Taking a moment to release some of the emotions that I had bottled up inside was like releasing a pressure valve. Once open they just came pouring out, and it was a struggle to shut them off again. But once I was able to reel them back in, the relief I felt was immense. It was like finally being able to breathe again after holding it in for so long. I can’t say that it was all that I needed. No, that would require more time than I currently have. But it was enough that I could push on and see this through.
Once dressed, I came out to find Kalea sprawled on the bed. She wasn’t asleep, but she was close to it. She seemed so small in the king-sized monstrosity. I’d never realized how large it was before. It was just a fact of my life here. I had spent the last three years in a bed that was designed for a single person. This bed could easily fit three or four people. The dark, sleigh shaped headboard had water lilies and vines carved across it. The lilac colored bedding contrasted nicely with the color of the wood, and her hair fanned out across it. A small smile tugged at my lips. Kalea’s family wasn’t poor, but they lived simply. I could see her enjoying living in luxury, giving her staff palpitations because she would insist on helping with both the household and outdoor chores.
I laid out next to her, staring up at the ceiling, the bed cradling me perfectly. I couldn’t help the sigh that slipped out of me. She rolled over to face me.
“You can sleep if you want to. I don’t know how long we’re going to have to wait on that woman.” I said.
“Hmm, I don’t know if I’ll be able to fully fall asleep.” She murmured.
“You’re already halfway there.” I looked over; her eyes closed.
“Nope. I’m awake.” Her eyebrows raised, but did nothing to open her eyes. I laughed.
A loud knock at the door had us both jolting upright. We looked at each other and laughed, we were wide awake now. I slid off the bed and crossed the room, sneakers squeaking on the floor. I pulled the door open to find, Gerard, the household manager that had escorted us upstairs in the hallway. I raised an eyebrow expectantly.
“Sorry to disturb you mistress,” he started. The door behind him opened, Kagan and Nakoa peering out. “But you have a guest downstairs.”
I stared at him for a moment, his words not quite sinking in. He started to fidget, waiting for my response.
“Who? I thought I was pronounced dead.”
“He did not give his name, mistress. Shall I send him away?” he turned to walk away.
“No,” I sighed, rubbing my temples. “I guess I’ll come see who it is. Should be interesting.”
“I’ll come with you. We shouldn’t separate more than necessary.” Kagan stepped into the hall. His hair was still damp, and he was wearing clean slacks, and a white button-down shirt. He almost looked like a staff member.
“Fine.” I turned to Kalea, who was now standing next to the bed. “You should go stay with Nakoa while we are gone.”
“And here I was trying to think of polite ways of ditching you for my husband.” She smiled, slipping past me and into the other room.
“I knew it!” I said with feigned indignation, they both laughed as they closed the door behind them.
I turned back to Gerard, who was waiting patiently with his hands clasped before him. His expression was bland, but his dark eyes were intelligent, watchful. A sense of uneasiness was settling into me looking into his eyes. He was going to report everything he heard and saw to my mother. Which reminded me that there had once been a bug in my room. Was it still there? Did I care?
“Sitting room?” he nodded at my question. “I’m sure I can find it.”
He just raised a brow at me, at my obvious dismissal. And ignored it. So, this is how it was going to be then. I would be afforded the same status, rights and luxuries as any other patrician. But in this household, even the staff were going to treat me like a prisoner. I rolled my eyes, and gestured for him to lead the way. We followed a few steps behind him. Kagan looked at me, the question in his eyes.
“My mother’s sense of humor, I suppose.” I shrugged.
Reaching the first floor, he still insisted on seeing us to the sitting room, opening the door for us. The last time I had been here, I had been wrapped in an elegant costume. My mother’s attempt to dress up her embarrassment so she could sell me off and no longer be her problem, but still provide her a genetic legacy. Walking into the sitting room now, with its same earth toned furniture, plush cream carpet, seasonal tapestries, the man standing by the fireplace in a finely tailored blue suit similar to the one he wore last time; it was like walking into deja vu. The laugh that bubbled out of me was borderline hysterics. Darian Hawthorne whipped around at the sound.
“This has got to be a joke.” I turned to Gerard, but the door had already clicked shut behind us. Worry lit up in Kagan’s eyes.
“Hello, Astra.” Darian said smoothly like three years hadn’t passed since I ran out on my agreement to accept his match a be his mate. He waved a hand dismissively at Kagan. “You can go.”
“He’s not a staff member, you ass. He’s with me.” I snapped at him, crossing my arms.
“With you?” he asked. “My, I’m going to have to be jealous.”
“Not like that. He’s my friend. What do you want, Darian?”
“Why would you be jealous?” Kagan chimed in, assuming the same pose as me with his arms tightly crossed.
“Astra didn’t mention?” he smiled slyly. “We were matched. We shall be unified.”
“You’re engaged to this guy?” Kagan asked, a little more aggressively than I thought was warranted.
