The mid-morning sunlight seemed overpowering to Cass’s dazzled eyes even through the special veil that covered her face. Though it was never easy for her to see in broad daylight, the veil usually made it bearable for her altered vision. But at the moment the morning glare was creating a pressure behind her eyes and at her temples that threatened to become a full-blown migraine if she didn’t head back indoors soon. Of course she hadn’t slept in almost thirty hours, and that likely wasn’t helping matters.
She and Wren were in a small courtyard not far from the north-eastern gate of the compound. It wasn’t as nice or as large as the central courtyard, nor as secure, but it was Wren’s preferred place to get outside and Cass knew it’d help boost his spirits before the meeting of the Council. Or rather, she hoped it would. He’d grown distant of late; spending more time alone, less willing to talk, more likely to shut down if she pressed him. He’d hardly spoken at all since the attack. And though she wanted more than anything to gently probe her young son’s mind, Cass knew the only chance she had to learn what was going on inside Wren was to wait patiently for him to begin on his own terms. And so they walked in silence with slow careful steps, Cass feeling all the while that her son was becoming more and more a stranger.
The narrow stretch of open space was shaded and rarely traveled. Cass couldn’t help but wonder if it was the isolation that attracted Wren so. It wasn’t quiet per se. Morningside was never quiet. But the high walls and fortified structure of the compound shielded them somewhat and reduced the noise to a background murmur. She glanced up at the wall separating them from the city at large, and saw a figure moving along the top. They’d put extra men on the wall. Not surprising, given the night’s events, but she wondered if it was wise. Citizens were bound to notice the change, and it never took much to start rumors.
“It’s nice to be out here with you, Mama,” Wren said. His sudden words, quiet as they were, jolted Cass from her thoughts.
“It’s nice to be out here with you, Wren,” she said with a smile.
“I mean, with just you.”
“Yeah. Seems like it’s hardly ever just us anymore, huh?”
He went quiet again for a few moments after that, but Cass could tell he was working up to something. Sometimes he just needed time to find the words, and sometimes Wren waited for her to ask the right questions. For a long time it had been easy for her to read her son, but lately it’d been different. Difficult. Maybe it was that they hadn’t spent as much time together the past few weeks. Or maybe, more frightening to her, he was just growing up.
“Do you miss it just being the two of us?” she asked.
Wren shrugged and then waggled his head back and forth from shoulder to shoulder slightly, a gesture that Cass had learned to interpret as “kinda”.
“I know I’ve been away a lot lately,” she said. “There’s just been a lot going on. But I’ll try to make more time for us, if you’d like that.”
Wren nodded. But there was more to it than that. Not that it looked like he was going to offer.
“Have you been enjoying your time with Able and Swoop and everyone?” Cass asked.
“I guess so.”
“Just guess so?”
Wren shrugged. “They’re all really nice.” His tone didn’t carry any enthusiasm.
“But they’re not Three.”
Wren shook his head.
“I miss him too,” she said. “Every day.”
“Mama, do you think we could go away?” Wren asked, looking up at her. She must’ve looked surprised by the question, because he quickly added, “Just for a little while, I mean.”
“Hmm, I don’t know, baby,” Cass answered. “I don’t think people would like it too much if their governor disappeared all of a sudden.” She’d meant to make the statement light, but from Wren’s reaction she realized she’d said exactly the wrong thing. Cass tried to recover, to keep him from shutting down on her completely. “But who knows? I guess if you’re in charge you can do what you want. Where would you like to go?”
Wren shrugged again. Cass tried to think of a place to suggest, but found she couldn’t come up with one that didn’t have some painful memory attached to it. She needed something, though, to keep him talking.
“Greenstone?” she said, and then held her breath. They hadn’t been back since their narrow escape from that wild and dangerous city. But for all the threats they had faced, the little time they’d spent there had also offered them a greatly unexpected refuge and, for one precious moment, almost a sense of home.
Wren did his little head wag again.
“Greenstone would be nice,” he said, finally. “Or Chapel’s, maybe.” Chapel’s village without walls, just on the edge of the Strand. It sounded like an imaginary place, a fairytale for children in a world of fortified cities and urban wasteland. But Chapel and his people had taken Wren in for a time, and Cass knew as dreamlike as it sounded, it did exist out there, somewhere, on the Strand’s fringe.
She said, “I’d really like to see that someday.”
“I think you will.”
They were just passing the north-eastern gate, and Cass hadn’t really thought much about it until Wren stopped walking. She continued on a few steps before turning back. He was just looking off through the gate.
“Wren? You OK?”
“I’m not who they think I am, Mama,” he said quietly. And his words held such weight that she knew this, at last, had been what he’d been building up to say.
