Lifeblood, p.16
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       Lifeblood, p.16
 

         Part #2 of Everlife series by Gena Showalter

  "My pleasure."

  A pretty smile blooms. "I know only eleven percent of people win their court case, but I do feel better about my chances now that you're here."

  I turn away before she can see the color drain from my cheeks. So much trust...so much pressure!

  How many times have I cracked under pressure in the past? Too many!

  Buck up! I'm stronger every day. I won't crack this time. Not again. Never again.

  --We don't know a lot about Penumbra.--I send my voice to Clay through the Grid. --Keep your hands to yourself at all times, just in case. And watch her closely. Report anything unusual. Absolutely anything!--

  --Will do.--

  She comes up behind me, and though I stiffen, I don't protest. I don't like having people at my back. Abhor it, in fact. Too many have struck at me while my head was turned.

  "Elizabeth's team tried to get Gingerbread back from Killian for over a week. You did it in fifteen minutes. If he aided you--and I suspect that he did--he's setting you up or he cares for you."

  143,10. "He cares for me," I say with certainty.

  "I hope you're right. I hope he's changed. If so, I won't protest if he works my case with you. But if you're wrong, and he's doing this to make you think he's changed, make you think he's willing to help you, well... I'm sorry. You deserve better."

  My mind whirrs with questions and yes, even secret fears as Clay and I set up the perimeter. An easy task, considering we simply place a disk in each corner of the room, press a button and, boom! A Buckler forms.

  As for my fears...before Killian, another ML pretended to be a guard at Prynne, simply to play me. He made me think he loved me, that everything he did was meant to help me.

  I fell for his act. And why not? He comforted me when I was beaten, ensured I was given food when I was supposed to be starved, and pretended to aid my escape. Actions meant to prove his feelings for me...to prove I was his soul mate and belonged in Myriad with him.

  Dr. Vans killed him before we cleared the building. Or so I thought. It was just another set up. James was a Shell, and his spirit returned to Myriad.

  For the first time, I'd seriously considered making covenant with Myriad. I'd wanted to be with him. What a mistake that would have been. I'd been one of thousands to him.

  What number am I to Killian?

  TROIKA

  * * *

  From: T_L_2/23.43.2

  To: L_N_3/19.1.1

  Subject: Rant alert I've decided to trust you with my life, Levi Nanne, because I've trusted you with something far more precious to me and you've exceeded my expectations. (My brother's life, in case you're wondering.) There's a spy among us. Don't ask me who it is; I don't know. (Possible spoiler alert: it's not me.) What I do know? Everything I learn about everything opens a Pandora's box of questions, and everything I thought I knew I know I never really knew. Now I'm a walking question mark and I do not like it, so you need to help me.

  Light Brings Sight!

  Conduit-in-training, Tenley Lockwood

  PS: thanks for letting me take the lead with Dior PPS: Did you notice the complete lack of typos????

  PPPS: I am so rocking thes

  TROIKA

  * * *

  From: T_L_2/23.43.2

  To: L_N_3/19.1.1

  Subject: Argh!

  I meant this.

  I am rocking this.

  This, this, this

  TROIKA

  * * *

  From: L_N_3/19.1.1

  To: T_L_2/23.43.2

  Subject: Good thing I speak Teen Girl.

  You can think or know something in your mind but until you know it deep in your heart, you don't really know anything. Also, making a decision based on fear is the fastest way to arrive at the wrong place at the wrong time. Where there's peace, there's your answer.

  I know there's a spy among us, but I appreciate the heads-up. (And I never thought it was you.) I can predict what your next message will say. How did you know about the spy, oh, magnificent General? Let me save us both a little time. The answer is: I'm very good at my job.

  General Levi Nanne Light Brings Sight!

  PS: I'm half impressed with your cojones and half disappointed. We'll discuss my reasons at your debriefing.

  PPS: before you freak out, debriefings are standard operating procedure...and yours is scheduled to take place five minutes before now. Hustle!

  chapter twelve

  * * *

  "Mercy forever walks hand in hand with your doom."

  --Myriad

  Five minutes before now? A fancy way of saying I'm late. Great!