“That was a long time ago.” I sighed, rubbing my eyes. This day was getting better and better. “I was declared dead. You weren’t beholden to me anymore.”
“That’s funny. Have you met your mother?” he unbuttoned his jacket and sat on the sofa, crossing an ankle over a knee. “She didn’t believe for a moment that you were dead, despite my efforts. And convinced the council to hold me to your contract. Which worked out fine for me. I wasn’t actually looking to unify.”
“What do you mean your efforts?” I asked, crossing to sit on the sofa across from him. Kagan followed, sitting on the other end, watching cautiously.
“You should not have come back, Astra.” The arrogant, playful jerk that had been there a moment before was gone. There was something intense in the way he looked at me now.
“It’s not like I wanted to.” I snapped back. “What did you mean by your efforts, Darian?”
“Laura called me after she saw you away, told me what had happened.” He laced his fingers together. “Your mother didn’t go to the hospital that night. She was still in the house when you left. So, she caught on quickly.”
“I don’t understand. Why would Laura call you?” My heart was racing. I swallowed past the lump in my throat. Kagan shifted uncomfortably.
“Come now, Astra. You’ve never been one to play dumb. They were so close to catching you that night. Who do you think was looking out for you? Who do you think made sure you got out? Who made sure there was a report, claiming your demise?”
“Why would you do that?” I clasped my hands together tightly to keep them from shaking.
“You were so shy when your parents finally sent you to school with the rest of us. You were kind.” A wry smile played at his lips. “That was so outside of the norm for any patrician. They are all arrogant, entitled pricks. But you had this fire about you. I would have done just about anything to get a rise out of you just to see it burning there in your eyes. Typical dumb kid stuff. But I watched it slowly fade over time. Then I didn’t see you for years. I heard your mother was trying to match you. So, I accepted, just to see if you had found it again. There was something else in its place. You looked like you were slowly dying. That’s why I kissed you. I saw it for just a moment then. When Laura told me what happened. It all made sense. I was determined to see you free. You were an anomaly in our society. I didn’t want to see you smothered. Now look at you. There’s that fire again.”
“You almost did get her killed.” Kagan nearly growled at him. I looked over, and found him glaring at Darian like he wanted to dive over the coffee table between them at him.
“What do you mean?” Darian frowned.
“The men that were sent after her? They ran the truck she was in off the road. Didn’t even bother to stop and check on them. They just sped on to a farm that was nearby and arrested everyone there. Saying they were harboring criminals or something. I pulled her from the wreck. The driver was dead. She was bleeding, delirious with a fractured her skull. I carried her to a healer nearby who saved her.”
My hand went to the scars that were still in my scalp. He’d never mentioned that day before. There was an anger burning underneath his words that I hadn’t noticed before. That was why he always tracked any officers that came into town with such hatred in his eyes. They had nearly killed me. Had killed the person who was driving me. Kagan had an oversized sense of justice. What had happened was not something that he was ever going to be okay with. So, he just let that anger simmer inside him all this time.
“What men? The men that found the wreck found it two days after you left.” He uncrossed his legs, sitting forward eagerly.
“I just said. They arrested the people at that farm.” Impatience heavy in his voice.
He watched us, contemplating for a moment. I looked over at Kagan again, who was looking confused.
“How often did that happen?” he asked finally.
“Do you not know about the massive round up last night?” I asked carefully. He shot to his feet, cursing. He started pacing. “I guess that means no. They took Kagan’s sister. We followed, intent on getting her back. Things didn’t go as planned.”
“Wait, you were there?” He asked turning to me again.
“Yes,” I answered somewhat hesitantly.
“Do you know where you were?” He came around the table, pulling me to my feet, grasping my shoulders.
“What is it with you and touching me without asking?” I shrugged off his hands. Kagan stood, stepping closer aggressively.
“Sorry,” he held his hands up. “Do you know where it was?”
“Why do you want to know so badly?” Suspicion was creeping in. He was too eager, his eyes too bright. It reminded me too much of the cruel boy that I used to know.
“We knew they were taking people here and there. Never anything large scale. We could never figure out where they were taking them. It wasn’t the prison, or the universities. We don’t even really know why they’re taking them. But there have been reports of abductions from all over the Borderlands. We need to find out where they are taking them, and what they are doing with them. If they’ve done a large scale round up, it could be the opportunity that we need to expose the CGP. This could be what we need for real change.”
I searched his eyes. There was something there. But was he playing me for his own ends? Or was he being sincere. The idea of there no longer being a CGP was appealing. It would mean my mother would have no real power to control me anymore. Sure, she had money enough to chase me to the ends of the earth. But without her position protecting her, I could have a real chance at freedom.
“The sub-levels of the CGP. They’ve renovated all the lower levels. They’re all cells now. They mostly took women. We saw several pregnant ones in the cells.” I watched his face darken as I spoke. “I also heard them say that there was another facility somewhere else.”
“I heard that too.” Kagan offered. “On the other side of the city. They are moving some there tomorrow.”
