Page 27


‘I’m dead already. We all are.’
‘Death is peaceful,’ he growls. ‘This half-life is worse.’
He’s less grimy than before but still unshaved and rough, and he hasn’t bothered to tie back his curly brown hair. He’s nothing like my dad or my friends’ fathers or even the guards here at the compound. It’s this coarseness that sets him apart from the well-groomed men of Arras I know. But it’s the penetrating way he watches me that makes me catch my breath when our eyes meet.
‘You’re a lot cleaner than the last time I saw you,’ I point out, and immediately wish I could take it back.
‘I don’t waste my time on manicures like some men,’ he says lightly.
I assume he’s taking a shot at Erik, but then again my dad kept his nails clean, too.
‘So you don’t shave. You don’t get manicures. What do you do?’
‘I keep this place running,’ he says, as though that’s enough of an answer.
‘And?’ I push.
‘Technically I’m the head valet, which means I communicate between the staff and the Spinsters. I make sure things run smoothly. I got the call that you were to be taken to the salons and thought I’d check you out.’
I bite my lip and nod.
‘What?’ he asks. ‘Oh, I guess I was pretty unkempt when we met, even for me. I had been gardening. It’s the one thing I do just for me. I like the feeling of soil. It’s honest labour.’
‘My grandmother gardened,’ I say. ‘A long time ago, before you had to have a permit. She said the same thing.’
‘Stupid Guild,’ he says. ‘I bet she missed it. I’m lucky I can bend the rules here. Everyone is too busy controlling the outside world to care.’
‘How come you aren’t dead?’ I ask. ‘Or at least stuck in a cell? I haven’t heard a word from you yet that isn’t treasonous.’
‘Unlike you, I pay attention to who I’m talking to. I have a special traitor filter I use around others.’ He gives me a tired smile that belongs to someone much older.
‘So why me?’
‘’Cause you ran,’ he responds simply.
‘I can’t be the first Eligible who ever ran.’ I shake my head at the impossibility that no one else has ever tried to escape the Coventry.
‘No, but you’re special.’
‘Yeah, what makes me different? Or do you talk treason with all the flighty girls?’ I realise that I’m flirting with him, and I’m surprised at how comfortable it feels.
‘They didn’t kill you.’ The playful mood dissipates immediately. It’s clear that he’s not joking.
‘Well, I guess it’s good to be different,’ I mutter.
Neither of us laughs.
‘Why?’ I ask after a moment.
‘I’m sorry?’
‘Why not kill me? I ran. My parents tried to hide me. Why leave me alive?’ I ask earnestly, and he turns away.
‘I have my theories.’
‘And they are?’ I press.
‘I’m not sure you’re ready to hear them yet.’
‘That’s sort of condescending. Telling me only what you think I’m ready to hear,’ I point out, annoyed as much by it as by his lack of transparency.
‘I thought it was endearing, me looking out for you.’ He grins, and the mood in the dark cell lightens again.
‘Are you trying to endear yourself to me?’
‘I have a thing for traitors.’
‘How do you know I’m a traitor anyway?’ I ask. ‘Maybe everyone is wasting their time worrying about me.’
‘You’re in the cells for the second time in a week and you’re still alive.’ He squints against the dark as if to get a clearer look at my face. ‘Either Maela is breaking in her new pet, or you’ve got something they want.’
‘Like an attitude?’
‘Maela is all stocked up on that.’ He snorts. ‘If you could lie low and not draw so much attention to yourself, we might actually be able to find out, Adelice.’
‘See, that’s our problem,’ I point out.
‘What? Your inability to keep a low profile?’ he asks.
‘No, the fact that I don’t even know your name. How am I supposed to trust you?’
‘Josten.’ He smiles all the way up through his eyes. ‘But traitors call me Jost.’
‘Nice to meet you, Jost.’ I stretch out a hand and immediately regret it because the change in position makes me shiver.
‘Here.’ He shrugs off a simple, threadbare jacket and wraps it around me. ‘Unfortunately, I’ll have to take that when I go. It wouldn’t do for anyone to see me giving gifts to the prisoners. It might detract from my low profile.’
The jacket is soft and smells like woodsmoke and cut lavender. I nod, grateful for its warmth if only for a few moments.
‘You shouldn’t be here,’ I say. ‘They’re probably watching me.’
‘The good news is that they don’t bother to keep an eye on the cells. Poor light, stone walls – what’s the point?’ He gestures around us. ‘The bad news is that you’re right. They’re definitely keeping tabs on you.’
‘So why are you here then? What help can I be to you if I’m already under suspicion?’
‘That’s true, but no one comes down here, so it’s easy enough for us to chat if you keep getting thrown in the cell,’ he points out.