  I return to Troika, my heart pounding. There's no one waiting for me on the other side of the Veil, but I receive a message from Kayla with directions to the Tribunal, located inside the Temple of Temples. I do as Levi commanded and hustle my bustle, even though I would prefer to avoid any kind of debriefing.

  I've never attended one, but I can guess how this one will go down. I'll explain what I did and why I did it, and Levi will tell me what I did wrong...which will be...oh, absolutely everything.

  I rush through Gates and Stairwells, my mind whirling. Levi knows about the spy. That's good. It's a burden I don't have to carry alone. I just have to keep my head on a swivel, note anything out of the ordinary--not that I know what's ordinary in Troika--and sleep with one eye open.

  I smack into Raanan, Nico and Hoshi. The trio catches me, though it's Raanan who prevents me from falling. His eyes glint with amusement.

  "Cool your jets, little girl," Nico says with a laugh. "We're about to--"

  "Sorry, no time to talk. But thank you." I keep going, staggered by the difference our training has made in our attitudes.

  The trio exuded relaxation; they were probably out having fun between classes. I'm constantly on the go, constantly working to save Troika and stop a war. I both envy and pity them. Action today prevents regret tomorrow.

  I throw a glance over my shoulder. Nico and Hoshi have moved on, but Raanan is exactly where I left him, his gaze glued to me. Intense, curious. I wonder... Is he envious of me?

  By the time I reach my destination, I'm sweating buckets. The Tribunal is a chrome-and-glass building with, I'm guessing, ten bazillion stories. At the reception desk, I'm told a courier will take my Shell to my apartment, and I'm given a visitor pass. The debriefing is taking place in room 1010.

  The number gives me pause. Double tens.

  If ten means complete, does 1010 mean doubly complete? If complete means one door has closed, does doubly complete mean a new door will open?

  Is this a coincidence?

  Trick question. I don't believe in coincidences.

  There are Laborers in the lobby and elevators, though no one speaks or looks anywhere but at the floor. Got it. This is a somber, nerve-racking affair.

  Ding.

  The doors open on my floor, and I step into a spacious room where Levi, Kayla, Reed, Elizabeth and Victor are lined up in front of seven desks. They are wearing white robes while I'm in my catsuit armor.

  Double zero! Someone should have sent me a dress-code memo.

  Behind each desk is a fellow Troikan. People I've never met.

  I take my place at the end of the line, and search for clues about the men and women--and boys and girls--before me. Only the desks hint at individual personalities. One looks like the wing of a plane. Another is made entirely of hand-carved wooden roses while another looks like a simple stack of logs. The youngest boy, who can be no more than ten, has a desk shaped like a car and the youngest girl, who can be no more than eight, has a desk shaped like a glass slipper. The final two are absolute opposites of each other. One offers clean lines and sharp edges while the other is a mash-up of different metals that have been bowed.

  "Children?" I whisper to Levi.

  "Haven't you heard?" he whispers back. "Lo, that we all had the innocence of a child."

  Innocence--great. But I'm supposed to tell
these kids everything I did and why I did it, and they're going to understand?

  He bumps my shoulder with his own. "One day, after your training has been concluded, you'll be summoned once a year for a week behind a desk, overseeing debriefings like this."

  Kind of like jury duty for spirits. Which means these people might not want to be here. How wonderful for us.

  He says no more, and silence thickens the air, soon cracking my calm veneer. I release a shaky laugh and whisper, "This is right on par with whipping hour at Prynne."

  The oldest juror regards me with keen displeasure. He is black, with swirling tattoos along his temples and jawline. "Being kept waiting is never fun, is it?" He bangs a gavel. "We shall begin."

  I sputter for a response. "I got here as soon as I could. I only found out about the meeting a few minutes ago."

  "Had you observed Dior Nichols as ordered, you would have been on time," he states.

  "I had permission to--"

  "Only after you had disobeyed."

  Levi gives me a gentle push forward. "We'll each have a turn at the wheel, but you, the self-proclaimed Leader, get to go first."

  "Are you kidding?" I squeak. "You had better be kidding."