“Any of them.” He looked so small to sound so weary. Cass returned to her son and crouched in front of him. She lifted her veil and took his face in her hands. His cheeks were cool from the morning air.
“Listen to me,” she said. “Last night wasn’t about anything that you did, or anything you could’ve done. And you never have to try to be anything that you aren’t.”
Without taking his eyes from hers, Wren said, “I do, Mama. I do have to try. Every day.”
He said it with such quiet authority, Cass couldn’t think of anything to say. Her hands slid off his face, down to his shoulders.
Wren looked off towards the gate. “All those people,” he said. “It doesn’t work like that.”
It took a moment before Cass understood. She followed his gaze, and the pieces came together. Though it was technically still an entryway, the north-eastern gate was hardly ever used to actually enter or exit the compound. Soon after Wren had Awakened the first of the Weir, word had spread through the city with surprising speed. And then the memorials had started showing up. Wreaths, ever-burning vigil lights, personal belongings… offerings, really. It wasn’t a gate anymore. It was a shrine. To her son.
And then, worst of all, the pictures began appearing. Just one or two, at first. Then each day brought a few more. Now there were dozens and dozens of pictures of people who had disappeared. The taken. And with every one hung a silent, permanent plea for Wren to find them and bring them back.
Cass just pulled him to her then and held him tightly. In that moment she wasn’t sure if she was giving comfort or taking it, but Wren didn’t try to resist. She knew it was hard on him, of course. To be ruling a city at such a young age. Cass had tried to insulate him as much as possible. But their choices had been so few; after what had happened they could never have stayed within Morningside as normal citizens. And at the time the idea of leaving again, of having nowhere to go and to be always on the run, had been too much for either of them to bear. In the end it had seemed the only real choice, to stay and let her child be revered as governor. Maybe worshiped. Now, feeling his tiny frame in her arms, she wondered that she could have ever been such a fool.
Cass had hoped, and maybe even let herself believe, that with her as his primary advisor and with the help of the Council members, that the burden wouldn’t be too much for Wren to bear. Of course it was too much to bear. Of course it was too much to ask. And the pressures of governing were only made worse by the guilt he must have felt, knowing all those people were counting on him, believing he could rescue their missing and deliver them safely back home.
It hardly seemed fair, after all they had been through: the flight from RushRuin, the cold nights of hunger, the utter terror of the Weir, the heavy losses. To have come so far, to have escaped all of that, only to find themselves surrounded by everything they could ever need or want — and discover it was just a different kind of prison. Tears brimmed in her eyes, but she blinked them quickly away.
“Tell you what,” Cass said. “What if you didn’t come to Council today?”
“I have to. I’m the governor.”
Cass rocked back so she could look at her son. “You’re the governor. You don’t have to.”
He smiled a little at that. Wren said, “But I should go.”
“I’ll tell them you needed some time off. After last night, no one would blame you.”
“Uncle Aron might.”
“Uncle Aron is a grouchy old man. If you came, he’d probably fuss at you for being there.” She felt his slight shoulders relax under her hands and knew that skipping the meeting was the right thing. Yet another thing that had been weighing on him. He was just too concerned with what he felt was his duty to have said anything about it. “I’m pulling rank. As your mother, I demand that you not come. So that’s that.”
“I don’t think it’s like that anymore, Mama.”
Cass was surprised by how much those words cut her. Not because Wren had intended any hurt; he’d just said it as if it were fact. Perhaps she feared it was.
“It is today,” she said, standing back up as she did.
“Well,” Wren said. “If you think it’ll be OK.”
“I’ll take the heat if there is any. But I’m sure everyone will understand.”
“OK, then. Is it alright if I stay here? Just for a little while longer?”
Cass was still weighing the options when someone called through the gate.
They both looked over to see a couple of teenagers peering through the bars.
“Hey, Painter!” Wren called back. He looked up at Cass, and she nodded, and together they walked over to the gate. The daylight made it hard for her to identify the two from a distance, but as they approached, Cass recognized the other teen as a kid everyone just called Luck. He was the more stylish of the two, always quick with a smile — and had a seriously dry wit. Luck was sporting a pair of dark glasses.
Painter was tall and thin, with arms and legs just a little too long to look like they belonged to him. His hair was a wavy brown nest too loose to call curly but with an obvious mind of its own. He tended to be self-conscious — either because of, or compounded by, the heavy stutter he suffered from. Painter looked in every way like a typical nineteen year-old kid. Except in the eyes; though they were currently hidden beneath dark goggles, Cass knew that where others had iris and pupil, Painter had only softly radiating blue. Both he and Luck had become good friends to Wren. And both had been Awakened.
“Luck, Painter,” she said, greeting them both. “What brings you gentlemen around?”
“Actually we were on our way back home, Miss Cass,” Luck said. “They wouldn’t let us in the front gate.”
