“Ah, Lila,” said Mercer, and he moved around his desk to join us. Kissing Hannah on the cheek, he wrapped his arm around her shoulders possessively before focusing on me. Up close, I could see the fine lines on his face and the bags under his eyes. He looked like he hadn’t slept in a week. “I’m so pleased you’ve decided to join us.”

“Thank you for inviting me,” I said, forcing a smile. Whether Mercer could tell or not, he didn’t seem to care.

“Lunch is about to be served,” said Hannah. She slumped underneath his weight, and though she snaked her arm around his waist, her hand was clenched in a fist. “Is Knox back from his hunt yet?”

The reminder of what had happened that morning made a block of ice form in my stomach, and I dug my nails into my palm. How could Hannah insist he loved me when he was in a forest nearby hunting three of the girls I’d shared a bunk with?

“He canceled,” said Mercer with a sigh. “Got an important note from D.C., something he had to take care of right away. I gave him use of your office for the morning.”

As Hannah’s displeasure settled clearly over her face, I struggled to hide my relief. There was still time to talk him out of it. I didn’t want to die, not until he was dead right alongside me, but if I could spare just one of those girls’ lives, it would be worth it.

“I take it he’ll be joining us for lunch, then,” said Hannah.

“I will,” said another voice from behind me—Knox. I stiffened and stayed still, refusing to turn around. “I see I’m not your only guest.”

“Lila decided to join us after all,” said Mercer. “It seems your allure was too much for her to resist.”

Knox chuckled, and I could feel his warmth directly behind me. His hands settled on my shoulders, and I struggled not to wince. “I’m sure it has less to do with me and more to do with the warmth and food.”

Mercer laughed as if this was some sort of hilarious joke—as if men and women in his section weren’t freezing to death at night and eating food most IIs wouldn’t serve to their pets. At least Hannah didn’t crack a smile as he led the way into the dining room, where a hot lunch of turkey, potatoes, crisp vegetables, and biscuits with gravy waited for us. Compared to the pale pancakes and questionable bacon I’d had for breakfast, it was a feast fit for a king.

Knox sat beside me at the table, and though I could feel his stare on me several times, I refused to look up from my plate. He and Mercer carried on a conversation about hunting—deer, I was relieved to figure out only a minute in—and later on, the various issues Mercer had been facing with Elsewhere lately.

“Everyone wants to be a guard,” he said. “We have to be careful who we pick—can’t put a weapon in the hands of anyone who might use it against us.”

“Is there some kind of test or screening you do?” said Knox as he dipped a bite of turkey and potato in gravy. “How do you determine the rebels from the obedient?”

“We watch them.” Mercer tapped his temple. “That’s what we do here—we watch. I know everything that goes on in this place. If anyone steps a toe out of line, I’m right there. Thinning the herd is important—without it, we’d be overcrowded, with too many mouths to feed and not enough beds.”

“Hence the nightly entertainment,” said Knox. Mercer nodded.

“It’s especially important during the cold months. Not many of the Ministers want to spent hours in subzero temperatures hunting, so we have to make do. We tend to receive an influx of citizens during that time period, too—Hannah suspects it has to do with people growing more desperate during the winter. So we have to get creative. Anyone with a rare or needed blood type is sent to processing, of course, but the rest—the more miserable they are, the more willing they are to play nice. Make an example of a few, and the rest fall into place.”

He said this all in a tone that implied he was talking about cattle, not human beings with lives and feelings. I gripped my fork, resisting the urge to leap over the table and stab him in the eye. Across from me, Hannah looked pale.

“Do you have security cameras set up so there’s hard evidence against them?” said Knox.

Mercer snorted. “We don’t need hard evidence. The moment they step foot here, their lives are a privilege, not their right. But, yes,” he added. “We have cameras set up around the administrative and manufacturing areas, and regular patrols in the residential quarters. We also have informants—most of our information comes directly from them.”

Informants like Scotia, who had been all too happy to rat out Chelsea, Maya, Poppy, and the others. “What do they get in return?” I blurted.

Mercer’s gaze fell on me, and the corners of his eyes crinkled. “My favor, of course. Privileges the others don’t. We ensure they’re never at risk for being selected for hunts. And we choose our guards from our pool of informants, so it’s quite a lucrative choice for them. Most days we have so many willing to inform on others that we have no need for security.”

“How do you know they’re telling the truth?” I said.

Mercer blinked. “The truth about what?”

“About what they saw. How do you know they’re not just making it up to get on your good side?”

He shrugged and stabbed at a carrot. “Does it matter? Either way, it helps thin the herd. As I said, their lives are a privilege, to be taken away at our discretion. We don’t need a reason. Most of them have already committed crimes after all.”

Tags: Aimee Carter The Blackcoat Rebellion Science Fiction
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