  "If I give you the key to a car, Miss Lockwood, and you crash it, which of us is at fault?"

  Zero! This is going to be a trial by fire, isn't it?

  A tall man I failed to notice when I entered steps from the corner to take my hand. My trembling embarrasses me, but I don't pull away. He leads me directly in front of the desks, where an elaborately carved podium rises from the floor. My mouth dries. He helps me step up before returning to his post in the corner.

  "Watch," someone says.

  Jellyair spills down each wall, and video feed of what transpired during the mission plays across them, everything on fast-forward. Funny thing. My mind processes the images and sounds at warp speed, courtesy of the Grid. What should have taken hours takes only a few minutes.

  By the end, my critics--and that's what these people are, if their scowls are any indication--know every word that was spoken and every action that was made, with the exception of Dior's trip to Prynne and every mention of Penumbra.

  Why were those deleted? And who did the deleting? Meredith, who'd witnessed the events? Or someone higher up on the food chain? Levi? Or maybe even the Secondking?

  One of the main reasons I selected Troika as my Everlife home was the promise of justice for all. Here, there are no favorites. Everyone lives by the same set of rules, faces the same consequences and truth always prevails. I take comfort in that.

  When the jellyair evaporates, every gaze glues to me. The urge to fidget is strong, but I press my weight into my heels, remaining still.

  "Do you consider the mission a success, Miss Lockwood?" The voice comes from the left.

  Well. We're going to start with a bang. My opinion versus their perception. No prob. I can roll. "Yes, I do. Dior Nichols is safe, and she has reclaimed ownership of her beloved dog."

  "But you yourself once said a victory achieved by the wrong means is not a victory at all," another male pipes up.

  I did say that, yes. To Killian. In private. As a human.

  My mind spins and rattles. "I..." Have no idea how to respond to an admission of such rampant voyeurism. Hope you got a good view of my ass seems inappropriate.

  "Today your Shell was destroyed by a known Troikan enemy. Is Killian Flynn a boy you trust without exception?" This voice comes from the right, courtesy of a gorgeous Asian man with hair dyed green. "Oh, and in case you haven't been told, if you lie during these proceedings, you will be stripped of your duties indefinitely."

  Harsh, but understandable. A lie--big or small, well-intentioned or not--is the ultimate sign of disrespect. If I cannot be trusted, I'm a liability rather than an asset. "When dealing with people who are inherently flawed by nature, nothing is without exception." I do not mention Killian's intention to save me from harm. He has to maintain his pro-Myriad, anti-Ten facade. "But I think you question my feelings for him more than anything. You want to know if I love him. The answer is yes. I do."

  Gasps sound behind me, but I hold my head high. I won't be shamed.

  "Troikans are supposed to love others," I say and blink. I didn't tell Killian I love him, did I?

  I was so overwhelmed by his declaration, I lost sight of my own. But I do. I love him. He owns my heart. There's no need to ponder or weigh the pros and cons. 143, 11.9.12.12.9.1.14.

  Does he know I return his feelings?

  Every fiber of my being demands I hunt him down, but I plant my feet into the floor. First things first.

  "He has harmed and killed many Troikans," one of the jurors says. "People we loved."

  "He's never killed in cold blood." Not to my knowledge. "Like everyone here, he strikes in the midst of battle. And haven't we all made mistakes? Aren't we all grateful for the second...fifth...tenth chances we've been given?"

  "My mother used to say the same." The youngest girl speaks Spanish, yet I understand every word, despite never having learned the language. She smiles at me--she has the most adorable crooked tooth--before wiggling her brows. "Plus, Killian Flynn is cuuute."

  I suppress a smile of my own. "Yes, he is."

  Going from dreamy to stern in a blink, she wags a finger at me. "A pretty face shouldn't affect us. A pretty face can often hide a monster. Beauty fades. Character lasts forever."

  "Killian isn't a monster." He isn't!

  I wrap my fingers around the edge of the podium and squeeze, the color quickly leeching from my knuckles. "We cannot say love is the answer to every problem and not love everyone. Including Myriadians. We must see past the realm to the innocent men, women and children who populate it. We are supposed to help others. Shouldn't we help even those who have hated us?"

