These Broken Stars Page 16

The Icarus hits the mountains like a stone skipping across water, before vanishing behind them. She doesn’t rise again.

Suddenly everything is still and silent. Clouds of steam and black smoke rise from behind the distant mountains, and together we stare down at this unthinkable thing.

“You’d been in survival situations before.”

“That’s true.”

“But never like this?”

“I never had a debutante in tow, if that’s what you mean.”

“I meant that you didn’t know where you were at that stage.”

“I wasn’t focused on that.”

“What were you focused on, Major?”

“Working out where the rescue party would land, and getting there.”

“And that was all?”

“What else was there?”

“That’s what we’d like you to tell us.”



HE’S LEADING ME AWAY FROM THE BLUFF, his hand wrapped around my wrist. His fingers are five individual points of contact, rough and hot, too tight. I think my eyes are closed. Whether they are or not, the only thing I see is the fall of the Icarus, a river of fire in the sky, great storm clouds of smoke and steam. It’s burned into my retinas, blinding me to anything else. He could pull me off the cliff and I wouldn’t notice until we hit the ground.

My ankles wrench and twist as I stumble along in his wake, the heels of my shoes rolling on the uneven ground or else sinking into the earth and tripping me. Why don’t ladies dress for such occasions? Surely the occasional hiking boot with evening wear would make a statement.

A bubble of laughter tears out of my throat, and he pauses only long enough to glance over his shoulder at me before shifting his grip on my arm.

“Only a little farther, Miss LaRoux. You’re doing well.”

I’m not doing much at all. I might as well be a rag doll. Comes complete with matching shoes. Spine sold separately.

I’ve got no clue where we are or how far behind we’ve left the pod, but as a branch hits me in the face, I’m forced to close my eyes again. The ship is still there, a painting of muddled afterimages. The sunlight’s lancing almost horizontally through the trees, alternating flashes of glare and shadow that shine red through my eyelids. How long were we on that bluff?

My father’s ship is in ruins. I watched her fall from the sky. How many souls fell with her? How many couldn’t launch their pods?

My legs stop working. He nearly jerks my arm out of its socket in his attempt to keep me on my feet, and some detached part of my mind notes how much that’s going to hurt later. Another tug, and I can’t quite help the moan that squeezes past my lips. After a second he seems to accept that he cannot drag me through the forest without some assistance from me.

He drops my arm and I collapse in a heap, barely catching myself on my forearms before my face hits the half-rotted gunk coating the forest floor. It smells like coffee and leather and garbage—nothing like the sweet, homogenous earth in the holo-gardens on Corinth. So much for trying to get through this with some dignity. So much for making him think I haven’t fallen apart.

I’m given a moment to pant, the force of my breath blowing bits of leaf and dirt away. When he crouches beside me, I can’t help but flinch back.

“Lilac.” The gentleness in his voice is more arresting than any barked order could be. I lift my head to find his brown eyes not far from mine. It’s like I can see the Icarus’s fall etched on his face, the way I know it is on mine.

“Come on. It’s going to be dark soon, and I want us back safe in the pod before that happens. You’re doing so well, and it’s only a little farther.”

I wish he’d kept being an ass. Dislike is so much easier to handle than sympathy. “I can’t,” I find myself gasping, something tight and cold inside me cracking open. “I can’t, Major. I won’t do any of this. I don’t belong here!”

He lifts his eyebrows, the expression taking away some of the grimness about his face. There’s a curious warmth to his features when he lets them relax. This, more than anything, jars me from my haze of grief and denial. Then he speaks, and ruins it.

“Just try to stay on your feet. Do you think you can manage that much, Your Highness?”

Much better. “Don’t patronize me,” I snap.

“Only an idiot would patronize you, Miss LaRoux.” The warmth is gone again, and he stands up in one smooth motion.

He takes a few steps away, scanning the forest around us as though he recognizes something in it. He’s at home here. He can read this place like I read the tiny shifts in a crowd, the back-and-forth of couples and conversation, society executing its slow revolutions around me like the stars in the heavens. Known. Charted. Familiar.

The forest has nothing of this. To me it’s a haze of green and gold and gray, every tree like the next, nothing of sense to be gleaned from them. I’ve been in nature before, but then, all it took was the flick of a switch to change the holographic projector from perfectly sculpted and manicured garden terraces to a sunny, songbird-filled forest. It smelled of airy perfume, and all the trees were hung with flowers. The earth was rich and uniform and never stained my clothes, and the ground was soft enough to sleep on.

When I was little my father used to bring me to that forest for picnics. I’d pretend the forest with its cathedral canopy was my mansion and I was the hostess, serving him invisible cups of tea and sharing the inconsequential secrets of my life. He was always solemn, playing along without hesitation. As the light waned I’d pretend to fall asleep in his lap, because then he’d carry me home in his arms.

But this forest is thick and alien and full of shadows, and the ground has rocks in it, and when I try to use a nearby tree for support, its bark scratches my hands. This can’t be real—this is a nightmare.

And yet the major nods to himself, like he’s read the next step from some instruction manual I can’t see. A surge of jealousy runs through me so violently that my arms quiver where they’re holding me up.

“I don’t know how much battery power the pod has,” he says, “so we’ll use as little as possible. I’ll get you a bed set up in there and we’ll keep the lights off, and tomorrow I’ll figure out if there’s any chance at all we’re sending a signal for rescue ships to read.”

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