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“WHERE’S YOUR MOTHER?” asked Gaar.
Trinity shook her head. Leaving her mom at the encampment had been the hardest thing that she’d ever done, but she’d had no choice. The Almightys had implanted tracking devices inside all adult Producers. It would lead the Almightys right to them. So, she’d left her mom behind to be slaughtered and eaten.
She had to focus on something else or the tears would come. She turned her head and stared at the carnage that had once been Troy. Mirra must not be very hungry because she was digging through his carcass looking for the choice parts and tossing aside the rest.
“We need to leave. The Almightys will send their Guards soon. Something like this”—Gaar pointed at the body—“will not stay a secret for very long.”
Neither would the four dead Producers inside the camp, but she wasn’t ready to talk about that either. Those deaths were her fault. If she hadn’t left or hadn’t come back, they’d all still be alive.
“Mirra, you need to go back the way we came and cover our scent. When you get to the Finishing Camp, get rid of those bodies,” he said.
“Mirra free Nirankan and others,” said Mirra.
“Not yet.” Gaar’s voice was harsh, commanding.
The Tracker looked at him and snarled. He stood straighter and bared his teeth. Mirra slowly lowered her lips, a low growl rumbling through her chest.
“Soon.” His voice was softer now. “Little One and I need to lead the Guards in the other direction. Find us when you’re done and we’ll drop Little One off at the Finishing Camp. Then, we’ll free the Trackers. I promise.”
“We have to keep Little One safe, right?” His black eyes gleamed. “If you bump into any Guards near the camp, kill them.”
Mirra smiled, her teeth white in her bloody face, and darted off into the brush. Trinity followed Gaar in the opposite direction.
“She’s getting harder to control,” she said. “Maybe, you should give her the serum.”
“Can’t. She needs to be strong. This journey is not going to be easy.”
All because of her. Sure, she’d helped them locate others of their kind, but other-than-that she’d been nothing but trouble. They now had a group of teenage Producers to lead through the forest and they were going to be hunted by the Almightys’ Guards, a lot of them. With five dead Producers, Benedictine, the Almighty who ran their camp, would send out all of his Guards. He wouldn’t let that much meat go to waste without someone paying for it. Her lip curled. That was all the Producers were to them, meat. The Almightys and the Guards were her enemies and she needed to remember that.
HIGH HUGH TRUENT stumbled out of his carriage at his mother’s house, brushing lint off the sleeve of his jacket. He ran his hand through his thick, black hair. He was as presentable as he was going to be. He drew in a deep breath, inhaling the crisp morning air and clearing the cobwebs from his sleepy brain.
“Sue and Reese, secure the carriage and then meet us in the house,” said Buddy, his eldest and most trusted Guard, to his other two Guards.
“I can’t believe I had to leave my bed in the middle of the night in order to rein in Mother’s House Servant,” he said as he strode toward the door, Buddy right behind him.
“It’s dawn, sir,” corrected Buddy.
He looked down his nose at Buddy. The Guard was a good foot shorter than his five-foot eleven-inch frame, but whereas he was lean muscle Buddy was as solid as a concrete block, bred for protection not speed. Buddy’s hair was grayer than black these days, especially his beard but the Guard was still an early riser. He, on the other hand, was not a morning person. To him dawn might as well be the middle of the night.
They entered the house. The foyer was large and mostly unadorned. His mother had already given away many of her possessions to various charities, to Little Sarah’s dismay. Mom was dying and Little Sarah had already been counting her riches but what she’d forgotten to count was their mother’s love of irritating her daughter.
“If this is one of Little Sarah’s over exaggerations, I’ll strangle her.” He and his sister were not the best of friends. They were too different. He found it hard to believe that they’d grown up in the same household. She even liked the ‘Little’ before her name. He had especially hated that family tradition of naming the first born son and daughter after the parents and adding “Little” to their names. He’d dropped the moniker in high school. He’d considered doing it when he was eight, but at that age he’d still hoped that he could please his father.
“Your sister was quite insistent that it was an emergency,” said Buddy.
“Save me from Little Sarah’s emergencies. She thinks it’s an emergency when she runs out of butter,” he muttered.
“Your emergency is a stained jacket.”
“Tell me again, why I keep you around?” he asked, glancing at the Guard out of the corner of his eye.
“To keep you humble.”
He chuckled and slapped Buddy on the shoulder. The old Guard always knew just what to say to brighten his mood. “That’s true, but what you’ll never understand is that with certain jackets a stain is an emergency.”
“Hugh, thank Araldo you’re here,” said Little Sarah as she hurried across the foyer, her brown hair tied back in a neat bun and her slight frame almost lost in her long, flowing robe. He’d never understand her. Most Almightys only wore the robes for ceremonial occasions, but his sister dressed in them daily. She grabbed his arm, leading him to the library.
It was nice to see that his mother had not gotten rid of the books yet. This had been one of his favorite rooms, a place to while away the hours when hiding from his father. She directed him to the desk where she had the tracking program up and running.
“See, see the dot. That’s Tim.” She pointed to the screen.
“It says he’s upstairs.” He was going to kill her. For this, he’d left the comfort and warmth of his bed and Viola. A small smile played about his lips. He couldn’t wait to go back home and wake her, slowly.
“What? No. He is not here. I looked everywhere for him and even asked Mother. She said that he went out during the night. He is not supposed to do that, especially that late.”
Poor Tim. The House Servant was going to live with Little Sarah when Mom passed. That was going to be difficult. Mom let Tim do whatever he wanted, whereas Little Sarah was strict with the other classes just like their father had been.
“I’m telling you. He was not here a few minutes ago,” she said.
He sighed. “And why is that an emergency? A wandering House Servant is not that uncommon.”
“They’re not supposed to be out alone, you know that.”
“Really? You woke me for this? I’m leaving.”
“It is illegal,” she whispered. “What would happen to your career if Mother’s House Servant was up to something that he shouldn’t be? They would not look kindly on you for that. You, the rising star, the youngest ever to be bestowed with the title of ‘High.’”
He scratched his chin. She did have a point. He’d developed the new tracking device so that Almightys did not have this issue. House Servants, Guards, Stockers, and Grunts were not allowed to wander about, especially at night. It was dangerous. He gently pushed Little Sarah to the side and sat at the desk. He keyed in a few codes and the screen changed. There was a map and many small dots.
She peered over his shoulder. “How’d you do that?”
This couldn’t be right. He verified that the dot he was looking at was Tim’s number. “Buddy, take a look at this.”
The Guard walked over and stood behind him. He whistled. “Our Tim has been busy.”
“Are all those dots Tim?” she asked. “How can that be?”
“Go and check this out.” He tapped a section on the screen.
“On my way,” said Buddy. “Do you want me to take—”
“Alone,” he said. “And keep it quiet. Hurry and report back to me.”
“I was right, wasn’t I?” she asked, a hint of smugness in her tone.
He leaned back, staring at the screen. He’d never hear the end of how she’d been right. It went against years of sibling rivalry to admit it, but he was nothing if not fair. “Yes, you were…correct. Tim has been up to no good.”
“I told you. I told Mother, too. As a matter of fact, I am going to go and speak—”
“No. This stays between us for now. I have to find out exactly what Tim has been up to.”
“Why not ask him?”