“The Council’s meeting,” Cass answered. Normally security wouldn’t lock the compound down just for the Council, but what she’d said was true and she hoped it wouldn’t invite any further questions.
“Oh, OK. We were just coming to say ‘hi’,” said Luck. “Guess we’ll catch up later?”
Cass looked down at Wren, who in turn looked up at her. His eyes told her everything she needed to know.
“Actually, I have to get to this meeting, but Wren’s free. Why don’t you fellas walk back around to the north-west gate, and he’ll meet you there?”
“Uh, OK, sure,” Luck said. “If it’s no bother.”
“I’d like the company,” Wren said.
“Alright, we’ll see you there. Thanks, Miss Cass!”
“Sure thing, Luck,” she said. Painter dipped his head and waved. Cass smiled back, and the two young men disappeared from the gate. When they were gone, Cass turned Wren towards her. She said, “I know you’ll be careful, but watch what you say, OK? It’s very important that no one finds out about what happened last night, alright?”
“I know, Mama. I’ll be smart.”
“I know you will, baby. I’ll come find you after the meeting, OK?”
“I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
Cass bent and kissed Wren on the top of the head, and then sent him off towards the main gate. As she watched him go, she inhaled deeply and exhaled slowly. The attack had raised so many questions in her mind; there were too many moving pieces, too many shifting variables for her to grasp anything solid. But despite the cloud of confused and swirling thoughts, something in her gut insisted that someone from the Council had been involved.
With Wren removed from the meeting, the Council members would be off-balance; some would be less guarded, others more so. Reading them would be critical. Cass needed all the focus she could muster. She drew the veil back down over her face. And with a sharp, short breath she steeled herself, and headed towards the Council Room.
As Wren approached the gate, he crossed behind two guardsmen patrolling through the front courtyard. Neither of them seemed to notice him. He moved behind them and picked up on the middle of their conversation.
“Just a couple of those deadling kids. Said they came by to see the Governor,” the shorter one said.
“Ugh. I dunno why we ever let ’em in in the first place. They gimme the creeps.”
“Yeah, I don’t know,” the first guard replied with a shrug, neither agreeing nor disagreeing. “Kid’s mom seems alright.”
The other guard snorted. “She’s alright from behind for sure. I’d like to bend her over a chair, as long as she didn’t turn around.”
Wren had no idea what that was supposed to mean exactly, but he knew they weren’t speaking well of his mama, and something rose up inside him.
“Hey!” he called.
Both guards jumped a little and turned in surprise. Wren guessed the shorter one was in his forties, and the other was quite a bit younger. Twenties, maybe. He recognized them both, but didn’t know either of their names. They stood awkwardly next to one another.
“Governor,” the older one said, and it sounded like some mix of a greeting, a question, and just a hint of a joke. And in that moment, Wren missed Mama and Able. He had to say something to these men, now that he had their attention, but he didn’t know what. They were grown-ups, after all. Tall and muscled and certainly not used to being challenged by little boys. Swoop had been trying to teach Wren how to talk with authority and how to command a room. But Wren realized now it was so much easier to be brave and in charge when you had a couple of warriors at your side.
The young guard made a clicking noise as he sucked something out of his teeth and the corner of his mouth curled up like he was trying not to laugh. It made Wren angry. At least one thing Wren had learned was that anger always sounded scarier when you didn’t shout it.
“What’re your names?” he asked, not quite knowing where he was going. He just knew that when he got in trouble, the thing Wren hated most was the questions he had to answer without knowing why they were being asked.
“Gaz,” the older one said. The younger one just stood there staring back with that look on his face. “This here’s Janner.”
Wren’s legs felt hollow and there was a tremble in his stomach that made him want to throw up. He held his hands behind his back to look more in charge. And to hide the fact that they were shaking. Janner sniffed out a laugh through his nose and looked at the ground. Wren’s mind raced for something meaningful to say. A thousand thoughts rushed through his head and jumbled into a huge mass of nothing.
Without raising his head, Janner’s eyes shifted sideways to Gaz. He still had that smirk on his face. And Wren still felt the anger, the need to defend Mama. But everything seemed frozen inside him. Frustration built. He discovered he had no idea how to express what he wanted to say. No way to correct or punish.
“If the governor would be so kind,” Gaz said, “we’ve got a patrol to maintain.”
Wren searched one last time for something. Anything. And came up empty. He nodded his head and even though he tried hard not to, he ended up dropping his gaze to the ground.
“Morning, then,” Gaz said. Wren watched the two pairs of feet swivel and walk away. And just a few moments later he heard Janner mutter, “Little brat.”
