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Dylan’s already sitting in his usual chair when I come into his room for training that night. He’s got his phone expanded and he barely looks up from it when I walk through the door, but as I’m settling into my own chair he suddenly asks, “Farm Girl, huh?” in this voice that sounds like a smile.
My eyes flash up to his face, and the way he’s looking at me—all wry and warm and kind of teasey—it’s like both my lungs and heart’ve turned upside down for a second. I mean, he could give a person some sort of hernia with a smile like that.
“How’d you hear about it?” I ask, hoping it’s not real obvious that he’s just made strange things happen to my insides.
Leaning back in his chair, he brings his arms up behind his head in that way that he does, with his body all stretched out and his foot propped up against the coffee table. I don’t know why, but there’s something about him when he’s all relaxed like that that kind of kills me.
“Tua’s older brother Kaho works at the GIB,” he explains, with a hint of that smile still playing on his lips. “By tomorrow, most of Daxa should know you as Farm Girl. When a Moeaki gives you a nickname, it spreads.”
I let out this little groan and slump further down in my chair. This day has turned out to be kind of a disaster.
“Looks like I drew attention to myself already,” I say, poking at the arm of the chair sort of hard and glowering at it like maybe I hate the thing.
“In this case I’d say it’s a good thing. Fortuitous even.”
“Fortuitous?” I’m pretty sure it’s not.
“Well,” Dylan starts, and the apology in the way he drags the word out makes me glance up at him real quick. “Fortuitous because you were added to a GIB watch list today.”
I sit straight up in my chair now, staring at him real hard, as incredulous as I am dismayed.
“On a list of possible Way Readers.”
If Logan were here, he’d probably say that everyone’s on some sort of government watch list, as if that makes it all better, but I really don’t need any extra attention right now. I’ve already had way more than enough today.
I’m sure Dylan can tell I’m not at all excited about his news, so his reaction to that is kind of baffling to me. I mean, he does look real rueful and everything, but even as he’s trying to comfort me about the situation there’s this hint of a laugh to his voice.
“Don’t worry!” he says. “Agni and I anticipated this. It’s common sense procedure for the GIB to try to suss out who the Way Reader is before the takers do. Try to offer her some protection. The lucky thing is,” he sits forward and leans his elbows on his knees, looking at me with all this self-assured optimism, “they made me head of the task force.”
There’s something kind of hypnotic about his mood tonight. I mean, the whole time I’ve known him he’s been pretty tight with his emotions, but now, suddenly, he’s all brightness and energy. Charming in a way that I’m not even sure how to handle. Still, for some reason I just can’t get myself to match his enthusiasm.
“I thought one of our biggest rules was that no one except you and Agni are supposed to know who I really am.”
I try not to sound too grumpy about it, but it comes out that way anyway and Dylan sobers up a little. Looks me over like he’s just realizing that something might actually be wrong.
“We did start out with nearly thirty Way Reader candidates here in Daxa,” he says, his voice tinged with a subtle sort of reticence. “Narrowing down the list leaves us still with over a dozen names, and narrowing down that dozen is going to be much more painstaking. In the scheme of things, the GIB is so far away from pinpointing you. Even if you remain on the list as we whittle it down further, all it really means is that you’ll get some added protection. And it’s protection over which I’ll now have some control.”
It is comforting, to have him looking at me all serious and competent like that—like, here is a guy who will keep me safe when he says he will—but there’s still something that’s bugging me. Something I can’t quite figure out.
“Okay,” I say to him finally, because I can’t think of anything else to say. He can tell I’m not convinced, though, and it seems like it kind of gets to him. Like there’s a little part of him that needs to be able to fix whatever’s bothering me right now.
“I can’t take you off the list without causing suspicion,” he says like an apology. “But with me heading up the team I can help to point their attention away from you. There’s nothing you need to worry about.”
That’s when it comes to me. The thing that’s been feeling wrong.
“Has the GIB already started watching me?” I ask, and something about my voice makes Dylan sit up a little straighter, look at me a little closer.
“What makes you ask that?”
There’s a pretty clear picture in my mind now, of that man with the silver eyes. Just the memory of him gives me a cold feeling in the pit of my stomach.
“I was followed today. Before that lady grabbed me and I met Gwilim, there was a man following me. I’m pretty sure all the way from the school.”
Dylan sits silent for a minute, staring at me with that inscrutable expression everyone in his family seems to do so well.
“What did this man look like?” he asks finally. “You’d better tell me everything that happened.”
I describe the trip downtown and the silver-eyed man, and how he disappeared pretty much the second that woman Elspeth grabbed hold of me. The whole time, Dylan’s expression barely changes, but I’m pretty sure he’s not at all pleased.