He looked into her soft green eyes, so like their mother’s. She was a pain but she was kind-hearted and more than a bit naïve. “He’ll lie.”
“Tim wouldn’t lie to us.”
He closed his eyes for a second and prayed for patience. “If he doesn’t want us to find out what he’s been doing, he will. Go and make me some breakfast.” He leaned forward to study the screen again. “And send Sue and Reese in here.”
She stood with her arms crossed, tapping her foot. She was fifteen years older than him and sometimes acted more like a mother than a sister.
“Please,” he added to get her to leave.
She huffed and walked out the door.
He typed in the date from a month ago and studied the new dots on the screen. Tim had been a steady visitor to the East Side Producer Camp, but had only traveled to the garage once.
There was a knock and his other two Guards stepped into the library. Sue was built for speed and endurance like all hunting Guards and her long legs ate up the ground as she strode into the room. Reese walked quickly to keep up with the older Guard, her brown hair pulled back in a ponytail, swinging with each step. She was a cross between some type of hunting Guard and Araldo only knew what else. She was short and thin. Not much use for protection or hunting, but he was fond of her.
“I need you to guard Tim,” he said. “If possible, don’t let him know, but no matter what don’t let him out of this house.”
“Yes, sir, absolutely,” said Reese.
He smiled at his youngest Guard. She’d only been with him a couple of years. Her previous master had not wanted her. At eleven-years old, she was a nice addition, adding some youth and frivolity to his team. She was still a bit nervous, but in time, she’d learn to fully trust him.
“Tim will not suspect that he’s being watched.” Sue placed her hand on Reese’s shoulder.
He nodded. Sue had also been with him for only a few years, but she was much older and more settled. He’d found her one winter evening, starving and lame. She’d been used for hunting but after long days on the trail and little food took its toll on her body, she was dumped. She was a kind, gentle Guard whose gratitude and loyalty toward him knew no bounds.
The two turned to leave.
“Oh, and watch my mother too. If she thinks you’re guarding Tim or that he’s in any kind of trouble, she’ll do whatever she can to help him.”
“I know you like her, Sue. I love her, but I don’t trust her. If she starts sending you on errands, get me or better yet, Little Sarah. My sister will keep her in line.”
Sue nodded, still frowning and the two left the room.
He turned back to the computer and typed in dates. “Let’s see where you’ve been going these past few months.”
An hour later, he poured himself a drink and ran his hand through his hair. It was going to be a long day. Timothy had been sneaking into the Producer encampment for at least the past six months. That was as long as he had data. What was Tim doing there? He snorted. Well, he knew what he was doing. House Servants were notoriously randy, but mating with a Producer was disgusting even for a House Servant. Interclass relations were illegal but not uncommon. Shit, even Almightys had flings with House Servants or Guards, but he’d never heard of any class dabbling with Producers.
Buddy stepped into the library, his face red from the cold.
“What did you discover at the garage?” He needed to know exactly what Tim had been doing.
“Luckily, no one was there but an elderly Guard and he was sleeping. I searched the area and found that one of the carriages was overrun with burrowing wasps.”
“That’s suspicious,” he said, “but not impossible.” He’d heard of wasp infestation happening between the bi-annual spraying.
“I also found a log book,” said Buddy. “The garage was inspected last week.”
“So, Tim turned burrowing wasps loose on a carriage.” He took a small sip of whiskey. This was serious. “Who’s carriage?”
“Benedictine Remore’s,” answered Buddy.
“He’s in charge of the Producer encampment on the east side, isn’t he?”
“Yes,” said Buddy.
“Take a look at the screen. It’s the data from the last six months.” He pushed away from the desk. The pieces were coming together but the picture was still not clear. He needed more information.
Buddy walked over to the desk. “Tim has been spending a lot of time in Benedictine’s encampment.”
He stood and began to pace. “This doesn’t make sense. Why would Tim risk everything for a Producer?”
Buddy shrugged. “He’s an idiot?”
“Tim’s not an idiot. He’s frustrating and annoying, but not stupid. There is more to this. He wouldn’t destroy an Almighty’s carriage over a fling with a Producer.” He stopped pacing and tapped his fingers on the desk. “I need you to go to the encampment and poke around. According to the records, Tim has been visiting a hut where a Millie and Remy live. Find out which one Tim has been seeing. My money is on Millie since Tim is only there at night and he doesn’t seem the type to take up with a male. Meet these Producers and if you can, find out how long Tim has been visiting.”
Buddy nodded and turned to leave.
“This could ruin me. It’s bad enough to have a House Servant in the family who roams the streets at night, unaltered as the day he was born, but to have one who lies in wait and vandalizes Almighty property.” He ran his hand through his hair again. “Who’ll buy my tracking equipment when I can’t control my own Servants?”
“He’s not your Servant,” said Buddy.
“It doesn’t matter. You know that. He’s my mother’s and my father is dead. So, as the only son he’s my problem.”
“As of right now, no one knows anything. We’ll keep it that way,” said Buddy.
He took a deep breath. “You’re right. No need to panic.” He smirked and shook his head as he sat and pulled paper and pen from the desk. “Burrowing wasps. That Tim is a real joker. Those are nasty little creatures.” He scribbled a note and then looked at Buddy. “How did he even catch them? It’s not like they sell them at the store.”
“I would have paid to see that. I bet he has quite a few stings,” said Buddy.
“Before you go to the encampment, take my carriage to Benedictine with this letter.” He slid the paper into an envelope, sealed it and handed it to Buddy. “But first, take a couple of Grunts along and cart away the wasp infected carriage.”
“What do you want me to do with it?” asked Buddy.
“Burn it, of course.” If he destroyed the evidence, no one could find out what Tim had done.
“The Grunts are going to love that job,” said Buddy as he walked to the door and stopped. “What if Benedictine wants his old carriage?”
“Don’t worry. It’s in the note. It seems that one of our Grunts accidentally rammed his carriage.”
Buddy raised his eyebrows. “Who was driving, may I ask?”
“Reese,” he said, trying to suppress a smile.
“She’s going to love that.” Buddy chuckled.
“Oh, before you leave, send Reese to buy me a new carriage.”
THE LATE MORNING SUN beat through the window, warming Hugh’s shoulders as he sat, tapping a pen on the desk. Buddy should have been back by now. Time was very important in this situation. If Tim had done something else, he needed to get in front of it before it ruined his career, his life.
His mother burst into the library, her small, frail frame tense with anger. “Hugh Matthew Truent, what do you think you’re doing keeping my House Servant under guard?”
Little Sarah, Tim and Sue followed her into the room.
“Lovely to see you too, Mom.” The time for confrontation was now. He stood and held a chair for her. “Please, have a seat.”
“It would be nice to see you, if you weren’t torturing my Tim,” she said as she sat.
He rolled his eyes. Her Tim. It had always been that way. Tim had been treated like a member of the family instead of a Servant, except when his father was home. He’d quickly learned that lesson. His father had been fast to dole out punishment for what he deemed behavior not becoming an Almighty.
Tim stood behind Mom’s chair. As with most House Servants, his frame was still lean and fit even though he was in his forties. His dark brown hair fell below his collar and had yet to be visited by gray. He was dressed in a long-sleeved shirt, probably to cover the welts from the wasps. There were only a few small, red marks on his hands. He must have worn gloves while capturing the insects.
