“I’m the Empress, and you’re my prisoner.”
When I continued forward, a different beam shone from Sol’s eyes. This one did nothing for me, nor to me. But the men closest to me screamed. A few balled up and rocked in the bloody grass. One sank to his knees, battering his fists against his head.
Sunstruck? Had Sol just maddened them? Power number three.
I tightened the Baggers’ collars; the pair wailed in the air. “Try anything else on me, and those two will lose their heads.”
“Wait!” Sol raised his palms, dimming his gaze. Accent thick, he said, “I’ve stopped. Just don’t hurt them, por favor!”
“They’ll be safe as long as you do what I say.”
His eyes were panicked. “Anything!”
I beckoned him with a crooked finger. Still collared in rose stalk, he descended the stage to the field, his Birkenstocks squelching in the blood and Bagger slime.
When he stood before me, heat radiated from him. He was even taller and more built than I’d thought, so I used another stalk to bind his wrists and tightened the one around his neck. Blood ran down his neck and bronzed chest.
Taking a page from the Lovers’ playbook, I told him, “Your collar—and the ones on your two pet zombies—are pressure-loaded. If I die, or go crazy, or lose control in any way, the three collars will snap closed, beheading you.”
Brows drawn, Sol asked, “What do you want from me?”
“A truck, with all the gas it can carry. You and your two Baggers will be coming along as my hostages. If we get to my destination safely, I might not kill you.”
“Where are you taking us?”
Unfortunately, I had to reveal where I wanted to go; couldn’t reach it otherwise. “To a place called Fort Arcana. I want you to ask your men if anyone has ever heard of it.”
“I have heard of it.”
I narrowed my eyes. “Continue.”
“From captured Azey soldiers. That’s the Army of the Southeast—”
“I know who the Azey are.” Jack had been marching them down to Louisiana to establish a settlement around Haven. A refuge.
“These soldiers camped across the river from this fort.” He was telling the truth! “We plan to raid it in the future.”
Good luck with that. “Where are those men now?”
Shit. “How far is the fort?”
Days! So many minutes! “Do you have a map?”
He shook his head. “But I know the way.”
I should probably get him to draw a map anyway, but we didn’t have time. Besides, navigating was not my strong suit. “Why should I believe you?”
He shrugged, wincing as thorns dug into his shoulders. “If I don’t get you there in two days—barring unforeseen roadblocks—you can kill me.”
I rolled my eyes. “Can I? Thanks for the okay.” I had a thousand other questions for him, but I could interrogate him on the way.
He gave me a strange look. “Even if I had a map, I like the idea of being useful to you.”
“Good. You can drive.”
What do you get when you mix two Baggers, a bloodthirsty toga-wearing card, and a half-mad Empress?
Road trip A.F.–style.
I was about to be living one of Finn’s jokes. . . .
With Sol’s Skins trapped, the Shirts had overrun the crops, Pops and his grandkid among them.
I’d freed a few Skins to supply us for the trip. Oh, if looks could kill . . . I’d dared to threaten their god, and they were pissed. I’d created a rose crown, a skittering halo above my reddened hair, to remind them of my own power.
Then I gave orders.
The only trucks Sol had were the large military ones I’d seen parked outside, so I commanded his followers to fuel one up and pack it with tanks of gas and water. I ordered a couple others to bring me packaged food for my bug-out bag and to find out what day it was.
I’d been rocked by the answer: 389 A.F. I’d lost a week. Add another two days to get to Fort Arcana.
Now as we awaited the truck provisioning, I told Sol, “We’re heading outside of your safe, warm coliseum. You’ll need layers and boots.” He was wearing Birks, for fuck’s sake. And a sheet. A useless wristwatch rounded out his ensemble.
He cast me his first smile. “Concerned for me, querida?” I’d bet he could be a charmer when not homicidal.
Same could be said for me. “Your frostbite or hypothermia will slow me down.” I pulled the matching fingerless glove from my pack and drew it on. Before I concealed my hand, I noticed him noticing my icons, but he didn’t remark on them.
“I’ll suffer neither condition,” Sol said. “I’m forever warm.”
Must be nice. I recalled shuddering atop that antenna tower. “Glass can cut your bare feet.”
He glanced down. “They aren’t bare.”
“With your first step out into the Ash, mud suction will eat those sandals.” I surveyed him. “What about jeans? Denim would protect your legs from falls. And I don’t know how bonebreak fever spreads, but I wouldn’t want to be going commando if we pass a plague colony.”
He swallowed and subtly narrowed his stance.
“You must have a bug-out pack you want to bring.”
“Bug-out?” Sol blinked at me.
Had Jack felt this much frustration at my cluelessness? “A backpack. With survival gear. To keep you alive.”
Unconcerned shrug. “I suppose I could prepare for a more rugged environment. Care to come back to my apartments and dress me?” He gave me a heated look, and I almost laughed.