The weight of their pity is like a stone tied about my neck. I feel it in the little side glances, the puckered skin between frowning brows, the hushed whispers that carry across the purple-gray dusk of twilight like tiny daggers drawing blood.
He isn’t coming home.
It’s hard to ignore the few citizens still milling about the gate leading out into the Wasteland, the guards who flank the opening, and Oliver’s solid, reassuring bulk by my side, but I have to. I can’t bear to let one sliver of doubt cut into me.
Peering out into the forest that presses against the fifty-yard perimeter of scorched ground that we keep around the city to prevent any threats from approaching our Wall undetected, I look for movement. The Wasteland is a tangle of trees, undergrowth, and the husks of the cities that once were, all coated in the bright, slippery green growth of early spring and the drifting piles of silvery ash that remind us of our fragility. Somewhere in its depths, bands of lawless highwaymen pillage for goods they can trade at the city-states. Somewhere beneath it, the Cursed One roams, seeking to devour what little remains of a once great civilization.
I don’t care about any of that. I just want Dad to make it home in time.
“Rachel-girl,” Oliver says, his brown, flour-stained fingers wrapping gently around my arm as if to prepare me for what he wants to say.
“I don’t think—”
“He is.” I dig my nails into my palms and strain to see movement in the thickening twilight, as if by the force of my will I can bring him home.
Oliver squeezes my arm, but says nothing. I know he thinks Dad is dead. Everyone thinks so. Everyone but me. The thought that I stand alone in my conviction sends a bright, hard shaft of pain through me, and suddenly I need Oliver to understand.
“He’s not just a courier, you know.” I glance at Oliver’s broad shoulders, which carve a deep shadow into the ground beneath him, and wish for the days when I was little enough to perch on his back, feeling the rumble of his voice through my skin as we walked to the gate to meet Dad after yet another successful trip. “He’s also a tracker. The Commander’s best. There’s no way he got caught unaware in the Wasteland.”
Oliver’s voice is steady as he says, “He is good at his job, Rachel-girl. But something must have … held him up. He isn’t coming home in time.”
I turn away, trying to see where the perimeter ends and the Wasteland begins, but the sun is nothing but a fiery mirage below the tree line now, and the shadows have taken over.
“Last call!” one of the guards shouts, his shoulders flexing beneath the dark blue of his uniform as he reaches for the iron handle beside him and begins tugging the gate inward. I flinch as it slams shut with a harsh metallic clang. The guards weave thick, gleaming chains through the frame, securing it until the guards on the morning shift return with the key.
For a moment, we stand staring at the now-closed gate. Then Oliver wraps an arm around me and says, “It’s time.”
Tears sting my eyes, and I clench my jaw so hard my teeth grind together. I’m not going to cry. Not now. Later, after Dad has been officially declared dead, and my Protectorship has transferred to Oliver, I’ll let myself feel the pain of being the only one left who’s willing to believe that Jared Adams, Baalboden’s best tracker, is still alive.
I use the wooden step box to climb into the wagon that waits for us, and reach a hand back to help Oliver hoist himself up as well.
As the wagon sways and lurches over the cobblestone streets to the Commander’s compound, I wrap my fists in my cloak and try to ignore the way my stomach burns with every rotation of the wheels. Oliver reaches out and unravels my cloak from my right hand. His palm swallows mine, his skin warm, the maple-raisin scent of his baking comforting me. I lean into him, pressing my cheek against the scratchy linen of his tunic.
“I’m sorry,” he says softly.
For a moment, I want to burrow in. Soak up the comfort he offers and pretend he can make it better. Instead, I sit up, back straight, just the way Dad taught me. “He didn’t come back today, but that doesn’t mean he won’t come home at all. If anyone knows how to survive the Wasteland, it’s Dad.” My voice catches on a sudden surge of grief—a dark, secret fear that my faith in Dad’s skills will be proven wrong, and I’ll be left alone. “It isn’t fair that he has to be declared dead.”
“It’s probably my job to tell you life isn’t fair, but I figure you already know that.” His voice is steady, but his eyes look sad. “So instead, I’ll tell you that hope is precious, and you’re right not to give it up.”
I look him in the eye, daring him to feed me a lie and tell me he still believes. “Even when it looks like everyone else already has?”
“Especially when it looks like everyone else already has.” He pats my hand as the wagon grinds to a halt, its bed swaying long after the wheels have stopped.
The driver hops down, walks toward the back of the wagon, and jerks the canvas flap aside. I climb down and watch anxiously as Oliver follows. Though only faint creases mar the brown skin of his face, his hair is more gray than black, and he moves with the careful precision of age. Reaching for him, I slide my arm through his as he navigates his way off the heavy wooden step box. Together, we turn to face the compound.
Like the Wall surrounding the city of Baalboden, the compound is a massive expanse of weather-stained gray stone bolstered by ribbons of steel. Darkened windows are cut into the bulky exterior like lidless, unblinking eyes, and the roof holds several turrets manned with guards whose sole job it is to cut down any intruders before they’ve gone twenty paces.