“It won’t hurt, I assure you,” she said, setting her hand in the tender spot between my shoulder blades, exactly where Daxton’s boot had nearly crushed my spine. Underneath my hair, her fingertips brushed against the back of my neck again, slower this time. Our eyes locked, and for several infinite seconds, she searched mine. I stared back, silently daring her to speak. She said nothing.
At last she guided me back to the cot and gathered my hair in a clip. Fighting would do me no good—she was close enough that I could grab her gun and shoot, but the memory of what had happened with Augusta was too fresh in my mind, and I couldn’t bring myself to do it again, even if it meant the quick death I was hoping for. If I couldn’t do that—the one thing that might save me from dying alone in the woods, hunted by the madman who ran the country—then in that moment, I decided I would do one last thing with the time I had left: figure out why she was keeping my secret from Mercer.
The pinprick in the center of my tattoo was nothing compared to the way Daxton had stabbed me with his needle, and I closed my eyes as the liquid she injected burned underneath my skin until the back of my neck was numb.
“What are you—” I began, but before I could finish, Hannah unclasped my necklace and handed it to Mercer. “Hey! That’s mine.”
“Wearing something like that here could get you killed,” she said as he pocketed my lock pick. “I’m doing you a favor. Stop moving.”
I gritted my teeth. “You will give that back to me,” I said, but both Mercer and Hannah ignored me. I opened my mouth to protest again, but something pressed against the numbed skin, and my words caught in my throat as a warm trickle ran down my neck.
Instinctively I reached behind me, but Hannah caught my hand in an iron grip. “I’m not done yet.”
I yanked my hand away. “What are you doing to me?”
“Removing your rank,” she said. A sickening burning smell filled the air, and at last Hannah rose from the cot. “There.”
My fingers trembled as I brushed them against the back of my numb neck. The three ridges were still there, but two diagonal slashes of puckered skin cut through them now, forming a scarred X over the spot where my tattooed VII was.
I swallowed the lump that formed in my throat. It didn’t matter what rank I was now—death wouldn’t care if I was a III or a VII. Or an X. But the loss of that VII felt more real than this cell or the rough cot I sat on, or even the cold concrete beneath my feet. That VII had given me a chance to be someone—to matter in the world more than I ever would as a III. It had given me a purpose, and now all I had to show for it was a scarred X and a life that dwindled with every passing second.
The despair I’d been struggling to hold at bay crept through me, and I rapidly blinked back tears. I wouldn’t let the Mercers see me cry, not over something this stupid. But it wasn’t stupid, not to me—it was the death of any hope I’d ever had. And it was the crushing pain of reality setting in. This time, there would be no Benjy or Celia or Knox there to save me. This was it, and I’d never been more alone in my life.
“Change into this, and I’ll take you to the manor,” said Hannah, tossing a plastic-wrapped bundle of clothing into my lap. A shirt, underwear, bra, and jumpsuit—all the same stomach-churning shade of blood-red.
“I’m not going to the manor,” I mumbled, slowly unwrapping it. Red had never been my color.
Hannah started to reply, but Mercer cut her off. “You will,” he said, his kind voice taking on a note of authority. “Believe me, with your name and former rank, the last thing you want is to mingle with the general population.”
“I don’t care,” I said. I’d been nothing special for nearly all of my life. With my VII gone, there was no point in pretending to be Lila anymore. “I’m not staying with you.”
Mercer’s forehead furrowed, causing a well-worn crease to form between his eyebrows. “You don’t understand. The people out there, they aren’t civilized like you and me. They’re—”
“If she wants to stay with the other criminals, then we’ll let her,” said Hannah. “If she survives the night, she’ll be knocking on our door by sunup.”
Mercer’s lips thinned, and he eyed me with concern, but I couldn’t muster up the energy to care. “Very well. Bring her to Scotia—she’ll keep an eye on her.”
Hannah’s expression darkened, but she nodded shortly. “Change,” she ordered. “I’ll be back in five minutes.”
The foreboding edge to her voice almost made me change my mind. No matter how much I loathed them already, maybe staying with the Mercers was the smart thing to do.
They aren’t civilized like you and me. Mercer’s voice cut through my thoughts, and my resolve hardened. They were human. They were no less than the Mercers or the Harts or the Ministers of the Union. They probably wound up in this place doing nothing more than trying to survive a world that had cast them aside the moment they’d earned less than a IV. Not everyone here would be a III and below, but what laws would a IV or above ever need to break? The system was designed to cater to their every want and need, while IIs and IIIs had to fight just to stay alive.
Hannah and Mercer slipped out of the room, closing the metal door behind them. I took a shaky breath and touched the X scarred into my skin. No matter what rank the others in Section X had been before, we were all equal now.