Hugh walked to the liquor cabinet, staring at Tim as he spoke. “Anyone care for a drink. You’ll probably need it before we’re done.”
Little Sarah harrumphed. “It isn’t even lunch yet.”
“Still prim and proper. I thought life would have tarnished you up a bit, like it has to the rest of us.” He could only stand so much of his sister’s better-than-thou attitude.
“I don’t use alcohol as a crutch,” said Little Sarah. “That’s something that only the males in our family do.”
“Are you comparing me to Father?” His voice was low with anger. He strived every day to be as little like his father as possible.
“Make mine a double,” said Mom.
“Really, Mother, do you think you should?” Little Sarah straightened in her chair.
He grinned at Little Sarah as he poured a drink for their mother. Mom was a source of great annoyance to his sister, always had been.
“Yes, I do. And don’t go on about my health. I’m dying and rather quickly too, so a glass of whiskey is not going to make any difference.” Mom accepted the drink and took a sip. “I really don’t see what all the fuss is about. So what if Tim visits a friend now and again.”
“Are you also aware of his other nighttime activities?” His mother probably knew everything about Tim’s life but he had to ask.
“What are you talking about?” Mom patted Tim’s hand.
“Why doesn’t Tim tell us?” He took a long swallow of his drink.
Tim remained silent, staring straight ahead.
He mentally counted to ten. The House Servant’s ability to completely ignore him pricked his temper like nothing else. That was probably why Tim did it so often. “Do you have anything that you wish to explain? Give your side of the events.”
Tim still did not speak.
“Okay. If you won’t talk, I will.” He held up a finger. “First, I know that you’ve been visiting a hut in the East Side Producers’ encampment.” He held up another finger. “Second, I know that you’ve been visiting either a Producer called Millie or one called Remy. I’ll know which one when Buddy returns.”
Tim didn’t even blink.
Was it only an odd attraction between a Producer and a House Servant? He held up another finger. “Third, I know that this has been going on for quite some time. Months.”
Tim glanced at him out of the corner of his eye.
He suppressed a smile. Tim didn’t realize that his body housed the latest in tracking software. During initial testing he’d needed more subjects. So, unknown to his mother, he’d installed the new system in her Servants as well as his own. It had worked out more advantageous than he’d imagined. He held up another finger. “Fourth, I know that you visited the Lake of Sins Parking Garage last night.”
Tim stood a little straighter.
That got his attention. “Coincidentally, a carriage there was found to have been overrun with burrowing wasps.”
Little Sarah gasped.
“That can happen naturally,” said Mom.
He walked toward Tim. “The problem with working with those creatures is that they will burrow into anything even flesh.” He grabbed Tim’s wrist, pushing up his sleeve.
The House Servant’s arm was covered with red, oozing welts.
“I’m calling the doctor,” said Mom.
“Don’t. I’m fine.” Tim pulled away, pushing his shirt down.
“I’m sure he had a good reason.” Mom’s chin jutted out stubbornly
He ran his hand through his hair. She didn’t realize how serious this was. “Tim, I’d really like to hear your side. You are”—he stopped himself before saying family—“a good Servant to Mom. This offense is not minor. It is punishable by law and all the power lies in the hands of the offended party.”
“I’ll replace the carriage,” said Mom. “That should settle it.”
There was no reason to tell her that he’d already done that. “For anyone else, perhaps, but the Almighty who owns the carriage is Benedictine Remore.”
Mom’s lips pursed in concentration and then realization set in like a slap to the face. “No. He’s vile. Cruel and—”
“Vindictive.” He tipped his head. “Just my point.”
“I can handle Benedictine.” Mom sat a little straighter in her chair.
“You’re right. You have the friends and position to handle Benedictine but what about once you’re dead?” He walked back to the desk. He was tired of this game. He wanted answers.
“Hugh, don’t say that,” said Little Sarah.
“Well, she is dying. She tells us that enough. It shouldn’t bother her to hear it. Right, Mother?”
Mom’s eyes narrowed.
He may have pushed too hard. His mom was sharp. He’d better tread lightly if he wanted any information. “Benedictine will insist on taking Tim.”
“I won’t let him.” Mom grasped Tim’s hand.
“You may be able to stop him while you’re alive but after you pass, who will champion your Tim then? Little Sarah?” He refilled his glass.
“I will not,” exclaimed Little Sarah. “I don’t want him coming to my house at all now.”
“I always knew you were a nitwit but I thought you’d do the right thing in the end.” Mom stared at Little Sarah, the hurt clear in her green eyes.
Little Sarah opened her mouth to speak and then shut it.
“I guess you need me. Don’t you, Mother?” His sister had played her hand as if he’d coached her. He fought back a smug smile. People were so easy to manipulate that it was almost no fun at all.
Mom took a deep breath and then turned to him. “Are you going to make me beg?”
His mother had never begged for anything. He crossed his arms over his chest and waited.
“Please, you have to help Tim. I’m begging you,” she said, without an ounce of pleading in her tone.
He barked out a laugh. “You need to work on your delivery.”
Mom cocked her eyebrow and managed, somehow, to look down her nose at him which was an amazing feat since she sat and he stood. He uncrossed his arms. That one look sent him flying back to his boyhood. He’d do anything for her. She’d always been there for him and he’d never been a failure in her eyes as he had been in his father’s.
“If he tells me the truth, I’ll do what I can.” He took another sip of his whiskey.
“That’s not enough,” said Mom.
“That’s the best I can offer without knowing what he’s done. I may not be able to cover it up.”
There was a knock. Sue, who was stationed by the entry, sniffed once and opened the door. “It’s Buddy.”
“I need to speak with you in private,” said Buddy as he walked into the room.
Sue wouldn’t say anything and since it was about Tim, Mom probably already knew. The only one who might speak outside this room would be his sister. She would tell her husband. “Little Sarah, leave us.”
“What?” She looked at him and then her mother. “I have every right—”
“Now!” By the look on Buddy’s face, this was important. He didn’t have time to placate her.
Little Sarah’s face fell. She stood, her back ramrod straight and walked out of the room, slamming the door behind her.
He frowned. He’d apologize later. “Go on, Buddy.”
“A young female Producer escaped the encampment last night and there is the possibility that she was involved with the killing of five Producers,” said Buddy.
Tim glanced at Buddy and then quickly looked back at the wall.
“Please tell me she didn’t live with Millie and Remy,” he said.
“No. I mean, yes,” said Buddy. “Remy does not live there. He only visits. Millie and Trinity live in the hut.”
“So, not only did our little Timothy sneak out at night and destroy a carriage owned by an Almighty, but he also helped a Producer escape, a suspected murderous Producer.” He wanted to pull out his hair. This was bad, all sorts of bad. If Tim did help this Producer, the matter was out of his hands. Thank Araldo that he’d sent Little Sarah out of the room, she and her family did not need to be involved in this. “Sue, tell my sister to go home. I’ll contact her when I can.”
Sue left the room.
“Benedictine will be at the encampment shortly. The Lead Producers are hoping the young female is hiding somewhere in camp, but so far no luck,” said Buddy.
He took a deep, calming breath. This was a mess. He could not cover up the escape. His only hope was to hide Tim’s involvement. “How old was this Producer?”
“Probably around thirteen or fourteen. This was her List year,” said Buddy.
Tim’s jaw was tense and his shoulders stiff. For some reason speaking of the female was pissing him off.