It shouldn’t have seemed like such a big deal, but in that moment Wren felt like he’d lost something important. He was supposed to be the Governor. Supposed to be in charge. But even his own guard didn’t respect him. And why should they? He was just a stupid little boy, playing at being king. Tears rose up, and he hated himself all the more for crying.
Wren dug his palms into his eyes for a few moments, tried to push the tears away. It didn’t matter, really. It didn’t matter whether people respected him or even liked him. There was still work to do, and it was his job — his duty — to do it. At least until someone else came along.
He wiped his sweaty hands on his pants, and his nose on his sleeve, and made his way to the main gate. Up ahead he could hear raised voices, not quite loud enough to make out the words but enough to get the gist of the tone. Painter and Luck were already there, taking abuse from one of the guardsmen.
“Look, I’m sorry, but I told you already, nobody’s coming in or out today,” the guard snapped. “And if you don’t quit buzzing around here, I’ll have to juice you both.” He waved his stunrod back and forth for emphasis.
“It’s OK,” Wren called. “I asked them to come.”
The guard turned and saw Wren. It was Lane, one of the guards who’d been on duty when the attack happened, and one of the nicer people in the guard. If he was still posted, that must’ve meant they’d called everyone in. It also explained why Lane wasn’t his usual cheerful self.
“Governor,” Lane said. “No one told me anything about these two.”
“I know, Lane. But it’s alright.”
“Does your mother–” Lane caught himself. “Did you clear it?”
“Yeah, it’s OK,” Wren replied. “You’re not going to get in trouble.”
“Well, do me a favor and tell that to Connor, huh?”
Wren smiled. “I will.”
“Alright,” Lane said. He authorized the gate unlock, opened it, and nodded to Luck and Painter as they entered. “Sorry for giving you boys a hard time, but orders are orders. And it’s been a long night.”
“Hey, it’s your job,” Luck said with a shrug and his quick smile. “We won’t break anything while we’re here, promise.”
Lane said, “Yeah, see to it you don’t. Best to keep a low profile today.” Lane closed the gate behind them and relocked it.
“Thanks, Lane,” Wren said.
Wren led the two away from the gate. “You guys want to go back over to the side yard?”
“Actually,” Luck said. “You mind if we go in? Sun’s starting to get to me.”
“Um, I guess so. We should probably go around the side though.”
“Yeah, what’s going on with all that? People seem pretty buttoned up today.”
“Old people stuff?” Luck asked.
“Yeah,” Wren answered. He adjusted course and took his companions away from the main entrance, around the eastern edge of the building. They passed the two guards on patrol again, who gave them a quick once-over. Wren kept his head down. He asked, “How’re you guys doing?”
“Can’t complain,” Luck said.
“You can al-al-always complain,” Painter said.
“Well, yeah, I mean, I’ve gotta hang out with you, so that’s like the worst,” Luck replied. He swatted Painter on the arm. “And for some reason I’m having trouble with the ladies lately.”
“Not just l-l-l,” Painter said, the “L” sticking in his mouth. He shook his head once, quickly. “Lately.”
The three walked to a short set of stairs leading down to one of the main building’s lesser used entrances, and Wren tried the door. Locked.
“See what I mean?” Luck said. “Buttoned up.”
“Just a sec,” Wren said. He knew he wasn’t supposed to, but he really didn’t feel like going back around to the front. And these days, it hardly took him a second. He stretched out through the digital, and in the next moment the lock chirped and he pulled the door open. “Don’t tell my mom.”
They entered a hallway, one level below the main floor of the building. It was cool, and quiet, and minimally lit. It always seemed to Wren that the place had been built to hold far more people than were allowed in it now.
They found a room off the hall with some plush chairs and made themselves at home. Luck flopped into a chair in the middle of the room and threw his feet onto a low table. Wren sat across from him, perched forward in his chair so his feet could still touch the floor. Painter didn’t sit, but instead walked slowly about the room, looking around aimlessly.
“How about you, Painter?” Wren asked. “How’s everything with you?”
Painter shrugged. “Alright, I g-guess.”
“Just alright?” Luck said. “I wish my life was as alright as yours. Any time you wanna trade jobs, P, you just let me know.”
“Mister Sun is real n-n-n-nice. But you know what it’s like.”
“I’m sure I don’t,” Luck said.
Painter frowned a little and went quiet. There was an awkward silence, and Wren wasn’t sure why, or how to fix it. Painter and Luck were both good friends, but they were also a good bit older than Wren, and he was never sure exactly how to behave around them.
“So, what’s up with you, Wren?” Luck said. “Err, I mean, Mister Governor, sir.” He took his feet off the table and bowed forward when he said it, before flopping back again.
“I don’t know. Just the usual, I guess.”
