That was because they had no idea what my life was really like. Hannah did, though—she’d felt the III underneath my VII, yet as far as I knew, she still hadn’t said a word to anyone about it. I could come up with a dozen reasons why she might want to keep that between us, but at the end of the day, because Hannah knew the secret that had so far kept me alive, that made her the biggest danger of all.

“There’s possibility here, you know,” said Hannah half a block later. “It may not seem like much, especially compared to the lifestyle you’re used to, but your stay here doesn’t have to be miserable. If you let us help you, you could have a life here. A family. A real shot at happiness. It’s not all gloom and doom.”

“Which one of us are you trying to convince?” I said. A strange expression flickered over Hannah’s face, and she paused.

“I was in your position once,” she said, gesturing for the guards to give us space. They backed away, forming a wide circle around us. Enough to offer some semblance of privacy, but not far enough to give me the chance to make a run for it. As if I had anywhere else to go. Though why we had guards today and not the day before, I couldn’t fathom.

“What position is that?” I said. “The one where you went from a VII to an X because your uncle decided you weren’t useful anymore, or the one where everything in your life worth loving vanished because you took a gamble and lost?”

A faint smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. “You think you’re so alone, don’t you? You think you’re the only person in the world with your problems. Wake up, darling. You’re surrounded by people who lost everything because they took a gamble. You sleep inches from people who your uncle decided weren’t useful anymore.”

She turned, and I thought the conversation was over until she swept her thick braid aside, revealing a scarred X on the back of her neck—one covering a faded V.

“I was seventeen years old when I was arrested,” she said. “I’d been a V for a week. A Shield decided I was pretty, and when I knocked out his teeth for putting his hand where it didn’t belong, I was the one who was punished, not him. I was lucky I made it here at all—most of the other Shields would have shot me in the alleyway and left me for dead. But I started out just like you, Lila. Bottom rung. Punching bag for the rest of the girls. And I didn’t have a famous face to protect me from the worst of it.”

She gave me a knowing look, and I kept my expression perfectly neutral. If she hadn’t spilled yet, then she wasn’t going to do it in front of a bunch of guards.

“Someone helped me out when I was a little older than you,” she said. “Kept me safe. Gave me an opportunity to advance and, ultimately, have a life worth living. Let me return the favor.”

“Why me?” I said. “Daxton hates me. I won’t be able to get you any special treatment.”

“This has nothing to do with him,” she said, her brow furrowing. I thought I saw something flash across her face again, but it was gone before I could be sure. “I’m doing this because I’m willing to bet your journey’s been more difficult than the rest of us know, and because I think you have an enormous amount of untapped potential. Now that you’re here—now that you’re just another inmate instead of the beloved Lila Hart, I want to give you an opportunity to discover who you really are. And I think your best bet would be to stay with us.”

I barely managed to hold back my snort. “The only thing I have that’s worth a damn is my face and my name. No one cares about the rest of it.”

“I do,” she said. “Jonathan might want you to come to the house because he thinks it’ll buy him a favor somewhere, but I’m much more interested in the side of you no one else sees. Let me help you, Lila. I promise you won’t regret it.”

I held her stare for several seconds, my mind racing. I would hate to leave Noelle in that damp, dank place with the likes of Scotia, but Rivers’s words the night before ran through me, drowning out my doubts.

Even if Hannah was lying through her teeth, at least this might get me close enough to Knox to slit his throat and watch him bleed. And maybe—just maybe—getting him out of the way would give the Blackcoats a chance to get the arsenal codes and start a real revolution. My life was over either way. That didn’t mean it was over for everyone else, too.

“I guess it wouldn’t hurt to see the house,” I said, and Hannah straightened, squaring her shoulders in an oddly victorious way.

“It wouldn’t,” she agreed. “This way.”

As we walked down the street, several of the men and women going about their duties stared at us. Now that they knew who I was, I supposed this was even bigger news, and part of me hoped it would reach Noelle before dinnertime. When I didn’t come back to the dollhouse, she would worry, and I had no desire to put her through that.

The rest of the walk to Mercer Manor went by quickly, and Hannah punched a sequence into a keypad at the entrance, allowing the gate to open for us. Several of the guards lingered, staying off the property, but a handful joined us, including Rivers.

The small hill was covered in untouched snow, unlike the gray and muddied slush that soaked the other streets. Someone had meticulously plowed the drive to leave a perfectly even trail upward, and we passed several large trees that probably provided ample shade in the summer. If this yard hadn’t been in the middle of Elsewhere, it would have been picturesque.

Tags: Aimee Carter The Blackcoat Rebellion Science Fiction