“Hmmm.” He tapped his finger against his lips again. “So, Tim, are you visiting both the mother and the daughter or only one of them?” Tim didn’t seem the type to be involved with someone that much younger, but it could happen.
Tim was a taut as a bowstring. A few more pokes and he would fire.
“Thirteen. Is she sweet? Her skin must be smooth and firm, her body supple.” He winked at the House Servant.
In a flash, Tim sprang, striking out with his claws and managing a slice across Hugh’s cheek before Buddy knocked the Servant across the room. The two tangled and fought, snarling and grunting. Tim was fast but the Guard outweighed him.
He touched his face and winced. Damn, that hurt. They should all be declawed.
“Stop it, stop it,” screamed Mom. “Hugh, do something.”
Buddy was winning. There was no reason to interfere. Let Tim take a beating first. When he didn’t move, she approached the fray.
“Mom, stop.” One glancing blow from either of them could cripple her.
She ignored him.
“Stand down, Buddy,” he said. “Now!”
Buddy backed away from the floored Tim, limping a little. The House Servant stood and cracked his neck from side to side. Both of them had bruises and cuts on their faces and hands. Poor Buddy would feel this fight tomorrow. He should have stopped it right away. However, by the almost frantic expression on his mom’s face, it was time to push forward, not retreat.
“Tim will tell me everything, or I’ll let Buddy kill him.”
“Please, Tim. Please, tell him.” Mom lovingly touched the Servant’s bruised face and started to cry.
Tim helped her back to her chair and knelt beside her. “Stop crying. Please stop. I never wanted you to get hurt.”
“I know.” She sobbed harder.
“I’ll tell him everything about last night as long as he promises not to do anything that could harm Millie.”
“Hugh?” She looked up at him through her tears.
“Fine.” He shouldn’t agree without more information, but he’d do anything to keep his mother from crying.
Tim stood. “Millie has been my mate for years.”
“Go on.” That was surprising. He hadn’t realized that House Servants had it in their nature to be faithful to one mate, but it still didn’t explain about the escaped Producer.
“Trinity escaped into the forest. She is…was supposed to return last night. One of the Lead Producers found out she was missing and was going to report her. I destroyed the carriage to buy her time to come back home.”
“She went into the forest on her own? Why? Wasn’t she frightened?” There really wasn’t anything dangerous in the woods. Shit, besides Gaar and Mirra, the last Handler and Tracker, there wasn’t anything bigger than a fox, but it was a closely guarded lie perpetuated by the Almightys to keep the other classes in line. Only the upper echelons of the Almightys were informed of the Necessary Truths. He’d been told after he’d been bestowed with the title of ‘High.’ If the other classes were starting to disbelieve this lie, then they had bigger issues on their hands than a missing Producer.
“There was a…situation between her and a couple of teenagers. She’s never really fit in with the others.” Tim’s faced reddened and he shot a quick glance at Mom.
“I need to know everything, or I won’t help.” They were hiding something.
Mom nodded at Tim.
“She’s going to be on the Harvest List. She left to find out where the teenagers are taken when they are removed from camp.” Tim looked at him expectantly.
If Tim didn’t know what Producers were used for, he wasn’t going to be the one to tell him. It was odd that his mother hadn’t. He tried to catch her eye but she remained focused on Tim.
“How do you know she’s going to be on the List? The announcements aren’t made for another couple of weeks.”
“She’s not like the others.” Tim glanced at Mom again.
“I still don’t understand. Why did you risk everything to buy this Trinity some time? Didn’t you realize how much trouble you’d get in for damaging an Almighty’s property?” He ran his hand through his hair. “Is this Millie’s first offspring?” He’d heard that Producers often got very attached to their first born.
“Go on, Tim,” coaxed Mom.
Tim sighed. “No. Her last. We will not have any more children.”
“We?” He couldn’t have heard correctly.
“Trinity is my daughter.”
“No. That’s impossible.” He started to smile. Tim had to be joking.
“You think you know everything, but you don’t,” said Tim, smiling wearily. “High Hugh, the genius. The prodigy. Well, there is a lot in this world that you know nothing about.”
Tim was messing with him. “Those from different classes can mate but they cannot produce viable offspring.” He began to pace. “It’s a proven fact. You’re mistaken.”
“I’m not mistaken,” said Tim.
“How do you know that this Millie didn’t lie to you?” Poor besotted Tim. Millie must have passed off another Producer’s offspring as his.
“She wouldn’t do that. I am her only mate. The children are mine.”
“Children? There are more?”
“Were. Some were taken and others died years ago when the Terrible Sickness swept through the encampment.”
Mom squeezed Tim’s hand.
“What about Remy?” asked Buddy. “He is her assigned mate. I’m sure that they…”
Tim stepped toward Buddy, but Mom kept a hold of his hand.
“She does not mate with Remy. He is…”
Mom visibly tightened her hold.
“This does not leave the room,” said Tim.
Hugh nodded slightly. Whatever it was, Mom was concerned.
“Remy is…well…not attracted to females,” said Tim.
“Ahhh.” Those types existed in all the classes, most of the time it was overlooked, although in a Producer it would be a death sentence. Still, he needed proof of the offspring’s parentage. “If this is true, I need to see…your daughter.”
“I don’t know where she is,” said Tim. “She was supposed to come back.” He looked to Buddy. “You said that there were deaths at the camp?”
“Five Producers all slaughtered,” said the Guard.
“Do you know who?” asked Tim.
Buddy glanced at Hugh before answering. “Three Lead Producers. Hector, Hap and Troy.”
Tim’s face paled. “Troy was the Lead Producer who was going to sound the alarm. I overheard him talking to the hairless Guard yesterday morning when I was leaving the camp. He knew Trinity was gone and was going to tell Benedictine.”
“Who else was killed?” asked Hugh. This was not looking good for Trinity.
“Two young Producers. Clarabelle and Randy.”
“No,” said Tim. “Trinity wouldn’t do something like this. She’s incapable of hurting anyone. She has the kindest, gentlest heart.” He looked at Mom. “She’s always caring for injured creatures, rabbits, birds.”
“We need to find her. Buddy, tell Reese to bring the carriage to the front of the house and then escort Tim to his room to pack a few belongings.”
“He’s not leaving,” said Mom.
“Yes, he is. Tim is going to be my guest while I attempt to find his daughter and save his mate.”
“What do you mean?” asked Tim, suspiciously.
“Benedictine is not going to be happy when he finds out there was an escape and killings at the camp. He will punish those involved and the first suspect will be Trinity. Since she isn’t around, Millie and Remy will answer for her.” It was amazing how little Tim and his mother understood their world.
“I’m still not leaving.” There was a new hardness to Tim’s features.
Buddy and Sue came back into the library.
“You didn’t expect to make it out of this alive, did you?” He snorted. “You did. You thought that you and Millie could help an escapee and end up unharmed. Incredible.” Tim had no idea what Benedictine was capable of doing, what his family had done in the past.
Tim glared at him but remained silent.
“Well, guess what? This is your lucky day. I need you both alive and I can manipulate Benedictine.”
“Go with him, Tim,” prodded Mom.
“I’ll send the carriage back for you, Mother. You can stay with me too, but right now, we have to hurry. I need to get Tim secured at my place.” He held up his hand to stop both Tim and his mother from speaking. “It’s not safe for him here and, frankly, I don’t trust him not to sneak out.”