“Just the usual, Painter,” Luck said, looking over at Painter who was now examining some fixture near one corner of the room. He turned back to Wren. “So, that’s like what? Running the city, keeping the guard in check, bringing people back from the dead… you know, just the usual.” Luck said it with a smile and his kind of teasing affection. “Speaking of which, how come you don’t have to be in that meeting, anyway?”
“My mom said I could skip it,” Wren answered. “I don’t think it’s supposed to be important.”
“Aren’t they all immm-imm… -portant?” Painter said from across the room.
Wren shrugged. “I’m sure the Council thinks so. But most of the time they just talk a lot and hardly ever do anything. I don’t know how important something can be if all you ever do is talk about it.”
“That’s one of the reasons you make a good governor, Wren,” Luck said. “You’re a man of action.”
Wren felt embarrassed at the description, but he could tell Luck actually meant it. “I’d like to be,” Wren said. “One day.”
“No reason to wait,” said Luck.
Painter finally wandered over and took a seat next to Luck. He seemed restless, more on edge than usual. Like he had somewhere else to be, and was running late. One of his legs bounced with nervous energy.
“Have you heard from your sister?” Wren asked Painter.
Painter’s attention snapped to Wren, and after a moment he shook his head. “Not since the fuh, fuh, the first time.”
Painter had a younger sister named Snow. Wren had never met or even seen her, but from what he could gather, she and Painter had been very close before he had been taken. After his Awakening, he’d sought her out, expecting a happy reunion. It hadn’t gone the way he’d hoped.
“I’m sure she’ll come around, man,” Luck said. “Just needs time to adjust. We all do.”
Painter shrugged and shook his head again. “Wouldn’t think it’d tuh-take that long.”
“Yeah. But every day we’ve got’s a gift as far as I’m concerned. You can’t let the regulars get you down.”
“Easy to sss — to say.”
“Have you guys been having trouble?” Wren asked. “In the city, I mean.”
Luck glanced over at Painter. Painter just looked at the floor.
“Just the usual,” Luck said, with his quick grin again.
“What happened?” said Wren.
“Nothing really. Just, you know, like I said. Everybody needs time to adjust. Maybe some quarters more than others.”
“It isn’t fair,” Painter said. “We’re citizens just as muh-muh-much as anyone.”
“Yeah,” Luck answered. “But you gotta admit, we’re not just people anymore.”
“Well, I don’t know about that. Different, for sure.”
Wren felt overwhelmingly selfish. Yes, he’d had a frightening night, but it hadn’t been the first time he’d been exposed to danger. He hadn’t been harmed, not really. And here his friends were, facing threats every day for something out of their control. They’d done nothing to deserve being taken by the Weir. And they’d never asked to be brought back by Wren. Twice victims. There might not be anything Wren could really do to make it right for Painter and Luck and others like them, but that didn’t mean he shouldn’t try.
“Hey, I’m sorry to do this guys,” Wren said, getting up out of his chair. “But I’ve got a meeting to go to.”
“How’d somebody get inside the perimeter?” Arom asked. “Then inside the compound? His hall? His room?” He stomped around the room in a rage. “Do you all realize how many separate, total failures had to happen for some stranger to end up even in the same building as him?”
The Council had already gathered, having been briefed when they were summoned. It was unusual to bring them all together on such short notice. No one was happy about it. But certainly the circumstances warranted it. Cass stood at the door, silent and thus far unnoticed, watching them through her heavy veil. Aron, the oldest member of the governing body, thundered with a passion more characteristic of a man thirty years younger.
“Aron, please–” said Connor, holding up a calming hand, trying to soothe the older man. A mistake, Cass knew. His tone would inflame, instead.
“Don’t ‘Aron, please’ me, boy,” Aron said, whirling to face Connor. His finger darted out so quickly that Connor actually flinched from across the table. “This is exactly what I’ve been warning you all about. The disorder, the lack of discipline, the… the… the chaos out there has finally spilled over these high walls and infected the very heart of our city.”
Already Cass could sense a shift in the Council. Something was different. Off. And in a flash, her instincts confirmed her fear; someone in this room wanted her son dead. But who? And why? Or was she just being paranoid?
She thought of Three and his uncanny knack for reading subtle signs in people’s expressions, movements, breathing. What would he have seen? What would he have said? Trust your instincts. She would have to intervene soon or else the morning would be lost. But not yet.
“I told you,” Aron continued. “I warned you when you opened them gates to those people, I warned you they was gonna bring nothin’ but disease and decline. And you did it anyway.”
Hondo had his head back on his chair, eyes closed. Aloof, impatient with anything he considered petty or irrelevant. Vye was next to him, staring down at the table in front of her, ignoring the conflict. If the argument got too heated, she would wilt and refuse to take sides, regardless of what she believed.