“Surrogates?” He asked, starting to pace. “I had heard that they were having a hard time finding surrogates.”
“I don’t know. I didn’t hear anything that could even begin to explain any of it.”
“Alright, I’m going to have to get in there.” He had crossed his arms, and was pulling at his bottom lip with his hand.
“Can you help all those people?” I asked.
He stopped his pacing, eyes darting back and forth as he stared at the carpet. I don’t know what he was thinking about, but I didn’t interrupt him while he worked out whatever he needed to. I was still spinning from learning his involvement in my escape, from learning that he was a part of some kind of movement that wanted to overthrow the CGP. But was that all they wanted? The CGP was only a part of our government. There was a council member for every district in our country, each with their own smaller version of the CGP. So, when he said he wanted to expose the CGP, did he mean the one specific to our district, or the larger one?
He sighed, turning back to me finally. “I want to say yes. But I just don’t know yet. I don’t even know where to start yet. I need to get in there to assess what is going on and what I can do. But I can say that I will do whatever I can to help them.”
“What about us?” Kagan asked. “Can you get us out?”
“Now that is a much easier question to answer.” He shifted back into his arrogant posture that I knew him for, a grin on his face. “I can do that.”
“I’m probably going to cause a ruckus at the CGP tonight. So probably tonight. You know, in case I get caught. I’ll send someone to get you and bring you to me there. I’ll have someone waiting to take you back out from there.”
The sound of the front door opening and closing reached us through the closed door to the sitting room. We fell quiet, listening to the footsteps and murmuring that came after. A moment later, my mother stormed in. She took one look at us sitting there before a smug grin touched her lips.
“Good. You’re here. I told you she was still alive.” She clasped her hands before her.
“So, you invited him here to gloat? How plebeian of you, mother.” I shot at her, knowing it would wound her. I knew it hit its mark when her smile faltered, and she narrowed her eyes at me. But rather than sniping back at me, she turned to Kagan.
“You may leave,” she dismissed him.
“I’m not going anywhere,” he widened his stance, crossing his arms.
“Astra,” she turned back to me, done with him. “Please send your pet away.”
“You know, mother, your complete disregard for anyone other than yourself is part of why I left in the first place.” Her eyes hardened further at my words.
“Fine, we can discuss your impending union in front of your lover.” She smiled like a cat.
“He’s not my lover, or my pet. He is a person, mother. I know it’s hard for you to think of anyone as one, given your lack of humanity. But this is what they look like.” I gestured to Kagan and then myself. A hearty laugh bubbled out of Darian, drawing a glare from my mother. Even Kagan smiled, despite the situation.
“Its fine, I don’t want to hear this. I’ll wait outside in the hall.” He placed his hand on my shoulder as he spoke, meeting my eyes for a moment. There was something heavy in his gaze. He didn’t really want to go, but he knew we needed to play along. I grabbed his hand for a brief moment, trying to reassure him I’d be okay. He slipped out, closing the door softly behind him.
“Well, now we can discuss a time line for your union.” My mother said, a fake smile plastered pleasantly across her face.
“It is truly disturbing how you can act like nothing has changed, like I haven’t been gone for years.” I narrowed my eyes at her in annoyance. “I’ve been back for less than a day and you’re already trying to sell me off.”
“What has changed? You were gone, yes.” She held a finger up like she was instructing students. “But your contract stands. Anything else is moot.”
“I love how you skipped over the ‘selling me’ part.” I smiled sweetly at her.
“We van void it, if we both agree to it.” Darian spoke up, his hands casually in his pocket.
“Nonsense.” Marianne waved a hand dismissing the notion. “Ideally, I’d like to be done with it as soon as possible.”
“She means be done with me as soon as possible,” I looked over, making eye contact with Darian. Judging from his expression, we shared a similar frame of mind on the matter. He raised his brows in silent question. I shrugged, may as well just play along for now. As much as I’d enjoy annoying her, I didn’t feel like dealing with the fall out. If anything happened to keep him from getting us out tonight, I would still need to use her to get my friends safely out, which would be harder to do if she was angry with me.
“Well,” Darian looked at his watch. “as much as I’d love to hash out all the details with you, I have a meeting I can’t miss. So, you will need to get in contact with my mother and plan with her.”
“Fine,” my mother sighed, obviously annoyed. “I’ll do that right away.”
“Astra, I’ll see you soon.” Darian turned to me, holding a hand out. He pressed a kiss to my knuckles, winking as he turned away. “Mother Marianne, always a displeasure.”
My mother’s gasp at his insult had me turning to hide my smile. She glared at him as he walked right by her, without any of the niceties we usually afford those of a higher station, or even just people we respected. His slight was more than just an insult. He basically denounced her. If we were to actually enter a union, it would make our relationship interesting. She knew that too. Once he was gone, my mother whipped back to me, indignation in her eyes.
“Don’t look at me like that,” I strode passed her, throwing over my shoulder. “You know you’re a nightmare to deal with.”