone.
“Are you always this familiar?” I asked, irritated. I didn’t owe him any explanation. And he certainly didn’t know anything about what had happened.
“Sorry, mistress.” He grumbled at me.
“What is with the whole ‘mistress’ thing?” It was Nakoa who asked this time.
“Puritans have very strict social lines between their social classes. There are two social classes. The upper, ruling class being patricians, lower class being plebeians. Patricians are considered plebs’ betters. And as such, they are required to defer to us. Another disgusting practice.”
“What determines which class you belong to?” Kalea asked, leaning forwards.
“Genetics mostly. But also, money.” I looked up into the mirror at them. Kagan looking back out the window. “You could have perfect genetics, but you would still need the money to buy your way into being reclassified. Or you could marry a patrician, if they accepted the match. You still wouldn’t be patrician, but your children would be.”
“That’s why they were afraid of you after you revealed yourself.” Nakoa mused.
“It is within my right to request that they be punished, lashed, put to death, or sterilized, for how I was treated when they didn’t know who I was.” Talking about the rights I was afforded over other human beings made me nauseous.
“Would you?” James asked softly, as he turned down a new street that was overly busy. Traffic was backed up to a crawl.
“Of course not. I am not my mother.” I watched him from the corner of my eye. Every time I mentioned my mother, he’d tense up like he wanted to defend her. His behavior was odd. It wasn’t his familiarity with which he spoke to me. Before I ran away, I had made friends of many of the plebian staff and they’d speak just as familiar with me. I had always hated that we were supposed to treat each other different. We each had limits to our freedoms and that wasn’t right. But I did not know James. If I didn’t know any better, he cared about my mother. I wondered if she reciprocated. If she did, she was the world’s biggest hypocrite.
“Why did my mother suggest this route? Traffic is horrible.” We were still crawling along, even though we were outside of the city center.
“I don’t know,” was all he said.
Skyscrapers had given way to shopping malls, doctor offices, dry cleaners. I never saw much of the city when I lived here due to my mother’s constant need to control me. But I knew enough to know that the route she had us take was out of the way. With a sinking feeling, I realized that there had to be a reason. There was something here she wanted me to see. But whatever it was lost on me. It was a pleb neighborhood more than a patrician one. Patricians tended to be snobs, visiting more expensive shops than these.
More than anything, it made my heart ache. It made me think about where Elia would be today if she hadn’t gotten tangled up with me and my mother’s issues. There was a pregnant girl outside a small bookstore ahead of us, she was setting out signs and opening for the day. Many of the businesses in the area had living quarters above the stores, much like this one with the girl had. It was early enough in the morning still that the late starting businesses were just opening. She had long, wavy mahogany hair just like Elia’s. I closed my eyes for a moment, remembering what it felt to run my fingers through it, smelling the warm vanilla and cinnamon scent on her skin. The car lurched forward and I opened my eyes. Kagan was watching me in the mirror, his eyes uncharacteristically intense. I turned back towards the girl just as we were passing to avoid his gaze.
I felt my vision turn into a tunnel; the whole world fell away from underneath me as I met her honey eyes. Her face went white when she saw me. She didn’t just look like Elia. She was Elia. I tried to open the door, but it was locked. I was vaguely aware of James and Kalea grabbing my arm. My heart was pounding so hard in my ears I couldn’t hear them. I was banging on the door, yelling to stop though I couldn’t hear myself. She turned to run inside the store.
My hearing rushed back in as I flipped back towards James, who was still holding my arm. I jerked my arm from his grasp. He flinched back just enough that I could reach the gun strapped to his hip. I snatched it out of the holster and had it aimed at him faster than he could react. I heard Nakoa chuckle in the backseat, as he was the one who had taught me and Kalea how to use a gun.
“Unlock the fucking door.” I said with more calm than I felt. I had slipped the safety, and cocked it. His hands were up, but he was about to open his mouth to argue. “If you make me repeat myself, I will shoot you.”
He clamped his mouth shut, his face going red. But he hit the unlock on the door. I kept the gun aimed at him as I backed out the door. Once outside, I turned and ran into the store. It was dim inside, smelling of paper and ink. I didn’t see her anywhere. I stumbled through the store, calling her name. I heard movement from the back of the store, and ran towards it. A tall man was coming from the back of the store. He was blond, with blue eyes and thin rimmed glasses. He reminded me of a teacher with his dress shirt and slacks, handsome in an intellectual way that made students daydream about him. He stopped abruptly with his hands up. I realized I had pointed the gun at him.