Mom glanced at Tim, a faint blush rising in her cheeks.
He was right, they were planning an escape. Tim was probably hoping to find Trinity himself. “If I don’t hurry, Millie will not survive.”
“What about Trinity?” asked Tim.
He paused. He’d rather have the offspring, but he didn’t have spare Guards to send looking for her. “I hope that I can find her, but right now, Millie is my first priority. I know where she is and she is definitely in danger. So, hurry and pack your things. We need to move.”
Tim kissed Mom on the cheek. “I’ll see you soon.” He walked out of the room, bristling when he passed Buddy.
Buddy’s lip curled at Tim as he followed him out the door.
“Do you really think that you can save Millie and Trinity?” asked Mom.
“Possibly. If I can get there in time, I should be able to save Millie. I don’t know about the offspring.” He’d never persuade Benedictine to give him an escapee. He’d have to catch her before Benedictine’s Guards.
She clasped his arm. “Try, for me.” She kissed his cheek and left the room.
“What are you planning?” asked Sue. “You can’t just barge in on Benedictine and demand one of his Producers.”
He ran his hand through his hair. She was right as usual. Benedictine was a prickly fellow and had to be handled with care. “Once we secure Tim at my place, I want you and Buddy to keep an eye on the encampment. If they find the offspring or move the parents, one of you remains at the camp and one of you comes to get me.”
He turned and headed for the carriage. If there were viable, living offspring from a Producer and House Servant, it changed everything. All that he’d been taught was no longer true. The two classes must be more similar than they believed. He was going to have to run DNA tests and see if there were genetic abnormalities in Tim and Mille. Had something like this happened in the past or was this a new mutation? He was going to have to search through history journals.
If this was not an event unique to Tim and Millie, then the distinction between the classes would become blurred. Where would a half-Producer, half-House Servant belong? Would the mix-breed have the size of the Producer and the organizational skills of the House Servant, able to smoothly run an Almighty’s home? He chuckled. That would be like wearing a shoe as a glove.
The classes were bred for particular qualities. The Guards were loyal and protective, but generally not very ambitious or bright. House Servants were arrogant and selfish, but well organized, tidy and stealthy, completing their duties often without being seen. The Producers were large and simple but capable of long hours of backbreaking work. The Grunts, stronger and bigger than the Producers, needed constant supervision and guidance. The Stockers, well, they were brutal and contrary creatures, but fortunately, did not have the intelligence to challenge the Almightys. And the Avions, well, they were just annoying. No, these distinct classes could not possibly blend together.
He ran his hand through his hair. Tim seemed adamant that he and the Producer had created offspring and some were taken. If Tim were right and if this was not specific to him and Millie, then one day any of the classes could share the Producers’ fate. Some of Tim’s half-breed children already had. His stomach churned. He didn’t even want to think about that.
JACKSON’S LONG LEGS devoured the ground as he strode across the encampment. Although his duties were more for protection, there must have been a hunting Guard somewhere in his family tree because he had the large, strong muscles of the personal protection Guard along with the speed and height of the hunting Guard. He was fiercely loyal and protective. Unfortunately, those qualities were lost on his master, Benedictine.
The cold wind blew, ruffling his short dark hair and biting into his cheeks which were covered by a day’s growth of stubble. The Producers huddled in small groups, whispering about the previous night’s attacks. They quickly scattered out of his way. He glared at their retreating forms, pissed at all of them.
This was a disaster. Instead of doing his job and finding the Producer, he’d spent half the time covering his, Casper and Carla’s scent that was scattered throughout the woods. Now, he had to report what he’d found, which was nothing. Just like last time, there’d been a clear trail and then it’d vanished, although this time there wasn’t the odor of pine and herb, just musky soil. Then the Producer’s scent would appear again miles away. She was traveling with someone. She had to be.
He nodded at Casper who stood before the opening to a Lead Producer’s hut where Benedictine waited for news. The Guard had been left behind to protect their master. At least, that was the story that he’d told the old Guard. The truth was that Casper had caught a cold the last time they were in the forest and would have slowed him and Carla down.
“Any luck?” Casper asked eagerly.
“No.” He tipped his head in a slight nod to let Casper know that their trail was covered as he entered the hut. It was time to inform Benedictine of his failure.
Benedictine Remore sat on a wooden stool at the back of the room. The red and black ceremonial cape of the Almighty was draped over his shoulders almost touching the dirt floor. His brown hair was cut mercilessly short and his white skin gleamed like it had never seen the sun. He stopped chatting with the Lead Producers who surrounded him.
“Jackson, tell me you’ve found the poor thing safe and sound,” said Benedictine, a look of false concern on his face.
The Lead Producers, all adult males, nodded and bobbed their heads like giant pigeons.
He took a deep breath. His punishment would come later when there were no witnesses. “No, sir. We lost her scent.”
“How can that be?” Benedictine’s eyes narrowed.
The Lead Producers murmured their concern.
“I’m not sure, sir. We were hot on her trail and then, nothing. Her scent vanished.”
“I’ve sent out another pack of Guards.” He mentally braced himself. The Almighty might not care if the Lead Producers witnessed his wrath.
“But meanwhile, we have an escaped Producer who is our only witness to the senseless slaughter of five Producers.” Benedictine quickly softened his tone. “We need to find her. Send out additional Guards. Hire or borrow some, but find that Producer immediately.”
“Of course. I’ll go back out with another team.” Relief flooded his body. Benedictine was going to keep up his friendly façade.
“No. You are to escort the parents to my facility where they can wait for news in comfort, away from all this nastiness.”
He bowed and stepped outside, nodding at Casper. Even old, the Guard would have heard the conversation inside the hut so there was no reason to repeat it.
“Carla, come with me,” he said, as he passed a group of Guards.
A middle-aged female with the long legs typical of the hunting Guards trotted over to him. They headed toward a small shack on the outskirts of the encampment.
“How did it go?” asked Carla.
“His wrath has been diverted for the moment. I don’t expect the reprieve to last long once we leave the camp.”
“Oh,” she said, solemnly.
“It’ll be okay.” He patted her on the shoulder.
“We’ll be okay, but what about you?”
He’d survive. He always did. “What did they discover here?”
“The escapee’s scent and tracks were at every killing but no one believes she was involved. No one thinks her capable. She was very small.” She hesitated. “Troy was also at every location.”
He glanced at her. She shrugged.
“Another Lead Producer, Bell, the sire of the young female who was killed, appears to have been drugged. A medic is checking him over. Bell suspects Troy was behind everything.”
Oddly, he wasn’t surprised. The only question left was who or what killed Troy? “What kind of drug was he given?”
“Sleeping. It was his area where Troy and the female escaped.”
“And Bell’s still alive?”
“Apparently, he’s one of Benedictine’s favorites, although it was a close call. Benedictine was furious about the deaths,” she said.
It must be nice. He’d never been spared by the Almighty and he wouldn’t be this time either. The likelihood of them finding the female was slim. Well, they would find her, but probably not before Benedictine punished him for his failure. He should have run away a long time ago, before the tracking device was implanted, before he had responsibilities to the other Guards, before Kim. Who was he kidding? There really never was a before Kim. From the moment he’d met her he’d been lost.