“The damage was already done,” Connor answered. Civilian overseer of the entire guard. Not as skilled a diplomat as he believed, but level-headed. “You know it better than anyone. Those people were submissive only because they knew Governor Underdown would continue to protect them even outside the wall.”
“If not for Underdown’s tyranny,” Rae added, “those people would’ve been our friends. Our neighbors. Our allies.” She was middle-aged and fiery, ever the champion of the less-fortunate.
North watched with quick eyes and utter stillness. Cass was a little surprised he hadn’t noticed her yet.
“Underdown may’ve been a tyrant,” Aron countered, “but at least he brought order.”
“Through fear and deception!” Rae retorted.
“Underdown is dead,” said a voice, and a chilled silence immediately fell over the group. Cass realized it was she that had spoken.
“Lady Cass…” Aron said with a slight bow, and the hint of a tremble in his voice. From the adrenaline, not from fear. Never from fear when it came to Aron.
Cass was uncertain what point she had intended to make by reminding them of Underdown’s death. And she could not afford to seem uncertain. Not in this room. Not now. So, without another word, she strode from the door to a seat near the head of the table, but did not sit. Instead, she placed her hands on the table and leaned over it, addressing them in a low and well-controlled voice, hoping it would command the group’s respect, or at very least their attention.
“Last night someone tried to murder my son in his bed. I called you here to discuss solutions, and I see no value in revisiting year-old decisions in light of the difficulties that already lie before us.” She looked to Aron first, and then slowly to each member of the council in turn. “If any of you wish to discuss the matter further, you may do so with me later. Privately. Are we agreed?”
“Of course, ma’am,” said Connor, half-rising out of his chair. The others nodded their assent, Aron last of all.
Cass lifted her hand to indicate her veil.
“Take it off,” Aron said with a dismissive wave. He threw himself heavily into a chair at the table. “I can’t stand you hidin’ behind that infernal curtain.” His gruff words might’ve seemed like rudeness or disdain, but Cass knew better, and she took it as a good sign. It was more like a father’s thin impatience about a cherished daughter’s scandalous outfit; and Aron was only polite when he had an angle.
Cass raised the veil and took a seat, but not without noticing how quickly Rae averted her eyes. More than a year had passed since Cass’s return, and still some could not bear to look at her directly. Some. Many.
“I apologize for bringing you all here on such short notice,” she said. Hondo laid his head back on his chair again, closed his eyes as if to emphasize the point. “But I felt, given the circumstances…”
“Where’s Wren?” Rae asked.
“He won’t be attending today.”
“Is he alright?” North asked, his voice like distant thunder. Built like a mountain, he spoke rarely, listened deeply — and most often heard what went unsaid. A good man.
“A knock on the head, a bruised ankle. We’re grateful it was nothing more.”
“We’re lucky it wasn’t more,” Aron said. “And if he isn’t holed up somewhere under lock and key, you’re all a heap dumber than I thought.”
“I’m not going to imprison my son for someone else’s crime, Aron.”
“That boy, Cass, you know I love him like my own, I do, but that boy is more than just your son.”
“Where would you put him?” said Rae. “If he isn’t safe in his own room, where in Morningside could he possibly go?”
Cass defused the beginnings of another squabble by activating the table surface. The marble texturing melted away and was replaced by a number of images of Wren’s attacker. “Anyone recognize this girl?”
Hondo raised his head off his chair with an audible sigh, opened his eyes to look.
Vye’s hand went to her mouth, but not from recognition. Her compassion was well known. Tears welled in her eyes. “She’s so young.”
There was a brief silence as everyone scanned the pictures.
“An outsider, no question,” Aron said. A quick evaluation; maybe too quick.
“We don’t know that,” Rae responded. Possibly just to antagonize Aron.
“It’s obvious. Look at her. Clothes, dirt, all skin and bones.”
“Because Morningside’s never had poor inside the wall, Aron?” Rae asked, anger evident in her voice.
“Rae.” Connor stepped in. “Let’s not make it a class thing, OK? You have to admit, she doesn’t look like a citizen.” Rae sharply looked back at the images in front of her without response.
“Probably lost her family to an attack or something,” Aron said. “Maybe had it out for Underdown, and once we brought ’em all inside, she waited for a chance and decided to get some revenge on Wren.”
“Could be,” Vye said cautiously. “I guess it’s possible.”
“Stretching. Outsider, I buy,” Hondo added. “But personal vendetta? Pulled this off on her own? I don’t see that.”
“I have to agree,” said Connor. “Whatever her motives, she’s got all the marks of someone who grew up beyond the wall.” Beyond the wall. A phrase Connor probably considered more diplomatic, but still managed to make sound demeaning. Another way to say outsider. Second-class. Other. Like Cass.