He settles back down into his chair, but not in that casual, comfortable way like before. Pretty much every muscle in his body is tensed, like some dangerous animal thing ready to pounce. He’s staring at my face, but I’d be surprised if it’s me he’s seeing. He’s somewhere in his own head, weighing the things I’m saying, calculating.
When I’m describing the strange man’s cold metallic eyes, Dylan gets this weird, bitter little smile. His own eyes are hard and his hands are tight around the arm of his chair and, to be honest, he’s kind of freaking me out.
When I finish talking, he doesn’t say a word at first. Just shifts his gaze to the window behind me where the moon’s shining high and bright.
After a few minutes of a tense sort of silence, I finally ask him, “Who was that man that followed me?”
His eyes come back to my face for barely a split second before looking back out the window.
“A golem.” He half-shrugs, like this detail’s not all that important. “Modified Steel Face set to track you. Equipped with visual recording, I’d wager.”
He says this like it is not, in fact, a totally alarming idea, and for a minute I just want to reach across the coffee table and shake him. I mean, shouldn’t he be a little bothered by the possibility that right this second any number of taker creeps might be watching some video of me and my friends. Video of his sister?
Before I can say anything about it, he shifts his eyes back to me again and lets out this tired little sigh.
“Look, I am worried,” he says, as if he knows what I’m thinking. “The fact that the takers are interested in you is no great surprise, but at this point their list of possible Way Readers should be unmanageably long. If they’re using a humanized Steel Face—which is both illegal and possibly traceable, not to mention incredibly expensive—it means they’ve narrowed down their list enough to deem the risk worth it. They don’t have the resources to have narrowed it down that much themselves. In fact, there’s only one way I can imagine that the takers could do it.”
“You think someone from the GIB told them.”
He gives this stiff little nod, somehow managing to look both angry and kind of vulnerable.
“And for the golem to be trailing you by two o’clock already, the takers had to be getting the information from us almost as we decided on it. I knew—or at least I suspected—there were double agents in the GIB, but this means it’s someone I work with closely. Someone I think of as a friend, or perhaps even a mentor. Possibly one of my direct supervisors.”
“So, is that it then? Do the takers know who I am?”
There’s a weird sort of relief when I ask this, along with the dread. This draw of being able to just be myself again instead of constantly playacting. But Dylan shakes his head.
“No. I’ll wager every girl on the GIB list was being followed today, by one method or another. You have little to fear yet. The takers would be foolish to act before they knew the Way Reader’s identity with some certainty. You will need to be more careful, though, now that we know they’re watching you so closely.”
He brings his hand up and runs it kind of rough through his hair, which means, I’m guessing, that he’s not feeling quite so confident as he’s letting on.
Trying to give me one of his rueful smiles, he says, “Looks like you’ll really have to lean into the Farm Girl persona now.”
Dylan wasn’t joking about the Farm Girl name spreading. The next day half the school’s referring to me that way. Even people I don’t know wave at me and call out, “Hi Farm Girl!” as if getting me to say hi back to them is some sort of a thing now.
When I see Tua after school I tell him thanks a lot for turning me into some sort of weirdo celebrity on campus, and he just laughs and slaps my shoulder.
“You’re welcome, Farm Girl.” He gives me a little wink. “Didn’t I tell you you’d do alright here? Just stick with me.”
Eilian and Leti are meeting up with some of their mutual friends today, so Tua’s supposed to give me a ride home. We’re just walking out through the front doors of the school when he suddenly bursts out laughing.
I look up at him in surprise, and he just nods toward the street, saying in his deep voice, “I’ve a feeling you’re not going home with me today after all.”
The sun’s almost blindingly bright against the snow-covered lawn and it takes me a second to make out what Tua’s seeing. It’s Gwilim Lucas standing there at the side of the road, leaning all confident and casual against an emvee that’s so black it’s like manmade night or something. He’s dressed all in black himself, which looks real good with his dark hair. Obviously, he’s got Dylan’s knack for perpetual coolness.
When he sees me and Tua, he doesn’t even wave or anything. Just sort of raises his eyebrows at us.
“Eilian’s not here,” I say as Tua and I walk up to the emvee.
“Oh?” Gwilim does that eyebrow thing again, sounding totally disinterested. Looking at Tua, he says, “I suppose you have your own way home.”
Tua bursts out laughing. “Not like I’d mention it if I didn’t. I know when I’m not wanted here.”
Then, before I can say anything about it, Tua claps me on the back and tells me goodbye.
“See you in the morning, Farm Girl. Don’t let him get you arrested or anything.”
He’s off in a second, waving and calling after someone else that he knows. I turn to look at Gwilim, half laughing and half exasperated.
“So, I guess you’re taking me home today?”