“We’re to escort the parents to Benedictine’s facility,” he muttered as they stepped up to the hut. “I don’t expect any trouble but be prepared just in case.
A small crowd of Producers had trailed behind them and were now gathered several yards away.
“Benedictine’s Guards here to speak with…Trinity’s parents.” He called out, his voice firm, commanding.
A giant of a Producer opened the door. All Producers were large, but this one stood well over nine feet tall and was at least three times his width. It was all muscle too, not an ounce of flab. He glanced at Carla. Her eyes were wide. Producers were generally obedient and docile, but they could do damage if provoked. It was best to forge ahead with authority and not hesitate.
“I need you and your mate to come with us.”
The Producer stared over his head. The whispers of the crowd behind them carried to his ears. So far, the murmurs were concerned and gossipy, not angry. A small female Producer squeezed into the doorway, the male moving aside to give her room.
“Where do you want to take us?” she asked.
This female was not frightened. He sniffed. Well, perhaps a little. “Benedictine has ordered that you wait for the recovery of your offspring at one of his facilities”—he nodded at the crowd—“away from the prying eyes of your neighbors.”
“My caring neighbors are my greatest source of comfort.” She clasped the large male’s hand.
“This isn’t up for discussion,” he said. She was not going to make this easy. Nothing was ever easy anymore.
She glared at him. He almost stepped back from the hatred in her eyes. She’d helped her offspring escape. It was stamped on her features as clear as the trees behind her hut.
“Millie, we should go,” said the male, glancing over Jackson’s head again.
He didn’t turn. He didn’t need to. The crowd’s whispers were harsher now, more hurried. Some of the other Guards were approaching.
“Remy, we need to stay here.” Millie softened her tone. “What if Trinity manages to escape her captor and finds her way back home?”
They were sticking with the offspring-was-forced-to-leave story, but it wasn’t going to work. There were no other scents leaving the camp besides Trinity and Troy’s and only her scent going into the forest.
“She does have a point,” said Remy nervously.
He was already in trouble with Benedictine; he didn’t need any more issues. He stepped closer and whispered, “Before you continue to resist, think about this. I’m the Guard in charge of finding your offspring and we will find her. There is a slight chance that she’ll be alive when we capture her, a young female alone in the woods with no one around but a group of Guards. Male Guards.”
Remy covered his mouth with his hand, his eyes widening. Millie’s small frame trembled with anger.
“If you cooperate, I can assure you that no harm will come to her by me or any of my Guards.”
Millie pushed past him and Carla, walking toward the Lead Producer’s hut, shoulders squared and head high. Remy quickly followed.
“Nice move,” said Carla. “No wonder you win when we play poker.”
He frowned. It’d worked but even the threat of such an act turned his stomach. He was becoming more like his master every day.
AFTER LUNCH, HUGH ESCORTED his mother into the library. He waited for her to sit and then sat on the chair next to hers.
“You must need a favor,” she said crisply.
“Why do you say that?” It was amazing. She always knew when he wanted something.
“You’re just like your father.”
That hurt. “Whatever do you mean, Mother?”
“Now, don’t be angry. Everything about your father wasn’t bad.”
Untrue. His father had been a colossal ass.
“All I meant was that when you want to lecture me, you sit behind your desk. When you need a favor, you sit near me. Your father used to do the same thing.” She leaned forward and continued in a hushed tone, a twinkle in her eyes. “You may want to shake that routine up a bit to keep Viola on her toes.”
Gruntshit. He did do that. “Fine. I do need a favor.” He couldn’t believe that he was left with this as his only option.
She patted his hand. “What do you want?”
“Can you still contact Birdie?” Growing up, his house had always had some poor creature who needed assistance. His mother had a gift for making everyone feel loved but he couldn’t stand the Avian. The last time that he’d encountered Birdie, the damned creature about snapped his finger off for some unintentional insult.
“Why?” she asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Don’t give me that look. I need his assistance finding the escaped Producer—“
“Trinity,” she corrected.
He wanted to roll his eyes, but that would end this conversation. “Trinity,” he conceded. “Before Benedictine does.”
“And how do you plan on using—”
“Mother, why is it always using when I want assistance from some creature but not when you do?”
“I don’t know. You tell me?” Her tone was icy.
She was angry, and something else. He studied her. Disappointed. In him? He was used to that from his father, but never her.
“The question was rhetorical. I need to contact the Handler and I don’t want to wait until Gaar comes into town for his medication.” He’d received word that the Handler had picked up the serum a few days ago. It would be weeks, maybe even a month before Gaar returned. He was only supposed to use the Tracker and Handler for jobs sanctioned by the Council or the Supreme Almighty himself, but if he took the time to go through the proper channels Benedictine would have already captured and killed the escaped Producer. Besides, no one would find out about this task. Gaar didn’t speak with any of the other Almightys. The Handler had no interest in anyone but Mirra, except to hunt and eat them.
“He and that Tracker are dangerous creatures,” she said.
“I need their help. Will you contact Birdie or not?”
“If I do, you owe me.”
That stung. She’d never resort to those tactics with Tim. “Quid pro quo, Mother? I didn’t know you had it in you.”
“How do you think I survived being married to your father for thirty years?”
He ran his hand through his hair. She deserved an award for that. “What do you want? Before you answer, remember that I’m doing this for Trinity’s benefit. If Benedictine finds her before I do…” He shrugged.
“Promise me that you’ll take care of Timothy, Millie and Trinity,” she said.
“Sure.” That was easy.
She grabbed his hand. “No. I mean it. They have no one besides me who they can trust. I need you to swear that when I’m gone you will make sure that they are kept safe.”
Her hand was cold and frail in his grasp, the bones small and brittle. It struck him like a blow to the chest; she really was dying. He would give her anything in his power but he wouldn’t lie to her. “I can’t promise that. If Trinity really is their daughter then this is big. Bigger than me. I don’t know what will happen.”
“I’ve been telling you all your life that they are not so different from us. You never listened. You’d cite your studies and scoff at me.” She squeezed his hand, to soften her words.
“They are different. Just because two different species can mate doesn’t make them like us.” She’d never understand.
“We are not unique. Why won’t you accept that?”
“Mother, everything we know—”
“Son, I’m dying and it’s not going to be long. I need you to promise me two things. First, make sure that Tim and his family are safe. Second, dig deeper into your studies, but this time do it with an open mind. Remember, someone wrote the facts that your science is based upon. Start from the beginning. Perform your own experiments. The way we live cannot continue.”
“I’ll do my best. It’s all I can promise.” She wouldn’t want his lies. He leaned forward and kissed her cheek.
She patted his hand, tears welling in her eyes. “I’ll contact Birdie.” She stood and walked to the door, stopping with her hand on the door knob. She faced him. “When I’m gone, remember that I have always loved you. My son.” She touched her heart and turned whispering as she left, “Forgive me.”
He stared after her for a long time. What did she mean by that?
TRINITY SAT ACROSS the fire from Gaar, the late afternoon sun warming her back. This was the first break that they’d taken since leaving the encampment that morning. Her muscles ached and her head pounded. They hadn’t even stopped to refill their water. She stretched, dreading the end of dinner for that would mean it was time to travel again and all she wanted was to curl up and sleep.