“Move,” I swallowed hard.
“You know I can’t with my family back there.” Sweat beaded his brow, his face was pale. But he stood his ground.
“Please,” I didn’t recognize the desperation in my own voice. “I don’t want to hurt anyone. I just need to know.”
“Then put the gun down.” His voice was deep, but soft like he was trying to talk down an animal.
I heard the bell on the door ring as someone came in, followed by the sound of Kagan cursing once he saw what was going on. My time was running out.
“Please,” I begged again.
“It’s okay, Scott,” she came out of the door in the hallway behind him, a small child on her hip.
He turned towards her when she grabbed his arm, handing him the child she was holding. She murmured something to him, and he was ascending the stairs behind them a moment later. She turned to me, eyes meeting mine. My breath shot out of me like I’d been hit. Sorrow filled her eyes.
My knees gave out beneath me. One minute I was looking at the impossible. The next I was on the floor sobbing at her feet. So much was running through me that I couldn’t grasp a hold of anything. I was relieved she was alive. But how? Livid that I had been somehow tricked. Grieving the time that was stolen from us. Was it stolen? She was kneeling in front of me, trying to pull me up. Kagan was there, taking the gun and tucking it into his waistband.
“How? Why?” I finally asked coming back to my feet.
“The why is simple,” she said, looking down at her swollen belly. “I was supposed to be sterilized. But your mother made me an offer. Let her use me to force you to accept a match, and I’d get a match and children of my own.”
“But I watched you die!” My thoughts and emotions were too tumultuous. I felt like I was on a boat being tossed around at sea.
“Have you never thought about that night?” she was frowning at me. “Never thought about everything that didn’t make sense?
I hadn’t. Not really. There were things, small things, that didn’t make sense. But I had chalked it up to trauma before. And then I tucked it all away, never to be thought of again. I pulled it back out now. I quickly ran through everything that happened that night. Turning over every little detail.
“The door,” it was the first thing that occurred to me. “I had locked it when my mother left. But it was undamaged after they came in and pulled us from bed.”
Kagan looked between us then, putting two and two together.
“I had unlocked it, then slipped back into bed.” She bit her lip.
“They waited until my back was turned to shoot you. But the blood?” I frowned, studying her head, where I had seen blood matted in her hair.
“Fake, an exploding pack that made the mess. Then they pulled my body out quickly.”
“Was any of it real?” the sob that choked out of me surprised me, but I needed to know.
“Oh, Astra!” she grasped my face in her hands. I held onto them. “Every moment of it. And every day I have regretted it. I had changed my mind at the last minute. That’s why I had begged you not to accept her deal. But once you signed, it was too late. One look at your mother, and I knew she would kill me for real if I didn’t play along. Please, please forgive me.”
“I already did, the moment I saw you.”
A sob choked out of her at that. I pulled her close, embracing her. I kissed her, my heart breaking at the taste of her. The bell rang again behind us. This time I knew it would be James, coming to fetch us. My time had run out. I wanted to tell her that when all of this was over, I’d find her again. But I couldn’t do that to her, to her children. If I was in her life, they wouldn’t be safe. My mother would never allow it. She had built a life without me. She had given me up to have this life. And I would let her have it.
“Goodbye, Elia.” I held her at arm’s length, grasped her face and kissed her again. “I love you. Have a wonderful life.”
I ran from the store, all but throwing myself back into the car. If I stayed a moment longer, I knew I wouldn’t have been able to pull myself away. I thought losing her the first time was painful. But it was nothing compared to the pain I felt now. Losing her, finding her, the betrayal and the denial. I don’t know if I’ll recover wholly. It felt like I was breathing glass. But knowing she was alive, despite everything, healed something in me.
Kagan and James came out a moment later. Kagan didn’t look at me as he walked around the car and got in. He stared out the window the whole ride to my mother’s house. Kalea watched me carefully, but didn’t say anything. Nakoa just shook his head in annoyance at me. I think he had expected me to use that opportunity to escape. If I had been thinking, I might have. I also knew it wouldn’t be our only chance. Hopefully my mother didn’t have any more surprises in store for me. I needed to keep my wits about me if I was going to get us through this. And I had already allowed her to throw me once. I closed the visor, looking out the window instead of trying to gauge what my friends were thinking. James drove the rest of the way in silence, the muscle in his jaw twitching as he ground his teeth. Apparently, I wasn’t the only surprised.