“Or someone went to a great deal of trouble to make it seem like she came from the outside,” North said, and Cass watched his words ripple through the Council. Aron and Hondo exchanged a quick glance; Rae clenched her jaw; Vye just sat there looking at the pictures of the girl and shaking her head. Connor stayed very still. For a long moment, they sat in silence, the implications sinking in.
“How did she…?” Vye asked, unable to bring herself to say it.
“She killed herself,” Cass said. She tossed the handle of the girl’s knife on the table. Hondo picked it up, examined it, held it up for the others to see.
“It’s a popper.”
“A what?” Vye said.
“Shatter-blade,” Aron explained. “Got a little charge in there, makes the blade explode in a million pieces and turns your insides to soup. Nasty business. Find ’em on outsiders all the time.” He added the last bit as if it was proof positive his assumptions were right. Awfully convinced.
“Who would do such a thing?” Connor said, almost to himself. He shook his head. “Who could even conceive of such a thing? He’s just a boy!” There was genuine despair in his voice. A rare display of emotion.
“Not to them,” said Vye. Her voice was quiet but certain.
“And that’s what I mean,” Aron said. “Look. In here, to us, we know who Wren is. But out there, he’s just a name. Or… or… or a king. Or a god.”
“Or a devil,” said Hondo. Cass held herself still, refused to react to the almost-familiar words. After a moment, she let her eyes slide casually across Vye to Hondo.
“That’s not what I meant,” Vye said.
“It isn’t what you said, but it’s what you meant,” Hondo replied. “And what do you expect? He brought ghouls to live among us.” Aron and Connor both reacted, and Vye actually gasped aloud. Hondo glanced at her, then turned and addressed Cass directly. “Look, don’t take it the wrong way, Cass. I’m just trying to be honest about how some folk feel.”
Cass waved her hand, casually dismissing any offense. She’d been called worse.
“There are certain segments out there,” Hondo continued, “not me mind you, you know not me, but there are segments who just want things back the way they were.”
Connor said, “Things will never be the way they were–”
“It doesn’t matter, Connor, people will always want it anyway!” Hondo said, voice rising. “I got people out there still talking about going home one day! Home, Connor! What kind of home you think is left out there for anyone to go back to?”
“People are just afraid,” Rae said. “Afraid of change, afraid of uncertainty. And when people are afraid, they drive themselves to do things. Crazy things.”
Aron said, “And that’s why I said we had to keep the gates closed!”
“Didn’t we just agree we weren’t going back there, Aron?” said Hondo.
Things were getting heated again. Cass glanced at North. He was still, expressionless, soaking it all in.
Aron replied, “But back there is the problem, Hondo. Back there is where too much changed, too fast. Look here, bringin’ Wren to the people, makin’ him governor, that was the quick fix. Underdown’s son, heir to the throne. What he would have wanted. That’s easy, people get that. But throwin’ the gates open to the outsiders? And then this business with… you know. I’m sorry, Cass, but it’s true.”
She said, “No one here needs to apologize to me for anything. I know what I am.”
“Again, Aron,” said Rae, “we all appreciate your keen sense of problems, but why don’t you try solving one for a change!”
He said, “We gotta get ’em off the streets. Bring ’em all here, or let me take ’em in at my place, I don’t care. We just need a place for ’em to stay until people get used to the idea.”
North spoke at last. “They’re free people, Aron. Free people. Like you. Like me.”
“No, North, they’re not. Doesn’t matter what we say, doesn’t matter whether you like it or I like it. They’re different.”
“That’s the problem, isn’t it?” said a small voice from the entryway. The whole Council turned, and even Cass felt a jolt. There was Wren, standing near the door. Observing, for who knew how long. Just like his mama. Able hovered by the entrance, at once protective and unobtrusive.
Cass opened her mouth to protest but caught herself, closed it. You shouldn’t be here. You should be resting. You should be playing. You should be having a childhood. Not in front of the Council. In here she was his advisor, not his mother. A war she constantly fought.
Wren approached, and everyone stood as he climbed up in his chair at the head of the table. A formality they insisted on, though Wren had often said it seemed silly. His legs dangled freely above the floor, but his face was grave with understanding well beyond his eight years.
The Council retook their seats.
“How are you, Wren?” Rae asked.
“I’m well, Miss Rae, thank you,” Wren said. His words and tone were kind, respectful, but Cass could tell the answer had been more reflex than response. “It’s the difference that scares people so much. All the changes.”
He said it like a statement, but it was a question. Looking for confirmation.
“Change, uncertainty,” Aron said, nodding. “Like Rae says.”
“But that’s not the whole truth,” Hondo said, leaning forward. “It’s them, too. What they are. What they represent.”
Cass felt anger rising, but checked herself.