“Eventually. Right now, I’m hungry.”
He opens the passenger door and then steps around to the driver side without even looking at me, as if there’s no question about whether I’ll get in. I consider making a point of just walking away and figuring out how to make it home on the Magnix train by myself or something, but after the silver-eyed man and that Elspeth lady yesterday, I’m thinking taking off on my own isn’t such a great idea. Also, my curiosity about Gwilim gets the best of me.
He takes me to this restaurant right in the heart of downtown. A little sign on the door says it’s been voted best in Daxa for six years in a row. Inside, the place is real romantic. Not at all the sort of mood that Gwilim’s giving off himself. There’s real low lighting and trickling water falling in sheets around each table, forming fantastical, sparkling little walls.
Melodie’d probably die in a place like this. She’d start clapping her hands and probably squeal in that way that she does when she thinks something’s “just perfect.” In any other situation, I’d text her a picture. Of course, without hearing from me for so long now, she’s probably already decided she hates my guts. Or, more likely, she thinks I’m dead or something.
The waiter seats us at a table by a window and Gwilim orders food for both of us without asking me what I want. Then he looks at me as if he knows I’m about to complain about it, and he says, “Yes, I’m sure you’re perfectly capable of ordering for yourself.”
I laugh, and I’m about to respond when he gets a text message on his handyphone. He views it on his palm, resting his arm on the table as he reads. From my angle I can see the blue glow of the light matter text even if I can’t actually read what it’s saying.
It shines a weird light up onto his cheeks that makes it kind of hard to tell, but I’m pretty sure he’s just gone kind of suddenly pale. His jaw’s definitely real tight, and I’m willing to bet whoever texted him wasn’t sending any good news.
Muttering a distracted apology to me, he expands his phone and holds his thumb over the mind reading sensor, composing what I’m guessing is a pretty aggravated response based on the look on his face. It’s hard not to lean forward and try to get a look at what he’s saying because he doesn’t seem like the sort of person to get upset like this over just anything.
When the waiter brings us our food ten minutes later, Gwilim’s still absorbed in his text conversation. He barely looks up to tell the waiter thank you. Then—like he needs a more tangible outlet for his frustration than the mind reader button’s allowing him—he suddenly grips his phone in both hands and starts typing furiously away on the touch screen.
He’s hardly said a word to me this whole time. When I tell him that it turns out my food—some kind of Asian-flavored beef or something—is real good, he just sort of nods and says, “Their signature dish.”
I stare at his face for a few seconds, not knowing whether I’m amused or annoyed. I mean, he’s the one that brought me here. Now I’m wondering what was the point.
“Eilian says you haven’t been home in ages.”
He glances up for a second, but only to give me this sort of half shrug.
“I think they’re pretty worried about you.”
I just get that shrug again from him. Then—apparently in reaction to another text message—he suddenly wipes his hand over his eyes and down his face and sits there in irritated silence for a second before starting to type again.
A couple kids I recognize from school walk by our table and, though they try to hide it, I can see them eyeing Gwilim and me real curious. Gwilim doesn’t notice a thing, of course.
Rolling my eyes, I look out the window next to us and resign myself to an afternoon of total silence. It’s a cold day and everyone out on the streets is all bundled up against the wind. It’s interesting to me that here in Daxa—where the whole city could be temperature-controlled if they wanted—they’ve chosen to leave all that up to mother nature for the most part.
I remember Dylan saying something about there being a vote on that a few decades back. On whether to heat the air in the whole city or just some of the parks here and there. If Dylan were here I could ask him about it. If Agni were here I probably wouldn’t even have to ask because he’d just tell me, probably in too much detail. I glance over at Gwilim, who is still typing real rapid on his phone, a look of sheer exasperation on his face now.
I’m kind of exasperated myself—sitting here in the nicest restaurant I’ve ever seen in my life while the person who brought me here just totally ignores me. I mean, probably any stranger that I can see out the window would be willing to pay more attention to me right now than Gwilim is. Although, odds are at least one of those people is some sort of taker, creeping around after me. A thought that makes me a little extra irritated.
Still, I can’t deny that this whole situation is, at least, a little bit funny. I catch sight of a kid walking on the sidewalk below us, pushing this little hovering stroller-like thing with a tiny white dog in it. The dog—sitting in there about as prim as a princess—is wearing a bright pink bonnet with so many lacy little ruffles at the front of it that you can barely see the dog’s face.
I can’t help laughing about it, glancing over at Gwilim and saying, “That kid’s got a dog in a stroller.”
Gwilim just raises a finger at me like he wants me to wait a minute, but I’ve been waiting a whole lot of minutes.