Gaar handed her a chunk of bread. Other than a little strain around his eyes, he looked fine. It wasn’t fair. She was beyond exhausted and unlike him, she’d been able to rest a bit when he’d carried her so that her scent trail would disappear. She broke off a small corner of the thick, hard, brown, lump of bread. Less than twenty-four hours ago she’d been eating her mom’s, moist, delicious apple-nut bread. She’d never have that again. Tears built up but she blinked them away. It did no good to think about her mother.
“After we eat, we’ll rest for a while.”
She sighed in relief. She was going to get to sleep.
“I’ll show you how to stay as safe as possible on the ground.” He picked up a stick and began whittling.
Off and on all day, he’d been pointing out forest facts and safety to her like he usually did but today, she’d been eager for the information. Before, she’d only half listened since she’d been planning on returning to camp. Now, the forest was her home and her survival depended on the knowledge she could absorb.
“If possible, you should sleep off the ground. It is always safer up high—”
“True, true, very true,” said a voice from above.
Gaar jumped up, moving in front of her and protecting her with his bulk. She crouched behind him, looking up into the tree. A small winged creature sat on a branch a few feet above them. It had large, black eyes and a bald head. Instead of a nose and mouth it had a beak in the middle of its face. Its body was the size of a loaf of bread and covered in brownish-gray feathers. The bird-man opened his beak in a grotesque imitation of a smile, his tongue wiggling inside.
“Shoo, shoo.” Gaar waved his arms at the creature.
“What is it?” She’d never seen a bird who could speak.
“An Avian,” answered Gaar.
“Oh.” That didn’t tell her anything.
“They usually don’t travel this far into the forest. It must want something.” Gaar sat down by the fire and twisted the knife in his hand, causing the sun to bounce off the shiny steel.
“Not want. I come to deliver a message.” The Avian studied her. “My name is Birchwood, but my friends call me Birdie. What’s your name?”
The Avian had an eager, friendly face and since Gaar was sitting he wasn’t worried so the creature must be harmless. “Hi. My friends call—”
“Avians are notorious gossips.” Gaar glared at her.
She bit back her words. She wasn’t an idiot. She wasn’t going to tell Birdie her real name.
“Not true. Not true,” said Birdie. “I know how to keep my beak shut. Not all of us do, of course, but that is like saying that all Handlers…wait, there are no other Handlers are there?”
Without looking, Gaar flung the knife at the Avion. She screamed at the same time that Birdie squawked, jumping out of the way. The knife landed with a thud in the tree trunk next to the little Avian’s head. A few feathers fluttered to the ground as Birdie readjusted his position on the branch.
“Not quite fast enough,” said Birdie.
“I didn’t really try,” muttered Gaar.
“Of course you didn’t,” said Birdie. “Now, do you want my message or not?”
“Not,” said Gaar.
She looked from one to the other. Birdie seemed friendly enough but Gaar obviously didn’t care for the creature.
“Too bad. Miss Sarah asked this favor of me so I am going to do it,” said Birdie.
Gaar grabbed another hunk of bread and took a bite as he stared into the fire.
“It would be polite to offer me something to eat.” Birdie unfurled and then flapped his wings. His eyes were bright with anticipation and his little tongue waggled out of his beak.
He looked really hungry. When Gaar didn’t move she held out a small piece of bread. Birdie launched himself from the branch and fluttered in front of her hand until he was able to grab the food with his beak. He then flew back to the tree. He placed the bread under one foot and tore off tiny pieces with his mouth.
“Thanks,” he said when he was done. “You are very kind.”
“Just deliver your message and leave,” said Gaar.
Birdie fluffed up his feathers. “Well, as I said, Miss Sarah asked that I do her son a favor. I dislike Hugh, but I owe Miss Sarah. So, I was obligated to help. She saved me once, you know. A kind, kind—”
“Get on with it,” said Gaar.
She couldn’t help but smile at the chipper little creature. Plus, it was fun to see Gaar aggravated by someone other than herself.
“Oh, yes. Sorry. Your message. Hugh wants you to find and capture the escaped Producer. He wants you to come to his house to discuss the job.” Birdie paused, looking at her. “It shouldn’t be too hard for you to complete this task.”
“Gaar?” Birdie obviously knew she was a Producer, but who was Hugh?
“Don’t worry, Little One. I won’t turn you over to the Almighty,” said Gaar.
So, Hugh was an Almighty. Did he work for Benedictine?
“Well, now,” said Birdie. “You may want to reconsider. She’s a kind, young Producer. I’d hate to see her captured by the wrong group. Two Almighty’s want this one. Can you hide from both? If not, which one should get the prize? Hugh may not be my favorite but he is better than Benedictine.” Birdie shivered for effect.
Well, that answered that question. Hugh didn’t work for Benedictine. So, why did he want her?
“Shut up, Avian,” said Gaar.
“Well. My message is delivered.” Birdie huffed and spread his wings. Then he stopped and looked eagerly at the bread in her hand.
She held it out for him. He flew down and took it.
“Thanks again.” He sat in the tree and finished her food. “If I were you, Handler, I’d consider what I could get from this meeting. You’ll have to turn her over eventually. Get what you can and make sure she goes to the right one.” He paused. “I won’t mention seeing her with you. Miss Sarah did not ask that of me.” He nodded farewell and flew off.
Gaar climbed the tree and retrieved his knife. When he was back on the ground, he said, “Come. I’ll teach you about water dangers as we fill our bottles.”
She was following him to the river when he stopped suddenly. She drew her knife, scanning the area for danger.
“The Avian’s right. I don’t know if I can keep you safe.”
Fear skipped down her spine. The Almightys would kill and eat her. She couldn’t be less safe than that.
“Benedictine is one thing. He’s cruel but not smart. Hugh is intelligent and relentless. I need to meet with him or he’ll get suspicious.”
“Why would he get suspicious?” She sheathed her weapon.
He walked over to a rock near the water and sat. “We work for him, Little One. That’s why.”
“I don’t understand. You hate the Almightys.”
“I told you that I watched the Finishing Camp. It was on Hugh’s orders. Mirra’s not aware of this.”
Her throat tightened. She’d been in the hands of the Almightys this whole time. All it took was for the right one to ask and he’d hand her over. The bread sat heavy in her stomach. “What has all this training been then, a joke?” She fought back the tears. Troy had turned on her and it seemed so would Gaar, but she would not cry, not this time.
“No. No,” he said, truth in his dark gaze. “Believe me. I had no intention of turning you over to Benedictine.”
“But you will turn me over to Hugh.”
He stared past her at the river. “Perhaps. Perhaps not.” His eyes met hers. “I have to go and see him. Let him think that I’ll take the job.”
“When will you decide if you’re turning me over?” She couldn’t go back, not now that she knew what they did to her kind.
“I won’t do anything without discussing it with you and Mirra.”
The constriction around her chest eased. Mirra wouldn’t let her go.
“Plus, I don’t trust the Avian to keep his beak shut. He thinks I’ll owe him a favor if he doesn’t tell, but it will be too tempting to squawk about it. Especially, if we disappear.” He stood. “We need to head toward the Lake of Sins.”
“Are you going to leave me alone again?” She might get to see Jethro. She shouldn’t even want to since he was an Almighty and he ate meat, but she did. He’d been a true friend when he’d helped her escape the Guards. He may be willing to help her again if Gaar decided to turn her over to Hugh.
“Not this time. There are too many Guards looking for you.” He bent, filling up their bottles.
