That was easier said than done. I’d tried once before and failed—and as a result, Daxton had been in a coma long enough to miss the worst of the fight. When he’d woken up, he’d pretended not to know I wasn’t Lila, but we both knew who I really was. I was nobody to these people. I had been raised as far away from the life of a VII as you could get, in a group home full of Extras born to parents who were only allowed one child. It hadn’t been the most luxurious upbringing ever, but at least I could have had a cheeseburger without having to beg. And at least I’d known exactly who I was. The more time I spent as Lila, the less certain I became that I knew myself anymore at all.

“Think you can handle another hour?” said Knox, crossing his arms over his broad chest.

“One more hour,” I muttered, trying to shove aside my frustration. Knox was right; I’d known exactly what I’d agreed to, and playing nice with the Ministers was part of it. “But Benjy gets to stay with me tonight after the meeting.”

He raised an eyebrow. “You know the risks.”

“I’ll pretend I’m staying in your suite. You can tell everyone we had the best sex of your life—”

“It would probably be the worst.”

I kicked his shin with my heel. “You’re a jerk tonight.”

He swore and rubbed his leg. “And you’re going to get you and your boyfriend killed if you don’t—”

The doorknob rattled, and without warning, Knox pinned me to the wall. His fingers tangled in my straw-colored hair, and his lips found mine as he kissed me with burning hunger I couldn’t escape. I didn’t fight him. Better to be forced to kiss him every once in a while than to have someone catch us talking about my real identity—or worse, the rebellion against the government that we were leading together.

The door opened, and I broke away from Knox, trying my best to look embarrassed. “If you don’t mind, we’re sort of busy—”

I stopped, and all the air left my lungs. Even after two months of coming face-to-face with him on nearly a daily basis, Prime Minister Daxton Hart never failed to make my heart skip a beat. And not in a good way.

He loomed in the doorway, his bushy eyebrows raised in surprise. They were slowly going salt-and-pepper, matching his dark hair that was graying at the temples. “I apologize. I didn’t mean to interrupt,” he said in a smooth voice. “Lila, darling, your guests are anxiously awaiting your return.”

I held his stare. His dark eyes met mine, and for several seconds, neither of us blinked. Knox had no idea that the Prime Minister knew who I was. Daxton had kept his own secret masterfully, only tipping his hand at Augusta’s funeral in order to scare me into compliance. It hadn’t worked. This was our own private game of chicken, and I wasn’t going to be the first to blink.

“We’ll be along in a minute, sir,” said Knox. For a moment, I almost felt bad for him. He was the only one in the room who didn’t know what was really going on. I should’ve told him Daxton remembered everything—that should’ve been my first conversation after the funeral. But no matter how much I trusted him more than the others, I didn’t trust him completely, and I’d hesitated, focusing on rallying the people for the Blackcoats instead. Eventually time had passed, and I knew the fallout would be bad—the kind we would never recover from. So instead I’d selfishly held on to the truth as a trump card, to play when I needed it most. Or to never play at all.

Knox did know one thing, though: the secret that I had given up at the funeral, when I had brushed my fingertips against the VII on the back of Daxton’s neck and felt the V underneath. I wasn’t the only Hart who had been Masked. The only difference between us was that I still had my handler breathing down my neck. Now that Augusta was dead, the man pretending to be Prime Minister Daxton Hart had no one to stop him from doing whatever he wanted—including killing anyone who dared to step in his way. When everyone I cared about happened to be doing exactly that, it made things personal.

“One minute.” Daxton raised a finger in emphasis. “I would hate for you to miss your birthday surprise, Lila.”

I shuddered to think what he might have cooked up for me, but I forced a smile. “One minute.”

As soon as he shut the door, I leaned in to Knox’s ear and whispered, “How are we getting away for the meeting? He’s not going to let me out of his sight.”

“Leave that to me,” whispered Knox, and he winked. Backing away, he ran his fingers through his hair and smoothed his black shirt and trousers. I tugged on my short purple dress. Three months ago, I would have never believed I’d be allowed to touch silk, let alone wear silk dress after silk dress custom made for me. As nice as the wardrobe was—and the shoes, and the food, and the luxuries I could have never dreamed of as a III—it wasn’t worth risking my life pretending to be Lila, and it definitely wasn’t worth risking Benjy’s by dragging him along.

I swore. He was still waiting for me. “I’m supposed to meet Benjy for a minute—”

“You’ll see him after the meeting.” Knox tucked a stray lock of hair behind my ear. “No matter how bad tonight is shaping up to be, don’t do anything stupid, Kitty. I mean it. Whatever brief flash of joy you get out of it won’t be worth being sent Elsewhere, and you know it.”

Yes, I did. “Benjy and I. All night in your suite.”

“All night, as long as I don’t have to hear you.” Knox smirked and opened the door. A round of applause met us as we walked arm in arm back into the throng of VIs, and several people I didn’t recognize descended upon us, drinks in hand. I steeled myself for another round of pointless small talk. I’d long since stopped trying to remember names. Lila wouldn’t have bothered, and I wasn’t about to make the effort when all they wanted out of me was the power behind my VII. If only they knew what lay underneath it.

Tags: Aimee Carter The Blackcoat Rebellion Science Fiction