“Tell us, Hondo,” North said. He was speaking Cass’s mind, whether he knew it or not. “What do our friends represent?”
Hondo swallowed, licked his lips, glanced around the table for allies. Maybe he’d pushed it too far.
“People think they could go back,” Wren said. The Council seemed surprised to hear him answer for Hondo. “To the way they were.”
Hondo nodded. For a moment, Cass lost herself hearing her son give voice to the nightmare that haunted her daily; the terrifying thought that she might ever… relapse? Revert? Was there even a word for it?
“And some folk blame them for things that happened,” Hondo added after a moment. “I know it’s not fair. It’s not right, and it’s not fair, but that’s how it is.”
“None of this moves us any closer to resolving last night’s attack,” Cass said, reasserting control of the conversation. “Unless you’re suggesting that we’ve reached such a state in Morningside that people would send someone to kill my son?”
Hondo shrugged in a way that suggested it was the only possible explanation.
“What purpose would that possibly serve?” Rae asked.
“It’d be the first step towards getting things back to the way they were, wouldn’t it?” Hondo said. “Think about it. Wren dies by the hand of an outsider, what’s the first thing everyone’s going to want to do?”
“Send them all back outside,” Vye said.
“Whoa, slow down now, slow down,” Aron countered. “Ain’t no reason to go makin’ up conspiracies when it coulda been just like I said. Girl after revenge, on her own, cause of her own reasons.”
“It makes sense, though,” Connor said. “A terrible, terrible kind of sense.”
Rae took over. She said, “Look, in the immediate, it’s irrelevant. Whether she was crazy, or desperate, or a hired assassin, we’re not going to figure that out sitting around this table. The question we’re here to answer right now is — what do we do?”
It was quiet for a moment, as each Council member looked to the others.
“Nothing,” said Wren. Hondo suppressed a condescending smile; Connor smiled what he probably thought was an encouraging smile, but that ended up more condescending than Hondo’s.
“We can’t do nothin’ Wren,” Aron said. “Once people find out–”
“If we don’t do anything, then no one has to know anything happened,” Wren answered.
“I think you’re putting a little too much faith in your guards,” Hondo said.
“Maybe someone will talk,” Wren replied, “But if we don’t make any sudden changes, then who will believe it? It’ll just be like any of the other rumors people talk about every other day of the week.” Wren was sitting up straighter, leaning forward. Confident. And becoming convincing. “You’ve been saying it yourselves all morning. People fear change. So, we don’t change anything.” He paused for a moment. “Except maybe I’ll sleep in my mom’s room for a while.” He said it with a smile that undercut the seriousness of the moment. Rae chuckled.
“I agree,” North said, “If we don’t respond to the attack, it becomes a non-event.”
“Unless she really was sent by someone,” said Connor.
“Then our inaction will speak more powerfully than anything we could do at this point. We will not be terrorized.”
Aron shook his head. “No. We can’t pretend it was nothin’. It’d be pure foolishness.”
“We need to help people adjust,” Wren said. “We need to help them get used to how things are now. It won’t help anybody if you just lock up the compound.”
“It won’t help anybody if you’re dead either,” Hondo said.
Wren’s gaze dropped to the table and he went quiet.
“Whatever else we decide, we need to identify the girl,” Cass said. “Discreetly. What are our options?”
The other Council members all exchanged looks, waiting for someone else to offer an idea or opinion. Finally Rae sat forward. “I’ve got a few connections by the West Wall. I’ll see what I can find.”
“I doubt it’ll be any use, but I can handle the business district,” Hondo said.
“And I’ll talk to the elders,” said Aron. “Most of us are only good for gossip these days anyway; someone’s bound to know somethin’.”
“Secrecy is crucial,” North said. “We shouldn’t ask so many questions that others begin to wonder.”
“Agreed,” Cass said. “Use your judgment, but err on the side of caution. Let’s see what we can find out, and reconvene in two days.”
The Council members agreed and, after a round of formal goodbyes, began excusing themselves. Cass watched them intently as they departed, looking for any final hints or clues as to what any of them might be hiding. But nothing stood out, nothing out of the ordinary. Or rather, so much out of the ordinary that made it difficult to discern motives.
“Mama,” Wren said. “Are you mad at me?”
The question caught her completely off guard. “What? No, baby, why?”
“Because I came to the meeting anyway.”
“No, of course not. I just thought you didn’t want to come.”
“I wish I hadn’t,” Wren replied.
“You did fine, sweetheart. You made some very good points.”
“Then why do I feel like they don’t want me around?”
Cass’s heart sank to hear those words.
“I don’t know, Wren. But we’ll figure it out, OK?” She said it with what she hoped sounded like certainty, knowing that if they didn’t figure it out soon, neither of them would be likely to survive whatever came next.