I hate him with all my being. Thomas must notice my stiffness, because I feel his hand cover mine under the table. Just go with it, he’s trying to tell me. When Chian finally turns away from me to answer a question from the man on his other side, Thomas leans toward me.
“Chian has a personal grudge against Day,” he whispers.
“Is that so?” I whisper back.
He nods. “Who do you think gave him that scar?”
Day did? I can’t keep the surprise from my face. Chian is a rather large man and has worked for the Trial’s administration for as long as I can remember. He’s a skilled official. Could a teenage boy really wound him like that? And get away with it? I glance over at Chian and study the scar. It’s a clean cut made with a smooth-edged blade. Must’ve happened quickly too, to be such a straight line—I can’t imagine Chian holding still while someone sliced him like that. For a moment, just a split second, I’m on Day’s side. I glance up at Commander Jameson, who stares at me as if she’s reading my thoughts. It makes me uneasy.
Thomas’s hand touches mine again. “Hey,” he says. “Day can’t hide from the government forever—sooner or later we’ll dig that street brat out and make an example out of him. He’s no match for you, especially when you put your mind to something.”
Thomas’s kind smile makes me weak, and suddenly I feel like Metias is the one sitting next to me and telling me everything is going to be okay, reassuring me that the Republic won’t fail me. My brother had once promised to stay at my side forever. I look away from Thomas and toward the altar, so he doesn’t see the tears in my eyes. I can’t smile back. I don’t think I’ll ever smile again.
“Let’s get this over with,” I whisper.
IT’S GODDY HOT EVEN THIS LATE IN THE AFTERNOON. I limp through the streets along the rim of Alta and Winter sector, along the lake and out in the open, lost in the crowded shuffle of other people. My wounds are still healing. I wear the army trousers our caretaker gave me with a thin collared shirt Tess found in a garbage bin. My cap is pulled low, and I’ve added to my disguise with a bandage patch over my left eye. Nothing unusual, really. Not in this sea of workers with factory injuries. Today I’m out on my own—Tess is keeping a low profile several streets down, tucked away on a hidden second-floor ledge. Never any reason to risk both of us if I don’t have to.
Familiar noises surround me: street vendors call out to passersby, selling boiled goose eggs and fried dough and hot dogs. Attendants linger at the doors of grocery stores and coffee shops, trying to win customers over. A decades-old car rattles by. The second-shift workers are slowly making their way home. A few girls notice me and blush when I look at them. Boats chug around the lake, careful to avoid the giant water turbines churning along the edge, and the shore’s flood sirens are quiet and unlit.
Some areas are blocked off. These I steer clear of—the soldiers have marked them as quarantine zones.
The loudspeakers that line the roofs of the buildings crackle and pop, and JumboTrons pause in their ads—or, in some cases, warnings about another Patriot rebel attack—to show a video of our flag. Everyone stops in the streets and goes still as the pledge starts.
I pledge allegiance to the flag of the great Republic of America, to our Elector Primo, to our glorious states, to unity against the Colonies, to our impending victory!
When the Elector Primo’s name comes on, we salute toward the capital. I mumble the pledge under my breath, but stay silent in the last two passages when the street police aren’t looking my way. I wonder what the pledge sounded like before we went to war against the Colonies.
When the pledge ends, life resumes. I go to a Chinese-themed bar covered in graffiti. The attendant at the door gives me a wide smile that’s missing several teeth and quickly ushers me in. “We have real Tsingtao beer today,” he murmurs. “Leftover cases from an imported gift sent straight to our glorious Elector himself. Goes until six o’clock.” His eyes dart around nervously as he says this. I just stare at him. Tsingtao beer? Yeah, right. My father would’ve laughed. The Republic didn’t sign an import deal with China (or, as the Republic likes to claim, “conquer China and take over its businesses”) just to send quality imports to the slum sectors. More likely, this guy’s pretty far behind in paying his bimonthly government taxes. No other reason to risk slapping fake Tsingtao labels on bottles of his home brew.
I thank the man, though, and step inside. This is as good a place as any to dig up information.
It’s dark. The air smells like pipe smoke and fried meat and gas lamps. I bump my way through the mess of tables and chairs—snatching food from a couple of unguarded plates as I go, then stuffing it beneath my shirt—until I reach the bar. Behind me, a large circle of customers are cheering on a Skiz fight. Guess this bar tolerates illegal gambling. If they’re smart, they’ll be ready at any minute to bribe the street police with their winnings—unless they’re willing to admit out loud that they’re making tax-free money.
The bartender doesn’t bother to check my age. She doesn’t even look at me. “What’ll it be?” she asks.
I shake my head. “Just some water, please,” I say. Behind us I hear a huge roar of cheers as one of the fighters goes down.
She gives me a skeptical glance. Her eyes immediately shift to the bandage on my face. “What happened to your eye, kid?”
“Terrace accident. I tend cows.”