These Broken Stars Page 26

Tarver lifts his head as if sensing my gaze across the distance between us. If he heard any of what I said, he gives no indication, merely hefting his pack and inclining his head to suggest we get moving.

I swallow, glancing down once last time at the freshly dug graves. “I think you might’ve been the lucky ones.”

We walk.

My feet are nothing but a dull ache as Tarver marches me through the woods. He takes my hand sometimes to help me over logs and rocks and lifts me over the creek when we cross it. Other times he makes me drink from the canteen. I let him, because what else can I do? The day morphs into eternity, a nightmare from which I cannot wake. As the hours stretch on, not even the sounds of the forest make me jump. I see nothing but the ground before my feet. I cannot turn back because there is no back, only the next step, and the one after, and the one after that.

I used to think that my name would always keep me safe. That those two words—Lilac LaRoux—would be the only password I needed no matter where I ended up.

I had been so sure my father was coming for me, but now it’s hard to find that certainty. This is a wilderness waiting to swallow me; I’d barely make a dent trying to fight it. There are no rules for me to learn, no points to be scored, no bluffs to be called. This is a hell I’ve never imagined.

And I think I’m going to die here.

“Nothing of note happened when you camped that night?”

“If you’d tell me what kind of thing of note you’re wondering about, I’m sure I could be more help.”

“Are you saying that nothing unusual happened?”

“Nothing at all.”



THE CAMPFIRE’S DOWN TO COALS when I wake. my eyes snap open, and as always, there’s that brief moment of disorientation as I soak in everything around me, wait to know where I am.

This time it doesn’t take long to remember. Our camp is near the end of the woods and the start of the plains. I built the fire up high before we slept, still thinking of the monster that nearly killed Lilac.

I roll over onto my back to find her blocking out the unfamiliar stars, standing above me like a ghost in the night. Something must have prompted her to come around to my side of the campfire—she’s still insisting on separation—and I’m reaching for my Gleidel as I blink up at her.

“Miss LaRoux?” I ask, quiet and careful. I don’t want to give her a fright and get a kick for my troubles. Assuming she’s real at all, looming up there like a specter. Even as a ghost, she’s something to see.

“Major, there’s somebody out there,” she whispers. “Can you hear? There’s a woman crying out there in the trees.”

A shiver of apprehension runs through me, and I tilt my head to one side, surprised the noise didn’t wake me. As far as I can tell, there’s nothing to break the silence. I shift and sit up, noticing I’ve still got my boots on. I think I remember deciding to sleep in them.

“There it is again, Major,” she insists, still soft.

“I can’t hear it,” I whisper, stretching my protesting muscles.

Her eyes widen as though she’s having trouble believing that’s true.

“What direction?”

She lifts a hand to point unhesitatingly toward where the trees give way to the plains, and I climb to my feet, reaching out to scoop up my grab bag and sling it over one shoulder. Oldest trick in the book—lure folks away from their fire, then swipe their stuff. I’ve done it myself more than once, stuck out on the border planets, pitched against the latest colonist rebellion. If they’re lurking out in the woods and not approaching us directly, I don’t trust them.

It’s my turn to lift my hand, and I raise a finger to my lips to signal she should be silent. She nods and follows as I ease away from the fire.

Once we’re a short distance from the flames, I pause in the shadows, looking back at her. Miss LaRoux is focused on the task at hand, not even seeming to register discomfort from her bare feet. I tilt my head at her. What about now? Hear anything?

She shakes her head, perplexed, neat brows drawn together. “She’s stopped,” she whispers. “She sounded like she might have been hurt, Major. She could be unconscious now.”

I open my mouth to reply—or she could be a trap—but I don’t get a word out. Miss LaRoux’s decided to take matters into her own hands.

“Hello,” she calls out, stepping away from the tree. “Are you—”

She gets no further than that. She only makes it to three words because I’m so appalled it takes me a few moments to mobilize. I lunge, clamping a hand over her mouth and hauling her in against me, holding her tighter than I should. She makes a muffled sound, then goes still, frightened and tense. We stand like statues, straining to listen. I keep hold of her, and despite the danger, there’s a part of my mind that insists on noticing her closeness, her body pulled against mine.

Out in the woods, there’s no sound. Not the snap of a twig, not the brush of one branch against another.

Very slowly, she presses a finger against my hand in a silent request to be released. I ease my grip an inch or two and she breathes out. I tuck my chin to whisper in her ear. “Still hearing her?”

She shakes her head a fraction, leaning up to whisper in mine, breath tickling my skin. “Nothing. What if she’s passed out? She could be hurt, she could be—”

I know what she really means. She could be one of her friends. She could be one of those girls who looked at me like some kind of specimen. If she exists at all. I can’t believe that in a place like this, with my every nerve on edge, I could have slept through what woke Lilac. It’s more likely she woke herself from a dream. Still, there’s only one way to be sure.

“Stay here,” I whisper, my cheek brushing against hers. She’s still flushed with sleep and her skin’s warm, so much smoother than mine. I’m sure she’s never encountered anything as uncultured as a guy in need of a shave before. But she only nods in silent understanding. She’s shaking violently, and I realize she’s left her blanket behind. I take off my jacket and wrap it around her shoulders, and she sinks down to sit in the shadow of the tree to wait.

It’s not the worst night of my life. I’m sure that prize will forever belong to a particular night on Avon. The whole platoon, me included, were so green we were practically sprouting leaves, and the night’s entertainment was a group of rebels with an oversupply of pulse lasers. Not a nice thing on watery ground. To top it off, I missed a date with one of the local girls, and it’s not like recruits get a lot of those lined up.

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