“The dog is wearing a pink bonnet,” I try again, staring at Gwilim to see if I can get any sort of reaction out of him. “I bet it’s not even his own dog. I bet he lost a bet with his sister. Probably this is some sort of punishment for him. He looks real embarrassed about it.”
I’m just making stuff up now. I can’t actually even see the stroller kid’s face. When Gwilim still doesn’t respond, I choose some other person walking along the sidewalk below and I make up a story about them. This one’s a former pickpocket who worked her way up to being a high-powered business woman, but sometimes she can’t help but pinch a trinket from some unsuspecting victim now and again.
Still no response from Gwilim, so I start again, but this time he does finally glance at me. Gives me this sarcastic look that’s only one smile away from the exasperated expression he was wearing seconds before.
“Your turn,” I say, grinning back at him, but he just keeps looking at me with that same expression. “You owe me.”
I tap the handyphone on my own finger and look all pointed at his.
“Fine,” he says finally, leaning toward the window and looking out of it with an exaggerated sort of consideration. “Hm. Let’s see. That woman there, standing at the corner like she’s got little idea where to go? I’ll tell you about her. She’s got no interests, no friends, and no talents. She does exactly nothing all day. The end.”
I burst out laughing, which it turns out is not what he was going for at all. In fact, he actually looks kind of disconcerted, but this only makes it funnier to me because it’s not an emotion I’m expecting to see on his face. After a minute one corner of his mouth starts to pull out into an off-kilter smile and he makes this sound that’s real close to a laugh.
“Okay, Farm Girl,” he says, in his usual, mocking tone of voice. “I know I’m being a terrible host. Shall I prove that I can be better?”
He places his elbows on the table and leans forward toward me, resting his chin on top of one hand and looking me right in the eyes. Making a real point of giving me his full attention.
“So, tell. What’s my little Cousin Sophie’s story? If you’re such a good friend of my family’s, why haven’t I ever heard of you before?”
His question catches me totally off guard. I mean, it’s not like I don’t have an answer prepared for this, but it’s the way he asked it. Like maybe he knows something’s fishy. The story Dylan told his family—that Gweneth and my mom simply lost touch for a while after Mary decided to go off the Painter grid—none of them even seem to have batted an eye at it. Gwilim on the other hand. Well, I can’t tell if he’s teasing or completely serious.
I open my mouth to answer him, but just then someone calls out his name.
“Gwilim Lucas, you sly devil. You said you were busy.”
This red-headed kid is striding toward our table. As he pulls a chair over and scoots in next to Gwilim, he looks me up and down, real obvious and bordering on gross.
“Looks like you are busy after all.”
“Yes,” Gwilim says. “So go away.”
“She can’t want to be alone with you. Is he boring you with his childish sarcasm?”
“The opposite actually.”
I wouldn’t say that I dislike the guy exactly. It’s just that, on first impressions, there’s not much about him that I like at all.
He nudges Gwilim and says, “Going to introduce me?”
“Do it for myself, then.”
The guy leans over the table, offers me his palm. “Tom Cloutier. Gwilim’s mentor and best friend in the world.”
The name sounds real familiar, but I can’t think of why.
“I’m Sophie Warren.”
His eyes narrow a little bit. “Gwilim’s cousin, eh?”
“We’re not actually cousins.”
He lets out this laugh that’s real annoying and says, “Yeah, well, you do want to make sure to get that clear. Don’t want people to get the wrong impression.”
For just a second there’s a look on Gwilim’s face that tells me he’s not too keen on Tom Cloutier either, but Tom’s still yapping on.
“You don’t look like a farm girl,” he says to me. “You seem like a lot more fun than that.”
“What are you doing here?” Gwilim says.
“Meeting Wotan Schmid, like I said in my text. He’s back in town. Staying with us tonight.”
I remember now where I heard Tom Cloutier’s name. This is the guy Gwilim’s been hanging with lately? No wonder Dylan hadn’t looked pleased by the news.
“You’re meeting Wotan here?” There’s a strange expression on Gwilim’s face. He turns his eyes on me, studies me with a look I can’t read. Then he stands up. “I’ll be sorry to miss him, but we’ve got to go.”
“You’re leaving already?”
“Catch my check and I’ll pay you back tonight. Tell Wotan I’ll see him then too.”
Gwilim’s coming around to my side of the table, and I grab my bag, wondering what’s going on.
“Where you guys going?” Cloutier asks like it’s some sort of dirty secret.
“Do you think I’m going to spend my whole date staring at your ugly face? Nothing more calculated to ruin the mood.”
Gwilim takes my hand and pulls me after him, giving Tom a brusque wave.
“Was this a date?” I tease as we’re getting into the emvee a few minutes later.
He shrugs. “Sure. Why not?”
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Next: Chapter 17
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