  More gasps erupt behind me, but I'm past the point of caring.

  "Perhaps you're right, Miss Lockwood. But how can you know for sure? You are overconfident without actual experience, and you refuse to listen to those who do have experience." The oldest woman folds her arms over her desktop. With her dark hair, eyes and skin, she could pass for Cleopatra. "You were told to watch and observe, and yet you dived headfirst into action right from the start. You need seasoning."

  "I had permission," I say, and one of my number brands throbs. I think... I think it's telling me to stand down.

  "You had permission after you'd broken your commander's order. Now I must wonder. How quickly will you break rank during your next assignment?"

  "Why don't we wait until I actually break rank before casting blame," I say with a little bite. "Also, I think we can all agree today's mission had a happy ending."

  The oldest male leans forward, his pierced brows winging into his hairline. "Yes. Today's happy ending could be tomorrow's tearjerker. You look at the here and now while we look ahead to the endgame."

  "Maybe our endgame needs to change," I reply.

  He ignores me, saying, "Have we reached a verdict?"

  "We have," the others call in unison.

  "Tenley Lockwood." The intensity of Oldest's gaze pierces me. "You will not be benched. However. During your next mission, you will not issue a single order. You will do as your commander tells you without complaint."

  My spine fuses with a bar of steel, my brands throbbing harder, faster. "What if I disagree with my commander?"

  "A baby must crawl before she can walk. A subpar Conduit will never defeat Myriad."

  Throb. I grind my teeth. "You're asking me to surrender my free will." Something I will never do. I fought too hard for the right to choose.

  "No, Miss Lockwood. We're asking you to willingly submit your will to another's. There is a difference. We're giving you the opportunity to plant seeds, to be a good helper so that one day you will have good help. Sow and harvest, the foundation of our realm. Enjoy a bountiful return, or lament a rotten one. There are no other options."

  Throb, throb. "No way, no how. I
won't obey an order I disagree with."

  His stare remains unwavering. "What makes you think you know what's best? You, who have many questions but few answers. What makes you think you can lead your teammates when you cannot even lead yourself? Here's the truth, unvarnished. If you cannot accept discipline, you cannot grow."

  Does everything he says have to be treated like a precious pearl of wisdom?

  THROB! "You're right. I don't have all the answers, and I'll never know what would have happened to Dior if I'd remained in the background as ordered. So. I'll submit myself to whatever punishment you deem fit. But let the others go. I'm responsible for any wrongs committed."

  "Agreed." He bangs a gavel. "So you have said, so it shall be done."

  The man in the corner returns to take my hand. He ushers me to the end of the line. My knees tremble, but I lock them in place.

  Levi is escorted to the podium...where he is praised for using every circumstance as a teaching moment.

  Elizabeth goes next. I'm shocked when she doesn't say anything negative about me.

  After they are questioned, Victor, Reed and Kayla are thanked for their service. Meredith is last, and she's warned about the perils of favoritism.

  As soon as she rejoins the line, we're dismissed. Levi leads us out of the room...the building. Outside, warm sunlight strokes me, soothing my razed nerves.

  Elizabeth mutters a hasty goodbye to everyone but me and hurries off. Doesn't want me to ask why she supported me in front of witnesses?

  Reed has a class and heads in the other direction.

  Meredith gives me a hug. "I'm proud of you. I wish I could stay and celebrate your first mission, but I need to watch over Clay and Dior." Off she goes. A workaholic's job is never done.

  That woman...oh, that woman! I love her more every day.

  Victor and Kayla hang back.

  "I received permission to take you on a tour of Archer's place," Victor tells me. "Want to go?"

  The griminess left over from the debriefing sloughs off me. "Yes!" A thousand times yes. I'll get to see where Archer lived, walk among his things and breathe in his beloved scent. "But why did you have to receive permission?"

  "Until the Resurrection, the homes of the dead are preserved."

  Kayla stiffens, saying, "I thought we--" Whatever she sees in Victor's expression quiets her. "I've, uh, got to go. Things to do," she says with false brightness. She scurries off before I can question her about her odd behavior.

 
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