“Are you going to take me into the village with you?” She’d never seen a town or village besides her own.
“No. We’ll wait until Mirra finds us. Then you’ll go back to the Finishing Camp with her.”
She frowned. That didn’t sound like any fun at all.
JACKSON WALKED DOWN the hallway toward the cell where the female Producer was being held. The male had already been transferred. Yesterday, Benedictine had ordered the two Producers locked up and then had left for home. It was now almost noon the next day. The prisoners had been given no food or water.
He stopped at the cell door. Thankfully, this was not a normal part of his duties. He didn’t like this facility or anything that happened here. It wasn’t right to keep the Producers in this cold, concrete environment. He pounded twice on the door before turning the key and opening it. The female sat, cowering in a corner, her wide brown eyes blinking as the light filtered into the room and sent shadows skittering across the walls.
“Come.” He waved her forward.
She hesitated and then rose, walking to him. He held out a collar. It stank of mustiness and death.
“Is that necessary?” she asked softly, turning her head away from the smell.
“And you always follow his orders.” She tipped her head, giving him better access.
If he didn’t he would pay, perhaps with his life. He snapped the lock shut a little more forcefully than necessary. The weight made her small shoulders sag. He enclosed her wrists in the metal cuffs attached to long, heavy chains which hung down to her knees. She tried to hold her arms at her waist but the weight was too much and she let them drop to her sides. He stepped aside and motioned for her to precede him down the hallway.
“Where are we going?” She glanced back at him. “Please. What’s going to happen to me?”
You don’t want to know. “Keep moving.” Conversing with her would do neither of them any good.
She stumbled. He grabbed her arm, steadying her.
“Thank you.” She smiled.
She had kind eyes and a nice smile. He was a Guard; she was a Producer. They both had to pay for their place in society. He clenched his jaw and focused over her head as they continued walking. When they reached the end of the hallway, he nudged her to the right. There was a stairwell with a flickering light. Everything was painted gray, the stairs, the walls and the hand rails. It was a depressing color for a terrible place.
She moved slowly down the stairs unable to use her hands due to the chains. She stumbled again and this time he wasn’t fast enough. She fell forward, head first, rolling down three stairs until the wall at a corner stopped her descent.
He hurried after her. She lay still. Benedictine would kill him if she were dead. He had to calm down. He tipped his head and there was the soft sound of her heart beating. He bent and gently shook her shoulder. “Are you okay?”
She trembled as she leaned on her arms. She gasped. “My side. Ribs.”
“May I?” He showed her his hands. She could be bleeding internally. It wouldn’t matter in the long run, but he couldn’t help offering this small act of kindness.
She nodded and lifted her arms as high as she could. He gently felt along her ribcage.
“I don’t feel anything broken. Probably bruised.”
She lowered her arms. He placed his hands on her waist, helping her to her feet. She took a deep breath, wincing.
“Come. Benedictine is waiting.” They needed to get moving or he’d be in trouble.
She looked into his eyes again, fear heavy in her gaze. He glanced away but took her arm, guiding her down the stairs. They walked the remaining way slowly and carefully. They stopped at a door and he pushed it open. She glanced at him again, her eyes pleading.
“Come on.” She needed to stop looking at him like that. He couldn’t help her. He couldn’t even help himself.
They stepped into a large room with concrete walls and floor. A cage sat to the right, partially blocked by a long, rectangular table covered with a tarp. In front of the cage were three chains hanging from the ceiling. Two were half suspended between the ceiling and floor; the other lay on the ground coiled like a snake. Two staircases, one on each end of the right side of the room, led to a balcony. On the balcony were padded chairs arranged in small groups of two or four with a table in each group. There were also two doors on the opposite side of the room. Both were closed. On the left side of the room were several large, closed coolers. On the wall were panels of switches and cranks.
He directed her up the stairs to the balcony. He couldn’t help her this time, not in front of Benedictine. She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye and slowly climbed the stairs. At the top he led her to a large table with two chairs. Except for them, the balcony was empty. Benedictine liked to make the victim wait. It increased the tension. She looked back at him. He stared straight ahead, keeping his face impassive. It would be bad for both of them if he showed any emotion.
“Remy!” she called out as she peered over the rail into the cage.
Benedictine’s heavy trod pulled the Producer’s gaze away from her mate. The door flew open and Benedictine strolled over to the table.
Jackson eyed the full bottle of whiskey in the Almighty’s hand. This was not going to be quick. He shot a sympathetic glance at the Producer, but luckily, she wasn’t looking.
Benedictine sat at the table and opened the bottle. He filled his glass half-full and took a large swallow. He sighed and took another smaller drink. His gaze ran up and down the Producer. “Sit.”
She pulled out the other chair and sat, her chains clanking together.
“You’re small for a Producer. Why did we breed you?”
“I…I’m good with the earth.”
Benedictine inhaled sharply. “Yes, now I remember. We had some issues with the land over there. Not surprising, really.” He peered down into the cage. “I don’t understand why none of your offspring took after their father.” He nodded toward a pitcher of water and two glasses which sat on the table. One glass had about an inch of water in it; the other was empty. “Are you thirsty?”
Jackson shifted. Of course, she was thirsty. She’d been left without food or water all night.
“Please, help yourself.” Benedictine motioned toward the glass with water.
She used her left hand to support and lift her right arm as she grasped the glass. Those damn chains were too heavy for her. He glanced at Benedictine to see if he could remove them but Benedictine smirked as she raised the glass and lowered her head to meet it halfway. She drank in huge gulps until it was gone. She set the glass back on the table, eyeing the pitcher.
“Well, then. Enough with the niceties,” said Benedictine.
Jackson clenched his jaw, biting back his words. Allowing a creature a small drink of water was not a nicety.
“Let’s get on to the business at hand. Your missing offspring,” said Benedictine.
The Producer stiffened but her face remained blank.
“She has eluded us. Hard to believe, I know.” Benedictine drummed his fingers on the table.
She closed her eyes for a moment, relief flashing across her features. That was not a good move on her part.
“I can see you’re relieved,” said Benedictine kindly. “But don’t worry. That doesn’t anger me. I’m a reasonable fellow. I expect you to love and care for your offspring.”
She relaxed a little and looked back at the water. Jackson stiffened, waiting for the blow. He wanted to scream at her that this was not the time to relax. This was when Benedictine struck.
“However, if you really cared for her you’d want her returned to the safety of her home.”
She stiffened and tried to stare straight ahead but her gaze kept going back to the pitcher.
“Please, have some more water,” said Benedictine.
She reached for the pitcher, her hands shaking from the weight of the chains. She attempted to lift it but ended up dropping her arms back at her sides, her throat working as if it had the water.
“Too heavy?” Benedictine picked up the pitcher. He held it over the glass.
She stared eagerly as the water almost made it to the spout of the pitcher.
“Not so fast.” Benedictine tipped it away from the glass. “You do want your offspring back at the encampment. Right?”
She nodded, staring at the water.
“Perhaps we can help each other. Tell me who helped her escape? We found the hole under the fence.”
“She was taken,” she said, licking her dry lips.
“Who is with her now, in the forest?” Benedictine shook the pitcher, the water sloshing inside.
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Note from Author
I’m sorry that I can’t finish the chapter, but contractually I can only display what Amazon shows in their “Look Inside” section.