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Not that any citizen of Baalboden would be stupid enough to defy the man who rules us with a ferocity rivaled only by what waits for us out in the Wasteland.

Before the guard manning the spiked iron gate can open it, another wagon rumbles to a stop behind ours. I glance over my shoulder and heat stings my cheeks as Logan McEntire strides toward us, the dying sun painting his dark-blond hair gold.

I will my pale skin not to betray me and do my best to pretend I don’t see him. I’ve spent so much time today hoping Dad would finally return from the Wasteland, I neglected to consider that any reading of his will would naturally include his apprentice.

Which is fine. As long as I don’t have to speak to him.

“Oliver. Rachel,” Logan says as he comes to stand beside us. His voice is its usual calm, I-bet-I-can-find-an-algorithm-to-fix-this tone, and I have a sudden desire to pick a fight with him.

Except that would make it look like I care that he’s here.

And I don’t.

His presence won’t change anything. My Protectorship will be given to Oliver, Logan will take over Dad’s courier duties, and I’ll keep checking off the days until Dad comes home again, and life can go back to normal.

Oliver reaches out to clap his free hand on Logan’s shoulder. “Good of you to come,” he says. As if Logan had a choice. As if any of us have a choice.

“It feels too soon,” Logan says softly as the guard opens the gate and waves us forward. “Jared’s tough. We should give him more than sixty days past his return date before we’re forced to declare him dead.”

I glance at Logan in surprise, and find his dark blue eyes on mine, the fierce conviction in them a perfect match for what burns in me. My lips curve into a small smile before I remember I’m not going to act like I care about him.

I’ve had enough firsthand experience with caring about Logan McEntire to last me a lifetime.

I look away and walk into the compound without another word.

Oliver and Logan follow on my heels. A steward, dressed in black, leads us into a box of a room and quietly excuses himself, shutting the door behind him.

Straight-back wooden chairs surround a long polished table, and six torches rest in black iron brackets against stark white walls. The air feels smoky and closed off, but I don’t know if the choked feeling in my throat is from lack of oxygen or from the fact that facing us at the end of the table is Commander Jason Chase, ruler of Baalboden.

The torchlight skims the gold braid on his crisp blue military jacket, scrapes over the twin furrows of the scar that twists a path from his left temple to his mouth, and dies in the unremitting darkness of his eyes.

“Sit,” he says.

We obey. Our chairs drag against the stone floor, a high-pitched squeal of distress. Two men sit on either side of the Commander’s chair. One worries a stack of parchment lying in front of him with nervous fingers. The other wears a studious expression on the doughy folds of his face and holds a quill poised over an inkwell, a sheet of blank parchment unfurled before him.

The Commander examines each of us in turn before sitting in his chair, his spine held at rigid attention. Without sparing a glance for the two men beside him, he says, “Oliver James Reece, Logan McEntire, and Rachel Elizabeth Adams, you have been called here today to deal with the matter of the death of Jared Nathaniel Adams.”

I jerk forward at his words, leaning past Oliver on my left so I can meet the Commander’s gaze, but Logan grips my right arm and pulls me back.

“Shh,” he breathes against my ear.

I yank my arm from his grasp and swallow the protest begging to be unleashed. We aren’t here because Dad is dead. We’re here because the Commander won’t allow more time for us to prove he’s alive. Anger hums beneath my skin.

The Commander continues. “Upon his failure to return from his courier mission to the city-state of Carrington, I invoked the sixty-day grace period for return. Those sixty days are now over.”

The round man scratches furiously on the parchment without spilling a spare drop of ink from his quill. I want to speak. To make him record my protest. Anything could have gone wrong in the Wasteland. Dad could’ve taken sick. Been kidnapped by highwaymen. Been driven off course by the Cursed One. None of those events are necessarily fatal. We just need to give him more time. My body vibrates, tension coiling within me until I have to clamp my jaw tight to keep from interrupting.

“Therefore, by right as ruler and upholder of law in Baalboden, I now pronounce Jared Nathaniel Adams dead.”

The small, nervous-fingered man gathers the stack of papers in front of him, clears his throat, and begins to read Dad’s will. I let his words slide past me, willing him to hurry up so we can leave. But when he suddenly falls silent and frowns, I start paying attention.

“Is there a problem?” the Commander asks in a tone meant to convey that there’d better not be.

“It’s, ah, just a bit irregular. Highly irregular.” The man’s fingers clench the parchment, curling the edges until they begin to crumble.

“Continue,” the Commander says to him.

A hard knot forms in the pit of my stomach.

“‘In the matter of the Protectorship of my daughter, Rachel Elizabeth Adams, I do hereby appoint as her Protector …’” Another clearing of his throat. A swift glance in my direction.

No, not in my direction. In Logan’s.

I grip the table’s edge with clammy fingers and feel the bottom drop out of my world as the man says, “‘I do hereby appoint as her Protector, until such a day as she is legally Claimed, my apprentice, Logan McEntire.’”

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